'Mad Men' writer Semi Chellas tries her hand at directing with 'American Woman,' which premiered at Tribeca.
Everybody knows the basics: On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst was kidnapped. She spent weeks blindfolded in a closet. Her captors, who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, threatened to kill her if she didn't submit to their doctrine. Months later, she would help the SLA rob the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wearing a beret and toting a machine gun.
Few, however, are familiar with what happened behind the scenes. This is the subject of Mad Men writer Semi Chellas's directing debut and Tribeca premiere, American Woman.
Rather than follow Hearst as a protagonist, Chellas tells the story from the little-known Wendy Yoshimura's point of view. The real Yoshimura, who is played by a fierce Hong Chau and is named Jenny Shimada in the film, was a non-violent radical who went underground after bombing government draft offices at night. The film takes place when Chau first encounters Hearst, long after the bank robbery. The two form a tacit friendship, which culminates in Chau helping Hearst escape the SLA; together, they hit the road and head back West. The film is a nuanced portrait of quotidian life in the SLA, with a strong female character emerging as the unsung hero of the Patty Hearst story.
No Film School sat down with Chellas to discuss the differences between writing for television and for film, how she "banged on doors" for a decade to direct her first feature, what she learned about writing from the Mad Men writer's room, and more.
"Series have a little engine hidden inside them that keeps generating story for you. That is always the thing I'm digging around for when I'm writing TV: how do you keep that momentum buried in your episodes?"
No Film School: You're a veteran writer, and you've spent a lot of time on set. But I can imagine directing your own feature was a whole different beast, and challenging in ways you couldn't even anticipate.
Semi Chellas: I didn't understand going in the challenges of directing a period movie for my first feature. That was actually a huge unexpected challenge, but I'm so happy with how it turned out.
NFS: What obstacles did you run into with regard to shooting a period piece?
Chellas: I wanted to have performances that had a certain amount of naturalism and spontaneity to them. I was working with my own script in a way that was as loose as I can be—trying to give everyone a lot of freedom to discover the movie on set. But when you are doing a period movie, every time you want to go again, you have to chase away all the people that aren't actually in the movie, and you have to reset everything for the shot. There were certain limitations that put a structure in place during shooting some of the time. But in the end, I feel like what was at the heart of the movie is these are people who are avoiding the world—they're fugitives out in the middle of nowhere. So, we tried to use that to our advantage.
NFS: How did shooting a period piece with these challenges impact the way that you were able to work with the actors?
Chellas: Well, it just meant that we really had to plan everything very carefully and really try to get ahead of things as much as possible so we would have the freedom on set, when we were shooting. So we had to do a lot of planning in order to be able to do things that were unplanned in the moment of shooting.
I had this amazing director of photography, Greg Middleton, who has shot a lot of indie movies and has also shot Game of Thrones. He and I worked together for months and months in advance of the movie, thinking about how to do the scenes and how to capture this story, but also how to allow for intimacy for the performances to evolve.
We had limited time in some big locations. We went to the locations over and over in advance of shooting. I also tried to spend time not rehearsing with the actors, but talking about the script—the period, the book, the characters, listening to music, and just trying to be present in the moment the movie unfolds in.
"We had to do a lot of planning in order to be able to do things that were unplanned in the moment of shooting."
NFS: Was there anything that you learned about the way that a script translates to the screen that you might not have known had you not put on the director's hat?
Chellas: Oh, definitely. I mean, the answer is everything. I have had a lot of experience on set as a producer and as a producing writer, and there still was a huge gulf between that knowledge and then actually directing myself. One thing that I really reveled in was how much could be pared away from the script in order to let the performances live on screen. I discovered how little I sometimes needed of what I'd written in the screenplay.
In the end, it was really inspiring how much the actors brought to their roles. When I first sat down with Hong Chau (Jenny), she had read the script and she started talking to me about the character of Jenny in ways that were insightful beyond what I had written. It was really incredible. Then she read the book and carried it around with her on set. She seemed to know the character more intimately than I ever could.
