Semi Chellas, the Canadian-American screenwriter of your favourite Mad Men episodes, was crossing a street in Manhattan in April when suddenly she found herself catapulted into the air.
She was in town for the Tribeca Film Festival, where her feature directorial debut, American Woman, was set to premiere. (It will have a gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12.) She’d worked on the script for 10 years. It hadn’t been easy to finance: a period road movie, shot in Canada, starring two women, one of them Asian (Sarah Gadon and Hong Chau). Sailing through the sky, Chellas had time for one thought: “I can’t believe a bomb went off in New York City right before my movie premiere.”
It wasn’t a bomb, it was an SUV. The driver ran a red light and smashed into Chellas. Her head was split open; she suffered a concussion and a brain bleed. She spent two days in hospital, but somehow made her premiere. “I gave a speech thanking the financiers, I sat through the movie. I remember none of it,” Chellas said in a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. She’s a fast talker and a sublime conversationalist; she laughs a lot and marvels at ideas in a way that’s infectious. Slowly but steadily, her brain is recovering. Ever the writer, she’s sure the whole event is some kind of metaphor.
Every writer has questions they return to time and again. Chellas’s are: Why do people believe what they believe? How do you change a mind? “I’m drawn to stories in which people have lost their sense of themselves,” she says. “In love, in revenge, in the fire for a cause. But what does that mean, really? How do you lose yourself? Why do we not do the things we want? Why are we not at one with our own will? Those questions create really interesting characters.”
That curiosity drove Chellas’s ascent through the Mad Men writers’ room in its latter seasons, as she oversaw the blooming of Peggy, Joan and Betty. It powered her script for Ophelia, a feminist take on Hamlet that came out this summer. And it’s central to American Woman, a fictional reimagining of the kidnapping of the U.S. heiress Patty Hearst, based on the novel by Susan Choi.
Gadon plays rich-girl Pauline, abducted and brainwashed in 1975 by a gang of political radicals on the lam, led by Juan and Yvonne (John Gallagher Jr. and Lola Kirke). Chau plays Jenny, an activist who’s learned how to lie low. The bombings, shootings and robberies happen mostly off-screen; the film instead explores the longueurs of life in hiding, the liminal spaces in which characters change, and change each other.
Chellas was involved with the story from its beginning – she was reading pages of the novel as her friend Choi wrote them. Right away, she saw it cinematically. “It reminded me of some of the best American cinema, Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, those outlaw road-trip movies where you feel the vastness of America, and people outside the law,” Chellas says. “Pauline and Jenny’s relationship has a big question mark stamped on it: Who’s in thrall to whom?”
She optioned the book herself and wrote a script. Eventually, the producer Ted Hope convinced Chellas she should direct it herself. “I always knew what the movie should feel and look like,” she says. “But it took a white male studio head to make me realize I wanted to direct it. I tell this story although it shames me, because I think it’s important to notice.”
As a screenwriter, Chellas has confidence. After creating the award-scooping Canadian series The Eleventh Hour, she told her TV agent she was interested in only one series: Mad Men. She worked on other things until a spot opened, and ended up running the writers’ room. Now, she, her partner and their two children, aged 7 and 9, live in Los Angeles, where Chellas has gone native enough that she keeps earthquake go-bags under her bed, and recently rented a herd of sheep for her youngest’s birthday party.
Her post-Mad Men writing credits include an episode of The Romanoffs; an HBO series with Steve McQueen (it didn’t get picked up); a draft of the Charlie’s Angels reboot, directed by Elizabeth Banks; and the hotly anticipated series Snowpiercer, created by Graeme Manson (Orphan Black).
But trusting herself as a feature director was akin to throwing herself into the air. “A huge amount of directing is about confidence, and connecting with your own sense of vision,” Chellas says. “I feel itchy even talking like that. Literally, I squirm around. But I knew American Woman had to be the first thing I tried.”
She shot it in and around Toronto, which felt like a homecoming. (You’ll hear her old pal Don McKellar in a voiceover; he recorded it for her in a closet he’d soundproofed.) “The best thing about the Canadian film industry is this close sense of being connected to people, and having those connections go back,” Chellas says. “I don’t think I’ll ever have that in America in the same way.”
As she recovers from her concussion, Chellas is thinking about disruptions: in her own brain (the injury made her overly aware of her heretofore innate sense of story), and in her career. “My work has been driven by my interests, whatever I’m captivated by, but it’s never felt like an upward direction,” she says. “So I have a problem with the metaphor of the glass ceiling. My experience is that it’s a glass wall. You’re going along, and then you take a turn toward something new, and suddenly you smack your nose on something that you didn’t see was there. For me to become a director, someone had to open a door in that wall and usher me through.”
Now that she’s on the other side, she wants to keep experimenting. She’s writing a children’s movie based on Esta Spalding’s Fitzgerald-Trouts series, “delightful Roald Dahl-esque books about four kids who live on a tropical island and have no parents to speak of.” She optioned a story for a film she plans to write and direct. She has a TV project that’s about to be announced, and is writing for an A-list actor she can’t yet name.
"Directing plunged me into an uncertainty about my work that’s very exciting, because everything seems new again,” Chellas says. “Then the accident is making me relearn how to think like myself. It’s making me ask myself all those questions about identity that I’ve always asked in my writing. So I have this big feeling of starting over, but as what? As who? It’s a strange gift to get in the middle of your career.”
American Woman premieres at TIFF Sept. 12, 6:30 p.m. (Roy Thomson Hall), with additional screenings Sept. 12, 8 p.m. (Elgin) and Sept. 14, 7 p.m. (Scotiabank).
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