As Matthew Weiner's hit AMC series Mad Men continues to collect awards and nominations, repeatedly being cited as one of the finest dramas on television, Weiner's rise to prominence has become a well-told success story. After laboring as a staff writer on shows like The Naked Truth, Andy Richter Controls The Universe, and Becker, Weiner wrote a spec script for the pilot of Mad Men, a series about the world of Madison Avenue advertising executives in 1960. The script so impressed Sopranos creator David Chase that he hired Weiner as a key writer on Sopranos during its final three seasons, with co-writing credit on two Emmy-nominated episodes ("Unidentified Black Males" and "Kennedy And Heidi"). When The Sopranos ended, Weiner pitched Mad Men to HBO and Showtime, but both networks passed, leaving it to fall into the unlikely hands of AMC, a cable network that had never produced an original show of its kind. The gamble paid off: After an acclaimed first season that brought prominence and higher ratings for the network, Mad Men returned for a second season on July 27. Weiner recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the Sopranos experience, the nine jobs he has on Mad Men, and why advertising doesn't actually interest him.
The A.V. Club: Where are you right now in shooting the second season?
Matthew Weiner: We have just done the first day of photography on episode nine of 13. Ten have been written, and 11, 12, and 13 still need to be written and shot. We've edited four.
AVC: How's it coming together so far?
MW: I'm very happy with it. We've got a great story for the season, and there's a lot of stuff going on, and there's more characters and more people, a tiny bit more plot. But I have to temper my enthusiasm a little, because I have the big finish coming up, and that's the stuff that's always hardest to execute.
AVC: Did you take any lessons on the practical side of shooting the first season into shooting the second?
MW: Yeah, we learned a lot, absolutely. We do each episode in seven days, so we really have to be economical about how we do things. It's really a day or two short of almost any other show that's shooting, and they don't all look like [Mad Men], or have this amount of detail. The thing that's been really great is, I've let more stuff go, because I have this amazing team that I trust now. I completely go with their decisions on things. I don't have to go in and micromanage everything. And I think the other thing is, you start to sort of… I wouldn't say relax, because I've never relaxed. But I've tried to have more confidence in the things I like, or the things other people like. That's really the big thing in this job, to second-guess yourself all the time.
AVC: How did the writers' strike affect your planning and execution of this coming season?
MW: We really weren't directly affected, because the show had already wrapped when the strike started, and we weren't due to start until sometime in the middle of when the strike was happening. It just postponed our beginning by a couple of weeks. What it really affected was my desire to have some mental time to plan the season, and that was cut in two, because the strike for me was a full-time job. I was very involved in it. So I didn't have time to sit around and ruminate on what would be happening on the show. But I sort of had an idea anyway. In terms of the actual physical production, the strike didn't affect us at all. We had wrapped already, and we were due to start right around the time it ended.
AVC: How far ahead do you envision this show?
MW: Well, I didn't have the whole show together eight years ago, when I wrote the pilot, but I definitely knew what the gradual advancement of the characters was going to be. There's so much in the pilot in terms of the trajectory of who these human beings are, and what their state of mind is, that I've always had ground to work on. And being tied to the calendar and the historical part of it always gives you kind of a story, because you're wondering how people will react to the way history passes. The other thing is just trying to be honest about time passing, and how much that really changes our lives. How different were you in 2005, 2006, you know? It's really hard to look and say that you were really that different, unless you had some huge personal tragedy, right?
AVC: Are you pacing the show to last a certain number of seasons?
MW: No. Honestly, I don't even have an order for a third season at this point. I literally only have this season, and I'm treating it the same way I treated last season, which is "All the story I can think of, I'm putting in the show." If I'd known the show was going to go for 10 years, I could have delayed the revelation of Don's identity beyond the 12th episode of the first season! [Laughs.] But I felt like "This is my story, this is the story I was telling, tell the story. Don't hold things back with the hopes that you'll going to have more and you'll lay it out in a different way." I really like to use what I have. Do I have a plan for them? Yeah, I'd like to see where these people are in 1972. But do I have, like, a big event that's going to happen, like Don's going to run for president or something? No, I'm not working toward anything like that. Although I would vote for him.
