Semi Chellas — writer and executive producer of the television series Mad Men — spoke about her experiences behind the scenes of the Emmy-award winning show Thursday in Klarman Hall.
Chellas called her relationship with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner a “complicated dynamic.” She also described his definition of a successful pitch.
“He told me once, if you pitch me something and I say no, then I come back a little later and I pitch it to you saying ‘I just thought of that,’ then you [have] succeeded,” Chellas said. “You have to internalize the stories, and kind of live with them and have them come forth within you.”
Although Weiner gave Mad Men its direction, the end product was ultimately the collective effort of the writers that developed the story, according to Chellas.
“It was his story, but not necessarily his stories,” she said.
Chellas explained that Weiner would present his vision for the season, and the writers would then come up with ten story pitches each.
“The important thing to bring in was truth,” Chellas said. “To bring in your own stories, your own memories, your own accounts of things, your own ideas on things.”
Chellas added that Weiner was incredibly involved, saying his hands “were on everything on that show.”
“[Weiner] was not only the auteur of Mad Men, but the very model of an auteur — it’s his voice, his characters, his sensibilities,” Chellas said.
Writing for television means making something private very public to others, according to Chellas.
“It’s about putting your writing process, that super secret, incredibly private process on display in front of eight or twelve strangers,” Chellas said. “Little bits of all of us went into all the episodes.”
Chellas added that plot points were inspired by research, collective realization and personal experience.
“[Weiner] really believes that if you don’t use your own experience, then you’ll imitating something that has already been done,” she said.
Chellas praised [Weiner] and her fellow writers, making it clear that their collective effort is what turned Mad Men into “one of the smartest shows on television.”
“The great thing about writing in a group is that sometimes, you get these little unbreakable knots — instead of just a solution, you get this explosion of complexity and depth,” she said.
Chellas’ lecture, “Telling Secrets: Notes from the Writers’ Room,” was sponsored by the Performing and Media Arts department and the English department.
A previous version of this story stated that this event was sponsored by the Performing and Media Arts department alone. It was in fact sponsored by the English department as well.