Last Sunday’s “Mad Men” episode was John Slattery‘s debut as a director. Not just directing for TV, but directing anything. And it was such a success – as I said in my review, it was a bright and funny episode that still managed to shift gears for big emotional moments involving Peggy and Pete – that when another director dropped out of directing this season’s penultimate episode, Slattery wound up filling the slot.
Slattery is in the middle of directing and acting in that episode this week, but he took a few minutes to talk with me about how he got the gig, what he learned, how his co-stars responded to his direction, and more. All of that coming up after the jump…
I know last week’s episode was your first directorial screen credit, but had you directed anything before that? A play? A student film?
No, nothing at all.
So how did you wind up doing this?
I had an eye towards doing it in the past for some time, but just never either was in the right situation or was in a situation where I was interested in spending the time that would be required to get it started. Then I got here, and you look around and see how good everybody is at what they do, and how good the show is, and how rare it is, the situation we’re in here where Matthew is so in command of all his abilities and has an arena in which to exercise all of them. Then you look around at Dan Bishop, our production designer, and Chris Brown, our art director, and Chris Manley, our cinematographer, this cast and this crew, Janie Bryant, who does our costumes – these people are all the best around at what they do. I thought, “If there was some place you could learn everything about how to make a great show, it’s here.”
So I asked if I could shadow a director. Phil Abraham is a friend of mine, was the original cinematographer, he agreed to allow me to follow him around, Matt said yes. I did that a couple of times, and then the next logical step, in between seasons, I said, “I want to direct one. Let me know what I have to do to make it happen.” At that point, we were pretty close to shooting this season, and Matt asked, “Can you do a short film or something?” He was on the fence. He was inclined to let me do it. I’ve been around sets long enough that I’ve learned something. But by the time we were near shooting, there wasn’t time to do a short film, so he had to take a leap of faith. But he does that. He gives writers opportunities. He’s very generous that way. He said yes, and he gave me episode four.
Roger’s not very prominent in that episode. Is that why you got it? Was it a scheduling thing? Do you know?
I don’t, actually. I think they were in the room breaking the season already. I’m sure there were a bunch of factors: whose schedule was open to it, what directors they had already booked, because they have to book them in advance. But it did work out that way that I was light in number three, so I could prep, and I was pretty light in number four, so I didn’t have to direct myself too often. That was a challenge, too, trying to pay attention to everything. On a television schedule like this, there’s so much to do and so little time. An eight day schedule is what we’re on. You feel like sometimes, if you get it on film, you’re lucky. On top of that, trying to pay attention when you’re acting is difficult.
There’s always a playfulness to your performance as Roger, and it felt like that kind of permeated the whole episode. Was that intentional? Was a lot of that already in the script?
There’s the sequence where Peggy peeks over the transom at Don after his secretary has quit and thrown the cigarette lighter at his head. It’s there in the script, but we were there and we were shooting, and Lizzy Moss, who’s a very funny person, was up on the desk. The script just had her there in the window, and we started fooling around with it, and she peeked up, and he turned, and she ducked down. There is room to play. Matt has a very distinct vision about what he wants, and it’s very specifically written . But within that structure, there’s room to interpret, and you can get some shots, if you have time, that are going to contribute to the whole thing. There are some funny scenes, there are some very funny people, but when you get in the room, you want the unexpected to happen. Like in the hallway at the party, when the guy in the bear suit walked by at the right minute. Stuff happens. Happy accidents, they happen. A few of the things I had something to do with, but a lot of it was in the script.
And that early scene where Don and Roger are stuck on the call with Lee Garner Jr. – that seemed like it must have been very choreographed.
That was a complicated scene. That was the first scene that I was in, on my second day of directing. There were five or six people coming in and out of the room from different directions. The secretary on the phone, that thing she’s using where you can listen but not be heard is called “the mother-in-law.” So I was trying to figure out how to shoot it and make it funny. We had a little off-screen joke that Matt and I came up with, why Roger was laughing. Just try to get it all there. Sometimes, you’re lucky. Last night, I had a day where I was so in the weeds. We had a scene that was more complicated than I thought it was. Then all of a sudden it’s 12:30 at night, the crew’s exhausted, and they’re looking at you like, “We’re still here?”
Well, I was wondering which relationship changed more when you were directing: you with the crew, or you with the other actors?
