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November 23, 2014

Matthew Weiner of Mad Men: The TV Squad Interview

by Joel Keller, posted Oct 9th 2009 10:57AM
Matthew Weiner accepting the Emmy for Best Drama for Mad MenIt's hard to say that a show that's already won a small U-Haul's worth of Emmys and other awards can be having a breakout season, but that seems to be what's happening with Mad Men during its third season. The buzz around the show has been as loud as we've heard since The Sopranos went to black, and that's not a coincidence; the man who created the early-1960s world of Sterling Cooper, Matt Weiner, was a writer on the landmark HBO drama.

Weiner just completed shooting season three, and he took time out of his post-production process to sit down with me on Monday and talk about how the season has been going so far. I tried to get him to talk about what seems to be the show's inevitable roll towards the cataclysmic event of 1963, the Kennedy assassination, but Weiner was tight-lipped as usual. However, his observations on how he approaches events like that is an interesting read. Oh, and we also touch upon how he came up with the idea to run over a British ad exec's foot with a lawn mower, which is a good story by itself...

You've finished shooting the season, right?

I finished shooting the season, but there's a lot of post on the show, so... But that's all good to do. So I'm not done working, but I'm done writing, which is the worst part of my job, and the best part of my job. So it's both happy and sad.

Well, that's true. Now it's all in the editing room.
Yeah, exactly. It's like writing with limited possibilities, which is nice.

I remember you talked to me and a bunch of the other critics at the TCAs about season three. All you would say about the season was, this is a season of change. We're seeing that, but there's an overall darker tone in that the relationships are not as friendly and congenial, and just everybody's kind of contemplating their place in the world. And is that what you're, the message you wanted to convey with this season?
No. It's a weird thing for me. Because people always...I don't know. I must have a very different view of what events are than other people. And it's weird, because I grew up watching TV, and I will go to the movies and everything.

So I look at this week, and someone was saying to me, 'Well it was a good episode...I mean, not much happened, but it's a good episode.' And I go, 'Not much happened?' Betty Draper kissed a man who was not her husband. And I know she had a one night stand, but this thing has been going on for months. And that's a big thing. And she felt really guilty about it. And they went away with Don, and they rekindled their romance in that medicinal way that people do, and then she sort of realized that that's what it is.

Is that what it's going to be, this relationship, then 'I'm going to give it a shot in the arm,' like Francine says, 'We're going to go to sunny Spain and get the fire back, and then we'll just keep giving ourselves a shot of that for the rest of our lives. Or am I gonna have that feeling of that first kiss that I had with that guy?'

Right. When I heard her say that to Sally, it was really sad.
Yeah, that is sad. And you don't know, (when) she's saying (it) to Sally, is she talking about Don or is she talking about Henry? Is she talking about what a big deal it is, and that it's on her mind?

That's the kind of change I'm talking about; it's this woman considering the fact that this relationship may, unrelated to everything else that's going on with Don, his fidelity and everything else like that, that on some level, is she realizing that this is not what she wants? That would be a shock, right? So that's the kind of change, that's the kind, when I talk about change, that's what I'm talking about.

Like what is Peggy's profession? Is she, is her ambition getting in the way of things? Don has submitted to the authority that is necessary for his adulthood in that profession.

And his relationship with Roger's gone on the rocks...

Yeah, absolutely. And for good reason. But it's also something that's, it's hard for the audience, but it's a big change. And then there's what's going on in the world. And I don't want it to be a history lesson, but there's definitely a vibe that their business is changing.

Part of it's the British and part of it's what's going on in the world. The Medgar Evers thing was the first of these things in that period of a murder, of an outspoken person being murdered. You know, I didn't get into the details of him being dragged out of his house and shot in the back.

You had news reports in the background on TV and Betty saw it when she was giving birth...

And Sally was talking about it. Believe me, I have not met anyone who did not register the fact that that happened. And were kind of surprised that that was still happening in the United States, and that it came on the night of Kennedy's civil rights speech. It's a very, very strange period, you know?

This was something I was going to ask a little bit later, but I'll ask it right now. It feels, to me, that the season is leading up to the grand finale being Kennedy's assassination.
I'm not going to confirm or deny that. All I can say is that it's part of the fabric of these people's lives. I will not lie and say that that... I'm not gonna pretend like it didn't happen But the structure of the season is really, it's the structure of the season. I don't want... I don't know. I've said it many times, that event has been handled very well. If it is gonna be handled on the show, it's gonna be different.