NFS: It's such a delicate art—communicating between the lines while writing a screenplay. Is that going to impact the way that you write moving forward?
Chellas: That's a really good question because, as I sit down now to start writing on new projects, I wonder if it's possible on the page to be as spare as it is in the movie. You don't always have those moments that speak for themselves. There's so much that you're lacking when you're writing, and I didn't always know what it was that I didn't see. In some ways, I feel like the script gave context for not just the actors, but the key crew as well. They needed to have read and understood the wholeness of the script before we started that process of paring away.
Chellas: So, it leaves me a little bemused facing the blank page. I heard a talk for writers who are embarking on directing their first features last year that was incredibly helpful. One of the things I learned was to write everything down on the page because sometimes you need everyone to show up to set understanding the same things. Sometimes, you have actors arriving the night before [production]. It's not like you have the whole cast for the whole time.
Greg Jenkins was talking about getting everyone on the same page when they showed up in the morning, too, and I really took that to heart. In fact, at the script level, I wrote things that I might not have written if I wasn't directing it—about what I wanted the scene to feel like. In some ways, that was very helpful. The problem is then, of course, that you have to also open your mind to what can change in the moment, or after you've shot.
"I discovered how little I sometimes needed of what I'd written in the screenplay."
NFS: On set, was there any time when you were trying to make a scene work, and it just wasn't coming off the page the way you wanted it to?
Chellas: We had very little time on set, so we had shots planned, and in some cases I had the blocking knocked out. But sometimes you have to step back and let nothing happen for a moment while you figure it out. That's a giant lesson—you can't just be checking off the boxes of what you need to get done, what shots you need. Sometimes the actors will mention something they need to understand and you need to be able to step out of the moment and let the chips fall where they may.
On an indie movie, you don't have the luxury of just making up the time later or coming back to re-shoot another day. Something's gotta give. It's like constant factoring of the priorities. Is this scene important enough to stop possibly re-light, change the shot, change the lens, or just change what we're even going for with the actors? What if that means that we're not gonna be able to do this angle or this other scene?
NFS: I'm sure a lot of writers have wanted to tackle the Patty Hearst story in various ways over the years. You tackled it from a different angle than, I think, many would have. How did it all happen?
Chellas: Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's inspired by a true story that's inspired a lot of movies and a lot of mansplaining, actually, over the years.
I was inspired particularly by the novel American Woman by Susan Choi. Susan's a really old friend of mine, and I remember even when she started writing the book, she was like, "I've turned out this story that no one knows. It's about a woman named Wendy Yoshimura, who was an Asian-American actress who crossed paths with Patricia Hearst when she was underground." When I read the book, I was so blown away by the characters that Susan had created. It's very grounded in a moment in history, but it's also a very timeless story about a pair of outlaws on the run. It's reminiscent of my favorite movies, like Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde and even Thelma and Louise. It's sort of that cinematic tradition of outlaws on the run, but with these two women that you've never seen before [in movies].
"In the Mad Men writers room, people basically came in and ripped open their chest and put their heart on the table."
I said to Susan, "You've gotta make this into a movie." She said, "You do it." So, I did it.
When I was picturing the movie and pitching myself as the director, I was doing flip books and decks of imagery to sort of say, "This is what I want it to look like," and it was very hard to find images that would convey what this outlaw pairing would be like. These two young women on the run—one's Asian-American one's white—it was hard to find any images pulled from other movies from other stories that had that combination. I think that's when I started to realize how original and unique this story was.
It actually took me a decade from when I first optioned her book to when we made the movie.
NFS: What happened in those 10 years between optioning the book and going into production?
Chellas: Well, what didn't happen? Let's see...I went from writing features to working more in television, and I worked on Mad Men during those years. I just kept banging on doors, saying that I really wanted to make this movie.
