Matthew Weiner has always been more comfortable talking about the past of “Mad Men” rather than letting anyone know anything about the future – even when that future is only seven episodes long, starting Sunday, April 5 at 10 p.m. Having spent enough time over the years asking Weiner questions that he responded to with a very guarded, “Well, you”ve got to watch,” I knew enough to focus as much on the past as possible when we recently sat down for an hour-long interview to discuss the end of his Emmy-winning baby. We talked about the last days of production, looked back all the way to the show”s origins when Weiner was a staff writer on “Becker” looking for a different kind of career in television, the show”s long acting Emmy drought, and more.
And I made it almost to the end without a single “You”ve got to watch.” I”d like to think that response was simply because he wanted to leave open the possibility that what I was asking about could maybe, theoretically, potentially happen in these last seven. But maybe I accidentally spoiled the end of the whole damn thing. To find out, well… you”ve got to watch.
(Also, I asked several fairly open-ended questions that received very thorough answers. I”m presenting most of them in their entirety, but trying my best to break them up into separate paragraphs for separate thoughts so it”s readable.)
When exactly did you wrap production?
Matthew Weiner: July 3. That”s when the actors were done. That”s when the camera stopped rolling. Then there”s like a month and a half of getting rid of everything, and I edited and mixed the sound until October. So then I moved out of my office in December which was really the –after going from like 600 people down to me and Heather, my assistant – that was the emotional part of it.
So let”s talk about that day first. Then we can talk about production.
Matthew Weiner: We can go in order. I had been warned about this: there”s a lot of goodbyes. So like first the art department is almost wrapped and then the writers. The scripts have to be done and the writers are the first ones completely done. And they came and visited the set and everything like that. And there was somebody helping me produce the last two episodes. Once I was directing, everything had to be done in advance. So the writer”s office shutting down was the first thing. But I knew they”d be around. Then you go through the actors, and everybody who was part of the circus goes. And that was really hard and very emotional. You have a last production meeting. You have a last table read. You have a last scout. You have a last tech scout. You have a last casting session. And people just start peeling away as you”re getting done with it.
People hung out, and one of the great things is by the time we were on the last day of shooting, everybody – whether they wrapped or not – was there. And we got into this impromptu ceremony of telling everybody when somebody”s last scene was going to be, if it was on location or something like that. And no matter where we were, people would just show up. The cast would show up. The actors would show up in street clothes and they would sort of crowd behind the monitor for the last take. And there would be some emotion and the actor would give a speech, nd then I would give a speech of some kind, usually something about the journey or about their audition. It was a lot of really cool stuff said. Kiernan (Shipka)”s was incredible. Just standing behind her and seeing her parents there and standing behind this woman. And she”s so eloquent.
Jon was last fittingly and by the time Jon”s last shot went, I”d say there were close to 300 people on the stage. It was a lot of hugging and kissing. He gave a good speech, but I tried to hold it together because I was directing and we had to keep moving and had to pay attention to make sure that every scene wasn”t played like it was the last scene on the show. Because a lot of them weren”t, you know, they just happened to be the last thing on the schedule. You just try and be in the moment. I was reminding people the whole time, “Let”s savor this.”
I didn”t go around a lot when they were taking the rigging down and the lights and the stages were being returned to their original state and things were being boxed up. I wasn”t around. I just went to editing and focused on finishing the show. You have your last mix and your last color timing and your last editing session. Saying goodbye to the editors one at a time because they go on rotation. And then finally, you turn everything in and you”re like, “Time to get out of the office.” And L.A. Center Studios, where we shot for all that time – they offered that I could stay there indefinitely. And I don”t mean with a lease. I mean, they were like, “Stay in the building. You might have another show.” Because we occupied a huge amount of it. We were one of the longest term tenants I think they ever had there. It”s not that old a studio. And I was just like, “I think I should go. I can”t live in the ‘Mad Men” museum. I”m going to pack everything up and take it home and put stuff in storage and throw stuff away and start over somewhere.”
