Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mad Men: Talking "Out of Town" with Matthew Weiner

At the end of the first night of the TV critics' press tour, I sat down with "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner for about an hour to talk about the season premiere (click here for my review of "Out of Town"), his plans for this season, and what he envisions for the series as a whole. It's a very long interview -- Weiner, as you might imagine, can talk a little -- so after the jump, I'll include some of the highlights (in terms of questions I know you'll want answered), followed by an edited transcript of the whole shebang.

Weiner's thoughts coming up just as soon as I quote Balzac...

Some notable talking points from the interview:

• Weiner chose to advance the story only six months (as opposed to a little over a year between seasons one and two) because he wanted to spend time with Don and Betty as they await the birth of their third child, and to show how the baby is going to affect their relationship.

• Weiner wouldn't commit to whether the season will cover the JFK assassination, but, again, he didn't choose 1963 specifically so he could deal with it, saying, "I was more interested in the baby than I was in Kennedy." And he promised that if the assassination does come up, "if we do do it, it's going to be something different."

• Weiner believes that the encounter with the bellman was the closest Sal has come to consummating a relationship with a man, and that although they were thwarted by nature, "it was a positive experience" for Sal.

• Season three may not be as driven by a mystery as seasons one (Dick Whitman) or two (Peggy's baby): "I don't know if the mystery is really involved this season. Things get chaotic so quickly, and there are so many more immediate problems. There is a high level of tension pretty soon."

• When I brought up previous Weiner statements about wanting the series to run five seasons, he said, "Don't hold me to that. Really, I don't know what the magic number is. I would like to do the show until right before the moment when the audience is tired of it." Later, he added, "I can't imagine not dying if I had to do this for more than five or six years." But no matter how long it runs, the goal is to end it in 1970, even if that means later seasons will need to take greater leaps forward in time.

And now here's a slightly condensed transcript of our conversation from press tour:

Let's start with the obvious one: Why did you decide to set (the new season) when you set it?

I (liked) the drama behind Don coming to terms with who he is, as much as he did -- or at least making the decision that he didn't want to be alone -- and coming back and professing his love to her and saying, "I want this," many times, and her having this child and thinking this would fix their relationship. I really wanted to go back in there and say, okay, it's six months later, the British have taken over, and Betty is still pregnant. I wanted to deal with the fact that there is a hope that when the baby comes, everything will be okay. She made that decision by keeping the baby. She made the decision when she got the letter he wrote, which was really beautiful, but it was also an 'Oh, s--t' moment where she didn't know what to do. So the ball's in her court now, and I wanted to see him trying. So that's really what's going on. I wanted to hit the ground running with that all in place.

One of the things people said about season two was that, while there was this great mystery element to some of the things that happened, there was also a reaction of, 'I wish we got to see all of the other things that happened in between.' And by putting a relatively small gap this time, it feels like we haven't missed out on as much.

You haven't missed out on as much, but there's a lot that's changed. When you get into that episode, there's no explanation -- it's just there. I don't want there to be a formula, I don't want people to know what to expect ever when they turn the show on. It's not the day after, but I felt it was too crucial a period to skip in their lives -- forgetting about the historical element of it. It's my goal, in a way, when you get to the end of each season, you can go back to the beginning of it and see the nostalgia -- how much younger they were, how much more innocent they were, and look at what happened.

When we talked at the end of season two, you didn't want to commit to what time period this season would be.

I didn't really know.

Well, one of the things you said was that you weren't sure if you wanted to deal with Kennedy. By setting it in 1963, depending on how much time you cover over the season...

I may, I may not. I can't tell you that right now. All I can say is that I was more interested in the baby than I was in Kennedy. I'm interested in seeing how that life settled in and how their normality returned.

It's funny. You watch them in bed together, and Don giving Betty the ad pitch, and her telling him "You're good at this," and it's so much more a partnership than they've ever been.

What about the intimacy of when they broke up? When she comes down to the living room in her robe with her face scrubbed in "A Night to Remember" and asks, "Do you love me?" I thought it was ironic and yet true that this was the most intimate and true that they were in the crisis. There's an honesty between them; when he comes back to her in "Meditations in an Emergency" and says, "I wasn't respectful of you," he has saved face for her.

She's growing up, he's growing up. I hope that people can see that, as much as I say people don't change, there is growth going on there.

And yet, you put him on a plane with a stewardess...

Well, he was out of town. I don't think it counts.

