From Mad Men to the Movies: Semi Chellas’ Cinematic Voyage

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For Semi Chellas, the Calgary-raised, L.A.-based screenwriter, producer and director, juggling many roles isn’t daunting, it’s inspiring. In fact, Chellas’ career is constantly being catapulted because she’s able to jump job descriptions. All of the TV episodes with Chellas’ name in the credits – including many episodes of the now-iconic Mad Men series (which Chellas wrote scripts for and then went on to executive produce) – demonstrate her Herculean grasp of dialogue, character and scene. Her Emmy-nominated work with the folks at Sterling Cooper and co. paved the way for Chellas to produce series such as The Romanoffs and Snowpiercer and write, produce and direct her latest project, a feature film called American Woman. Released this summer, American Woman, which stars Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon, is a Chellas-adapted cinematic version of the book by Susan Choi – a fictional re-imagining of the year that socialite Patty Hearst, of the Hearst publishing empire, was reportedly abducted by a small group of political radicals. Shot in Canada, Chellas’ directorial debut was “a combination of a homecoming and a comeback tour.” We caught up with her to chat about the similarities between captivity and escape, living and writing in Paris and why she’s fascinated by Montana.

August 25, 2020
Sarah Gadon and Hong Chau facing each other on the side of a highway in the film American Woman
Sarah Gadon and Hong Chau in the film American Woman.   Photo: Elevation Pictures

enRoute Before you started directing American Woman, you created a scrap book of images which became a mood board for the movie. What did you include?

Semi Chellas Film stills from Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde. I also stuck in images from 1970s magazines that felt contemporary. I wanted the look of the film to be super accurate. Funnily, the clothes, style and the beards aren’t that different right now. I also kept a picture of this Japanese painting with a little house in a glade – it felt very Jenny, who is the character that Hong Chau plays. For Sarah Gadon’s character, Pauline, I included photos of broken shards of a mirror and a spiderweb.

ER How did you know you were ready to direct a feature?

SC I started looking at my career. I’ve been on sets for 20 years. I’ve seen how directors work. I know storytelling. I’ve been in post-production and editing. I think there are gatekeepers but there are also locks that are self-made. Until a few years ago, I hadn’t met that many women who had directed. I’d met a couple, but they seemed so magnificent and amazing that I couldn’t imagine that would be me. It actually took a man – a studio head, in fact – to say, ‘Why don’t you direct American Woman if you want it to be made?’”

ER Scenes in the film depict Pauline’s mysterious disappearance from her family home as part abduction, part runaway and, at times, part vacation; she is a captive in some ways, but a few moments in the movie suggest she’s a willing participant in her kidnapping. What do you think the film is saying about the concept of travel?

SC The notion of escape and captivity are more intertwined than we think they are. I wanted the movie to pose the question that I have about Pauline: What is going on in her mind? That’s why Sarah Gadon is the perfect person to play Pauline. You’re so intimate with her onscreen but you still don’t know what her character is thinking. I wanted the movie to raise questions about the differences and similarities between captivity and escape.

ER How so?

SC The story is inspired by the true kidnapping of Patricia Hearst in 1974. The movie is adapted from the novel by Susan Choi that imagines this lost year, where Patty disappears from her family. People put their interpretations onto what happened when Patty really went missing. She ended up being this giant projection screen for people’s feelings about their own children and the culture and what was happening to that generation. Some people saw her as liberated and torn from her stuffy, rich-girl upbringing and set free because she left the environment she was in to seek out this new experience. Other people saw the violence in that and questioned it from start to finish. Most of us aren’t psychics so we don’t really know when we flee whether we’re escaping or running towards something.

ER What were some of the most important filming locations you chose?

SC The characters are hiding out in this peaceful farmhouse because I thought the idea of being captured is so abstract. It’s almost like this bucolic summer vacation. Finding the right farmhouse happened because we drove around Ontario while shooting in and around Toronto. We found a beautiful one shaped like an L; it had the quality of a stage yet there’s no one around for 40 miles.

ER Directors are known to sometimes treat locations as another character in their scripts. Does this ring true for American Woman?

SC Absolutely. We had to find a place where we could allow an undercurrent of tension and complexity. How could someone be a prisoner in this wide-open, beautiful, natural space? That was a question I really wanted the place to raise. In the second half of the movie, they’re on the run and on the road. I wanted to have a sense of scope and of America and landscapes passing. Everything seemed to say something without dialogue: the cornfields, ranches, mountains and, finally, the ocean.

ER As a writer, what city has inspired the most scenes out of you?

SC The first thing I ever wrote down was “I want to be a writer and live in Paris.” I went in my twenties. I was naïve enough to think that it was a great place to write. Guess what? It is a great place to write! I highly recommend it. There was all the inspiration of being around past artists who had lived and worked there. The 1890s! The 1920s! The 1950s! I lived in the 11th arrondissement and the 1st arrondissement, so I had so much material surrounding me.

A narrow Paris streets frames the Eiffel Tower
Paris.   Photo: Earth (Unsplash)

ER You co-wrote a few episodes of Mad Men with Matthew Weiner, including “The Other Woman,” which went on to win a Writer’s Guild Award and was nominated for an Emmy. In it, Peggy Olson has to tell Don Draper, her boss, that she’s quitting. The dialogue feels too real to be fiction. Was it from your own life?

SC Yes. That moment of gratitude and fear from Peggy – and her needing to burst out and take a risk and leave the nest – so many writers need to go through that to evolve. When we were figuring out that story, someone in the writer’s room said, “Sometimes you have to break up with the people who believe in you the most because they’ll never quite see you differently.” That was something we all profoundly understood. Dolly Parton once said, “all change is painful” and I think that is the episode in a nutshell.

ER There’s a part in “The Other Woman” where Don talks about how deep beauty is unattainable. Do you believe that?

SC I do. What we feel as desire is always going to be the thing we can’t grasp. It’s the thing we don’t notice that we have. We’re often blind to the beauty right before our eyes. Desire is always the unreachable or unattainable.

ER Mad Men’s Peggy or American Woman’s Jenny – which character do you feel closest to?

SC That’s like asking which is my favourite child. I could never be as hard core as Peggy. I think she wears her stress very well. Jenny, strangely enough, she’s a watcher. She’s trying to understand every moment. She’s a hard character to depict and play. Hong Chau brought so much stillness and grace to that performance – that’s what I aspire to.

ER What is your dream escape after directing or writing a film?

SC My kids. When I lose my head after a day of writing and come home and see them, that’s the greatest; I don’t know if it’s an escape, but it’s a reset for me.

Grassy plains and rocky mountains cover the landscape of Montana
Montana.   Photo: Noah Austin (Unsplash)

ER Years ago you said you wanted to live in Montana. Why?

SC I ended up in Montana through various trips through history and was just fascinated by it. I grew up in Alberta, so those landscapes nurture my heart. I’ve always had a feeling of wanderlust.
 

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