You would handle it more as how it affected everybody's lives and not handled within itself?
Here's the thing: The first season I was doing the show, the public was not keyed into this period and there were people who watched that Nixon-Kennedy election and didn't know who won the election, OK? And I'm sure there are people who saw Titanic and didn't know that the ship was going to sink. But you're still telling a story that we all have the superiority of knowing how it ends.

I'm interested in my people's lives, and in 1963, what I love is having is this thing about lost innocence. What I love is having is that I have a completely new story this year than last year. And that story is a little bit about chaos, and is a little bit about being out of control, and is a little bit about holding onto what matters to you. Or throwing away and going for the new thing.

And there's lots of people doing both of those things for many reasons that are unrelated to politics. And that's sort of where I live, and that's where I want the characters to live. And I hope that, from the beginning of the season, the secrets in people's lives are being exposed to themselves and they're dealing with that. And that's another change.

That symbolic loss of innocence that everybody talks about with the Kennedy assassination seems to have been reflected throughout this season...
That's all I'm ever trying to do. I always want people to look at the first episode of the season and the last episode of the season, and look back at that first episode and say, 'Look how innocent they were.' Every year I want them to feel that. Because that's the process of life.

I think people do have an idealized version of the first two seasons for some reason.

I know!

That it's just all drinking and slapping women's asses, and now here comes the dark stuff. The dark stuff was always there. Now, it just seems like it's more pronounced than it was before. Are people coming up to you and saying well, we're aware of what's about to happen (in history)?

No, no one's really talked about it that way. First of all, when I talk to people, they never want to know what's going to happen. Only journalists ask me that. And it's fine. That's their job. But no one ever asks me that. In fact, sometimes people ask me, and even before I can say, 'I'm not going to tell you that,' they're like, 'You know what, I don't want to know.' And I love that. Because they like having something in their life that they don't know what's going to happen.

And the historical part of it is the historical part of it. As soon as I give you a date on the calendar, you can go and look it up. People didn't used to do that at all, because they didn't know, they didn't really care... First of all, I don't think (people) intellectually had differentiated anything between 1950 and 1968. They didn't really see anything that had happened. Or between the Eisenhower and the Summer of Love, basically, everything looks the same. Even World War II, actually. I'd say between the dropping of the atomic bomb and the Summer of Love, people basically think was the same period.

And they don't feel that way anymore, which has been nice. So when they go and look at the calendar, once they get a date, they start thinking, 'Well this is what's gonna happen in the show.' But what's gonna happen in the show is the part that I have control over, which is the drama, which is what's happening in these people's lives.

And I have to say, people's reaction to whatever the darkness is, a lot of it is people who have never seen the show and have like caught up in like a week, bought the DVDs and seen like 29 of them in like 36 hours. And they're kind of starting to feel that there is a trend there.

But I gotta say, I don't know what is darker than the second episode of the show, with Don sleeping with Midge, and Betty getting in that car accident, and him calling her shrink. Is that a more innocent time? Or you know, Roger riding, you know, one of those twins into his office and having a heart attack. That's the first season.

And the second season, there's so much darkness in there, like Joan's rape, and Peggy's confession, and Peggy and the priest, or Peggy's pregnancy in the first season. I feel like all of these things that are the storytelling parts that I do have control over, that the show has always been hopefully about human drama.

I do think that there is a sense, like I said, and I remember talking to you about this, of chaos. Which is, maybe it's a recognition of a lack of control, or maybe it's exactly what I was trying to say in episode two this season, when Don's talking to the guy from Madison Square Garden, which is that everybody has a good reason for what they're doing, and nobody can foresee the future, and people react to change in different ways. And Don needs certain things in his life that he's not getting, and he may realize that. And then there are certain things that are coming along the pipe that he's not scared of. Pete is not scared of the future at all, right? Pete's always on top of the future.

He's always just worried about what he's getting at that moment.

(laughs) That's true. That's true. But, you know, he wasn't scared of Kennedy, you remember? And they all hated Kennedy right off the bat, and he wasn't scared of that. And he wasn't scared of North American Aviation, you know, when they went out to CA. You know, Don walked out of that scene with the bombs and everything, and he was just like holy shit. And Pete was like well, you know, they're going to spend more money than tobacco.

I think it was great, in the opening of the episode, when Pete's secretary comes in, he's reading Ebony.