AVC: Would you?
MW: Especially against Nixon. [Laughs.]
AVC: AMC isn't a subscription channel like HBO or Showtime. There are commercial breaks and standards in terms of language and other adult content. Did that force a lot of alteration on your part?
MW: No. It's embarrassing, on some level, that I really never imagined it being any more than it is in terms of language. I think people are saying "Fuck you!" to each other all the time in this show, and though you can "hear it," I don't think you need to hear it. Does it need more nudity or more explicitness? I don't know. You get a different kind of actor when you talk about people being naked all the time. These actors will do what the characters do, so you don't have to worry about that. I really haven't felt any restriction to it. I feel like the show is plenty dirty and plenty crude. I don't feel limited by that. And at the same time, I think there's a kind of elegance to it, to work within that framework where what you don't see is often more enticing. It's the oldest cliché in the world, and people use it as an excuse, but I really do feel that way. I feel like with the sex scenes and so forth, the implication of what's going on is far dirtier than what you could show.
AVC: There's something about it being a period piece, too, that makes that suggestiveness a little more palatable.
MW: Yeah, it makes it more palatable. But I tried not to use the movie devices of that period, suggesting like, "Oh, something happened, but we can't show you." What I try and do, actually, is spend a lot of time showing other things that are explicit. In episode four last year, we had this storyline about a little neighbor boy that wanted a lock of Betty's hair [while she was babysitting at his house], and he walked in on her in the bathroom. Now the way that would be done under any circumstances is very different from the way we did it. Because part of my story is that these women have these wads and wads of underthings that they have to wear. There's just layers and layers and layers, and I learned from the actresses that it takes them 20 minutes if they have to go to the bathroom. And so I shot the scene of her going into the bathroom, snooping, and then basically getting ready to go to the bathroom. And it wasn't crude or anything, but it was very private. And it made him walking in feel so much more realistic. What are the limitations on that? You're not showing anything, you're not seeing any skin, you're not hearing any noises, no one's really being embarrassed. But there's an intimacy and a reality to it just by choosing to show that scene. So for me, I never really think about it. There's been one "Fuck you" in the entire thing, and it was in the pilot. It was just Pete muttering under his breath. And we did it the way we did it, just dropped the sound out. And everybody knew that when he was walking away, he was saying, "Fuck you." People said "Fuck you," and they said it a lot. They didn't say it so much in the workplace, and they certainly didn't say it so much in their home. And that is part of the story. Part of the story of the '60s is the relaxation of those rules. And by the time you're looking at movies in the '70s, even the late '60s, like Midnight Cowboy, you're seeing that these things have already made their way into the mainstream. But I don't believe they're a big part of these people's lives. I don't believe that's the way they are.
AVC: Another reality of being on AMC is that there are commercial breaks. Is the rhythm of the show influenced by anticipation of the breaks? Do you write that way?
MW: I write the show straight through. And then we find, when we're editing, where the breaks go. You can do a lot with a commercial break—you can change days, you can suggest the passage of time. So sometimes that's a great thing artistically, to know that's going to be there. Obviously you'd always prefer that people see it straight through, and you don't want them to be taken out of it by advertising, but that's the reality of what's paying the bills here.
AVC: There's an art to it, though. The pilot episode of Twin Peaks, for instance, chose some really great images to put right before the breaks.
MW: I do think about it. I won't lie. I do think about it when we finally get there. But for me, most of the time it's a totally double-edged sword. It's impossible for me, without getting a big wide shot of Manhattan, to convince people that it's another day. But if we go to a commercial and we come up and people are in different clothes, you know it's another day. The great thing is that before the first commercial, there's a huge chunk of the show. It's always around 20 minutes of the show without commercials, which is really helpful.
AVC: Mad Men was famously the writing sample that got you the job on The Sopranos. Would the show have been the same if you hadn't had that experience first? Were you prepared to run the show in the same way?