I'm kidding. Why do you think he does that?

Well, it's Dick Whitman's birthday, he feels he needs a present of some kind.

I think he is, at his core, in pain. And that's part of it. But he does say to her what I think is the most important line of that episode: "I keep going places and ending up somewhere I've already been."

What do you suppose are Betty's expectations? Is this a Carmela thing where, as long as it doesn't intrude on their lives, she's okay with it? Or does she think he's being faithful to her now?

I think she wants him to be faithful, absolutely. But the thing that was so horrifying about Jimmy Barrett was that everybody knew about Bobbie. Seeing him on TV, it was like disrespect. "Whatever, so you're not in love with these people, but that's who you are, and my god, that's humiliating." But I think her expectation is that everything is perfect, and he's being good, and he's contrite, but he is impulsive, and he's in trouble. I keep saying it, but the bare feet, the first image (of the episode) is the story of the season in a way.

We find out, in this kind of comic but tragic, horrible way, how Dick Whitman got his name, and it's because of "A wish his mother never got to see." It seems like there's a lot of wishes in this episode that come true but not in the way the person wanted them to.

That's great. I didn't know that, but that's definitely there.

It was also important to me, because when his daughter asks about the day she was born at the end, you flash back to that, and his birth was a joke. He wasn't there for that, but we know he was called a whore-child, and we know this was told to him. He knows this, and it's painful to him, and you can never forget that he's carrying this with him.

So in terms of wishes that don't come true in the right way, Salvatore's finally going to be with a man...

And he's thwarted by nature.

We were having a debate about this when I watched the episode with a few other critics: is this the closest he's ever gotten?

I think so. I think this is the way it had to happen, and from what I can tell, it's the way it did happen for a lot of people. There's a little insight into a subculture, but listen to the things he's saying: "Jesus" and "Oh my god." I can't even imagine it, but to deny yourself that and finally get it, it must be like a switch went off in his brain.

And then for it to end so horribly, and for Don to see?

Well, he's Catholic, and he probably felt that was what he deserved.

And then there's the great scene on the plane where he's bracing himself for Don to call him on it. And yet Don on the one hand is telling him to keep it quiet but also not condemning it.

I think Don is a private person. I think we've seen Don is open. We've seen Don judge people, I'm not saying that (he doesn't judge). Certainly, in the first scene in the pilot, he judges them for not treating the busboy like a human being. He has a moral center. It moves, depending on who he's with, but I think he's a virtuous person. In the end, I think he's giving him advice. I don't think he would judge him. I think he's saying, "Now that I know this, you better be careful."

The show is all about consequences, but sometimes the consequences are that nothing happens -- you get away with it.

Was "limit your exposure" one of the actual campaigns that you lifted?

No, no, that wasn't an actual campaign. But London Fog was going through a change at that time, and it was true that they had just sold 2/3 of every raincoat, had their biggest year ever. There's a lot of story about American business this year, and part of that is how do you deal with success, and short-sightedness, and being further and further removed from the product. As corporate culture takes over, it's really not good for the consumer. And at the same time, advertising at the time is becoming completely consumer-oriented, which is what fueled the boom.

Pryce's explanation of what the London fog really was seems like this apt metaphor for the show -- like you've conjured up this romantic, nostalgic image of fog, and it was really this awful thing, the coal dust.

And also that it's an American perception. There's a lot about the United States in this. The British have come here because we're great. They're redefining how things are done. But at the same time, they feel everyone needs a parent. That's their attitude.

Pryce gets to wreak a little havoc, pitting Pete against Ken.

I do believe what Roger said: he said it was stupid, and they said, 'Well, what else are we going to do?' Vincent is magnificent, and Aaron, and I really like the scene where they're in the elevator and they're each being magnanimous to each other.

You insert us in media res into the action this year.

I've learned a lot. I'm really proud of the first episode of last year, and there was a goal there, which was to provide something for the audience that had never seen the show before. And I kind of did a slow catch up into it. And this time, I felt we would just hit the ground running and establish the story as if people had been watching it forever.

Well, is this going to be a situation, like with Peggy's baby, there's some sort of mystery in those six months, or are we just moving forward and it's not relevant?

I think you should wonder a little about what happened. But even with Peggy's baby, I wondered why you would want to see the next day. I kind of was interested in the energy, writing-wise, of the audience having to catch up with things and wondering how things go to where they were. I don't know if the mystery is really involved this season. Things get chaotic so quickly, and there are so many more immediate problems. There is a high level of tension pretty soon.

