On Friday evening at New York’s New Museum, “Mad Men” creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner was featured as this year’s Visionary in the fifth annual installment of The Stuart Regen Visionaries Series. (The award, designed to honor leading contributors to the international cultural community, has previously honored artists like choreographer Bill T. Jones, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, chef and author Alice Waters, and artist and architect Maya Lin.)
The event featured Weiner in conversation with author A.M. Homes in front of a full house at the New Museum’s downstairs theater. Their exchange was friendly and informal as Homes moderated the conversation before opening it up to questions.
Weiner deliberately refrained from saying anything about the upcoming seventh and final season of “Mad Men,” which AMC recently announced would be split into two seven-episodes segments to premiere in 2014 and 2015. Regardless of the final episodes’ airdates, he’ll have completed his work on the show next June, and when asked how he felt about wrapping up the four-time Emmy Best Drama Series winner, he explained that he looks forward to the occasion. “For someone like me who has gotten away with not finishing a lot of things in their life, to have 78 completed episodes so far, and to go to the end of the story and to finish it is very exciting to me. It will be a personal achievement.”
Here are 10 more highlights from the New Museum’s “Visionaries Series: ‘Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner.”
On becoming a television writer: “I always wanted to be a writer since I was very little,” Weiner said. During a philosophy class while attending Weslyan University, Weiner had to write a paper but wanted to avoid working on an academic treatise filled with citations and bibliographies. Instead, his professor allowed him to write an alternate ending to “Life Is a Dream” by Calderón de la Barca as a play. According to Weiner, his professor’s comments on the assignment read, “You have very little sophistication, and I worry that you have learned nothing, but you are an excellent dramatist.”
After college, Weiner moved to New York with plans to work in publishing and write poetry, but the lifestyle of a struggling writer working a non-creative day job scared him into heading back to L.A. for film school. He worked in production for A&E’s series “Biography” and made his own low-budget independent film. His friend Daisy von Scherler Mayer invited him to the writer’s room for the TV version of her film “Party Girl.” Weiner said completing his own film gave him the confidence to sit in there: “I told a bunch of jokes, and I got a job.”
He loves television: “The Sopranos” perfectly expressed what Weiner loves about television: “When you have all the intimacy of film — that means you can shoot objects, see people walking through space, have moments of silence and get looks on their faces — and all of the talking of theater, it is a great mix for someone like me.”
How he writes “Mad Men”: “I dictate the show,” Weiner said. He explained that he’ll create conversations among 10 characters all while he is “dictating to a human being, which is a big part of the process. I can tell if it’s going well by their reactions.” He stated that he believes his inspiration comes from “somewhere, but my therapist says that this is a way of not accepting your gifts. That we should just accept the fact that it’s your imagination.”
Explaining Don Draper: When Weiner wrote the “Mad Men” pilot, he was the same age as his central character. He specified how Don is different from him (“He was born with a lot less than I was”) but Weiner mainly focused on what he believes his 35-year-old self expressed through the character: “[The pilot] is about somebody who has been very lucky, who has struggled, struggled, struggled, and got what they wanted — which doesn’t happen to everybody — and then said, ‘Is this it?'”
Don’s biggest fear: Weiner didn’t hesitate: “Death. The cruelty of the idea that you will die and the consciousness of it.” He explained that Don experimented with existentialism in an attempt to control this fear, “but I think he’s not looking forward to it, and he does a lot of things to avoid thinking about it. Don lives in a state of denial.”
Transitioning from “The Sopranos” to “Mad Men”: Weiner spent six years trying to sell “Mad Men,” during which time he was on staff at “The Sopranos.” When he finally sold the show, he still didn’t rush into production. “I arranged that I could finish ‘The Sopranos.'” Not only did he want to be there through the end of what he called “the greatest television show ever,” but he also thought that it made commercial sense for “Mad Men” to not be on the air at the same time.
Working within a period setting: “The period doesn’t mean that much to me, in a weird way,” Weiner said. He wished people would notice the details of the contemporary period as they live in it. He is fascinated by the short-lived cultural minutiae, and illustrated his point using “Twerk” as a word-of-the-moment: “It will be a punchline everywhere for probably about two months — for Jay Leno, it will be two years — and then it will go away,” he explained. “Someone will bring that up 15 years from now and some explosion will go off in your brain, and that is what I try to do: not to focus on the things that are really there, but to find the inconsequential common language.”
He has no favorite character: Weiner said he loves writing for all his characters. “If I get bored with any particular person, I can just move on to another,” he said. Still, he singled out Betty Draper, saying he enjoys that she exists in “this whole other universe, and it’s so familiar.” He mentioned that some viewers may not always enjoy seeing themselves in the characters on “Mad Men,” but he thinks that everyone is “just like someone on ‘Mad Men,’ and I’ll bet you that 90% of you are like Pete. It’s who we are.”
The “Romper Room”/”Mad Men” connection: As a child, Weiner appeared on his local Baltimore television network’s version of “Romper Room.” One day, “I was chastised for complaining that Mr. Magnet didn’t work, and Miss Sally came over and took it away from me.” According to Weiner, the toy manufacturer Playskool “owned” the show, and so over three decades before creating “Mad Men,” Weiner learned his first lesson about television advertising.
Pitching advice for aspiring television writers: “Don’t pitch TV series,” Weiner exclaimed. He called pitching a waste of time. “Just write it,” he said. Weiner thinks some aspiring writers may have a fantasy that pitching an idea can result in a shortcut to success. “The minute you go out there and pitch it, you are showing you need help,” he said.