MW: No. I mean, my God, it's ridiculous to suggest that. First of all, now that it looks like [Mad Men] was so well-timed for the culture, I wonder if it had come out at that time, if anyone would have even noticed it. That's number one. Number two is, I'm a different writer. You don't sit in a room with [Sopranos creator] David Chase and [writer Terence] Winter for four years and not learn something. And just watching the way the show was done, and watching the way that David encouraged the imagination. And having some confidence—again, what I was saying about what I learned from last season, having some confidence that if I liked it, it would go over well.
AVC: How does today's context make it a different, more resonant show than when you wrote it?
MW: I don't want to pretend like I'm clairvoyant or anything, but I had a tremendous sense of malaise about our political future when I wrote it. This is right around the millennium, right around 1999, when I wrote it. The Sopranos certainly reflected that; when I saw that on the air, I was like "Oh my God, I'm not alone." But it doesn't seem that the culture really caught up with that until the last two or three years. I don't know, George Bush won two elections… I'm not even trying to say this from a political standpoint. I think there is a resonance to the kind of glory of that period, and the foreboding of what happened, that seems accentuated by the time that's passed in between. It didn't seem to be on anybody's mind then as it is now. Is that my imagination?
AVC: Much like The Sopranos, Mad Men paints a portrait of a subculture that's horrible in many ways. These characters are doing awful things and aren't that happy, yet at the same time, both shows make their worlds perversely appealing. Why is that, and is that a dynamic that you like to play with in the writing?
MW: You try to create a world that is complete. And I personally love this period, and talked a lot of people into working on the show by saying "You're going to get to live in this period." Now the fact that these people's individual lives are not that great, and that they do a lot of horrible things… well, that's the meat of what we do. That's the meat of drama. So, to me—I love the question, but I was never really that worried about being a member of the Sopranos crew. I think it looks kind of fun to not have to work, to not have to take crap from anybody. And then there's the reality check in there, which is that you do have to work, you do have to take crap from people, and you can fail, and all these other things. I don't know, there is a lot that's appealing about it, but that's the way drama is. You just sort of set it up, and show what's good about it, and show this milieu, and show that there's a lot of freedom and a lot of things that we can't do now. Then hopefully the other part sneaks in, which is, "Wow. If you're miserable, you're miserable." It's a total double-edged sword for me. It's one of those things that I literally don't understand how it works, I don't consciously do it. But I love being there, and I love being in that world, and these people are very funny to me. And the fact that these bad things happen and they behave badly is entertainment.
AVC: How do you intend for the show to be paced in terms of time? We get quite a jump in the first episode.
MW: The funny thing is, on the calendar, it goes from 1960 to 1962, but it's only 14 months. It's really no bigger a jump than on The Sopranos. It's just that they weren't really tied to the calendar. But how do I intend for their lives to be paced? I guess I would like to be able to tell an individual story for each run of episodes, each 13 episodes. And again, I don't have an order for the rest of the show, so I don't really think that far in advance. I know that telling the story, there are certain events I want to skip, and certain events I want to hit. The time passing allows for—if you're really following people's lives, and this isn't a cartoon—someone gets pregnant, a child will be born, etc. You really don't want to be locked into "Every episode is a month later." And also, I think it helps with the audience. The show is very intense to make. There's always going to be some downtime between seasons, and to me, it really helps to come back to the next season in the reality of that world, and have almost as much time passed in their lives as has passed in yours.
AVC: As a show-runner, what level of oversight do you have? You say you not micro-managing as much…
MW: Well, the people who work for me may laugh at that. [Laughs.]
AVC: How much of a hand do you have in, say, the episodes where you're not a credited writer?