The crew was fine. And with the actors, somebody asked me that the other day: is it weird to be in a scene with somebody and then step back and tell them what to do? It is weird. But that’s the hat you’re wearing. Somebody has to do it. If you go through all the meetings you go through with Matt, and you know what the tone of the scene is supposed to be, someone has to tell the actors what to do. Speaking as an actor, you’re always looking for direction. You want to know if you’re in the right ballpark. It’s mostly just adjustments. But some people are more akin to taking it, and other people maybe don’t like it so much. But I don’t know if those people like being directed by anybody. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s an adjustment: “Let that land a little longer,” or “Tighten that beat up.” Just an adjustment to some degree of emotion, and they go, “Okay, great.” It’s not that complicated. Besides, they’ve played those characters. But yeah, I got a little good-humored ribbing in the beginning
Lizzy Moss couldn’t stop laughing at me. I would give her direction, and as soon as she’d come out of a scene, she’d go, “I can’t even look at you.” But she was so heavy in the episode that she got over it. When you realize someone’s going to give you something that’s going to help you, that’s good: “Tell me something that’s going to make it easier for me to be less self-conscious.” Actors want context and they want action. Something that can take their mind off standing there with 50 people looking at you. That’s really what makes people comfortable. The advantage in my situation as a director is that you’ve read the script that many more times than the actor has had a chance to. As an actor, you don’t have a hell of a lot of time to let it wash over you. Whereas, when you’re directing it, you’re prepping it for eight days, seven days, you go through a bunch of meetings, you need to pipe in, ask a lot of questions. You become that much more familiar with the script. I’ve read it 10 times, 20 times more than they have. It’s an advantage.
And what did you have to do on the days when you were directing yourself?
They would hire a playback person on the days when I had to act, so I can be in the scene, my stand-in will be in for me during the rehearsal to do the blocking. When we shoot it, I sit in and play Roger, then I get out and watch it on a playback, give some adjustments. When it’s on me, you just try to play the scene. It’s a little more distracting, you’re just aware of other things, you know what the frame is, the clock is ticking, of other things that have nothing to do with the performance.
And did it change your performance any, knowing all the other things that you did?
This time around, it’s a little less of a blur. The first time, I had never done any of it before, so it was all new, all day long, every day. That provides you with a little anxiety, which is not really good for acting. You don’t want to be anxious standing there. This time it’s a little less distracting. And you realize it’s just a part of the whole process. You can seem like the center of the universe when you’re standing there, everyone’s looking at you, the camera’s pointing at you. For good or for bad, it can feel you’re the center of the whole thing. But really, it’s just a part of the whole process. Writing it, casting it, shooting it, cutting it, color-correcting it – I felt like it took the burden off a little bit. You realize that it isn’t solely dependent on you and your performance. It’s just one scene in a long season of episodes. It’s helpful that way. Kind of takes the onus off of feeling the whole thing is dependent on you. It’s humbling in that way.
How did you end up directing this second episode now?
Matt liked the first one. And then someone had to leave because they got another job. One of our directors left. I knew there was a slot open, and one of the other producers encouraged me to throw my hat in. So I did, knowing Matt didn’t dislike what I did. Which can be the process sometimes. Frankly, he has it so specifically in his head that, like anything creative, you watch yourself, think it’s going to be one thing, and there’s the inevitable disappointment that it’s not as good. I think he too is sometimes disappointed when his vision is realized and not as perfect as in his imagination. But then he goes in and makes his fixes, and he’s happier with it. In this process, we got to that point, there was an open slot, I asked, “How about you consider me for it?” Initially, he said, “I really liked what you did with show four, but no, you’re in this one too much. I don’t think it’s a good idea.” But I think the more he watched (four), he felt comfortable with the idea, and he said, “I change my mind.” So he gave me number 12.
And that’s a big one, in the context of a “Mad Men” season.
It is an important one. There’s a lot of story. There’s a lot of unresolved situation that, of course, gets either resolved or remains unresolved in the final episode. But yeah. It’s a big show.
Finally, the Emmys are coming up, and you submitted “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” which has that subplot where Roger sees his old flame from before the war. Why did you pick that one?
I don’t know why I chose that one. I think there were other episodes. It’s hard to make a choice. Sometimes, there are episodes where you have a couple of good scenes but don’t have much to do, sometimes you have more to do and you’re not as in love with it. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t spend that much time. It’s not my favorite thing to do is look back over the episodes and pick which one I think I’m the best in. You try to make a decision. I think my agent looked at it, somebody else looked at it, Matt made suggestions, and I just took one of those.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com