No one told me, but that was really emotionally difficult. Part of it”s like you save all this stuff. It”s like Miss Havisham. You save all this stuff because you think you”re going to look at it one day, and that”s the day that you”re going to look at it. Because you”re not just gonna pick it up and move it, you”re gonna throw half of it out. And as we”re putting DVDs and stuff into storage, I”m thinking, “Should I put a player in with these, because I don”t think this format will be working when I open this thing again.” You start thinking about your whole life. I”m an itinerant writer. I”ve had, like, one banker”s box that my entire office has been in for the last five jobs before this. And that stuff was there.
When “Sopranos” was ending, I was talking to Terry Winter about who was taking home which props. And he said there was a big fight over who was going to get Bacala”s train set. What did you take home from this?
Matthew Weiner: You know, I have nothing from “The Sopranos.” I have like two or three props from my key episode. When you”re a writer/producer on an episode, you might get doubles of something or whatever. I have a couple of things that I loved. On this show, I could take whatever I wanted, as long as I paid for it. Everything”s an asset of the show. You can”t just go down and steal stuff. And people were really good about it. I”d heard about “Seinfeld,” that the place was stripped before they shot the final episode. Like taking the brush out of the kitchen and the cereal boxes and stuff. But I took Roger”s bar. I took too much stuff. I”m not gonna lie to you. I took a lot of stuff that nobody else would notice. I have Peggy”s tape dispenser. I have something from Joan”s bar. I”d taken stuff all along the way, and a lot of it was mine. I brought a lot of stuff to the set so those things are all in my office at home. But Roger”s bar and the ice bucket that was on it – those were my big trophies. I probably would have taken Don”s bar, but it had another destination in mind so I”m very happy about that. That”s going to the Smithsonian. That”s better than my house. But I just thought Roger”s bar was the happiest, most fun bar. And I actually already had Roger”s old bar from the Sterling Cooper office in my office. People may not realize this, but on the old set, Bert Cooper”s office and Roger Sterling”s office were the same space. They would just reconfigure the doorway and everything and change the furniture. So for a while Roger”s bar, whenever they weren”t putting it on set, they would just put it in my office anyway. And then when we changed to the new office, they just gave it to me. So I have that.
How does it feel to be done with it? Obviously the episodes still have to air, but there”s no more work.
Matthew Weiner: I can”t gauge what the feeling”s going to be like when it really goes off the air. I can”t. That is really the end of it. That will be different. It sort of feels like you”re kind of back down alone with your computer the way I was when I wrote it. So part of it feels very honest. As someone who is on some level, like all writers – no offense – basically a lazy person who really needs a deadline for everything, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I really do. There”s 92 hours of it, and I got to work with great people and got to do things. I feel very lucky that we got to end it when we wanted to and the way we wanted to. And I realize some of the essential perks of the job that were deep, deep in my life. Mostly my creative life, certainly. When you”re a writer, a screenwriter you”re writing scripts, you”re begging people to read them to try to get them going. And your ratio of what gets shot to what you write is heartbreaking. And here I was in this environment where everything I wrote was read within 24 hours by the smartest people in the world, who never held back in criticizing and trying to make it better. And then everything I wrote was shot. At that cycle, that”s something that I”m really gonna miss. I”m going to be chasing that again, believe me.
