Semi Chellas is a writer and co-executive producer for the acclaimed television series Mad Men. The Emmy-nominated writer studied English at Cornell as a Mellon fellow, and on March 10 will be returning to campus to speak at Klarman Hall. In anticipation of her lecture, “Telling Secrets: Notes from the Writers’ Room,” the Sun had a chance to speak with Chellas about her experiences writing for Mad Men and her opinions on the television industry in general.
The Sun: What are the day-to-day operations like working in the writers’ room?
Semi Chellas: There were about 10 to 12 people in the writing room, including two advertising people — i.e. not advertisers for the show but people who worked in advertising — [including] one that worked in advertising in the 60s. A writer’s assistant typed out everything as it proceeded. The room looked like [it did] when they [Sterling Cooper Ad Agency] worked on the Jaguar pitch in [the episode] “The Other Woman”; that was the art department’s interpretation of our writers room.”
Sun: What do you think of the single-series format in comparison to a multiple-season format?
S.C.: It’s a different way to conceive a series. People return to series for more of what we love — for a long time, that was the people onscreen. Now, people are much more aware of the voice in TV shows. There have always been a few shows known for a singular voice (Deadwood, Sopranos), but it’s much more common now.
Sun: How much of your influence has impacted the way the female characters in the show developed?
S.C.: For me, the heart of the show was always the women. Watching the pilot, I felt like the women had no idea what was about to hit them. It’s the times that changed, in the show. Not the show itself. Weiner was always writing for those women, and he had a very clear sense from the beginning of where the show could take them, even though he had no idea how long his series would last. Even for Betty, the iconic housewife, going back to school for her degree in 1970. Part of the genius of Weiner’s vision is that no one character is ever as simple as first appearances. Even Don Draper wasn’t [just] that man in the grey suit. He wasn’t even Don Draper.
I joined [Mad Men] in 1966 when season five began. There was a shift happening [in the show], and that season brought it to a head for Megan, Joan and Peggy and their relationship to [their] work.
My mother was born the same year as Peggy would have been born, and in the 60s worked in offices in New York and moved out to California. I’ve always been interested — even pre-Mad Men — in the shift that was happening when my mother was coming of age. She became an activist in the women’s movement, but she’d come from a place where it was hard for her to see that coming. I used some writing I’d done about her as the sample I sent to Mad Men.
Sun: Finally, what is your favorite episode of Mad Men?
S.C.: One favorite is episode nine in season four, from before I worked on Mad Men. [It’s called] “The Beautiful Girls.” Don is still involved with Dr. Faye. Sally runs away from Betty and goes to her dad. Don’s secretary, Mrs. Blankenship, last of her kind, dies at her desk. Bert Cooper says, “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.” That really sums up a lot of our discussion about the changing roles of women!
The final moment of the episode is Peggy, Joan and Faye in an elevator. They’ve all had these storylines that are really huge shifts for them. Peggy looks into the camera in that shot. I remember watching that before I ever dreamed of working on Mad Men, and I felt like that episode was speaking directly to me on every level.
Chellas’s lecture will take place Thursday, March 10 at 4:30 in the Hollis E. Auditorium, located in Klarman Hall. The lecture will be free.