Yeah. Oh yeah. He's on top of that. He really is.

I mean, that was a great little subtle thing, calling back to the episode where he was trying to embrace the African-American culture as a business decision.
He is. Exactly. And I do believe that, not to sound like a conservative, but I do believe that a lot of the great social changes that have happened in this country, in addition to the unfortunate case of people being martyred, that business really does seem to be the most colorblind in the end. And money does seem to be the thing that makes progress, in a weird way. Pete's behind it on that case. And at the same time, it was a big discovery in that episode, and it's absolutely true, and people are still having that conversation, that businesses did deliberately not involve black people and not take their business. That's an astounding concept.

Right. Everybody's money is green though. It's the same color.
Yeah, well I mean yeah, that's right. That's what Pete says. But they were saying, 'We don't want to be that way. We'd rather fail.;

When you sit down to break the stories of season three, at which point do you say 'OK, we're going to run over this young executive's foot with a tractor in the office?'
First of all, (of) the stories that come out of the actual advertising agencies that I've heard over the years in offices, that have to do with drinking and people screwing around in the office, this is pretty tame. When Roger says, 'Trust me, somewhere in this business, it's happened before,' there's no doubt in my mind that this activity (has gone on).

It was just like Freddy Rumson peeing his pants. Everyone was saying, 'Oh, it was so tragic, it was so awful.' I literally have not run into someone who, when they start talking about those days, the third story doesn't involve somebody peeing their pants in the office. I heard a story about someone cutting a finger off at an office party with a paper cutter. There's all kinds of stuff like that.

But what I really wanted to do in that episode was, really deal thematically with the concept of expectation. And you know, when Sally says that line at the beginning about, 'What's going to happen when I turn off the lights?' and she's afraid of what's in the darkness there, and you see Don getting excited about his expectation for the first time, that he's willing to make up with Roger about this, he's willing to... he throws himself into it. And you see the British coming in there, and there is this sense of dread. But I wanted to do this thing more structurally, if everything was going in one direction and you just pulled the plug on it. Because that event would pull the plug on it.

It's a total accident, and it's completely organic to the behavior of Sterling Cooper. My grandfather actually ran over his foot with a lawn mower and it was luckily mostly his shoe that got destroyed. And I saw that John Deere ad with the guy -- it's a Green Acres-style ad, and it's right about the same time Green Acres went on the air, when Deere came out with their sit-down lawn mower -- it's a guy in a city outfit sitting on a lawn mower.

I'm always dealing with the country and the city, with the north and the south, with the natural and the unnatural. Don touching the grass in episode two was about not just him being close to that teacher, but him just trying to have some feeling that was beyond the structure of the city. That, to me, the hubris of trying to control the future goes along with Don's rural background and all these people having no respect for the fact that they are operating a piece of heavy machinery. I'm serious. It really was derived from that. It's like, what kind of an idiot has no respect for a lawn mower. Someone who...

Right. Riding around on a lawn mower in an office, drunk.

Yeah. A city person, you know?

Now, the whole thing with Don, too, is you're only kind of touching upon the Dick Whitman stuff here and there. And obviously, Cooper used that to get him to sign a contract. But it's definitely not as heavy in exploration as we've seen in previous seasons Are we going to see more of that?
Um, I don't know. I'm not gonna say we're gonna see more of it, but I think that episode seven was about Don realizing that he is not Dick Whitman anymore, or dealing with Dick Whitman, underneath the fact that he is now that guy, in a suit, in a Cadillac.

Right. And that's why he signed the contract.

That, and because he didn't have a choice. And those kids getting in the car and him being his usual self, and realizing that to them, he's just another city slicker. And the teacher says it to him too, he's just another guy on the train. And that, to me, is all about Dick Whitman. It really is.

And she expected him to hit on her, which I thought was interesting, that she expected that.

Yeah. I mean, he is hitting on her. I know people think that when he covers for that, and starts being aggressive about judging a book by his cover and these other things, that he's saying, I wasn't hitting on you. But I can't imagine a man in the world who, or a woman in the world, who can't see the reality of the situation that he was. (chuckles)

Right. But that was the heaviest Dick Whitman episode we've seen. Besides maybe the first episode where it's his birthday, there's not as much overt...