And the other part is I feel a little bit clean. My oldest son went off to college right around the time that we finished editing, and that was a life moment also. And there”s something that feels very much like a break in some sort of whatever the seven stages of man are, if you believe that. I believe that. I wrote the pilot when I was 35. It got shot when I was 42, and now it”ll be going off the air and I”m 49. I feel that. So you should have asked me over Christmas, I would have told you, “Miserable.” I was in a really bad mood and feeling like I”d lost everything. Which is not something to say to your family, just so you know. Because my integration into civilian life was not easy. It was very gradual, but I definitely was so busy that the amount of what I was doing in a week is what I used to do in a morning. And you feel like you”re sick, you”re wearing your robe. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, I can watch movies. This is part of my job. I”m gonna watch movies I want to see. I”m gonna take care of that dentist appointment.” I went to Berlin and I was a juror on the film festival there, which was so nourishing to see all those movies, the new movies and travel and stuff I don”t get to do. And I”ve become very close to my family. Not like I wasn”t before, but it”s different to not have that pressure of, “Okay, I”m off for this amount of time. Let”s get some great time together.” As opposed to just, your kid”s coming home from school and you”re there. You don”t have to interrogate them and you don”t have to say, “Let”s go build a fort.” You can just sit there and listen to them practice the piano and stuff that I wouldn”t do because I didn”t have time.
You talked before about being alone with your computer writing the pilot when you were 35. Let”s go back to that. You were on staff at “Becker” at the time. What was the impetus to do this?
Matthew Weiner: Let”s see if I can say it in the most positive form. I had been very successful in half-hour TV, and right when I got to that show I wasn”t a particularly high-ranking writer. I liked most of the people that I worked with, but I realized like it”s not what I wanted to do. And I always had other things slightly in my mind, and I had just worked on a show right before that with Diane English and Tom Palmer called “Living in Captivity,” which broke my heart. Because we did this great show. I don”t know if it holds up. I don”t know if it”s available anywhere, but I was super proud of this show and laughing every day and felt like I was in the midst of amazing people, and it got cancelled after three episodes. And I went on to “Becker.” It was a great job to get, and it was a hard job to get. It was a move in success, but my heart wasn”t in it. I once said to Tom Palmer, “I don”t know what it is. I”m not enjoying this. It feels like a job. It doesn”t feel like writing.” And he”s like, “If you can write, you can write your way out of anything. You can change your life.” And there were famous stories about writers even in positions of great success. I don”t know if it”s true or not but supposedly Peter Casey and David Lee were running “The Jeffersons” when they wrote a “Cheers” spec. Like they were running the number two show on TV. Maybe number one. And wrote a spec of another comedy because they wanted to get a job there. Tom Palmer had written a spec “Cheers” that had gotten him into the business that was pretty famous. And I was like, “Okay, I”m just gonna write, because I want to feel like a writer again. I don”t want to feel like I”m in this machine.” It wasn”t touching my life, what I was writing.
I was always interested in the period. I grew up in Los Angeles in the ’80s. I don”t think people understand our relationship with the late ’50s in Los Angeles. In that period, in the Reagan era it was very much – we dressed that way. If you look at “My Aim Is True,” at the Elvis Costello album, you can”t wonder why I was interested in this period. Forgetting about the fact that two of the most successful TV shows when I was growing up – not that I was allowed to watch TV – were “M*A*S*H” and “Happy Days,” both of which were period pieces set in the ’50s. I incredible that there were two period TV shows that were that big.
There are very long hours on a sitcom, but I just started doing it as a hobby. Like, “This is my mistress.” I”m going to work on this advertising project and taking notes and doing research before there was a viable Internet in many ways. I hired someone to go on Prodigy for me, because I couldn”t figure it out. I hired someone to go to the library and research all the tobacco stuff. I bought VHS tapes of movies that were very obscure – and quite expensive, if you ask my wife. But it was always me keeping my eye on things. And it was interesting because the first of the DVRs had come out and I had one called the Replay machine. And you could actually set it on the meta data for the year. And so I would have 1958, 1959 and 60 on there as – and it would just record movies off TCM or whatever – anything, any rerun anywhere that was playing. And I started getting inundated with this vibe that was proving a theory that I had that life was not that different. I did that for a couple of years. I didn”t pull the trigger until a couple of years after I was working there.
And how close, when you finally got it all together, was that script to the one that you would shoot seven, eight years later?
Matthew Weiner: The script that I finished in that room in the Lasky building at Paramount with Robin Veith as my writer”s assistant (was) almost identical. I”d say the only thing that changed is I added a couple of things. I added two things that were the notes from Christina (Wayne) and Rob (Sorcher) at AMC. The two notes were because I told them this whole story. I don”t know if you know this, that there was a movie script that I worked on before I started that.