Even though [this movie] was written in 2004, it has become very timely now. It's set in a moment where the country is at the end of a long, unnamed war. There's a president who is being investigated. Then you have these pockets of activism in a country that's very polarized. You have a great deal of social change. I think all those things spoke very clearly now to people. And then the other big factor that made [making the movie now] undeniable, I think, was Hong Chau. She's such an incredible force. Her falling in love with the movie, and her believing in me to direct it, became something that gave us that kind of momentum that gets you over the top.
Chellas: It's a funny thing with indie movies—you can be so, so close for so long, but unlike TV, where there's a space that needs to be filled, I think with an independent film, you have to just keep pushing and pushing it into the world.
NFS: What kept you going throughout? I can imagine you knocked on a lot of doors that weren't yet open.
Chellas: I always say that my superpower is my stubbornness. I was just like, "I know this movie needs to be made. I know this story needs to be told, and I know how to do it." I was undaunted. I just patiently kept trying, and slowly I made my way to the most perfect producers and to the greatest cast. Piece by piece I feel like we added elements that pushed it over the top.
"I always say that my superpower is my stubbornness. I was just like, 'I know this movie needs to be made. I know this story needs to be told, and I know how to do it.'"
NFS: Do you have any advice for writers who are hoping to move between TV and film, like you have?
Chellas: TV and film are so different from each other in terms of writing. These days, people like to casually say that cable has become the new indie film, or vice versa. But I really do think that what you're asking people for when they sit down to watch a series versus when they sit to watch a movie is very different.
My advice would be to really immerse yourself in [the mediums]. I always watch a ton of movies when I'm writing a movie script—old favorites, new favorites. I just stay in that world for that period of writing. It's the same when I'm writing television. Surround yourself with delightful examples of the things that you are creating. Let them inspire you.
NFS: How would you describe the different kind of asks that you're making from the audience, from film to TV?
Chellas: I think that varies—whether we're talking a limited series, or an ongoing series; whether it's supposed to be bingeable, or whether it's something more like Mad Men where you can watch one and wait a week and digest it before the next one. Whatever it is, series have a little engine hidden inside them that keeps generating story for you. It's like the little energizer bunny. Whether it's the relationships that can't resolve or the questions that can't be answered right away, all pilots need that. That is always the thing I'm digging around for when I'm writing television: how do you keep that momentum buried in your episodes?
Chellas: With movies, I think you're trying to tell a whole story, which is a lot. So you have to be very conscious of which parts of it are necessary and which parts of it aren't. I think that having a launch and a landing in a movie is very important—and very difficult—to pull off. You need to keep your balls in the air throughout the story, but get the whole thing told. Someone once told me that a movie is one idea fully explored, and I really loved that idea. There's a simplicity that's actually deceptively complex in movies.
"I was actually a giant crazed fan of Mad Men before I was a writer on it."
NFS: A lot of people consider Mad Men to the pinnacle of modern TV writing. I'm wondering if there's anything you learned, specifically, from working on that show, that shaped you as a writer?
Chellas: I learned so much. I'm still processing it years later. I was actually a giant crazed fan of Mad Men before I was a writer on it. I watched avidly it for three seasons before I even got a chance to interview. Then, suddenly, I got to go through the looking glass onto the show.
I would say that one of my favorite things that I learned from Matthew Weiner was to stay within the period, and not look back at it retrospectively. He really discouraged us from reading about the '60s. Instead, every New Yorker, every New York Times, every Life Magazine and Time Magazine and Newsweek from the period was available to us, and we had people on staff who had lived through the period. We had that sort of immersive feeling of being there, which I think helped keep the characters from feeling distant—to keep them immediate and keep them real to a contemporary audience.
The other thing I learned on Mad Men was that with a large writers room, people basically came in and ripped open their chest and put their heart on the table. People really worked from their truths and from their own lives. They didn't sit around thinking of stuff that might sound cool or be a good twist. They really dug deep into their own psyches and memories and experience. That was pooled by all the writers, and it became part of every episode and every storyline. That was an incredible experience—working with a bunch of super talented writers, under the leadership of Matt Weiner, who was able to synthesize all that and also bring his own heart and create a fiction out of so much truth.