Calgary-raised Mad Men writer Semi Chellas makes her mark with feature film directorial debut American Woman

Semi Chellas has come a long way since her high school days as a student at Winston Churchill High dreaming of a life in movies. The former Calgarian has since gone on to create a hit Canadian series (The Eleventh Hour), become a top writer for the AMC show Mad Men (where she earned several Emmy Award nominations) and now, she marks her feature-film directorial debut with American Woman — which screened as part of 2019’s Calgary International Film Festival and is out June 30 everywhere on VOD.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel and loosely on the true 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, American Woman is a reimagining of the ordeal from the perspective of a political radical assigned to look after the captive heiress. 

We caught up to Chellas to talk about the challenge of making movies, casting a Hollywood legend and what aspiring locals can do to succeed in a career on the big-screen.

Q: This is your debut feature and you couldn’t have picked a more challenging genre than a period movie set in the ’70s and a story adapting a Pulitzer Prize-nominated book.  So what was the greatest challenge in making this film?

A: It’s really funny because I would say the greatest challenge of it was stepping away from being a writer, which is what I’ve been for my whole career and it’s something that I have a certain comfort level with – although it’s always hard and you’re always in despair when you’re writing and then you write your way out of it. I had written the adaptation of the (book) and I had written and rewritten it many, many times when I got to set and then, in some way I had to let the writer go and just be the director. To just live as the director while we shot and while we edited was the greatest challenge for sure.

Q: And to get to make your first movie with a great cast including six-time Oscar nominee Ellen Burstyn. How was that experience?

A: I made this “look book,” which was images, colours and art and just different senses of how scenes would unfold, and we used Ellen Burstyn from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in a bunch of the shots actually. We used a bunch of stills from that movie and so she was sort of in the DNA of the movie from the beginning, and then to have her come and do it and have her walk on to the set was just an amazing thrill.

Q: As someone who has come from Calgary to go on to achieve such success in movies and TV, what advice would you give someone with similar aspirations?

A: People always say, “How did you become a writer?” and I say, “Just write.” That is basically my advice to everyone is: write and make stuff. Even though we’re in quarantine for the pandemic, make stuff the way that you can. Work with your friends and keep writing and keep making stuff. It’s weird but everything else will come and glue itself to you if you show your heart in your work. That’s what I believe.

American Woman is available by video on demand beginning June 30.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.