MW: Every single word that's on the screen, I oversee. There's nothing that's shot, I'm not involved in. The scripts go through multiple drafts, and I work with the writers on all these things. And I'm extremely involved in the writing process. As far as casting, I'm there for every single person that's cast. Even if it's one word, I'm there for their auditions. I'm involved in the props, a lot of which are written into the scripts. I'm involved in the costumes, which are all shown to me before they go on. I write some things in, but it's another one of these things where it's like, at this point, [costume designer] Janie Bryant comes and tells me "I'm doing this," and unless I hate it, we do it. But I'm involved in it. A lot of it, these details are written into the scripts. The scripts are very specific. What kind of drinks people have, where they're sitting, those kinds of things. I'm involved with the directors. We have tone meetings where I explain to them the script, page by page and word by word, and often perform it, which is embarrassing but true. I do a great Joan. Then on the set, I visit the set for a lot of the rehearsals, and there's always a writer on set. And then I'm involved in post-production, very intensely involved in editing, and the sound mix and color timing. Really, I have about nine jobs.
AVC: Are you going to be directing more this season as well?
MW: Because of the schedule, I'll only be able to direct the finale. I'd planned on doing more this year, because I really enjoyed it and I thought it turned out well. But just the finale this season.
AVC: To get into the characters a bit, do you think in some sense, Don Draper wants the house of cards to fall? There's a scene in the boardroom where he's pitching the idea of the "executive account," and seems kind of disappointed that the client goes for it.
MW: I pick the advertising stuff to tell the personal story. So that episode in particular was the one where his brother came back, and was all about this secret life of his. And the only thing I really wanted to show was, here was this great idea that he was very gleeful about, which was "Hey, let's give these working men someplace to hide their money from their wives." Then once he's living in that secret, he's not as enthusiastic about it anymore. It's very hard for him to get up to present that in an enthusiastic way, when he's personally experiencing what a lie it is. That's what that was about. Is he self-destructive? Yeah. Does he need to be punished in some way, mentally does he feel that way? I think so. I don't think it's come to his consciousness yet in season one. I definitely believe that there's a very self-destructive streak there. You don't drink and smoke that much, and womanize that much, unless you really want to be punished, I think.
AVC: So what makes him a good ad man? What's in his story and his background, his personality, that makes him right for this position?
MW: I think that his dubious origin makes him a good ad man, because he really is an Everyman. And he's not a snob about these things, and he's not just leaning on the research and trying to be cute about how to sell things. The other thing is, he's an incredible listener. I think because he's been this kind of cipher who's been able to go in and out of lives—you see it in the first scene in the pilot, when he's talking to the busboy in the restaurant about smoking. He really listens to other people, and he knows what to ask. And he starts to talk about the aspirational, the inner motivations, the psychology of it. It's really psychological, his approach to advertising. It's really about giving people a feeling that's associated with the product. Instead of working backward, trying to find a slogan or a joke, and working backward on it. And I think that makes him a good ad man. And I think he keeps trying to teach people that. The writing is one thing, but the actual idea behind selling something, like the carousel, comes from a personal place. It comes from a place where you are going to engage with the product. And as long as you're doing that, instead of just reading a bunch of research reports or trying to make up a joke or something, you're doing well. But I think that's what makes him sort of the ultimate ad man. Take his speech in the pilot about the "It's toasted" [cigarette] slogan. "It's toasted" is a completely weak, meaningless slogan, because everybody's tobacco is toasted. What he's saying is, don't go with this negative viewpoint of "You're going to die," with the death wish, which is what Marlboro's campaign became. He says that he wants to offer people more than that. He wants them to buy products because they want to be better people, or because they see the kind of person they can be. And if you have that attitude, I think you have a much better chance of selling your product. Especially if it's truthful, especially if it's based on some quality the product actually has. But you know what, honestly? I'm not that interested in advertising. [Laughs.]
AVC: Then why's it on the show?
MW: I think it's a great way… It's such a huge part of our culture. It's like saying, "Are you interested in hair?" It's such a part of our life, and it's such a reflection of how we feel about ourselves, and what we're interested in, and what we want to be. And of course, at the time, it was really just such an exciting job. It's like if I'd done it about the television business, and you asked me what makes a good television show. I don't know that that's the most important part of it. The most important part of it is the people who work in it, what they're getting out of it. And is there any irony to having a screwed-up life while you're selling people perfection?
AVC: There's this idea too, that if you're in a Madison Avenue advertising agency, you have a very particular position in the culture. They're supposed to be on "the cutting edge," whatever that is.
