With AMC’s award-winning series Mad Men airing new episodes on Sunday night , I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable interview with creator Matthew Weiner. Since he’s always guarded when talking about upcoming episodes, most of the interview covered the big storylines of last season and its big twists and turns, the theme of season 6, Don’s (Jon Hamm) relationship with Megan (Jessica Pare), Weiner’s decision to put Betty (January Jones) in a fat suit, what he learned from working on the later seasons of The Sopranos, why he needs to stay away from the internet, and a lot more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to what Weiner had to say.
Before going any further…spoilers from previous seasons and the season 6 premiere are discussed during this interview.
If you’d like to listen to the audio of this interview, click here. Otherwise the full transcript is below. Look for another Mad Men interview tomorrow.
MATTHEW WEINER: You know what, honestly, have you guys seen the show?
WEINER: I know it sounds funny but I actually feel like the fabric of the story, the events in the story are so fragile on this show. The scale is so small that when you give it away it’s like immediately not as much fun. And it’s, you know, we don’t have, you know, big shootings and explosions and I’ve never really sort of like made the story dependent on those things, you know. So, I mean even when I’m — my wife, when I like pitch a story to my wife beforehand, tell her this is what we’re working on and then I give her the script, she’s like, “It was good. I mean, I knew it was going to happen. So like, you know, all right.” You know, if my wife feels that way, then, you know, of course it has to be executed and everything. I really, I honestly think it’s the commercial value of the show to some degree. There’s almost nothing left like this. And I’m not trying to be defensive about it. I’m saying I’m gonna give you something else to talk about. I promise.
As a fan, I love the fact that everything is so guarded. Switching gears completely, how early on in the writing process did you know the big twists and turns of Season 5?
WEINER: I always know how the — I come into the writer’s room with an ending. So last season I came in with “You Only Live Twice.” Megan on a commercial set, Don walking away from her, them looking for the second floor, Don in the bar, “Are you alone?” Peggy in the hotel room watching the dogs hump. And that was an anecdote that someone told us that they had finally made it and they went to Detroit and they were sitting at the Holiday Inn and watching two dogs do it. All right. Well, there needs to be a lot of advertising in there, let me tell you. So, what you do is then you work towards it. And the idea of this sacrifice and that, you know, I came in with Joan. You know, but to say I came in with it doesn’t mean, you know, the process in the writer’s room is very complex. So, I have Maria and Andre Jacquemetton, who have been executive producers there forever. I added Semi Chellas last year. Janet Leahy has been there for a while. Lisa Albert’s been there since the beginning. And then I have Erin Levy and Jonathan Igla and you just start to get to a point where I come in and I say, “Joan, you know, I’ve had this story. Joan is going to sleep with a client and they’re going to propose that Joan sleep with a client to nail down this account.” But that’s not what an episode is. So the writer’s room comes up with things like while Don is pitching Jaguar, simultaneously Joan is sleeping with the guy. And then Don goes to warn her and you realize afterwards that when Don went there it was too late. I did not come up with that. So, it’s kind of hard on me a little bit to like, you know, I don’t wanna take credit for — and even if I’ve written the entire script, even if I’ve executed the script, you know, or rewritten to the point that it’s gone through my computer, that’s the hard part, not the writing, right? It’s easy to write your own show. I mean I have no boss. You know what I mean? It’s easier than writing for David Chase.
WEINER: You know what? There are — without even addressing anything about the episode — there are episodes from the first season where Jon Hamm has like 11 lines. He is a commanding presence. I’ve had to train the directors that have come in to explain to them that he is not talking and the scene is about him so that they will cover him and understand that the tiniest things that he’s doing — one of the big scenes early on was in 5G, he has this moment where they’re talking about this executive account — and Leslie Glatter, I think, directed it — and we have no coverage of Jon in there because she’s like well, you know, everyone else is talking. I said no, this scene is about Don feeling crappy about the fact that he has two identities and he is lying to his wife and he is ignoring his brother. So, that’s a tribute to — I could always imagine it because I always felt like — when I was selling the show I remember saying like this is a character. This is about how talking is heroic. This man doesn’t have a gun. He talks his way out of a lot of stuff. But a lot of that is based on the fact that he doesn’t talk until he needs to. And to hold your attention and to be intimidating and formidable, you gotta be on camera, but you gotta be someone like Jon Hamm.