Then let me ask you about a few things that I'm assuming happened, and you can confirm or not discuss them, as you prefer. It's far enough past Christmas that Joan is now married, right?

Yeah. We'll find out where Joan is very soon.

And Roger has spent some time in Greece, on a honeymoon to Jane?

Yes. So he is married also.

And Joan is planning on leaving.

I'll be curious to see how you deal with that.

Be afraid. The show is really based on people not getting what they want.

There's not a lot of Peggy or Joan in the premiere...

There's plenty of Joan and Peggy in the (season). And there's not much Betty, either, in this one.

But the premiere is mainly Don, and Salvatore.

And Pete.

Yes. I love the goofy little dance he does after he gets the promotion.

It looked like he was animated. Like he was in "The Grinch."

But to get back to Joan, you originally conceived the character as much older.

I don't know that I conceived her as older, but she was more tangential. But then Christina came in, and I thought she was really interesting. She's not Peggy's friend, and she's representing a goal and approach that is completely different. She's never jealous of Peggy. She's mystified of Peggy's ambition. And then we saw last season her getting a chance at something, and she was thwarted, and that was painful.

I talked with Christina about that at the party earlier, and in that episode where Joan joins the TV department, it seems as if there's this brief window where Joan understands what Peggy's been going for and thinks this could be for her, and then Harry slams it shut.

The culture slams it shut. They never, ever thought of having a secretary do that job, or a woman. Why would they hire the temp? No one acknowledges that she'd be great at the job.

She suffers so, so greatly.

I know, I know. It's hard to hurt her, but I kind of feel she's frequently hoisted on whatever she's told to be. I still think she could have had the best relationship of her life with that roommate.

That, by the way, is probably not the first time that happened to Joan. I realized that at the end of that first season. I've heard from many fans that they have no leanings that way but could probably not keep their hands off her.

In this one, we get to know Peggy's new secretary but not Don's. Is Don's going to be a character of note at all?

Things have changed. Don's hard to work for. So we'll see what it is. But at this point, no. Don's very careful about his secretaries since the Jane thing. That's something to keep in mind, too: Don and Roger's relationship has not recovered.

Well, yeah. Among other things, Roger stole Don's line and used it to cause this chaos. It's a creative and a moral thing.

I think Don resents that, and the whole thing. And also Roger is living a life Don wishes he had the guts to do. That's Roger's perception of it, anyway.

But is that your perception? Even though Don does sleep with the stewardess, he also seems much more committed to Betty.

I think he is committed and he's trying very hard. You'll see by episode two that, if something is missing, it's more complicated than you think. He hit bottom there. When he was in the ocean, he was like, "I'm a hillbilly, but I'm going to try. This is what I want."

Are we going to get back to California this year?

So far, no. I'm only on episode 10, but I would say no.

Because you've said you want the series to deal with the transition from New York to California.

California is talked about. Don was influenced by that experience. But advertising can say whatever they want, but Los Angeles wasn't important to advertising until 1970. There's some debate if it is even now.

Getting back to the idea of having leaped only six months instead of 14, you've said in the past you envision this as a five-season show.

Don't hold me to that. Really, I don't know what the magic number is. I would like to do the show until right before the moment when the audience is tired of it. I love these people, we have not run out of story. The season has its own story. And with the six month thing, I didn't need, because of what I want to talk about this year, the energy of wondering what happened. I may need it again, but not this season.

What do you want to talk about this year in broad thematic strokes?

What has emerged are little pieces of things that I've always been interested in, that I've touched on before but that we really deal with this season. One is the bare feet -- what is this man like underneath? How is this man wearing this suit every day going to that world? And he is the master of the universe, and trying to perform it without a great deal of arrogance -- though he is a bit arrogant.

And the other thing is, how do people deal with change? And I know that sounds like a very broad idea, but it's not. It's very specific. We're torn all the time by being excited by everything new. Everything new is better than everything good. It's part of the TV business, fashion, everything. And we're excited by it. But at the same time, some of us are frightened by it, losing what you know is horrifying. And I wanted to actually see people dealing with change, and see how they react to it. See them struggling to hold on to what's familiar, and adjusting.

And another big part of it is, there's a lot of, "You've made your bed, now sleep in it." A lot of adulthood and dealing with consequences. This is a reality, and you cannot escape. That's what I mean about the bare feet. It's a business issue, and a personal issue. Hope cannot overcome it sometimes. What people hold onto, it's not just because they're petty, it's because it's real.