I didn”t know that.
Matthew Weiner: Well, it was unconscious on some level, but I had worked on a movie script before I got my first TV job that I crapped out on around page 80, called “The Horseshoe.” And it was a story of the Twentieth Century, about one of these guys who was one of these giants of the century, starting with his childhood in rural poverty. And it was very “(World According to) Garp”-like. It was very much of a picaresque story and, I abandoned that when I got a job on a sitcom, and then five years later wrote “Mad Men.” And then “Mad Men” got me my job on “The Sopranos” two years after I finished it. And then a few years after that, I met the people at AMC, and they were very interested in it, Christina and Rob, and said, “What do you see happening over the course of the season?” So I went against my better judgment, which was to just riff right there and see if I could sound interesting, and actually said, “This really matters to me. Can I have a couple of months?” Because everything”s in a rush. I knew I couldn”t go anywhere because of “The Sopranos,” anyway and I wasn”t leaving no matter what. I told them, “I”m not leaving ‘The Sopranos” to go do another TV show – even my own. Can you wait?” I wasn”t defiant; I was just like, “Wouldn”t it be better for everybody if I was done with ‘The Sopranos”?” Because I really wanted to see the end of “The Sopranos.” I wanted to finish it out.
So I went home to look at my notes on the “Mad Men” pilot to see – I thought I had lots of story ideas and everything, and I had nothing. I couldn”t find anything. But I found this script that I remembered writing but hadn”t read for a long time. And the last scene on page 80 is this guy, Dick Whitman, dropping off another man”s body, his brother running after the train. And then it dissolved to him getting off the train and it says “Ossining, 1960.” And I was like, “This is the same character. This is the same story.” And I must have known that on some level, because I”ve been interested in advertising for a long time and into ad men. I remember having a joke in the show “Party Girl,” that I worked on with John Cameron Mitchell and Christine Taylor. It was my first job. (The episode) never went on the air, but it was a Halloween episode where John Cameron Mitchell came in all battered and bruised because he had been dressed as a martini for Halloween and two ad execs had accosted him. He was a giant martini. So this was always on my mind.
So I went back to AMC and I said, “This is the story.” And I told them the backstory of Don Draper and that he had changed his identities. All that was already there. I had that story and it must have been on my mind because the character in the pilot was very similar. And they”re like, “Well, you have to put some of that in the pilot.” So I put in the purple heart. They loved the idea that they were gonna be working on the Nixon campaign, which is something I pitched to them because I wanted to do our 2000 election as 1960. And then I added the thing about the fly in the light fixture. That was not in the original. I think it works that way too, but that was a very specific message to the audience, to let them know that it was not abstract. Because those light fixtures still exist, and I knew there”d be a moment where you see the fly in the light fixture and you”re like “Oh, they could have just shot that right in my office. If I lay on the floor in my office that”s what I”m gonna see.” And when we did the visual effects on it, the visual effects artist had the fly struggling and dying. He goes, “I see him as trapped in there just like Don.” And I was like, “No, he”s just a fly. Just have him walk in there and see if you can do it.” So those are the three things that changed.