You mentioned training directors. What do you think it says that you have two of your actors directing roughly a quarter of your episodes per season?
WEINER: You know what? I don’t give those things away, the episodes, and both of them have shown a talent for it. And they asked and they watched and they’re on the set more than I am. You know, they really are. I come down there as much as possible but they’re — Jon Hamm, I mean Jon Hamm’s more than anybody, you know. Jon Hamm like opens and closes the stage every day. The guy works — you look at the amount of scenes he’s in, even if he’s not talking. And so I’m very proud of it, you know. I — this may not be a well-known fact but I have a lot of first time everything on this show. We’ve had a lot of people who have gotten their first break there in every department. And sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t but I think that sometimes when people really ask to do it and they wanna do it, they are prepared in a way that other people aren’t and it’s not because they’re malleable. I mean I’m still like arguing with all of them, you know. It’s like that’s the way the collaborative thing works and also I don’t know how the people who dream about being a director and working for a writer, you know. But a lot of its them trying to figure out what I want. So, that’s, you know, hard to explain.
WEINER: Yeah. I think that the, there’s a few themes but what you really see on the poster and I know it’s like people are looking for meaning and everything. There is a lot of meaning in it. It came from a dream and we were lucky enough, you know, I had this dream and it was not Don, it was me. But a lot of stuff is like that. It could be, end up being expressed through Peggy or any of the characters, but it was really about — we don’t wanna repeat ourselves on the show. But the fact is is that you do repeat things in life. And coming back to a place where things are not so great and starting to realize that maybe you are the problem. And the anxiety that is created by, in all of these characters, wondering why they are the way they are. And maybe you’re a fraud, maybe you’re facing all the bad things you’ve ever done in your life but you are back in a place that you are the issue.
So, in the first episode this is — I won’t say who says it but you know. But when someone says, you know, people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety, that’s what this season is about. And I feel like more than ever it’s in line with where we are right now because — and that’s just my own personal take on it, but that’s kind of my job. We were in a — it’s a very different economic time and different political time than when the show takes place, but we’re talking about a period of powerlessness, a huge boom in technology that might be more alienating than we like to believe. The society is having an identity crisis, just like Don is, and in a little bit of a moment of low self-esteem, if I can use that expression. So, you have a choice about like can you change? And I feel like there’s that person that’s you that’s right behind you, and you know what they look like and inside you’re something else. And, it sounds like we’re always dealing with that on the show but I really feel like there is a kind of descent this season into why people are this way and can they change? And I mean that’s really what it is.
I don’t know if you guys agree with this but I feel like there’s a sense of community is different. Young people and old people both are like changing careers and figuring out what to do and there’s a kind of like — there is a general anxiety right now about, especially in this country about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. And I try to capitalize on it as much as possible, but it really has to do with like facing yourself. I don’t know, you know, religion is supposed to do this for us though in some degree, help us deal with what’s wrong with us and either accept it or change it or whatever, but most of us, even if we believe are kind of grappling with that on their own. And our solutions to that feeling of being a fraud or why did I do that or why am I like this is often — you know, I talk about, often dot, dot, dot. Don is asked “Are you alone?” at the end of the season last year and he doesn’t answer it. And that — Don’s fidelity isn’t — a great issue in the show, it’s an event. We watched last season that he was faithful and that it was, you know, confusing to people that he had almost this school girl perception of what that relationship was going to be. And that woman expressed herself and it was narcissistically difficult for him to see his profession rejected, to see the wife he’d picked for her rejected. To see whatever romantic fantasy he had for her rejected because she had a will of her own and had a desire to have a profession. And it was artistically idealistic but his infidelity is a symptom. It’s not a disease. The disease is the aloneness and the belief that you’re alone, which we’ve talked about before in the show. And so what are the fruits of that, what is the answer to that question? How do I change that?
