When you talk to him—as I did at Toronto a year ago when he premiered his ill-fated movie directing debut, “Are You Here,” an amiable buddy comedy starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, and again just before the final season of “Mad Men” ended, at L’Ermitage Hotel—you realize the USC film school grad loves movies. That’s where he’s coming from, in his references and inspirations. (His question “what’s the one movie and song that always makes you cry?” launches a long detour on “Stella Dallas” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”)
Like any good writer, Weiner is curious about people, listens, observes. He’s intuitive. He’s easy to talk to. I found myself revealing things, which surprised me. He feels safe. Now that the show is done, he’s enjoying being relaxed, writing alone, recharging, and hanging with his wife and four kids. He had to move his office, an emotional moment. Now it’s just him, alone with his computer as he deals with this “graduation or culmination” which will likely hit him hard, he admits, “when the last episode airs.” Now he gets to think about what he wants to do. “What do I want to see?” he asks.
Weiner is no longer show-running an entire AMC television series and tending to not only his sprawling cast, for whom he carries huge affection, but his crew, largely intact over seven seasons, who also lined up on the stage at the premiere of the second half of the final season of “Mad Men” at L.A.’s vintage Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Oscars used to held before they moved to Hollywood & Highland. Everyone was invited to the last premiere for the Red and Black Ball. “There’s no cool kids,” Weiner says.
Weiner dreamed up “Mad Men” 14 years ago–“it’s been a third of my life,” he says. He shelved a film script about captains of industry who pulled themselves up from poverty, then wrote the “Mad Men” pilot, which persuaded David Chase to hire him for the last four and a half seasons of “The Sopranos.” That experience informed how Weiner handled “Mad Men.” “I don’t want to leave anything on the table, I don’t want to pander,” he told me in Toronto. “The characters are living breathing organisms on some level. I’ve always had things in mind of where they go. David Chase told me if you have something good, and you know it’s good, you can take your time getting there.”
When AMC asked for a larger story to carry through “Mad Men,” Weiner came across his old movie script about powerbrokers like John D. Rockefeller with inauspicious backgrounds, class mobility and malleable identities, and finally realized the two were related. Characters like Conrad Hilton (Chelcie Ross) and other captains of industry turn up throughout the series.
Here are highlights of what I learned talking to Weiner about what makes a story as good as “Mad Men” build and sustain a passionate following through seven seasons.
1. Fight for quality.
The Baltimore native had a tough time selling the show to the usual suspects, but AMC came through on something that felt risky and pokey and not exciting to other outlets. Even so Weiner had to argue with the AMC brass to keep his vision, the show’s pace, length and scale, and costly quality standards. Hence an unpleasant hiatus which still upsets him to think about. He wishes that tension hadn’t been added to the show, because it tarnished something beautiful. And it had nothing to do with money–on his end. He didn’t want his niche indie show to become a public business conversation, but AMC took it there. “It hurt,” he says. “They ruined the ideal. I felt completely unappreciated.” But, he’ll admit, “we recovered.”
2. Let the story breathe.
From the start Weiner argued with AMC over pacing and spending so much time with multiple characters. “I wanted to tell stories in a different way,” he says. “I didn’t like the movies at that time. I was interested in the passage of time in adulthood. I was a successful TV writer but I was unsatisfied…It’s like this for everybody, male and female.”
3. Hire women.
Weiner wrote one season at a time–with help from a writers’ room comprised of more than 50% women. He clearly loves and understands women. He says he does not hire writers on the basis of gender but on the quality of the writing and their ability to get along. Some people write one episode, some can keep going over time. “We created these characters together.”
Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy, for example, grew from a young awkward secretary to a powerful executive; Weiner is impatient with the standard issue assumption that she and Don should be romantically involved. He defends their complicated relationship–mentor and protege, sometimes rivalrous and jealous, genuinely affectionate.
4. Make yourself available for questions and feedback.
“I was always accessible,” Weiner says. “Everybody reads the scripts.” For the crew, “it wasn’t just a job, it mattered.” 80% of the crew who started with him stayed through to the end, through 92 hours and seven years.
5. Give every character a story, even housewives and kids.
“Every character should have a story,” he says. “They shouldn’t be a character to serve another character.” When in the second episode of the first season he followed Betty Draper (January Jones), AMC said, “No one cares about that. We like the business story.” Weiner even insisted on giving the kids Sally and Bubby their own stories. “If you commit to that it makes your job easier,” he says. But he’s not thinking about what the audience wants. “You are telling them a story. They will like it or not.”
From his introduction, Weiner knew that Jewish ad exec Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) was mentally unstable and would eventually implode, even if it took a few seasons to get to the infamous nipple-slashing episode, when Ginsberg freaks out over the arrival of a “2001” monolith-style computer at Sterling Cooper. Weiner points out that there were many obvious clues that Ginsberg was losing his mind, including the revelation that he was a virgin, “death destroyer of worlds,” and from Mars. “I know I’m more interested in history than the audience,” Weiner says. “I wanted to use Peggy Lee’s ‘Is that All There Is’ (video below), which was a huge hit in 1969 and an existential song. I was looking at the slightly absurd quality of ‘Monty Python’ or ‘Catch-22’ or Sam Peckinpah. People were so aware that computers would replace their jobs and their lives would change. Whenever we have massive bursts of technology it’s terrifying.”
6. Keep your secrets.
Weiner never lets AMC give out press screeners ahead of showtime because he doesn’t want ANY spoilers out there. (The East Coast/West Coast divide, he cannot control.)
7. When casting, be attuned to human beings.
Casting was everything, he admits, from Christina Hendricks, who expanded the horizons of what Joan was supposed to be, to Jon Hamm as the show’s needy, womanizing, chain-smoking, alcoholic anti-hero ad exec Don Draper, who finds gratification at work but in his off-hours often feels sad and lonely. Weiner originally imagined an actor like William Holden. Hamm, like his character, had depths that Weiner only intuited during auditions. Hamm had a turbulent upbringing with divorced parents, it turns out, losing his mother at age 10 to colon cancer and his father to depression in his 20s. Like his character, Hamm also enjoyed drinking to excess, admitting that he went into rehab after finishing the show. Weiner won’t address that, but says that Hamm was always perfectly groomed and prepared on set.
After his first meeting with Hamm, Weiner observed, “that guy was not raised by his parents…He did not behave like a man who was that good-looking, because he probably did not know for a long time.” Actors have an “emotional availability,” Weiner says. “They have an extra thing.”
And in the mysterious first episode of the current season, casting “Twilight” star Elizabeth Reaser as the waitress Draper takes in the alley–“don’t I know you?”–follows a pre-set pattern. “He has a type, we all do,” Weiner says. It all goes back to the prostitute at the brothel who took Don’s virginity. “That’s the root of his promiscuity.”
Finally the new season is “not about cosmic powers contributing to our unhappiness,” Weiner says. “Most people chase opportunities and choose not to take them.”