On Friday, March 20, 2015, the Lipp sisters attended an amazing event; a talk by Matthew Weiner at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. And we do mean amazing. We’ve seen Matt speak often, and he’s always among the world’s most engrossing speakers, but this was special.
The evening started with Roberta’s walkabout of the fabulous Mad Men exhibit. We promise more details about this in the near future, but for now all she can say is, go if you’re able because it’s cool as fuck.
When Matt spoke, he was loose, almost giddy. At one point he said “I don’t know why I’m saying this. I’m completely sober.” He joked, he was sarcastic, he played. At least twice he said that he could tell us now, since the show was over….(and then whatever that was), and at another point he spoke of feeling free. That was it, really. This was the loose, relaxed, let-it-all-out Matthew Weiner, and that was a delight. He also let loose on the trivia and tidbits, plus tons of spoilers, (KIDDING!) so read on!
Sets and Props
Matt has often talked about the economics of Mad Men, and how he has had to make staying on-budget a virtue. Offices in the original Sterling Cooper sets, for example, were reused. Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper had the same office: Redressing the room with new props was cheaper than building a separate room. Part of why Bert had a “remove your shoes” rule was that it affirmed, in the audience’s mind, that this was a different place.
Matt loves the sets and didn’t want them reused. “That was my biggest fear, that I would see it next year on like — probably on Empire at this point. If you give it a layer of gold paint. That show has got style.” One thing about Matt, he loves television, and watches everything, so of course he’d know the most stylish thing on TV right now. (Also, you guys know the Executive Producer of Empire is Danny Strong, right?)
There was a lot of discussion of props too. Rolodexes are old-fashioned and have to be purchased from various places, but you can’t reuse the cards. They yellow with age, often they have food stains on them, and every phone number has to be cleared; you can’t just use real ones. Matt shot props with HD in mind; things that used to be invisible or blurry are suddenly legible. They shot in HD years before the show aired in HD.
Matt describes his prop philosophy as “no empty suitcases.” Let the actors be supported by real things.
Some props are rented. Matt talked about the fainting couch, that very important piece of Betty’s life, where she has sexual fantasies and “ruins her living room.” That was rented from a movie prop house, and it’s the actual couch Mae West was lying on when she said “Come up and see me sometime.” (Holy cow!)
Being a Writer
Matt talked about the agony of being an aspiring writer, a.k.a. “Linda’s loser husband,” supported by his wife without selling anything. This dark period was at the same time that he was starting to bald! He was actually mistaken for George Costanza.
Even after success, though, he’ll still get people who claim never to have heard of Mad Men, who “don’t watch television.” But “I can always get them,” he shares, by saying he worked on The Sopranos. “I loved that show!” is the universal response, and it’s the easiest way to get a rise.
You learn the most as a writer by having your work filmed. On the page, it looks like one thing, seeing it is how you know what needs to change.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. It all comes from J.D. Salinger.” Matt’s parents encouraged him to read anything, and he read Catcher in the Rye in the second grade. “I’m another Jew who looks at the WASPs and says ‘What do they know?’…And it’s nice they have problems, too.”
What’s it like to read Catcher at such a young age? “I wondered what houndstooth was.”
At age 10 his parents took him to see Prisoner of Second Avenue. “I realized I was Jack Lemmon, in the sense that I was constantly exasperated.” (It was then we noticed his distinct lack of exasperation, in comparison with past conversations. He was so relaxed!)
By 9th grade, he’d “graduated” to John Cheever, obviously a deep influence on Mad Men (Cheever is from Ossining).
Filming the Pilot
Because two period pieces, Revolutionary Road and Across the Universe, were filming at the same time as Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, there were few costumes available to rent for extras, and all the men’s suits were in tiny sizes. Re-watch the opening scene in the bar–those are some small men. That scene, as well as a later scene with Rachel, was filmed at Harlem’s Lenox Lounge.
Did eventual success make him think “neener-neener” about all the rejections of his script? Matt had two things to say: First, you get nowhere in “this business” if you think about revenge, and second, “If I wait patiently by the river, the body of my enemy will float by.” (He attributed it to a writer friend, but later said it comes from Sun Tzu.)
About Jon Hamm
Famously, Jon Hamm auditioned many times (the number goes up, Matt jokes, every time Jon tells the story). AMC just wasn’t sure; Hamm’s looks were more soap opera than nighttime star. But Matt was sure. “I basically told AMC I would not do the show unless he was the star.” Hamm was the only one who auditioned who conveyed enough empathy that you would not hate him at the end of the pilot, when you discovered he was married.
“I’d wake up from nightmares, worried that I hadn’t really hired” Jon Hamm.
In The Hobo Code, Abigail Whitman described a horseshoe as open at both ends and hard through the center. Another writer asked where the phrase came from, assuming it had some history. Matt answered it was original, realizing he’d really written–having created an aphorism. He pointed out the horseshoe reappeared in Archibald Whitman’s death; when the horse kicks him in the face, there’s a horseshoe imprint (which he thought was really funny–Matt giggles a lot, which you don’t always get from written articles and interviews).
It wasn’t Matt’s idea to cast him, but he’s, of course, thrilled it happened. “Robert Morse was a lunatic from the first time I met him.”
Matt knew Morse from the (truly bizarre) movie The Loved One, as well as Guide to the Married Man, “one of the most sexist movies made in the history of humanity.” This whole piece of the talk was hilarious, Matt could not stop about Guide to the Married Man, (second in offense only to How to Murder Your Wife) and recommended we all see it for the awfulness.
Many of us remember that sixties ad-man George Lois made it his business to denounce Mad Men repeatedly in the media during the first couple of seasons. Now that the show is over, Matt felt free to respond, and he went off. Since Lois didn’t smoke or drink, Matt said, he lived longer than many of his co-workers, and thus is around to offer his version. The notion that Don Draper is based on him, though, is ridiculous. If there’s any famous ad-man who reflects who Don aspires to be, it’s David Ogilvy!
Matt’s particularly irritated by Lois promoting his era of advertising as having changed the world. “You didn’t change the world. Jonas Salk changed the world.” And “You didn’t change the world, you changed a font.” HA!
Matthew Weiner doesn’t get upset when people nitpick the show. He invited it by being so out front about his own fussiness. The one thing that gets him mad, though, was the criticism of the opening of A Little Kiss, with the Young & Rubicam guys dropping water on protesters. “And they call us savages” was a quote from the New York Times article on the incident, but Matt was criticized for writing such a cheesy line, and in general writing such an over-the-top scenario. Except for how that’s just how it happened.
“The writers liked it. The actors liked it. My wife liked it. That’s all I can go on.”
Deborah had the opportunity to ask a question, and asked if there was anything he hated about the job. He allowed as talking about George Lois really spent the urge to vent, and then said “Anyone who does what I do and complains is an asshole.” He said “I’ve met people from history,” and named Gloria Steinem and Mike Nichols, among others.
For the most part, Matt’s been fine with the restrictions of basic cable. You’re allowed “three ‘shit’s a show,” and “asshole.” You can say “Jesus” and “Christ” but not “Jesus Christ” unless Jesus Christ is actually present.
He was able to get away with showing Peggy smoke marijuana (and inhale) because the other important AMC show was practically giving a workshop in how to cook meth. “I will not say marijuana is bad on the show,” Matt said, adding that AMC never pushed him to.
The next night, we saw Matt with cast members at Lincoln Center in another fascinating event. Our write-up of that event will follow soon.