WEINER: Oh, that’s interesting. I definitely think that — see, I think for Don it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think it’s youth-related. I think it’s — he would like to be perceived a certain way. And that woman was young enough to look at him and see him the way he wanted to be seen. And it doesn’t matter who you were. She knows about Dick Whitman, she knows about everything, she loves him, she accepts him the way he is. What a fantasy. Right? But, you know, there’s a — I think there was a — I can’t say it’s a misperception because I don’t question the audience anymore. Whatever they think it is, is what it is to them. That’s fine. But what it was to me when that Beatles song played, was not that Don’s out of touch with the world and he’s an old man, he doesn’t know that the new Beatles are coming and he can’t deal with it. It was that Don prefers “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” because he used to be in love. And now The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is playing. Right? And it’s too much. It’s too much. It’s that’s — taking that record off is about losing that romance as the Beatles go forward ’cause Don is kind of timeless I think. So, and as I was saying, like he has had moments of being out of touch or being older. He’s kind of a hick in many ways. But he is completely organic in his creative approach and stays current by being completely curious. I mean this is a guy who throws research reports away and talks to people in bars. Right? That’s what he does. And things for himself, how do I feel? That’s all timeless and not trendy. But, what I was saying is that this — rather than being out of touch, we went off the air in April of 1967, so you know that somehow this next season’s gonna be somewhere between April ’67 and now. Let’s say it’s at the end of the 60s. Let’s say it’s somewhere at the end of the 60s and I think that Don, rather than being out of touch, that the society is catching up to him.
With children actors, unless you recast them, you can’t go too far into the future.
WEINER: I don’t wanna ever — I mean I love flashbacks and that’s a big part of us learning about Don and there’s — I use them all the time and I will continue to. But seeing Kiernan grow up on TV and, you know, that’s like, that’s reality. And our actors, you know, people look back at the first season and they’re like they’re so much younger. And I don’t know that they all look better ’cause they look great right now and goddamn it. But they — yeah, you can do prosthetics and making stuff like that. It’s not my interest. What I did wanna say though is that I feel like the society is — rather than Don being out of touch, the society is getting more to be like Don. He’s a survivor and the more chaotic it is and the more in flux and the more in crisis it is, he’s made for that. He lives that — he’s been living that way inside every day.
You said you don’t question the audience anymore.
WEINER: I don’t question their interpretation of things. I’m disappointed that sometimes what I wanted to say is not what they think it is. It’s a failure on my part.
Are you ever frustrated with the way audiences perceive certain characters and does that ever shift the way you write for them?
WEINER: No. It doesn’t shift the way I write for them. I, you know, any strong response to a character is a success in entertainment. I think that George Costanza is the lowest testing character in the history of television and, you know, he’s despicable and you don’t want him in your house and you don’t want him in your bathroom, but he’s amazing. You can’t stop watching him. So, I don’t really like worry about that part. I do find it sometimes that people project their own feelings on to the characters and I think that there is a certain amount of sexism — I mean the proprietary nature, for men and women. You know, their feelings about Betty Draper… It’s all who’s the most vocal, you know. Hate is more interesting than love and they — the more negative it is, and this is your job and my job too, the more negative it is, the more drama, the more conflict the whatever, that’s, those are the people that get hurt.
But, you know, Betty Draper is a completely real character and she may not be the mother of the year but she is real. And there’s a lot about her that’s good and January is not that person. People’s feelings about Megan, it — here’s the most interesting thing is, it’s so strange to me how the chain of absorption of the show, it’s predictable. There are the people who are commenting on it while it’s on the air who aren’t even experiencing it and are only interested in the events. Don picked up a girl. Don and, you know, Pete got in a fight, whatever. That’s fine. Then there are the people who write about it the next day who sort of recap it and have their own usually completely inaccurate — no I don’t mean like emotionally inaccurate. Opinions can’t be inaccurate. I’m talking about like that character said this and it’s wrong and all this other stuff and that’s hard for me to deal with that. You know, it’s incredible to me when they’re, you know, like so and so walked into this place and I’m like that was the other person.
