If you’re a regular reader of this site, there’s a pretty strong chance that you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under and/or Deadwood. So there’s also a pretty strong chance you’d love reading Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, which we’ve talked about previously here and here. The book provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek into how those shows were created and an in-depth look at the writers who created them. In a review of Difficult Men for the Huffington Post, Valerie Stivers-Isakova summed it up well, I think:
I read Difficult Men with the binge-like intensity of discovering Deadwood on DVD — in three days, to the neglect of other responsibilities — which makes sense, since the book is the story of all my favorite shows in one, a look at the great ’00s revolution, when TV got good or, as Martin writes, “became the signature American art form of the twenty-first century.”
As a true believer in the new TV-as-art, I’ve been waiting for years for someone to write an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for the HBO era. It’s one thing to rant over cocktails about the genius of today’s TV, it’s another to go out and do the research, explaining exactly what happened and why, what the technological and commercial forces were, who the visionaries were, why they had these particular visions, why their creations resonated with viewers, and how it all came together and spawned more.
Martin does all that, with dry wit and a flair for juicy detail. This is the book for people who want to know how Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan discovered Bryan Cranston when casting a particularly difficult bad-guy role for a one-off X-Files episode. Or who have always subconsciously wondered why and how The Sopranos had that particular theme song, in somewhat a weird genre for a mafia show.
I sat down recently and talked to Brett — a GQ staff writer who previously wrote The Sopranos: The Complete Book — about how it came to be that he was granted extensive access to some of the more formidable minds in television history, how uneasy he felt about promoting the book in the wake of James Gandolfini’s death, which of the showrunners he wrote about he’d prefer working for (and why), how he thinks Breaking Bad will end, and why every American needs to watch The Wire, among other things.
UPROXX: I know that Difficult Men was born out of the Sopranos book you wrote. What I did not realize was that the Sopranos book was born from a story you did for GQ on the location scout for the show, right?
Brett Martin: GQ at the time had a feature called Shotgun, which was where you’d ride shotgun with somebody doing their job. And so I went out and just rode around with these guys for days scouting locations. And then at the end of the day we wound up going to catch up with the rest of the production staff. And it was in this Italian restaurant somewhere in Jersey and I go downstairs and it’s David Chase, Terry Winter, all these people. I didn’t know who they were at the time. I had no interest in David Chase. I had no interest in any of these people. Tim Van Patton must have been there too. I mean, it was the Sopranos brain trust just sitting around this basement table.
UPROXX: Just a perfect scene.
Brett Martin: It couldn’t have been more perfect scene…So that was my first encounter with the Sopranos.
UPROXX: Did someone from the show later approach you as someone to do the Sopranos show companion book thing?
Brett Martin: No, no, no. Completely different. HBO had contracted a book company called Meltzer Media, and I was in their Rolodex for some reason. Actually it’s very bizarre how these things work. And frankly it came at time when I needed it to. I was getting really burnt out on being a magazine writer. I was thinking about going to advertising.
UPROXX: Oh wow.
Brett Martin: Like, I was really. But the Sopranos book excited me enough to do it. And particularly because they, they were very clear that they didn’t want a fan’s book. They wanted a reported book. And I thought, well yeah, I could do that. It’s interesting.
UPROXX: And it was during that time, working on that book, that the seeds started to be planted for Difficult Men, no?
Brett Martin: So I did that book. I wasn’t thinking about it then but the seeds were planted in that I became entranced by this world and I was, you know, kind of excited about it. And I got to have a sort of relationship with David Chase. Originally he didn’t want to be interviewed at all but eventually he called and we met three or four times for a couple of hours each time. And that was interesting and I got to talk to James Gandolfini and it was just an amazing place to be. I had never really spent that much time around a production. And then somebody called me and asked me to do an unofficial Mad Men book. I said no to that but that’s what started me thinking about doing this book…I had no interest in doing another book for hire. I didn’t want to do another show companion. But I thought the idea was fascinating. I thought Matt (Weiner) was fascinating. I knew showrunners were a fascinating thing but it wasn’t as clear in my own mind that that was going to be my subject…I had a bit of a epiphany much later that this world was worth attention.
