In two years, Semi Chellas has gone from rabid fan of Mad Men, the TV drama that follows a Madison Avenue ad agency during the 1960s, to one of its standout writers. Raised in Calgary, Chellas built her resumé in Canadian film and TV before landing a job with AMC’s smash hit, which returned for Season Six on Sunday.
She made her mark in Season Five, co-writing two episodes with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, which were both nominated for Emmy Awards. Their episode The Other Woman also won a Writers Guild of America award.
The only downside to working on the show, says Chellas, is it feels like being part of one big spoiler. (Not that plot leaks will be a problem for the rest of us.) As always, the show’s creators are tight-lipped. But we do know that Mad Men is on the doorstep of the late 1960s, an era synonymous with political and social upheaval.
What was the feeling like of sitting down on Day 1 with these people whose work you revered?
I actually felt a strange sense of disappointment. I was like, “Oh, now I’m going to know what happens on Mad Men.” But it’s been so amazing to work with the writers and the cast and the crew. I remember the first script I wrote, I said [to Weiner]: “It’s so strange to type Don [Draper] onto the page.” And Matt told me that he felt the same the first time he typed Tony Soprano.
You and Matt are writing another two episodes together for this season. What’s it like working with him?
He has an incredible memory and ear. He can reproduce, spontaneously, conversations that he heard as a child, or the way that someone talked, or what a character would say. For instance, in The Other Woman, there’s this scene where Pete proposes this idea to Joan that the client will sleep with her, and then the agency will get the Jaguar account. Very early on in the season, Matt came in and told this scene to us. And there’s an assistant in the writers’ room that writes this all down. And that scene stayed almost as he imagined it, all the way through many months later when it was being shot. It’s a very interesting way of working. He dictates a lot of his writing.
The show always seems hyper-aware of the era in which it’s set, but at times it may go a couple episodes without acknowledging historical events. How do the writers decide which events are necessary for the narrative?
We’re not trying to do history and we’re not trying to write about events as much as try to tell the characters’ stories. As in life, historical events may not be present in your day-to-day story. There may be huge things going on that barely touch you or small things that, for some reason, change the course of your day. The show is ... not trying to necessarily keep responsibility for narrating those times. It just wants to be right about what those times were for those specific characters.
There’s clearly a big difference between 1960 [the first year the show was set in] and the upcoming season. How has society changed in that time frame?
My mother graduated high school in bobby socks and a crinoline. By 1969, she was a feminist activist wearing Marimekko [minidresses]. My mother was born the same year as Peggy Olson’s character would have been. We’ve seen the changes that happen to Peggy – from a girl out of secretarial college to, at the end of Season Five, striking out on her own as a copy chief for a completely different agency. I guess it’s an open question whether that’s some kind of consciousness-raising, or if it comes from just who Peggy is and the particular circumstances.
Are there any characters whose decisions you sympathize with?
That’s such a minefield. There are so many bad decisions the characters make.
What about a character you feel a special kinship with?
I think, weirdly, with Megan [Draper], because she’s also Canadian. And she came into her own in Season Five, which was my first season on the show. As a fan of the first four seasons, I found moments that felt very personal to me that were reflected in the stories of all the characters. I have that feeling all the time of recognition: How can you be recognizing yourself in an account executive from 1964? But you are. That’s the fundamental appeal of the show – that it’s telling stories that people can really engage with.