So you’re reading these.
WEINER: Yeah, I do sometimes. I’ve been banned. And then there’s initial response and then of course when the season ends there’s always what the expectations are, which I’m playing with a lot. And then there’s this thing that sets in as it becomes codified. Or maybe when the next season starts, just in time for them to say the show isn’t as good as it was last year. When they were trashing it all last year. But, there’s a resonance that happens and episodes that are misunderstood or treated kind of badly or that the people who loved were not vocal about. Something like “Signal 30,” which I think is about as good as this show can be, start to sort of bubble to the top and people say like oh, this is one of the best things that was on TV last year. Vincent’s performance, when he’s in the elevator and said, you know, and says, “We’re supposed to be friends. I have nothing.” That, to me, is like, you know, the saddest thing I ever wrote. And I was, you know, very emotional about it and when it aired people are like, “A Pete story. I hate that.” So I just try and stay away from that stuff as much as possible but, you know, this is a terrible job for someone as oversensitive as I am. When I was on The Sopranos, it didn’t even exist. You know what I mean? You really had to go digging for it and, you know.
WEINER: Oh, my wife and then the writer’s room — in that order. You know, I was really off it for a while, and then “The Suitcase” happened and everyone’s like, “You’ve got to read this thing. You have to read what people said about this thing.” So I read it and I love that episode, but the episode that was on the week after that was actually my favorite of the season. It was “The Summer Man.” Again, another episode that has bubbled to the top when people realize “How did you shoot that in seven days?” and “John Cheever is dead, how did someone pull that off?” and Don’s sort of renewal. It’s a very emotional story for me and very beautiful and it’s got this wonderful voiceover in it and you get to hear Don’s voice in Don’s head. So I read the next week and it’s like brutal. The immediate response is hatred, anger, disgust, betrayal and I’m kind of like, “I can’t believe I let these strangers hurt me.” You try and stay away from it, but what usually happens now is somebody, a “friend,” will usually send me something. Here’s the worst part of it and this is human nature: there are two jars in the next room and one of them is filled with papers, little fortune cookie fortunes, and the other has two of them in it. This is the good things about you, this is the bad things about you that people have written. Go in there and you get to pick one piece of paper; you pick the bad one. I will keep looking until I find something bad. I don’t even know how it works. And what I think is bad is so embarrassing and I’m so over-sensitive about it, I can’t even tell you.
Can you talk about your decision to put Betty in a fat suit?
WEINER: Yeah, she went to the diet doctor to get pills and it turned out she had the kind of cancer that makes you fat: cruel irony. Honestly that was a very profound sentiment to me when she said, “I thought I was dying and it turns out I’m just fat.” First of all January was pregnant so there were a couple of options: shopping basket in front of her, laundry basket in front of her, Sally in front of her. But I realized that this woman’s husband, who she had rejected after he behaved badly, then rejected her by marrying a woman — she keeps lying about how much younger Megan is, but it’s basically 10 years — so we knew she had a weight problem, her father talked about it, she talked about it in therapy in the first season, Grandpa Gene talked about it to Sally, and I think this was a physical expression of her unhappiness. It just seemed like what would’ve happened. And then that this woman, whose vanity was really her identity, would be in this condition was such a great story for me. And then, what’re you just going to pretend like it’s so easy to lose 30 pounds? I personally think you could take January and put 20 more on her and she’s still pretty good looking. Lord knows she did not look like that when she was pregnant and she lost the weight immediately — all things that she would tell you herself with great pride. She understood what this woman was going through and it’s amazing to see the actress come out, just personally in that situation.