UPROXX: You got to spend a lot of time with on sets of various TV shows and the writers on the show. One of the things I really enjoyed about the book were the little anecdotes that you threw in there. Like with the Sopranos for instance, Steve Van Zandt, I think you said, had not worked for seven years prior in any way. And how the actor who played Paulie Walnuts insisted on doing his own hair, etc.
Brett Martin: Right, right.
UPROXX: Is there anything for any reason that did not make it in the book?
Brett Martin: There was a certain amount of unverifiable stuff about Wire actors, like people getting arrested and stuff that, you know, that I didn’t track down…I was happy to not have it. I mean, I tried to use gossip, or what could be classified as gossip, but I tried for it to always have a purpose, you know what I mean?
Brett Martin: I think that that may disappoint a certain number of readers.
UPROXX: The timing of your book — a large portion of which is about the Sopranos and James Gandolfini — coming out right after he died had to, knowing you like I do, make you feel a little uneasy.
Brett Martin: Yeah, I felt queasy. I felt queasy about it once he died, of course. I thought about it a lot.
UPROXX: Of course. It was a very odd coincidence.
Brett Martin: It was odd. It was very eerie and I was immediately on television talking about it. And it definitely helped the book. There’s no question about that. I’d like to believe that—the best way that I can look at it is that it’s been an opportunity to re-present that work from 15 years ago. And that my book satisfies the curiosity and a positive re-interest in that show in a way that is respectful and admiring and, you know, pays kind of tribute to it.
Brett Martin: That’s how I hope people see it. You know, there were times when I thought about whether it was ghoulish or not, you know? I’d like to think the interest is positive because I do think that it’s a mighty piece of work, his performance in that show. And I’m glad that, if nothing else, it’s been rediscovered.
UPROXX: Of the writer’s rooms you became familiar with, the two that you found to be the most diametrically opposed to each other are the Mad Men writer’s room, which sounds sort of hellish, and the Breaking Bad writer’s room, which sounds very pleasant. Of all the rooms that you’ve profiled and all the writers you met, which would you as a writer personally prefer to work with/under?
Brett Martin: I think (TV writing) is an incredibly difficult job that I have no interest in doing honestly. I don’t want to work for any of them.
UPROXX: But if you were to hypothetically?
Brett Martin: You know, I don’t think I make any bones about the fact that the Man Men writers room — which I never was in, but from what I understand — is not a particularly fun place to work as a writer. I do think that it’s hard in any situation for any writer, even in the best writer’s room, to do what a television writer has to do, which is to kind of subject themselves to, you know, committing themselves to satisfying somebody else’s vision. You get re-written a huge amount. And it’s an incredibly hard thing to do. I think they’re all probably very exhilarating places to work. But I would rather work in one of the kinder ones. Alan Ball’s is a kind room, from what I gather. Gilligan’s room seems like a genuinely positive creative work place. It’s still not what I would want to do.
UPROXX: The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad are coming out and you obviously spent considerable amount of time in that room with Vince Gilligan and his writing team. What are you thoughts on what’s going to happen?
Brett Martin: It seems that certain outcomes are inevitable. So that’s it. That’s all I can tell. I mean, I would not want this to be spoiled. It’s a great joy to watch as a fan and I would be an idiot to have found out more than the tiny bit I know, which is really almost nothing. I have faith. I really do. I think the show’s in good hands. I know that, whatever the ending is, it is the product of a serious creative process and really going through every possible option and I got the sense that they really wanted to nail it. And that gives me faith. Also, everybody I’ve talked to there, which isn’t a huge number of people, since it’s been in the can exudes a kind of confidence that makes me think it’s something really awesome .
Brett Martin: I really genuinely don’t want to know how it ends. I just want other people to think I know. (Smiles.)
UPROXX: One final questions that just came to mind. If you were going to gift someone who has never seen any of the shows that you profiled in your book, if you were going to give them a complete box set of the show, which show would you give them?
Brett Martin: I do sort of think that every American needs to watch The Wire. I think The Wire should be mandatory viewing.
Difficult Men is now on bookshelves everywhere.
(Full disclosure: Brett Martin and I are friends. Also, this interview has been edited down for size.)