1962 helped you in a lot of ways last season, because you were able to tie the Cuban Missile Crisis in with Don coming back from California.

The Cuban Missile Crisis helped, but I have to tell you, 1962 was a huge pain in the ass. It's a reason why "Hairspray," "Animal House," "American Graffiti," all these movies are set then -- because it was Camelot. The civil rights movement had exploded in 1961 but was dormant in 1962, other than James Meredith, which we put in the show. Marilyn Monroe died. But it was a period of relative economic and social stability. The style, the fashion, there were a lot of distractions, but not a lot of decline and fall in that year. The Jackie/Marilyn thing was the most focused part of that period.

This year is not quite like that. Everything happens in the same three month period, and we may not be setting things in all of those months. But I'm really interested, after doing this show for a while... is in looking at how little history actually does impact our lives. GM declared bankruptcy eight weeks ago. For all we know, when our children are reading the history books, that'll be the turning point for the economy, good or bad. But we don't know that, because we're in it. You have no idea when you hear Martin Luther King that this is going to be everything. It's fascinating to look at the newspapers and see, "They ignored this, they dwelled on that."

Other than the elephant in the room that is Kennedy, what developments from that year do you want to deal with?

I think you have to watch the show. That first year, I think people didn't realize how closely it was tied to real history. When we did the election of Nixon vs. Kennedy, there were some people who were really tense, like, "Who won?" Their lack of knowledge about that was a good thing. I always want to avoid that with our website, in terms of putting up a timeline. Once the period is out there in the season premiere, don't put up a scrapbook so people can see what we're picking and choosing. One of the amazing things is how much did happen and how much closer they are.

I've been looking at this anniversary of the moon landing, and remembering it happening, But I was completely, blissfully unaware that it was the greatest concentration of public relations in the history of the United States. I'm not saying that in a cynical way; I just had no idea that every aspect of the culture was obsessed with this. From a business standpoint, a news standpoint -- it was the story. I always love reading history and finding the tiny stuff that happened. I want people to watch the show and say, "Oh, yeah, I forgot that happened."

But now that we're acknowledging the period, I'm sure people can look it up and see some things that matter. Even the assassination, if we do do it, it's going to be something different.

I have a process question. When a specific episode conceived, is it built around plot or around theme? You know, "Maidenform": "I want an episode about how people are perceived."

They're all different. But invariably, I start off with an idea. We want to do stories, we have stories on the board and ideas we want to have happen during the season. You never know how long they're going to take. Will Joan's relationship with Greg take up one episode, or bits of five episodes? And I hate to dole things out, because it feels soap opera to me. Nothing against soap opera, but there are only 13 of these; why just check in with somebody? I want there to be a story. But usually, when we get all of them together, I will say to myself, "What is this about? What do these three things have in common?" And if I'm lucky, something's on my mind, and they wind up on the show. And it can't just be, "Things aren't what they appear." Even "Maidenform," with the theme of how we're perceived by people, we had to show other things. We had to show that Don and Bobbie are done, show Duck dealing with his children, with his dog, with his drinking.

I'd say that they happen around the same time, but when we first sit down at the beginning of the season, I have a lot of stuff that's on my mind, observations or ideas. I have experienced a lot of change in the last two years, so has the country... I have had to grow up in many ways and let go of some things and make compromises and sacrifices. I start picking little pieces out of these things. When we have a first draft of an episode and I look at a writer and say, "What is this about?" That's the big moment. Episode two has a very strong thematic thread in it. Hopefully, I never want to be too obvious about it, but it was built around an idea, and it's there.

And episode three is a story thing. It's all about me wanting to tell this story, and then we figure out what story we're telling. And you have to be careful that it's not just "our expectations don't turn out as we want," because that would be every episode.

So there can be episodes where the D-story is not tied in any way to what the A and B-story are about.

It depends on how smart the viewer is. There's a gestalt psychology thing where people will make everything fit together. That's why I'm so proud of "Maidenform," because I feel like everything was right on target in that episode. Sometimes, I just want to tell a story. The most important thing is that it doesn't feel like a runner. There are episodes this year that deal with class... with loss, but the rage that comes with loss. Episodes that deal with a personal story that someone told me. I have to say that there are times when I fail and everything doesn't go.

