Semi Chellas: Screenwriter & TV Writer
Photo by Kate Ware
Semi Chellas is a writer and supervising producer on the sixth season of TV’s Mad Men. She is nominated for two Emmys (with Matt Weiner) for her episodes in season five, “Far Away Places” and “The Other Woman”. She is also adapting Dr. Jill Bolte Talyor's best-selling My Stroke of Insight for Imagine Entertainment. Semi was the Executive Producer and Co-Creator of Canadian prime-time network drama THE ELEVENTH HOUR, two-time Canadian Academy of Cinema and Television winner for Best Series. The show ran three seasons and was nominated for 38 awards by the Canadian Academy, winning 9; Semi herself won for Best Writing (with Tassie Cameron). As a director, she's had three short films premiere at The Toronto International Film Festival: Green Door (written by Barbara Gowdy); Trouser Accidents (included in the Best Canadian Short Films Showcase) and Three Stories From the End of Everything (nominated by the Canadian Academy for best live-action short).
RUSTY TALK WITH SEMI CHELLAS
Kathryn Mockler: What is your first memory of writing creatively?
Semi Chellas: I wanted to be a writer as soon as I knew what that was. My mom was a freelance journalist and she had set up a little desk for me next to her desk. I must have been five or younger, and I had her taking dictation for this book I was working on that involved a lot of puns. When I was 7, I wrote a novel in twenty 3 by 5 spiral notebooks—it was the story of a girl with a tail who lived in a country where people with tails were enslaved. And basically she was trying to get Han Solo to smuggle her out of there. I submitted a story to The New Yorker when I was 16 and got a hand-written rejection. Later I think it became a liability for me. I had to get rid of the romantic ideas I had about being a writer and actually learn to write. The best advice I ever heard about writing was “get dressed every day”.
KM: Why did you become a writer?
SC: It’s a bit of a cliché I think, but there is no why. I just always wrote.
KM: Was there a writer or filmmaker or screenwriter that had a big impact on you and your writing?
SC: When I was a kid, in the ‘70s, my grandfather and his wife lived next door to Ann Beattie in Connecticut. I just read that during that decade she had 35 stories in The New Yorker. She was an original and had invented a whole new style. Plus she was tall and funny and had long swingy hair and I loved her. My grandfather, to my mortification, told her I was writing stories. And she asked to read one of mine, and there was a dog in it. She read it very gravely and asked me questions instead of giving me false praise, or acting like it was cute that I’d written it. Then she gave me a copy of her latest collection, Distortions, and she had inscribed it to me and ticked off in pencil all the stories with dogs in them. And I felt like she was treating me like a fellow writer—that we were actually having an interaction that was beyond just me being a little kid who was in awe of her. Of course I was completely deluded. But I read every story in that collection a hundred times and tried to understand how they were so good, and that was an enormous influence on my writing.
KM: What is writing process like for you when you write alone? How do you approach revision?
SC: I like to have big chunks of time when I write but that always used to lead to a lot of procrastinating, because I’d think, Well, it’s almost noon and I haven’t written anything so what’s the point of starting? Then I was at a dinner party with a famous fiction writer who was talking about how her daughter, a graduate student, had finished her dissertation after reading a book called How To Finish Your Dissertation. And this book was written by a brain specialist whose whole thing was that creativity comes in 90-minute bursts. After that, the brain needs to rest for 30 minutes. And two or three of these bursts was a good day’s work for a creative person; if you’re spending eight hours at the computer in the day, it’s really only two hour and a half periods that count. This changed my life. I started working in 90 minute windows, where I would completely block everything out—no phone, no text, no Googling or internet, no changing the music. And I started doing this with friends—we’d go somewhere and sit across from each other and work for 90 minutes and then take a break for a half an hour. And it’s incredibly effective. Then one of my friends asked about this book and we went looking for it and I swear it doesn’t exist. I don’t know if the writer made it up, or her daughter made it up, or something, but there is no truth to that 90-minute theory. But I guess it imposed discipline on me that I needed. I still do it.
KM: Could you describe the journey from your first TV writing job to writing for Mad Men?
SC: A long time ago, I wrote a movie that ended up getting made for television. And it won a lot of awards, so even though I’d never written for television before that, I was approached to develop an idea for a series. So with a producer friend Ilana Frank, I created the show that became The Eleventh Hour, and it got ordered, and then suddenly Ilana and I were running this TV series. And neither of us had done episodic TV at all. It was really like getting thrown in the deep end and learning to dogpaddle to the side—over and over and over every week. The series turned out great, and I’m very proud of it. After that I didn’t want to work on a TV show for a long time. But I always said to my agent that if there was ever an opening on Mad Men, he had to get me the meeting. And then there was, and he did.
KM: How does the writing room work on Mad Men? How does this differ from the other shows you’ve worked on?
SC: Matt Weiner, the creator and showrunner of Mad Men, comes in at the beginning with a vision for the season. He lays out themes, character arcs and the time period. He’ll give us books to read, he’ll read us poems or passages, he’ll show us images. Then we work together as a room on every story—you don’t know if it will be your script until the outline is finished, and it’s an incredibly detailed document. The people in the room are amazing—people who’ve run shows, comedy and drama writers, advertising people from then and now. Writers in their 20s who worked up from being Matt’s assistant. Last season, a writer in his 80s—the late great Frank Pierson, who wrote, among other masterpieces, Dog Day Afternoon.
KM: Writing for TV is a collaborative effort. What is the best way to deal with conflicts when writing with others?
SC: Be professional. Don’t make it about you. Be clear about the chain of command. There are always going to be differences of opinion, but there shouldn’t be conflicts.
KM: When getting notes from producers/editors/showrunners—what do you do when you get a note that you don’t like or agree with?
SC: Look at what the note is addressing. The solution being offered may be wrong. But the problem it’s identifying may exist nonetheless.
KM: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given that you use?
Besides “get dressed every day”? The best piece of writing advice I ever got was from an editor, who said when a scene’s not working, the problem is usually actually in the scene right before it.
KM: What are you reading right now?
The book by my bed is The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor. I read somewhere that Ann Beattie admired him, and I’d never read him. And I like to read publications from the year we’re working in on Mad Men--Time, Life, Newsweek, The New Yorker, the Times, Playboy, Harpers. I read the same magazines I would now but from dates back then.
Clips from Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner's Emmy-nominated Mad Men Episodes:
506 (Far Away Places) and 511 (The Other Woman)
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