‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner on Iconic Show’s Secret Weapon: ‘It’s Not Just Writing, It’s the Cinema’

Showrunner won’t call his work “literary,” but admits that AMC took a big risk on “a show this specific in its language”

Last Updated: June 26, 2015 @ 2:21 AM

This story originally appeared in the Comedy/Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

In May of 2015, about 17 years after Matthew Weiner got the idea for “Mad Men,” the final, triumphant episode of his AMC series aired. And once it did, the showrunner finally relaxed and began speaking more openly about the iconic show he’s been tight-lipped about for seven seasons.

He sat down with TheWrap at the Biltmore in downtown Los Angeles, where some scenes from the show were filmed.

TIM APPELO: Last year, you told TheWrap about “Mad Men’s” end: “I’ll tell you who’s really going to suffer: it’s my family. I’m going to be all up in their shit. I’m going to be, like, organizing everything … ‘Why doesn’t this work? Where’s that remote?'”

MATTHEW WEINER: [Laughs] You have so much control at work, and you’re taken care of, because you’re a machine, an organism that produces the show. Now it’s like you’re getting home from jail. Everybody missed you, and all of a sudden they’re like, “Oh, wait a minute — jail changed this guy.” I’m a controlling person, obviously, on some level. But I have four children, my wife has a big career, and there’s no shortage of humbling situations. Which are all over the show.

Also read: ‘Mad Men’ Series Finale: Hollywood Says Goodbye to Don Draper

“Mad Men’s” final season was so strong, even January Jones haters found the love — Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted, “Almost every critic (myself included) owes January Jones an apology.”
Oh, that’s nice. January was so the way you want, just on the verge — that’s where the emotion is for me. Though it’s nice to see people break down at a certain point. The greatest education for me in the entire process — and I’m embarrassed I didn’t know this — is that it’s not up to you. You know what you want to say, you have a consistency to your story, but what the audience experiences? That’s none of your business.

How did you feel about the initial loathing for Betty, before she deepened and Jones nailed the transformation?
I felt such a desire to save that woman in the first season! She was so victimized to me. But that’s not how the audience felt, partly because she’s so beautiful. “Oh, come on, how bad could it be?” If she’d been dumpier they would’ve been like, “I cannot believe what he’s doing to her.” We shot the Valentine’s Day episode right in this room–I showed January how to do her glamorous walk down the stairs.

That reminds me of when you showed Jessica Paré how to dance to “Zou Bisou Bisou.” The Biltmore makes everyone look 1960s glamorous.
We also turned this room into Grand Central when Duck calls Pete and says he’s got a deal–we put up three phone booths, put some garbage on the floor and had people walk through. My production people are amazing. When I write I act out a lot of it because I dictate, I’m on my feet walking around. One of the big creative moments for me was in “The Hobo Code” [2007], when Peggy [Elizabeth Moss] sleeps with Pete [Peter Dyckman], and she says, “We’ll celebrate,” because she’s had a great day. And as I’m walking, I skip. I said, “Let’s have her skip.” Elizabeth said, “I love that!” Because she’s very physical, she trained as a ballerina.

How did you get that scene where Betty’s husband [Christopher Stanley] tells her daughter, Sally [Kiernan Shipka], that Betty has cancer?
I kept telling Kiernan, “Don’t cry, be on the verge of tears, you’re stunned.” He tells her, “It’s OK to cry,” and I knew he was going to break down in the end. You can write it, but it doesn’t always happen. It’s no reflection on the talent, but when you’re asking a man–actor or not–to break down, it doesn’t happen overnight. So when we shot his side, I told Kiernan, “Look up at him and be crying,” and he burst into tears. She’s curious, a little grossed out, understanding. You can’t give enough credit to the actors–it’s always about the actual tennis match between these people. That makes it sound competitive, but it’s being in the moment together. That’s why the set has to be quiet, you can’t joke around much between takes.