But episode one, for example, Joan and Peggy have this thing with Hooker, but it's about a wish and about submission. "Just go with what's there." Pete submits. Joan submits to Hooker; she ends up screwing him over, which is fun, but in my mind, it's accidental. It was about her submitting to this thing, which we've never seen her do. Don is certainly submitting to a weakness, and to his own self-pity. And Sal...

Poor bastard.

"Poor bastard"? I think people might cheer.

Yeah, but they're cheering, until once again (it doesn't work), just like with the Belle Jolie guy.

But the door opened way bigger this time. I think he saw there was another way for this to happen. And he kissed this man, which he might never have done. Yeah, it was thwarted, and tawdry, but I think you see in the end, when he's talking about the ad and says, "He's handsome," it was a positive experience. He knows he's safe. He's been living in fear for God knows how long.

Getting back to this notion of however long this show is going to run...

I don't want to lead you astray. I can't imagine not dying if I had to do this for more than five or six years.

The question is, because we're only in '63 this season, as opposed to '64 or '65...

There's no formula. I would like to see them get to the end of this (decade), and that was my original intention when I wrote the pilot. My idea was, "What is it going to be like for someone who is already an adult?" Let's take away all the Boomer rosy haze. This guy's an adult. Pete's in his 20s, Peggy is in her 20s. What was it like for them to sit back and watch this happen? And no matter what happens -- Summer of Love, The Beatles, Woodstock, Rolling Stones -- when you get to 1970, "My Way" is still in the top 10 songs. You know what I mean? That's what I'm interested in. And I would love to see where they are. I would love to see this sense of how things turned out.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at


cgeye said...

The one thing that I noticed -- when Jon Hamm is Don Draper, we know that look, how polished it is, how it's how we want our outward selves to be.

But when the hair's floppy and Dick's completely in his body -- running out onto the fire escape, not caring whether his date is even dressed or plausibly away from him -- Dick Whitman looks like Jon Hamn off-duty. Someone closer to an authentic self, even though that construction is itself artificial.

I should go to bed now.

LA said...

I wonder if Weiner is playing with us a little bit. Last season, there was an episode entitled "six month leave," and that turns out to be the duration of the leap between seasons. Hmmm.

Okay, still reading...

belinda said...

I definitely did notice the slight tension between Roger and Don in that scene with the cigars. Very interesting.

Though, I still feel terrible for Sal. Poor bastard!

Thanks for the interview.
Wouldn't it be even more fantastic if you could interview everyone from the cast and the writers?

TL said...

This year is not quite like that. Everything happens in the same three month period, and we may not be setting things in all of those months.

Do you know what he meant by this comment? Does he mean that all notable events in 1963 happened in a three-month period, and the show may or may not be set in those 3 months, or is he saying that all the events of this season will take place in a span of three months?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Does he mean that all notable events in 1963 happened in a three-month period, and the show may or may not be set in those 3 months, or is he saying that all the events of this season will take place in a span of three months?

The former, I believe.

Carla said...

"Poor bastard"? I think people might cheer.

I did! I clapped too! :-)

Eric Berlin said...

Alan, I discovered your blog about three months ago and have read just about every post you've written about The Wire, Band of Brothers, and Mad Men in that period. I hope that conveys how much I dig it!

About Mad Men S0301: I haven't seen anyone write about the progress of Harry, one of our "chipmunks," between seasons two and three.

Even though we don't see much of Harry, I found it fascinating that he seemed to play such a significant role in dividing the accounts list between Ken and Pete. Obviously, the rise of television and his role as head of the TV department are moving our boy up in the world, but how much? Is his status seen as something "higher" than the Accounts department, or was he brought in as something of a "neutral observer" to help Pryce split the line between the two new co-heads?

loretta said...

I finally had a chance to catch up and watched the entire series 1 and 2 and episode 1 of series 3 in the last week.

Mr. Weiner seems obsessed with detail, and I noticed a curiously incongruent item - in series 2, when Betty's friend from the barn calls her and Betty gives her less than a sympathetic response to sleeping with their young friend (can't remember all the names) she hangs up on Betty and the phone goes to "click" and then a MODERN dial tone.

Phones in 1961 didn't work that way. The dial tone was a buzzing sound, not the sound it is now, and when you hung up the old phones, they didn't immediately go to a dial tone, they'd stay blank for a minute, then go to a fast beeping buzz sound.

Other than that, I find the series to be extraordinarily authentic in terms of historical accuracy.