Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry

Millicent Shelton on Directing ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ and Bringing Elizabeth’s Story to Life

The series Lessons in Chemistry has continued to wow audiences with its portrayal of Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson). And, in talking with director Millicent Shelton, the series is so powerful because those behind it knew exactly how to make this show something so beautiful.

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Based on the book by Bonnie Garmus, the show shows Elizabeth’s rise from a lab assistant to hosting her own cooking show and doing so while falling in love, losing the love of her life Calvin (Lewis Pullman), and raising their daughter all on her own. All while coming to terms with motherhood when she never thought she wanted children in the first place. In talking with Shelton, she’s clear that her episodes (she directed 5 and 6) really shine because she wanted Elizabeth’s story, and those who help her, to really be fully realized individuals in a world that would have maybe shunned them.

Asking about the excitement of a story like Lessons in Chemistry, Shelton had nothing but praise for the writing of the series. “I enjoy anything that has really good storytelling and has something to say,” she said. “And I was drawn to this project because I read the book and I loved that Elizabeth, although she’s in the 1950s, how she feels and what she’s experiencing was so relevant to women’s experiences today.”

She went on to talk about how Elizabeth’s perspective as a woman in the 50s is still relevant to even her own as a female director. “And my experience as a female director in a primarily male driven arena. So that’s what originally drew me to just the project. But then learning that the wonderful Brie Larson was attached to it and Lee (Eisenberg)’s writing of the pilot. When I read the pilot, I was totally like, ‘I’m into this’ and I enjoyed it. I enjoy doing period pieces. It’s because I’m a kid at heart. And when you get to change the time and you rehearse and you think about everything but once the actors put in the clothing and you do the hair and the makeup and production design has gotten there and made it period specific, it’s like you’re on set and the wonders of filmmaking and what we’re able to do really comes to life. And you’re like, this is dope. It looks like 1950s or 1930s, which was great. And it is just a wonderment of what we do. And I love it.”

Letting it’s female characters breathe

Aja Naomi King as Harriet in 'Lessons in Chemistry'.
(Apple TV+)

The joy of a show like Lessons in Chemistry is that it is directed entirely by women. All the episodes of the show were split between women with Sarah Adina Smith taking 1 and 2, Bert and Bertie taking 3 and 4, Shelton directing 5 and 6, and Tara Miele taking the final two episodes. It makes a show that could easily have become something of a “girl power” moment have weight and power behind it that never becomes the forced narrative that can be fed to us from (at times) male directors. When I asked Shelton about the show letting these directors each having their stamp on the series, she talked about each of them wanting the show to still be true to Elizabeth’s story but how her perspective as a Black woman was unique for her direction of Harriet Sloane’s (Aja Naomi King) arc in her episodes.

“As a televisiondirector, you want to come in, you want to keep the show and give it a voice that links all the episodes together so that as a viewer you’re not pulled out of it and like, ‘whoa, this feels completely different,'” Shelton said. “But you also want to put your stamp on it so that people can see that it is uniquely you and that you’re the director that’s doing it. And I think having a variety in directors is always great because no one is going to see the same subtleties that go on. In particular, in my episode in 1×06, we had the sit-in and I think being a Black woman, I bring a different sentiment to that. And the conversations that we have and how we built that world and that scene were unique given my experience being a Black woman in America.”

When I asked her what has been the most exciting part for her as part of this journey as a director, as a she is watching fans of the show experience Elizabeth Zott’s story for the first time, she shared how she loved to watch them experience what makes Elizabeth the woman she is. “The most amazing thing is hearing what you just said is that you were so enraptured by it and taken that you went along for the journey and watched it all the way through,” she said after I noted that I loved the show so much and could not stop watching my screeners. “That’s why we do what we do. I think as anyone who’s working in television, our goal is to bring to life characters and situations and have our audience members fall in love and really want to learn more. So you want to watch the next episode and to make you fall in love. You have to fall in love with Elizabeth. And, to the writer’s credit, they created this really interesting person who had twists and turns and the way that they gave you information really kept you engaged.”

Lessons in Chemistry airs on Apple TV+ weekly!

(featured image: Apple TV+)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.