Overt flashback, yeah, that's true. Well, you know, it's all relative. Again, if you look back at season two, you really, there is no Dick Whitman at all until he goes to buy the car and we see Anna Draper. And that's episode seven. So I do think that it's one of these things, like when you write music and there's a melody underneath it and then you start harmonizing about it, I think you will see a man who is struggling with who he is. And the real thing that he is is underneath all that. But do I have like huge flashback episodes ahead, I can't tell ya.

You've told other critics in the past, that your vision of the show is to bring it to about 1970. Isn't the whole look and the tone of the show's going to change? People are going to grow sideburns, and wear Nehru jackets, and all that kind of thing.
I think you'll see that "My Way" is on the top ten songs in that period. Half the country is not wearing Nehru jackets and wearing sideburns. In fact, more than half the country. And when you look at home movies and stuff, you don't really see (late '60's fashions)... I mean, everything changes. It's foolish to pretend like things don't change.

I was interested from the beginning, and I never want to put a date on it, I was thrilled that anyone even asked... when I was asked that question, I didn't even know there was going to be a second episode. You know what I mean? But my impetus in doing this show was to A) indulge my interest in how history affects people's lives, and B) deal with a piece of history that has been metabolized in a very specific way, in my lifetime.

You know, it's a golden age. It was the time that was talked about when I was growing up. I am Generation X. I grew up in the shadow of this thing. And the reality of it is, is that people's lives are always similar. You know what I mean? Yes, we have a black president, and history has changed, and it's an amazing thing that's happened in this country. But you know, babies are still born the same way. You know what I mean? People get divorced, people get married. Those things don't change.

So I was always interested, from the beginning, in showing the process of people going through tumultuous events, or going through history at all, and what is tumultuous and what isn't. And trying not to indulge the traditional, not just to revise it, but just to not tell the story that way. To tell the story more in the way it feels like it's happening.

I was very interested in the generation that were adults when this happened, that are like Don. Pete is my father's age. Right? I'm 44. I grew up my whole life watching television, and a man in his 50's was a World War II veteran, or Korea. And a man in his 30's was a Vietnam veteran, or a man in his 20's. Well now we're 40 years away from this stuff, and we still have not mentally recalibrated that.

Is it also a factor of the fact that these changes look dramatic in retrospect, but the day-to-day reality was much more gradual?

Absolutely. I do think that. Yeah. And I think that it's always like that: that there are things that are cataclysmic and really do have an influence on us. But there are events happening right now -- I use the example of GM going bankrupt (and that it) may be seen as the turning point in this economic crisis. But no one knows that now. Maybe next year it'll be declared that. And just because it's declared that doesn't mean it's true.

I actually heard a teacher talking to my children about this wave of conservatism that came in due to the immorality of the Clinton administration that brought George Bush into power. You know, speaking about it like it was a mandate. And I was there. It's half and half. That election, no matter what you think happened, was determined by 100 votes. Right? Or 1000 votes. Or whatever. It was very, very close.

But history gets used to tell a certain story, and I'm always interested in the story of what it's like to live through these things. Sometimes we feel invested in politics, and sometimes people come along, young people come along, and they are invested and idealistic, and sometimes it's just people trying to be human beings. So that's really the story that I'm telling.

If we get to that period, I can't imagine that people are going to look at the end of the second season even, and look at where the show started, and not see that there was a drastic change in Don and Betty Draper's lives. Already, just two years into our experience with them.

And huge change from then til now.

Exactly.

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ava sterling

No character development. All the characters are sad parodies of real people. The third season is the worse. Oh yeah, I was alive then unlike most of the viewers, lots of inaccurate things in this show. I will probably stop watching.

October 25 2009 at 8:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Garrett

Should have asked him why he was so arrogant during his acceptance speech and his post emmy comments.

October 09 2009 at 4:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Garrett's comment
Malfoy Roark

He'd respond "I did Sopranos and Mad Men. Next question?"

October 13 2009 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
slutty_whore

why can't someone ask him pointed questions about the pacing and stilted storytelling this season and not just kiss his ass regarding the past two seasons?

October 09 2009 at 3:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
smartone

if you look at on IMDB Episode 11 has a Trick or Treater in list of cast

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1484250/

So that means Episode 11 is Halloween

which leaves two episodes to get to Nov 22

The pace of this season hasn't quite been an episode a month so it is totally up in the air whether we get to Nov 22nd or stop just short

October 09 2009 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
scott

great interview, thanks.

October 09 2009 at 12:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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