MW: They're not on the cutting edge, but that's because the edge keeps changing. Don't forget that. And most of the way Madison Avenue works is the way any business works—a couple people are on the cutting edge, then the other people sort of come up and swallow them. They co-opt them and try and find a way to imitate them. What was going on at that time was a more subversive tone in advertising, that was derived from the ethnic people in this country that were saying, "Come on, this is a big joke, there are no 2.5 kids, there is no Ozzie and Harriet. Buy this product." Well, that didn't catch up with everybody, and not every company wanted to be part of that. You know, if you were working for Ford, they didn't want their car to seem funny.
AVC: Regarding Don Draper, how much does an audience need to like a protagonist? You worked on The Sopranos, which had a loathsome character at its center, yet people couldn't stop caring about him, no matter how badly he behaved. How do you play with that?
MW: I think there's two parts to that. One is, if a character has a reason for doing what they're doing, the audience will root for them if they've spent enough time with them—if the reason is identifiable and reasonable. And Don is a kind of wounded person who behaves in a very moral way in each of his individual relationships. He does. He does the right thing, he's not a racist, he keeps his word. But he's totally duplicitous, because he has more than one relationship like that. He has this relationship with his wife that is, for the most part, very good, except for the fact that he is having that relationship with other people at the same time. That's one thing: You kind of want him to have reasons for doing it. He's from this horrible background, he is trying to do the right thing a lot of the time, he's kind of a loner, and we identify with that part of it. The other thing—and writers can say whatever they want—is casting. You need to find a person who can inhabit that role, who can not sugarcoat the bad stuff, and not be too hard on the good stuff, but who can come across as a three-dimensional human being with some depth and some thought about what they're doing. When you find James Gandolfini or Jon Hamm, someone who can inhabit this role but still has a natural humanity to them, no matter what they're doing? It's a gift. That's what audiences are responding to, and it's got to be at least 50 percent of why the character works. You wouldn't expect a writer to say that, I know, but it's really true. With the wrong person in this role, you're going to think Don is this callous sociopath. And I think because Jon's in there, and you look at his eyes and see how he behaves in these interactions, you realize that he is trying to do the right thing, and he does have love in his heart, and is capable of feeling. And he wants to be a better person, he wants to feel better, and he doesn't want to have to do the things he does. That is something you can't write.
AVC: It also seems like when the writing's good and you have the right actor in place, you can go extraordinarily far in pressing it. The Sopranos, toward the end, was almost perverse in testing the audience's sympathies for this man.
MW: Well, David had a thing where he didn't want to do "Crime doesn't pay." And you sort of don't want to be in that situation, where you're just building this guy up to knock him down and letting him do bad things. Because people do bad things. So you really do kind of push it, but the truth is that you're just trying to keep the character within their reality. You don't want them to do things that they wouldn't do. And you like to force them into situations where they have to act. That's the drama. But I don't think I upped the stakes on [Don Draper] being a horrible person by any means. I think he's a regular person. It's just, "Will he be caught? Will he be punished? Will anyone catch up with him? Will he realize it himself?" You already have a huge chunk of humanity there, and it's not just sentimentality, it's someone with regret. Don Draper's regret, that last shot of him on the steps at the end of the last show? People said, "Okay, I think I recognize a lot about myself in this person." And I think they recognize it all the time.
AVC: It seems like one of the most exciting things, and perhaps one of the drawbacks of being on AMC, is having to start something from the ground up, because AMC has had identity issues for a while now. What are the advantages and the disadvantages of being a flagship show for the network?
MW: It's just what you said. The advantage is there's really nothing to compare it to. And there's now talk of, "Well, you know, how big is our audience?" and these kinds of things. Our audience is the biggest audience they've ever had on that channel. It's twice the amount of what they've ever had, it's a 100 percent increase, and that's pretty exciting. They are adventurous. They are fearless in a way that you can't be when you're risking everything. And the drawbacks are that I want as many people to see the show as possible, and I'm hoping we can make those inroads with this new brand. That's really what it's about. That's it, you know?