No one has a development story like that. They were so hands off. They were so respectful of the fact that I”d been in TV a long time, that I had a passion for the story, and that they liked what I did. Christina Wayne was very clear that the glory would be standing behind me, not in front of me in some weird way. There was no layers of notes. There was no layers of anything. We went and had a meeting at the Pump Room when I turned in the pilot. Like I don”t think any network has ever gotten a pilot to view the first time this finished. I had a lot of access to help and I had score written. I did Foley. I did ADR. These are things you do after it”s done, usually. I had titles. Because of the Avid, we could have all the effects in it. It was mixed. We color timed it. And I said, “This is it when it goes on the air.” Because I didn”t want them to have any excuse to not imagine what it would be like. And I remember getting the call after they watched it. I was one of the parents on a field trip with my son. And I went and took the call and almost missed the bus back, actually. But Rob Sorcher said, “We all had our pens and pencils out to take notes and everybody stopped writing like five minutes into it. It”s great. I can”t wait to see it on the air… Come to New York. We”re gonna have a meeting at The Four Seasons. We”ll have a meeting somewhere and Christine has some specific notes.” And she did and they were really like so respectful. I saved the piece of paper. It was so like, “Hey, there”s a parking cone in the shot. Did you know that?” Not like, “Get rid of cone in shot.” And I was like, “I don”t know how (editor) Malcom Jamieson and I never saw that cone.” But it was fine. “I could see Peggy”s fake underwear in the gynecologist scene,” stuff like that. So that was my development process.
The first of the many awards the show would win was at the Golden Globes, and that was the weird one because of the writer”s strike. There was no televised ceremony, and you were just on the rooftop at the Chateau Marmont.
Matthew Weiner: Best awards ceremony I”ve ever been to.
Several people have told me this story about the speech you gave after the show won, but none of them will ever go into detail, and they always say, “You should ask Matt what he said.”
Matthew Weiner: I don”t remember. I swear to you I don”t remember. I remember what I said at the wrap party. I just remember thinking there was nothing negative about it not being on TV. They had made such a great party for us and we were at the Chateau Marmont. I think I did say, “Look down there. That”s Sunset Boulevard. We are part of the historic part of Hollywood and I am so glad we got to do it.” That”s pretty much what I remember saying.
So what did you say at the wrap party, then?
Matthew Weiner: One of the things I said at the wrap party which I feel comfortable repeating was, “When I was on ‘The Sopranos, someone said to me, ‘You better enjoy it. It doesn”t” get any better than this.” And look what happened? We”ve had this amazing experience together, but don”t ever for a second stop dreaming that this is as good as it gets, because you have no idea what can happen to you. This may really be as good as it gets for me, but none of you should think that way.”
Now speaking of awards, somehow – and this could always change with the last Emmys – no actor on this show has ever won an Emmy for acting on this show.
Matthew Weiner: I hope it does change.
Do you have any theories as to why? You see the work they”re doing.
Matthew Weiner: I don”t know. I don”t know. There”s always a story every year, is all I can say. There”s always a story why someone else should get it or what it is. I don”t understand awards handicapping, but I do not vote in the actors” categories. I”ll tell you one thing. No one treats them like they haven”t won. They are revered, and I see the way other actors respond to their work. It”s the way you want. It”s like part reverence, part jealousy. They”re competitive. They are at the top of that pyramid in whatever way you want. And being nominated means that, and having the work means that.
But I have one personal theory, which is that the acting style is different on the show. That it”s very naturalistic and that is not a showy – you know, I don”t write Emmy scenes for them, either. Maybe that”s it. Elisabeth Moss always jokes that whenever she works somewhere else people are always like, “Cry your eyes out.” And I”m almost like, “Don”t cry. Do everything you can not to cry,” because I feel like that produces more emotion in the audience. But maybe it”s too much of an ensemble? I don”t know.
I just remember watching “The Suitcase” and saying, “If Hamm can”t win for this, then something”s not right.”
Matthew Weiner: I don”t know what it is. I”m never gonna say never. I think they could still win. Last year, I was at the Creative Arts Emmys watching Bob Newhart win his first Emmy after fifty-plus years in show business. Five shows, 50 specials, you know, come on. So luckily, it isn”t a measure of anything. And I think the show getting an award was obviously an award for them. But I am always puzzled. Obviously, a lot of years, I think it”s been between Bryan (Cranston) and (Jon Hamm). Bryan”s part is much showier. The whole concept of giving awards out and acting, it”s the most subjective thing in the world. But they always submit what they think is the best episode. I have no say in it. They might ask for my advice, but I do not know how that thing works. I used to read The Gold Derby and look at the predictions based on things that haven”t even aired yet. And I”m like, “So there”s some kind of mystical math going on in this or is this a gambling hobby? What is it?” I don”t know. It”s a very subjective form and I know that our fans are not vocal Internet compulsives. They”re ecclesiastic. They”re evangelical about the show but if you say you don”t like the show, no one”s gonna punch you in the face. No one”s gonna flame out on you if you say you don”t like “Mad Men.” “Mad Men” fans won”t do that and I think that that maybe has kept some of the conversation more like, “You don”t want to recognize us? We”ll be dignified about it.”
