March 14, 2016

Telling Truths: Semi Chellas Reveals Secrets from the Mad Men Writers’ Room

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Of Semi Chellas’ numerous accolades, the one by which I was most impressed was that she was the writer of the first and only screenplay to ever be published by Cornell’s reputed Epoch magazine — and it was the first screenplay she had ever written. Perhaps this is an indication of someone who truly has an instantly-recognizable talent, a talent that, in Chellas’ case, propelled her towards becoming co-producer and writer for the brilliant, Emmy-winning Mad Men in its fifth season. Chellas talked about this experience in her Thursday talk, “Telling Secrets: Notes from the Writers’ Room.”

That’s what we — the die hard fans, the aspiring writers — wanted to know: what is the secret to a show like Mad Men? Mentioning the high level of secrecy surrounding the show, Chellas joked how strange it was for her to be revealing these secrets to us. Her informal, engaging talk was punctuated by short clips, mostly from Mad Men, which she used to illustrate larger creative processes or to explain what went into a particular scene. Thus, she described the writers’ room of Mad Men.

“I’m not mystical or spiritual,” she prefaced, “but that many brains working on one thing resists even later analysis [and produces] an unconscious that is empirically other.” What Chellas described was a kind of composite mind. The writers’ room produced, in her words, “the creative process writ large.” Writing, especially writing creatively, is a highly-individual, introverted practice. In the writers’ room, this practice is rendered visible and is performed in front of near-strangers. The writers’ room at Mad Men consisted of 10-12 people per season (the total number of show collaborators exceeded 30) who were comedy writers, film writers, playwrights; 27-year-olds to 84-year-olds. And it included, always, someone who had lived during the show’s narrative time period of the 1960s.

This composite mind existed to realize the vision of the auteur, which, in Mad Men’s case, was that of the charismatic producer Matthew Weiner. Quirky, perfectionistic, highly-involved and brilliant, Chellas described Weiner as a classic auteur. At the beginning of each season, Weiner would delineate his vision for that season. This would include, as one might expect, general character arcs and plotlines. The writers were also, however, bombarded with images, poetry, movie scenes, dreams, songs, quotes and on. Weiner sought the raw evocations that this art provoked within the writers. No one was sure whether any of the art would be at all relevant to their work, but the process functioned to generate hundreds of ideas. The writers would then have one to two days to produce 10 pages of writing, the only rule being that research about this time period was not allowed. Chellas explained that writings about a previous time period are inevitably retrospective, and this retrospection leads to a synthesis which by definition is a completed whole. Weiner wanted to reveal the actuality of people living in the present moment of a particular time, which necessitated avoidance of this kind of research.

In the following days, writers would pitch their ideas directly to Weiner, who would sometimes return a few days later and pitch the very same ideas he had previously dismissed. Through the privilege of a kind of intimacy that exists between two close collaborators, Chellas explained that Weiner needed time to internalize certain ideas, to live with it in his own skin before being able to accept it as a part of his vision. Basically, the ideas had to come from within him. This process at the beginning of each season produced hundreds of ideas, storylines, character motivations and histories, all of which which were then written down in code on notecards posted all around the writers’ room, an example of the show’s emphasis on secrecy.

The core of the show and of Matthew Weiner’s vision seems to be the revelation of truth. The best narratives in the show, Chellas said, were those that came the most closely from the truth. She said that Weiner’s main tenet is to not repeat anything for anyone. He believes that imaginative fictionalization is not what leads to originality; true originality comes, and can only come, from what has actually happened. All writing is in some way revelatory of the self, but this particular self is composite. What the writers of Mad Men bring to the table is far more than writing ability; they bring an array of life experiences and stories. The show is a collaboration, a conflation, a synthesis of many different lives. The truths from these lives, in the form of secrets and stories, personal and heard, weave their way into various narratives. Chellas provided several examples of various scenes in which entire stories or particular storylines came directly from the experiences of the writers. It is these insights into the histories of the art we love that compel us to learn as much as we can about the process of its production and the lives of its creators.

Charming, intelligent and funny, Semi Chellas satisfied our curiosities about Mad Men and the creation thereof by revealing the process of writing for the show and her own experience within it. Her talk showed different possibilities of collaborative production and their role in the making of the final work of art. Insight into creative processes is always fascinating, and “Notes From the Writers’ Room” was no exception.

Jagravi Dave is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].