I think she’s a very, very gifted actress and I think people sometimes forget that because she’s so good at what she does that she seems like she’s not acting. That was the decision and I feel like a lot of women identified with it; that she was compelled and she could not stop eating because she was anxious and filled with dread and unhappy and punishing herself and compulsive. What I thought was interesting was that she had been to psychiatrist, it didn’t work out so well, and that the philosophy of Weight Watchers was really liked the closest thing she’d had to a breakthrough psychologically. That was where she got her change of heart on some level. I only had her for a few episodes and it was a great way to tell a story about what she was going through. It was not for shock value; from personal experience I will say that — not me, but from personal experience I know for a fact that that was the proper response to that emotional response to that situation.
I’m curious about your relationship with the network in terms of notice you get now as versus the notice you got earlier on.
WEINER: I’m very superstitious about this but the network basically stopped giving me notes about three seasons ago, because they liked what I was doing; and also there was a change in administration and the new people came in and they didn’t know what the drill was or anything. The studio stopped giving me notes as soon as — if you stay within budget, once the thing was up and running, once we had our discussions the first season, they pretty much left us alone. There was a period I guess around Season 3, after we’d won a couple of Emmys, when I got notes in on the first episode and they infuriated me, they were from the studio and I basically said, “Keep sending me notes, they’re going to be on the DVD.” Because this is the way I’m doing the show and you should let everybody know that you don’t like a lot of the stuff that they like. I can tell you right now – you can name a bunch of stuff off the top of your head and all of it had to be fought for.
But now we’ve reached a position where — with the exception of the financial aspects of the show, like how much it’s going to cost; it’s gotten more expensive because the actors are finally being paid for their work “in success.” That’s sort of the agreement when you sign up for a pilot — unless you’re Glenn Close, the rest of the world has to say, “In success will you reward me.” And in success they have been rewarded, six seasons into it, and all of a sudden the show is very expensive and you say, “Well, where is this extra money going to come from? Is it really going to cost us more or can you make the show for cheaper?” And that’s where all of the conflict comes from now, is me saying, “I’m not making the show cheaper.” I’m certainly not going to make it cheaper Season 1. Below the line. And after some disagreement, they’ve been very supportive. It’s actually been really good for the rest of the season and I have a very good relationship with both AMC and Lionsgate. I think it’s the same thing with Vince, certainly, at AMC. I don’t know what Lionsgate’s relationship is with their other shows, but I know from Vince Gilligan that he’s treated with a great deal of respect at AMC.
You mentioned David Chase. Sopranos ran for six seasons.
Right. So you’re entering Season 6 now and you’re planning on seven for Mad Men. What did you learn from your experience on the later seasons of The Sopranos, from David Chase, on how to be the boss and then how to wrap up a series in a satisfying manner?
WEINER: I was only on it in later seasons so the first thing I can tell you is that I learned a lot from watching the show before I got there. My joke is always, people are always like, “What is the difference between your old job and working on The Sopranos,” and I’m like, “They’re exactly the same, I sat in the writer’s room and talked about The Sopranos all day.” Everything you learn from the outside and then you get there and you’re in terror because you’re working for your favorite show and you’re playing for the Yankees and you don’t want to strike out. So I’m a different boss than David was. I’m very close with David now, I was not when I worked for him, because I was — you know, Terry Winters always said, “You’re only as good as your last envelope.” But in terms of wrapping up the show and the whole experience, I left before the last episode. I went to do Mad Men. I did my last episode, which was “The Blue Comet,” and I was on set for that and then I left. So I missed the actual experience of it ending which I am very much afraid of right now. But I always knew what the ending was, I mean once I had proven myself and worked there long enough for David to tell me the real ending of the show — instead of the fake ending he would tell people — I loved it.
