It is 30 minutes until the episode “Lost Horizons”, the last episode she co-wrote for the series MAD MEN airs and the inspiring, generous Semi Chellas is letting me interview her for this column.
Semi Chellas is a multi-talented writer, director, producer and actor who is from Calgary, but her career has taken her to Toronto and she now calls Los Angeles home. She was a responsible for the writer’s room and co-executive producer on the iconic series that wraps up this month. Nominated for Emmys and the winner of the Writer’s Guild Award for Outstanding Script for Television, Episodic Drama, as well as the winner of numerous Gemini’s for her own original series, The Eleventh Hour, add in numerous films and Semi is a highly respected artist at the top of her game.
We met at Artstrek, a theatre camp for high school students in Alberta in the late 1980s, but even back then Semi knew she wanted to write and was driven from a young age to make a career out of it.
“When I was little my Mom would type up my stories for me. By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to write and I wrote projects with my friend (& co-Artrekkie) John Fawcett (Orphan Black) who was equally driven to make films. He asked me to write scripts for him in school and later short film scripts for him while he was at The Canadian Film Centre. I was later encouraged to apply there, too, and I landed projects with Bruce McDonald and others emerged from there.”
Semi has worked hard to get to where she is. She trained at Yale and was a Carnegie Mellon fellow at Cornell University and has worked steadily to develop a variety of skill sets - yes, even being an amazing waitress - so she was ready when opportunities presented themselves.
When MAD MEN came to call in Season Five, Semi did not imagine she would be offered the opportunity to write for the uber-popular American television series. She had a one-year-old son, was living in Toronto with her partner and was writing spec scripts for feature films. In the past Semi had told her agent the only series she could imagine writing for was MAD MEN. She had read the pilot early on and became a fan once the series aired-along with millions of others.
Then, just like in the movies, she was in California meeting with that same American agent about several spec features she had written and the agent told her she was short listed for a job working on MAD MEN while she was there. She learned about the opportunity on Thursday, did the interview on Friday and got the job Friday afternoon. They wanted her to start on Monday. So what was supposed to be a week long working vacation became work - on the hottest series on television with the most ground breaking producer, creator Matthew Weiner. She lead the writers room and was co-executive producer, responsible for award nominated episodes such as Joan’s fateful, “The Other Woman” and “Faraway Places”.
Semi speaks fondly of her time working with Weiner, who got his own big break working on the David Chase series The Sopranos. Semi has found that gratitude for every opportunity she has been given and her experience working with Matthew Weiner was incredible. She describes him as a generous individual who she calls “open minded and adventurous..Matt included writers of all backgrounds to join in on the writers’ room, from ages 27-84; from those straight out of school to long time sitcom writers along with those who wrote for cable dramas.” AMC was looking to do something new and accepted the MAD MEN pilot when no-one else would. This changed the course of television history, ushering in a renaissance of the art form that rivaled any film. Shows like The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and The Game of Thrones followed and now MAD MEN has set the bar for the production quality audiences expect.
As for the success of MAD MEN she believes it is because the characters, no matter what time period they are in, felt so real. She tells the story of the surreal feeling she had when she first got on set and her disbelief that this was a world she was now going to write for, that she was going to play a part in making real for audiences like her who adore it. It pleases her to know she was part of developing the lives of the characters, in particular the women of the show who are so feisty and interesting-she can’t pick a favorite. How does one choose between Joan or Betty or Peggy or even all of the amazing secretaries? They are all on the verge of such momentous moments in history and often times, making them happen in their own unique ways.
The costumes, sets and music from the time periods MAD MEN explored were often shaped by Weiner himself, “Did you know “My Way” came out in 1969? We have to use this!” So they did, and they wrote in the famous dance Don and Peggy did to the Sinatra classic. The style of the series is iconic-Semi got to choose one piece of the set to take home so she took Joan’s office rotary phone. Her kids are puzzled by this strange thing which they do not recognize as a phone.
As for working with the handsome Jon Hamm (Don Draper), she says, “We were often locked in a writers’ room for 10 hour days so we didn’t have a lot of contact with the actors, but when we did get on set… I marvelled at this lovely gentleman, how he could elegantly put on a sport coat, exude subtext and create such a beautiful complicated character in a simple moment”.
Semi has been done work on the series since July, when the show wrapped. The entire MAD MEN team was top notch and she would love to collaborate with any of them again, but for now she is “at the tip of another iceberg, in the unpredictable world of entertainment”, writing stuff on her own and exploring opportunities to work with others. She has projects she is working on, but the nature of the game is you never know what is going to be a hit.
“You have one break and that works for several years, and then you work and hopefully you have another bigger break several years later. I realize with two children now I am going to be needing to work steadily for the next 18 years or so, that is just the way it is.”
Semi’s advice for those who are looking to break into the business-especially female artists who have notoriously had a difficult time in Hollywood?
She feels there is always room for merit and she encourages fellow writers to keep at it and write from the heart. Semi says that the world is changing and opportunities for women and those formerly disenfranchised by the system are presenting themselves-be open to those chances and work at it, “I have always felt a path will find itself to you when you are passionate.”
Semi asks me to text her my thoughts on tonight’s episode, her last one for the series. I do, and feel so very fortunate to have made the connection once again with such a creative soul who has influenced popular culture in such a profound way. I also look forward to seeing what horizons Semi Chellas explores next.
Check out Semi Chellas’ “The Art of Screenwriting; A Profile On Matthew Weiner” in the Paris Review, based on 15 hours of interviews. This time she spent with Weiner for these interviews was her highlight of working on the show. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6293/the-art-of-screenwriting-no-4-matthew-weiner
I would also highly recommend Matthew Weiner’s “Reassuring Life Advice For Struggling Artists” in Fast Company. http://www.fastcompany.com/3045082/my-creative-life/mad-men-creator-matthew-weiners-reassuring-life-advice-for-struggling-artis
The last two episodes of MAD MEN air on Sundays on AMC.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.