The show won a bunch of awards. That”s not why we do it. I said at some point that I was irritated that they hadn”t been rewarded and everyone (reacted) – it”s like you can”t even use the word “irritated.” “Puzzled” is the word that I would use. But I would cast any of them another day and they got a lot out of it. Asking me if I think they need awards? No, they don”t need awards. But every one of them deserves an award.
I remember a few TCAs back you were joking with me and (Tim) Goodman about how you missed your underdog status.
Matthew Weiner: I think I have it again.
But there was a time when “Mad Men” was essentially the only show of its type. “The Sopranos” had just ended. And now suddenly there”s this huge explosion, in part inspired by the work you did on this show and the work you did on the other show.
Matthew Weiner: That”s flattering. I still think it”s the only show of its type. And that”s for good or bad – the idea that we are the oldest show, that there are 92 episodes, that there is seven years of it stretched out over eight years. You”ve got to just sit back and be what you are, which is glad to be here, glad to be on peoples” minds and happy that you didn”t mess it up. As competitive as we are, I don”t feel that way in reference to other shows. I don”t like shows that I see that I don”t think are that great that get astounding welcomings and huge fanfare and amazing reviews. And then I watch it and I”m like, “I don”t agree.” I”ve never liked that.
On the other hand, comparing “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” – when the script came into AMC, and I read it early on, I was like, “What are these two things doing together? And Christina”s like, “Well, we”re gonna do quality. We”re gonna do shows we want to see.” And Bryan got recognized right away, but that show was ignored. And then it had this huge attention, this cultural moment when it finished. The show wasn”t any better than it ever was. It was always good. And I always said it was good and I always said I watched it. But is it anything like our show? It”s not. You guys, no offense. You can write as many pieces as you want about the age of the antihero or anything like that. Walter White and Don Draper, the only thing they have in common is they”re on AMC. Neither Vince (Gilligan) nor I would ever in a million years think that the behavior of these two people are related. Their character, their relationship with their family, anything.
So for me, it”s (that) the awards really put our show in front of people”s eyes and made them go see it. And the Emmys are a promotional thing, but I was just happy that there is recognition for quality that”s unrelated to audience size. That that”s still there. That”s really happy. But comparing these things to each other. It”s crazy. It”s crazy. We were talking about the Oscars, about “Boyhood” and “Birdman” and I”m like, “It”s insane that you”re going to measure quality of one of those two things with each other. They”re not even mildly related to each other.”
You”ve always told me that this show is not about history. It”s about these characters going through history and the historical events are incidental, other than maybe the 1968 season.
Matthew Weiner: It was incidental, but I did use it to tell Don”s story.
I”m just curious. Given the structure, whether time jumps in between seasons, or the fact that every episode is set about a month apart from the one before…
Matthew Weiner: Sometimes. I just found out that “Twin Peaks” was all supposed to take place in two weeks and the writers were doing somersaults – “Oh, we can”t have that happen because there”s no school on Saturday.” – and I”m like, “I watched that show and I watched it again. I never knew that those were consecutive days.” Our rules are quite flexible, is all I”m gonna say.
Were there certain events, whether historical or just events in the lives of the characters, that you would have liked to have depicted if not for the fact that larger decisions necessitated you skipping over them?
