In June 2006, AMC made a big splash in the original-production arena with miniseries Broken Trail. Starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, the four-hour Western blew away the network’s viewership records in becoming the top-rated movie on cable in a decade.
For its first solo foray into original-series production, AMC turned to Matt Weiner, who wrote and directed feature film What Do You Do All Day? and whose resume includes production credits on The Naked Truth, Becker and Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
But Weiner is best known as a writer and executive producer on HBO’s acclaimed mob show, The Sopranos (also look for him in a cameo on the “Stage 5” episode), which captured the 2004 Emmy Award for outstanding drama series. He also garnered an Emmy nomination with co-writer Terence Winter for the episode “Unidentified Black Males.”
Now, Weiner’s tackling the advertising world, circa 1960, with Mad Men, a look at the world of advertising and society through the professional and personal lives of the men and women at fictional shop Sterling Cooper.
In a recent interview, Multichannel News news editor Mike Reynolds asked Weiner “where the truth lies” on a number of topics about Mad Men, which premieres July 19 at 10 p.m. (EST) on AMC, and his old job. An edited transcript follows.
MCN: You wrote the Mad Men pilot seven years ago?
Matt Weiner: Yes.
MCN: Was your family in the ad business?
MCN: What was the inspiration, then?
MW: The inspiration was really a mixture of being raised by a couple of New Yorkers in Los Angeles, an early exposure to Catcher in the Rye and just a fascination with that period. What really happened was that the more I learned about the period, the more I became fascinated with advertising itself. It just seemed to be the sexiest, most interesting profession of that time. As I started writing for television, it became even more and more of a parallel. I looked and I said ‘I know this world.’ At their core, they’re very similar. Obviously, you can't do in advertising what you do in television. But the idea is that you're a creative person who keeps his own hours, who has no respect for authority, who is cynical on some levels, who is constantly biting the hand that feeds you. That's part of what I was really interested in. The other was in the idea that they seemed like such amazing people and the more I read about it --and I love advertising-- is how these people had a huge impact on the culture and they had a very subversive lifestyle. All of that was fascinating to me.
MCN: Did you go back to some of the icons of the era? Are some of the characters composites of the big names from Madison Avenue’s past?
MW: It depends on what you think are icons. When you read the history of advertising, there's David Ogilvy, there's Bill Bernbach, George Lois and so forth. Ogilvy is the only person who worked in anything like a place like ours, and I did read his book. Who I really modeled it on -- when I read these histories about agencies in the ‘50s -- were these super White agencies. I guess McCann was like that, BBDO was like that. There were some characters at these places … There was a guy named Draper Daniels, who was considered one of the great copy guys ever, and that's where I got that name [series protagonist and resident creative genius at Sterling Cooper], John Draper.
MCN: Did you take the show to broadcast, to other cable networks?
MW: In seven years, yeah. Even after I got my job on The Sopranos, which is all you could want from a spec script like this on some level, I still did not give up on it. It went past NBC very early on. It was considered unproduceable. There was some vague interest at some other places early on.
MCN: From a standards perspective?
MW: They didn’t want to do period. They didn't want to do smoking. They didn't like the sex. I said: ‘The language is clean.’ They said. ‘That’s not the point.’ They were also in a different business. They were also in the business of making people feel better, as opposed to making people feel. [Both laugh]. The showbiz reality is that after two years, it was already considered an old script. So no one was interested; I was like some 80-year-old man who had retired with this script in his pocket.
MCN: When did you go to AMC? When did that relationship start?
MW: When I was with The Sopranos, my manager gave the script to them. They said they were interested in doing original programming. It was pretty amazing in entertainment time: Within one year of my first meeting with them, I was shooting the pilot. They waited for me to finish that season of The Sopranos. Then I shot the pilot during the hiatus. Then they waited for me to finish [the final season of] The Sopranos before I started working on the series. The whole time I was there, [Sopranos creator] David Chase, who hired me, was a tremendous champion of the [Mad Men] script, but HBO never expressed any interest in it.
MCN: You're going back almost 50 years. You alluded to it earlier. Is America ready for the boozing, for the cigarettes, for the racism, for the sexual harassment, for the blatant hitting on women? Haven't we come past this as a society?
MW: I think we've come past it. Our manners are better, but they're worse. We're cruder than ever, but we say it nicer. The other thing, on some level, I hope that the show is saying that this behavior is self-destructive. But there is also a sense that there is a kind of hedonism, of a kind of fall of Rome. I think that any culture that goes through success, eventually, will get that mood.
MCN: The golden era, the go-go-days of Madison Avenue. Will younger people get to that? Are people interested enough in advertising? You know everybody says, ‘I hate advertising.’
MW: You know one of the jokes of the show is that intelligent people think it doesn’t work on them. But everybody loves good advertising, by the way. They will wear it on their T-shirts. They will say it to one another. They will say whatever. ‘Two all beef patties.’ … When I was a kid, that was the song that we sang. The truth is that the show is not a history lesson. It's set in the world of advertising. What is says about advertising, I think people will love. What it says basically is that half of it is stupid, half of it is amazing. And if you think about it, it is a reflection of who you are. So when these guys -- there are a lot of other elements to the show -- but the advertising part, I think, really comes across as a certain kind of office politics. What it does, like I said, is biting the hand that feeds you. People will understand that you can take pride in your work and still be disgusted with yourself. [Both laugh.]