As a boss, I try to do as much as I can in terms of — you don’t when you’re outside of it, you don’t know that that person is living with it 24 hours a day. I never was relaxed but I do miss sitting in the passenger seat sometimes and holding the map. David is someone that I am basically in awe of. He created that thing from zero, he had worked thirty more years than me, he knew everything about TV and production and filmmaking and his imagination was completely unfettered, nothing had changed. Every storyline you see; whether it was about a little girl or a 90-year-old man or two people on vacation, this man was just channeling humanity. That’s what I try and emulate the most is: all human stories are interesting. You don’t put a kid in a show because you need a device. They have a story, too. And trying to see the story from everyone’s point of view. But I just really sat there and studied him like a hawk. I didn’t know what was going on inside him until I had the job, but to this day I get compliments on my participation in the show and I definitely know that I was important there, but nine times out of ten what I would learn is when he would rewrite my script is how to make it better.
Are you still in contact with Terrence Winter?
Are you a Boardwalk Empire fan?
WEINER: I am a fan of Boardwalk Empire and Terry can do anything. Terry is a super gifted person and a great writer.
Do you guys exchange notes?
WEINER: No. Boardwalk from the pilot on was like a year-and-half. So I sent him a couple of my first scripts on Mad Men and asked him what he thought and he was like super supportive. We’re friends. My wife’s an architect and she re-did their house, that’s how close we are.
We talked about going into Season 5 and on it; Joan was going to have the situation with the client. Is that where the poster came from?
WEINER: Last season’s poster? No. Last season’s poster was a lot like this season’s poster in the sense that there it was a dream image. We have a conversation at the beginning of every season and sometimes I kind of reluctantly share that I’ve had these sorts of thoughts, because I believe in subconscious communication. I believe that that’s what cinema is about. You watch the first episode and there are some things you can’t put into words. I also believe that we have been lucky enough that AMC will take high risk to stand out in the marketplace and there’s almost an expectation that our key art will be in some way different or ahead of the curve.
It always has something to do with the season?
WEINER: It always has something to do with that season. That’s all it’s about. It’s always about the season. That thing with him in the tank of water; I didn’t think of that. I told them what the season was about and they came up with this thing. It still may be my favorite of them all and I had nothing to do with it. The first season was my favorite and I had nothing to do with that, too. They were zigging when everybody else was zagging. It was graphically bold, probably the only poster out that didn’t have a picture of the actor on it and it got your attention, which is its job. You’re like, “What is that?” All that white and black and Helvetica, a lot of it was very bold. Last season’s thing was about Don trying on this marriage and an idealized marriage. He was looking in this shop window and seeing this mannequin, this undressed mannequin and this guy sort of sitting there watching it, and I had this idea that this is this idealized figure and he’s looking in there and he’s seeing, “Well, this is my ideal marriage. My wife is in there taking her dress off and I’m there in my slippers and my robe.” Honestly, there’s a lot about trading your body for your job in the show, always. It’s always about that to some degree. Last season to me was really about this question of success and what does it take. I was kind of surprised that people were so scandalized by the Joan thing. I don’t think she’s exactly, as a character, been the model of propriety and I have to say….
WEINER: He pimped her but she didn’t have to say yes. If you take the public element out of it, which is shame, I have to say I really don’t think it’s that big a deal, I really don’t. Was that the only way for her to make partner? That’s criminal. Was it worth it to spend one night — I mean if the guy looked like Jon Hamm everyone would’ve been like, “Why not?” I didn’t think it had to be super pleasant.
The promo line is like, “The affair of the year?” Does that have anything to do with what happens at the end of the first episode?
WEINER: Embarrassingly, no. Please don’t even talk about it that way. They suggested that to me and I didn’t even see the double entendre. To me “affair” is like the oldest word for a party that there is; sounds like “my parents’ catered affair,” and I loved the idea that the show hinges on that but Don’s infidelity to me is like so low on the list of tensions. If you think the show is dependent on that, we’ve really failed. It’s the same thing with secret identity or whatever. It’s this whole thing where you’re saying “That problem’s never going away,” but what you’ve got is a guy who is back where he was. How did this happen? It’s almost like this episode could’ve been the first episode before the pilot and he’s 40-years old. That’s what’s interesting to me. And “The affair of the year” is just like — I embarrass myself, I’m just such a writer and everything’s got subtext and I didn’t even know.