Also read: 7 Questions With ‘Mad Men’ Star Jon Hamm: Emmy Contender Quickie

How did you get “Mad Men” started?
I basically had to threaten to leave my agency to get David Chase‘s agent to read it. I got a phone call from David the next week, and the “Mad Men” script got me a job on “The Sopranos,” which was an international billion-dollar phenomenon.

All I wanted to talk about was “Sopranos.” All David wanted to talk about was “Mad Men.” David doesn’t talk as much as me. He probably thought I talked too much. Terry [Terence Winter, “Sopranos” writer/executive producer] and I talked to each other more than David talked to us. David would just get up and write things on the board. He’s working in his mind a lot of times. “I forgot people talked this way,” he said [about “Mad Men”]. “Even if I have to fire you, ‘Mad Men’ is the show that should be on HBO after ‘The Sopranos.'” I was hired with two other writers who got fired, and went on to do great things. It was like “Survivor: Long Island City.”

It was a very big risk for AMC to make this show. A show this specific in its language. I’m not going to say it’s literary or anything.

It is literary. You’re influenced by John Cheever and Richard Yates.
Cheever right out of Salinger and Hemingway and Fitzgerald — very realistic people, and a simplicity in language that doesn’t interfere. And all of a sudden, a poem would break out, and you didn’t expect it because everything was transparent up to that point. And the early work of Paddy Chayefsky, the moments of real conversation, sparse, mundane, ineloquent — and then every once in a while, someone comes in with the fireworks.

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David Mamet was very influential — “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and my favorite of his, “Glengarry Glen Ross.” I have my own thing, and sometimes my people say stuff that is so dense — not necessarily poetic, but dense, so the other person has to say, “What?” Or take a beat to understand what has happened. I’m embarrassed by exposition. I don’t like to stick the audience’s face in stuff because I don’t like it and I find it insulting. Or not insulting, but it pulls me out of the story.

don draper jon hamm mad men finale

But the visual aspects are bigger than language. “Mad Men” is so risky, and so un-TV-like, because every word, every glance counts.
At the beginning, I worried, If you fill out your checkbook, you’re not going to know what’s going on. The style is very high risk, because the stories didn’t rhyme that much, things were not tied up in a bow. Don [Jon Hamm] didn’t get the birthday cake.

In the finale, when Don is meditating and gives that very small smile — Jon is extremely aware of where the camera is and how to calibrate his reactions — I wasn’t sure the audience would see the smile. When Don shows Sally his childhood home, they look at each other. I said, “Is that it?” I looked back at our post producer Blake McCormick, and Blake was crying. I said, “I guess that’s it.”

Also read: ‘Mad Men’ Finale: Coca-Cola Reacts to Use of Iconic Ad

Isn’t it true that you don’t have the genre gene? Is that your secret weapon?
Yes, though I understand genre. I think creatively it’s been an asset, but it’s been a challenge. On the one hand, you can do the lawnmower episode [in which a new ad man horribly, comically loses his foot], and you can do Betty getting cancer in the same series. You can have a joke in the middle of any scene — Roger Sterling [John Slattery] comes in when they’re wiping the blood off the glass and he can say, “Aw, just when he got his foot in the door.”

As an underling on other shows you would argue for that and you’d never get it, because it makes people too uncomfortable. There’s this mixture of tone, and David did a lot of it too on “The Sopranos.” It’s not just writing, it’s the cinema.

Cinema meaning imagery as opposed to dialogue?
Cinema creates a psychological state. This [Alzheimer’s] movie “Still Alice” did a great job of using cinema to create the state of confusion. It was terrifying to me — I have that disease in my family, a lot of it, not early-onset, but I’m sure that I will [get it].

There’s a scene of Don in the Season 7 premiere that means a lot to me, that uses cinema: He’s been trying to be good, fight his way back into the firm, even trying not to drink. He steps onto a balcony in his robe, special effects make it look freezing, Jon acted cold. The way it’s shot, he gets smaller and smaller. I can’t say what it means, but you can see what it means.

You can feel what it means.
That’s the thing I always went with.

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