The Life & Style Of Mad Men Writer Semi Chellas

As season 6 starts up, Emmy-nominated Mad Men writer Semi Chellas talks to Sheila Heti about her portable, hand-me-down approach

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Photo by Mike Goldbach

Photo by Mike Goldbach

Semi Chellas has had a long and eclectic career as a (mostly) writer and (sometime) director in film and TV. She grew up in Calgary, lived in Toronto, and is now based in L.A. with her partner, writer-director Mike Goldbach. She is a co-producer on Mad Men, and the two pivotal episodes she wrote for Season 5 (Roger does LSD! Peggy quits!) were nominated for Emmys. She wrote a feature script for Bruce McDonald, has adapted stories by Linda Spalding and Barbara Gowdy, and has directed four short films. She is the co-creator of the Canadian television drama, The Eleventh Hour, and studied at Yale and Cornell. We have met a few times over the years, and she has always struck me as incredibly determined, intelligent, fun and hard-working.

I was curious to talk to Semi about her style, as she runs the writer’s room of the most stylish show on television, yet in a recent email to me, she insisted that she has “no style.” Still, I was convinced that there must be “deep style” that bonded her life, career, wardrobe, family, everything—as there is in everyone’s life—and so I spoke to her over the phone to try and figure out what that might be.

You said you think you have “no style,” that you feel like a “human collage.”

Yeah. Mike and I came to L.A. a year and a half ago and we thought we were only going to be here for a few months. Then suddenly I had an interview for Mad Men on Friday and I started on Monday. So we quickly got a place and I put a note on Facebook that said we needed furniture, and so many people offered us furniture! We furnished a whole house that way! So now we have this hilarious place where we have an antique armoire next to an Ikea couch next to a beautiful modernist table, and nothing goes together! I had been thinking of this L.A. situation as an exception, but I had a friend over the other day, and I realized it’s how I lived in Toronto and New York. In both cases, I packed a small suitcase, went temporarily, and way overstayed.

Were all your baby clothes donated, too?

Yeah, I literally never bought the baby any clothing.

How do you shop for your own clothes?

Actually, [laughs], half of my clothes are hand-me-downs from different friends. I have one friend who gives me clothes she doesn’t want anymore, and they’re never the clothes I’d buy, but they’re much more interesting than the clothes I would buy. I like wearing them.

So maybe it’s your style to reject a decisive, cohesive style you determine, in order to experience surprise more fully?

Yeah. I like to try to keep things—myself—in the unknown.

Do you write in a similar way?

Maybe. I never really planned out a career. I’ve always operated on the idea that all I needed was to make enough money to say “no” to stuff I didn’t want to do, which is slightly different from choosing stuff you want to do. Sometimes I think I should be more self-directed, but when I am, I feel like I’m in a safe zone.

Would you say your romantic relationships have also been “given” to you?

Well, I’ve never been interested in getting married, or pursued relationships in the abstract. I hate to say this, but in relationships I’ve often just walked away when I felt ready to. Even with intense emotional relationships, I had a tendency to leave them behind like litter, which I’ve also done with my stuff and places I’ve lived. When I found true love with Mike, it was different in that it wasn’t convenient. It was actually a lot of work, and it was one of the few relationships where I rode out the bad.

Do you know why you stuck through it with Mike?

I think a big change came over me in the last few years. I started to take on bigger commitments and be less afraid of them. Until I was 38, though, I thought, “I’m never having children!” because I thought I wouldn’t be able to make that commitment to caring for them. Then something changed where I suddenly saw I could. I had my first child at 40 and my second at 43.

I used to have this secret list of men I would be with, and the places I would live, and no commitments I ever made interfered with the fact of that list. Then Mike and I broke up for a year, and we had no plans to reconcile. I even lost track of where he was in the world. During that time I had an opportunity to cross something off my list, and I walked away from it. And it was the disintegration of the list. Cause I was like, “If I’m walking away from this…”

Do you think your ability to suddenly start making commitments changed your life or aesthetic in any way?

Well, we reconciled. We had a child. We owned a house in Toronto, and it suddenly seemed like everything was going to settle down for the first time ever. But then we literally picked up with our newborn and moved across the country because of Mike’s movie [the 2010 Canadian movie Daydream Nation, which was shot in British Columbia]. I had to move in with my parents and Mike was living on couches, and it made me realize that having a baby doesn’t necessarily give you a sense of how your life is going to look.

How do you approach your writing? Writing for TV—it’s like the characters are handed down to you—donated, like your furniture and clothes.

That’s interesting. Most of my feature career has been the adaptation of books. It’s similar to working on a TV show, where the characters exist already. You’re working with found material in some way. There’s a writer who said to me, “That’s barely like writing,” and I was shocked and hurt and wondered, This whole time, haven’t I been writing? But it’s a big transformation, from book to film, and I think it is writing. But I’m really envious of artists who seem to work from a more internal place.

Do you remember that Warner Brothers cartoon where there was this flat, black hole that you could throw all this stuff into, then somehow you could tear off the circle and move it again? I’ve always been obsessed with that image. That’s a deep insecurity in me—that I’m missing a solid core.

So the black hole is you?

I guess it’s an image of myself and my aesthetic.

What does your writing space look like?

I always try to set up a room of my own, but then all my life I always would end up working in schlubby, dingy places where the coffee is terrible and the bagel is worse. I make everything I need fit into this one backpack I really like, and when I go, I grab my backpack. Yesterday I set off with my backpack and breast pump and maxi pads to stuff my bra, and I met my friend and we went to a café and worked for 90 minutes, then I went to pump my boobs, then I went to another café and worked, and then I went somewhere else, and at 11 p.m. I felt, I really have to go home. I’d been away from home for 12 hours, and I’d been backpacking around the city, and I had the newspaper and a book I’d brought, and the breast milk, and I got home and dumped it all.

My whole way of living—a profound solitariness is part of it. I used to love being able to get on a train and go. But now, sometimes, I’ll have this feeling when I’m with Mike and the kids, where I’ll have a profound sense of, these are my people. Almost like, this is my tribe. It’s not necessarily what I would think of as love—it’s not a mushy, sentimental feeling—but a fierce, these are my people, we’re in this together.

If it’s your tribe, it just becomes part of what you take with you. It becomes part of your identity and part of yourself. 

That’s right. A tribe is very portable. This is part of what I’m taking with me.

Semi’s Emmy-Nominated Season 5 Episodes

“The Other Woman”

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One of the season’s most poignant, what-is-Don-about-to-do? moments was co-written by Chellas and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

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Also co-written by Chellas, an indecent proposal from a potential advertiser that changed everything for Joan Harris.

“Far Away Places”

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Another standout scene with Chellas’s stamp: A knock-down fight between Megan and Don—this one in front of a Howard Johnson.

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