Matthew Weiner: No, because I could have always gone back. We had a bunch of story ideas for the blackout, which I guess was in 65. “Where were you when the lights went out?” I never solicit stories from people, but sometimes they are compelled to tell you. And one of the things that people are always compelled to tell me about was about the blackout. And then the writers sort of started riffing on it. We had a bunch of ideas for that. I don”t really know. I have run headlong into almost everything I”ve been afraid of, whether it was the JFK assassination, the moon landing, 1968. Do you think anybody wants to deal with that, and how you”re gonna get it across, and you can”t really skip it. And sometimes the glancing nature of the way we treat these things was representative of the period.
The Richard Speck murders and the Texas tower sniper happened within weeks of each other. And they both got national attention and the substance of the media from that moment on was distant happenings that would bring local fear. Whether it”s random shooting, which is unfortunately a thrice-yearly event in American culture, or this prurient interest in serial killers and all the details that go with it. And that changed that summer with all of the rioting that was going on. I felt like the cumulative effect of the whole summer and social unrest and police brutality and corruption, that that would all be a continuing storyline as we did the 60s. I do think that with the 1968 thing, part of it is that is a philosophy that was pretty consistent in the show, which is that most events are used for thematic resonance in the story. Some events you cannot escape. They are going to affect your life. Everyone actually will be talking about them. We”re not talking about the fact that our country”s been at war longer than ever right now, you know. If you go back and look at The New York Times, you”re gonna see something in there every day about what”s going on in Iraq, and we don”t talk about it that much. But in 1968, the rapid succession of catastrophic events of things looking hopeful and then looking terrible – you just see it resonate for a good two years after that and it”s still resonating now.
That”s what the cliché of the “turbulence” is about at the Democratic convention. That was the capper. How important the war was. I don”t know if the audience is even interested in it. I just don”t want to get it wrong, but it is literally impossible to find a conversation about anything from late 1967 until like 1971 that does not see it in terms of the war, at the divisions the war”s created, and the government”s role in the war and “you young people.” Even “The Graduate” –you”re looking at “The Graduate,” which could seem escapist compared to what”s going on politically. But there are people grinding their critical heels against that movie saying, “Where”s the war? How can he do this without mentioning the war?” Guess what? Life was going on. People are coming of age. That”s the story, you know.
Sometimes, when characters leave the agency or leave Don”s life, they leave the show. We”ve never seen Sal again. We saw Paul once. But Betty has remained a part of the show. Megan, even though she was living on the other side of the country, was a part of the show at least up until the most recent episode. So how do you decide like which characters you want to keep following and which you have used up?
Matthew Weiner: I think the answer is right there. I mean there”s a difference between his wife and the mother of his children and a guy in the office that he fired. I mean Sal”s important to the audience. I think there have to be stakes to that office. That”s why when someone gets fired, they are whacked. They could come back like Paul Kinsey did. There might be a use for them in another story, but I really felt like Don Draper has done so much to both screw up his relationship with his wife and his kids, but that he would never lose those people from his life. And I felt that there was a great opportunity. During season 4, I realized – and I remember talking to you about this – that doing a story about a man who”s divorced is very, very unusual. I could not find examples. I found “The Odd Couple,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the dad in “Say Anything” and the novel “The Sportswriter,” by Richard Ford. Those were the only things we could find, and we were really looking. And I kept thinking, “This is probably a terrible story to tell or something. Why haven”t people done it?” But once we realized that that was probably because men get remarried right away, I just thought, “He”s gonna get remarried right away. He”s not gonna be able to deal with being on his own.” And the dynamic of him and Megan – it”s about Don. This is a way to tell Don”s story. And for Don”s issues with attachment and women in particular, be it mother or lover, that”s how that ended up in the show.
In the office, there has to be a mortality to that in terms of people being in the show. You want to be worried when they”re – there”s a thing in TV writing called “schmuck bait.” You ever heard of it?