MCN: I saw the pilot months ago. And I [recently] did a crash course and watched the first four episodes. Things are really starting to heat up between Don [Draper, played by Jon Hamm, Providence] and [account executive] Pete Campbell [Vincent Kartheiser, Angel].
MW: Yeah, they will. I want to keep as much of the story line as possible, especially with a new show. If we can get people to watch the first show, they will come back for the second if they don't know the ending Yes, my only comment is that he will be in a rivalry with Pete Campbell the entire time.
MCN: My other comment is that life isn't so pleasant in Ossining [N.Y., where Draper lives with his wife, Betty and their two kids].
MW: No! No, it is not.
MCN: I mean the wife has some real issues to deal with.
MW: Yes, she does. I mean how good is that actress [January Jones, We Are Marshall]? She's terrific. Can you believe her? I can't get over that. They all are … I mean didn't that birthday-party scene take you back?
MCN: Yeah, oh man.
MW: It's fun to talk to you about this, because only a few people have seen beyond the pilot. That slap.
MCN: Oh, god!
MW: People see that and they're totally like, “Oh my god.’ That's the most nostalgic moment for them.
MCN: The other thing that struck me was, and I thought it was brilliant, was when the wife says to her kid: ‘Honey, I'm going to kill you if the dry cleaning is on the floor.’
MW: [Laughs.] Thank you. That's a wonderful thing to hear.
MCN: How much publicity have you done, personally, to get the word out about this show?
MW: Personally not much at all, because I've been working. I did that panel [AMC held a discussion about the series at Michael’s, a Manhattan media hot-spot restaurant on June 14]. AMC has been in charge of everything. I've shown the pilot to anyone who will watch it, and I talk about it incessantly. I was very involved in the title sequence, which became the graphics for the ad campaign. The people at AMC who have been in charge and who have contracted for the Web site, the ad campaign, the graphics, the pictures, the people who did the electronic press kit, have been terrific. They had never done this before. They are so good. They have had the same attitude with that as with the show. Let's be bold. Let's be original. Let's try to get people's attention with quality.
MCN: So AMC has done a good job about getting the word out about your product?
MW: I think so. This is the rule of advertising, right? My name is on it, so whenever there’s an ad for the show, it screams Matt! I have no way of knowing if other people are noticing it, but I am extremely aware of it. [Laughs].
MCN: Where are you now in terms of shooting and production?
MW: We’re shooting episode 10 right now and I just finished writing 11.
MCN: You’re a busy guy.
MW: Yeah, we have two left. I’m going to direct No. 13. They’re turning out very well. I hope people will feel things are heating up and people will enjoy the show. The thing that’s an achievement, so far, is that all of [the episodes] are different from one another, but they’re the same show.
MCN: I’m getting ahead of things. If the numbers work out … If AMC is pleased …You’re pleased with the quality, a good audience reaction. Do you have a second season in you?
MW: I would say absolutely. Are you kidding me? But I’m going to need a break. Are you kidding me? This is the greatest box of toys anybody has had in their entire life.
MCN: Any other box of toys you’re playing in?
MW: Absolutely. But I’m not going to do any other television. I can tell you this has been the most creatively satisfying experience of my life and I want it to continue. Working with the artists, the actors, this cast, and every single aspect of this show … You can see it when you watch it. My producer, Scott Hornbacher [The Sopranos] … We do the show in seven days and it looks better than any movie that’s out there.
MCN: It’s very stylized. Do you have a collection of 1950s and 1960s artifacts in your house now?
MW: I’ve always had a few little fetish pieces; they’re very strange things. Like I have a pair of cufflinks that belonged to Jack Benny … The important thing you realize, though, is that the amount of work that is required to make something look realistic is far greater than making it look stylish. These people are so good at this, the clothing, the hair, the makeup, the furniture.
And in post [production], too. It’s worth mentioning, I haven’t really talked to anyone about the music. Obviously, in the pilot, I had more money than anywhere else, and we’ve had good music in it. But I have an incredible composer on the show who does cues in a very new way of doing music on a TV show. It’s a very different way.
MCN: How so?
MW: Because it’s not source music; it’s a very delicate scoring technique. There is a score to the show. But it’s very restrained and I think you almost don’t notice it. So it’s not like you have a big score that’s telling you what to feel: ‘Here’s the big moment; here it is.’ The Sopranos only had source music; there was no score in it at all. That was a bold thing, because there used to be tons of score [on TV]. And I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to do this’? But [composer] David Carbonara [The Cider House Rules] has been great at sort of writing these things … There is a place [for the show] to have a modern voice in it at times. Musically, emotions don’t change. So you don’t have to worry about something sticking out as an anachronism.
MCN: When we met at the panel at Michael’s, I asked you about this: Are you still going to maintain omerta about the ending of The Sopranos?
MW: Here’s my answer to your question. We are still talking about it. You tell me if it was good or bad?
MCN: Best of luck with Mad Men. I look forward to seeing the rest of them. And I hope it comes out of the box really strongly.
MW: Thanks, I’m very flattered. I hope it does, too.