American Woman is the first feature film directed by Semi Chellas, who’s best known for writing and producing shows for the small screen. Chellas’ path to this year’s TIFF gala red carpet was not a clear one: her original ambition was to be a fiction writer. Born in California and raised in Calgary, she was in graduate school in the U.S., trying to write fiction, when she was talked into writing a short film instead for John Fawcett, a high school friend who was attending the Canadian Film Centre. Soon Chellas was enrolled in the CFC’s screenwriting program, and things took off from there.

“I’D NEVER WRITTEN A SCREENPLAY BEFORE, EXCEPT FOR THAT SHORT FILM, BUT IT WAS AN EXCITING PROSPECT,” SHE SAYS, “SO I MOVED TO TORONTO AND STARTED AT THE CFC.

It was a small program, and they were still figuring out the curriculum, but it was great.” After graduating, Chellas worked on shows like The Eleventh Hour and Rookie Blue before joining Mad Men as a writer and co-producer in its fifth season. Two of the episodes she wrote with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner were nominated for Emmys, and one won her a Writers Guild of America award. As well, she won the inaugural CFC Award for Creative Excellence in 2014. Still, it ended up being fiction that led her to directing, specifically American Woman, the 2003 Susan Choi novel that reimagines the aftermath of the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. “The author is a friend of mine,” Chellas says. “I read the manuscript when she was working on it and was struck by what a cinematic story it was, and how it evoked Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde and other outlaw stories spread across the American landscape. I kept saying, ‘This is going to be such a great movie!’”

“The book did well, but nobody optioned it, and I couldn’t understand that. I was like, ‘Let me option it and write a script and we’ll get some big director!’ So I wrote it, and more than any other script I’d written, I really saw the movie. I knew what it should it be and what it should feel like.”

Ten years later, with no director attached to the project, Chellas, encouraged by friends, decided to step up, despite the lack of encouragement at the time for female directors in Hollywood. “It took someone else pushing for me to go, ‘Maybe I could!’” she says. “I think it was because up to that point I’d worked with very few female directors. I just hadn’t pictured myself in that role. But suddenly it became my passion to do it. And it was great to shoot it in Toronto, where my movie career started.”

American Woman’s story focuses on Jenny (Hong Chau), an anti- war activist shepherding the kidnapped heiress here called Pauline (Sarah Gadon), on the run with two comrades played by Lola Kirke and John Gallagher Jr. (All the characters are based on real people.) “I got lucky with the casting,” says Chellas. “Hong Chau (Downsizing) read the script and liked it, and her insights into the character were so profound. And Sarah Gadon! I hadn’t thought of her for the role, but I was watching Alias Grace and I sat up and said, ‘She has to play Pauline!’ And I had a drink with John Gallagher Jr. and felt that I had stumbled upon exactly the right person. The character assumes he must be in charge because he’s the man, but he has no leadership qualities, he’s just a jerk who wants to be liked. And Lola Kirke rounded it out. When I put them all together it was like a set of markers had been scattered and put back and they all matched. They were so dedicated and so good.”

“I feel so lucky, and I’m so excited about the premiere. Now I just want it to sell out, ‘cause I want the maximum number of people to see it.”—MD