Matthew Weiner: You don”t want it to be that when Peggy leaves the agency, people say, “They”re never gonna get rid of that character. They are never gonna get rid of Elisabeth. She is the show.” When Joan left the agency, they”re like “They”re never gonna get rid of her.” But that”s why you get a little bit of a fist pump when you see her walking in at the end of “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” That”s why when (the two agencies) merge, you”re like, “Oh, wait a minute. This is not how I wanted it to go. But I guess she”s still in the show.” That”s what it”s about. Just like getting rid of the sets, divorcing those people, so much of how we think about the show is not saying, “Let”s take that idea and turn it on its head.” What we”re saying is what usually happens in a TV show versus what happens in life. And, you know, you can go too far. I came in with the first episode after their divorce, and I had this idea that Don and Betty and all the kids were gonna have a Thanksgiving together. And one of my advertising consultants, Bob Levenson, who worked at BBDO, said, “That is very modern. No one had their ex-wife or the ex-husband at their Thanksgiving. That is 1975 earliest. Do not do that. It”s baloney. You wish it was like that.” And so all of a sudden I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. Thanksgiving – Don can”t go anywhere. It”s gonna be horrible for him.” So you let the story dictate it, because you”re trying to make it feel like real life. I wanted his kids in the show and I felt Betty Draper would be in the show and she would be more conflict. Same thing with Megan.
The audience has things that they want. They go nuts any time, for instance, there”s a Peggy and Joan scene together. How do you balance trying to give them what they want versus just servicing what the story actually needs?
Matthew Weiner: It”s only about the story. I didn”t know, you know. The writers in the writers room, we like the same stuff the audience does. Maybe some things we like that are a little bit different. We”re not there to frustrate the audience. We love the Peggy and Joan scenes. I”m just not gonna do it every week, you know what I mean? You want it to work its way up to checking in on it. I like to keep track of that relationship in a real way. I feel like there are times when they need each other and they love each other, and there are times when they could not be more different. Joan giving Peggy advice when she thought Abe was gonna propose. That could have been season one: “Oh, let me tell you what”s gonna happen. Men propose to me all the time.” But to me I don”t like to revisit those things. I don”t want to wear them out, but it”s sad to say and I”m sure it”ll be considered like egotistical or self-aggrandizing in some way, but we love those scenes and we try to work our way up to having them just like everything else. We just want to earn it.
I never know what”s gonna frustrate the audience. I have no idea. I don”t know. When Don proposed to Megan, I thought they were going to see it as the best twist ever, and they were so hard on that episode which is, to me, a really, really solid and meaningful episode to me. And I didn”t realize until years later that they just didn”t want Don to get engaged again. They wanted him to go back to Betty. I don”t think it had anything to do with the episode. It had to do with what happened.
Was there any point in the life of the series where you ever considered, even briefly, the idea of Don and Peggy actually coupling off?
Matthew Weiner: Oh, I”m not gonna – you still have to watch, first of all. I”m not gonna say never about anything. I really won”t. I mean, it”s there. It”s there in the air. In the first or second season, one of the writers came in and had a storyline that was about that. And someone quickly said, “That”s season 4 if you get there. Don and Peggy can”t sleep together until season 4.” And I always thought that in the back of my mind. There are some entertainment rules about how this thing works, or whatever. You have to watch, but I can say that I love their relationship, because it is not chaste, but it is not romantic, but they are in love with each other in so many ways. And it shifts from like brother to father to husband. Sometimes Don”s the child, she”s the mother. All of that to me is like the richness of the show. One of the things that”s been very successful about my relationship with that writer”s room is that we have always kept the storyline, as I said, within fairly normal human experience, and no one has ever thought outside of it and said, “Let”s spice this thing up. How do we amp it up? How do we beat last year?” I always have been encouraged, and it”s my natural instinct to move laterally and to say, “Well, here”s a whole other story.” And as long as you don”t have to keep amping up the stakes to beat the season before, you don”t need to throw something like that in just for spice. I mean in my heart, they have a lot of chemistry, and there are times when I would think about it, and it would be the creepiest, most disgusting thing in the entire world. And there are times when I think, “Wow, you”ve been right in front of me the whole time. “
But you”ve got to watch.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com