On the night of Tuesday, April 28, the Lipp Sisters attended “An Evening with Matthew Weiner” (creator of Mad Men, as if you didn’t know) at the 92nd Street Y in New York.Matt was his usual fascinating self. This time he was interviewed by Richard LaGravenese, a writer interviewing a writer about writing. At one point Matt turned the tables to discuss LaGravenese’s most famous work, The Fisher King.
Lacking recording equipment, we resorted to note-taking in the dark, so forgive the choppiness of our impressions.
The focus was heavily on writing (which we both love), and when LaGravenese said that The Sopranos must have been an incredible place to learn, Matt said “I played for the Yankees”. Working with David Chase (which Matt always credits with making him the writer he is) happened between writing the pilot and the rest of the series, and transformed what the series became.
“There are a lot of rules about storytelling that I don’t believe in,” Matt said. He talked about the idea that only novels can be internal (describing how incredibly internal the novel Revolutionary Road is), while film and TV have to be external. But he’s made Mad Men a very internal show, listing The Lonely Crowd as descriptive of its mood and motif.
In creating Mad Men, Matt had an idea about the 1960s that he meant as a sort of refutation of Baby Boomers; “You didn’t invent sex” he said, apologizing to an audience he knows is very much a Boomer crowd. He cited Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis as proof that the sixties started a lot earlier than people think.
The episodic television rule, Matt said, is “‘Nobody grows, nobody learns anything’–it ensures syndication.” (He talks about the watchability of Friends–he can tune in to any episode, it’s always funny, the cast is great, and he knows exactly where they are–and he happens to love the apartments.) Also rather fascinating–he was told the most loyal viewers of a show watch six of 22 episodes (in the days before Netflix binge-watching, that is). So long, complex arcs that assume the audience is keeping up are forbidden. Of course, it was The Sopranos that changed a lot of this.
Matt discussed development of the individual themes in any given episode. He never starts with theme; he starts with story, and the theme emerges. Put any three storylines together, he says, and you will find a common theme–he ended up talking extensively about Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency. It was his toughest script to write, and when he finally got it, he leaned out the window and shouted “I beat you!” (channeling Gena Rowlands in Gloria, he said). “I don’t think I really understand what a plot is,” Matt said a little later, “I like a story”.
Regarding the episode, Matt had the idea of “pulling the plug.” You think something’s happening, and then partway through, it doesn’t. He tried it on with the writers–What if he turned to a writer in the room and said, tomorrow morning Vanity Fair is coming to do a profile on you. Really? Yeah, a day in the life of an ordinary writer. So you spend 24 hours believing this, and then the next morning, Matt says to you, it’s not happening. Nothing happened, except everything happened. It changes nothing, but it changes everything. So the first half of the episode plays like a pilot, like it’s laying out Don’s next adventure–working for PPL under Guy McKendrick. But halfway through, the plug is pulled. Meanwhile, Joan is quitting because her husband is going to be a surgeon, but then it turns out Greg won’t be a surgeon and Joan needs a job. Joan says But that’s life. One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower. It’s her foot too.
Matt, as Mad Men fans know, simply has a different idea of what story is. You find out the boss is coming for dinner only you don’t have enough food so you scramble and it turns out he’s allergic or whatever….This is life, this is story, this is Mad Men.
What he did promise AMC was that each episode would have a “Holy Shit” moment. You’re getting this weird rule-breaking show, but you will never know where an episode will take you, and every week will have a Holy Shit. Then of course, they held him to it. “What’s the ‘Holy Shit’ in this one?” It’s hard to convince people, he said, that failing to bring home the birthday cake qualifies as a “Holy Shit”. But let’s face it, there’s not a dad in history, television or real life, that gets sent out for a birthday cake and comes home without one (hours after the party is over) and doesn’t know it’s the worst thing ever.
Also, after Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, AMC expected every episode to have a pitch, because they believed they saw a formula in Don’s Lucky Strike pitch, and they were confused by the next few scripts. They also didn’t like that the hero behaved un-heroically in the pilot, with visible flop sweat and completely unprepared for the pitch (a hero should have had notes, which he should then abandoned for the winning “It’s Toasted” pitch, but Don didn’t have notes, although he had blank pages in a folder that he shuffled as if they were notes).
Matt’s wife, Linda Brettler, suggested Sally’s line in the GWiaAA opening scene, “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen when you turn off the lights”. From there the theme emerged, and the episode ended up with lots of shots of lights being turned off, relating to the idea of not knowing what happens next. Matt praised Linda’s insight and understanding in influencing scripts, and said there were times he refused to take her input, basically saying, “Fine, you want that written? You write it.” He got a big laugh for that.
Matt’s favorite episode is Maidenform, which he described as being “about how you’re perceived” versus how you perceive yourself. He described looking in a mirror one day and realizing “This is what I look like to other people”. He could hear a buzzing, and probably it was just fluorescent lights, but it felt eerie and disturbing. This feeling formed the episode.
LaGravenese asked if Matt acts out his characters (Jennifer Getzinger already told us the answer to that). Matt confessed that when he does Joan, he puts his hand near his throat.
In talking about Salvatore’s story, Matt credits Bob Levinson, who was married with three kids, and deeply closeted. He was also the only Jew at BBDO, so the experience of being alone and “other” was profound for him. Levinson was hired as a consultant on Mad Men.
In the 1960s, all the gay bars in Manhattan were mob-controlled. Matt suggested to Levinson a story about Sal falling for the bartender–a mobster–the only straight guy in a gay bar. Levinson responded that Sal doesn’t go to gay bars, that he’s married, that he’s a virgin to men. He knows what he wants but won’t act on it (which is how the line “I know what I want” ended up in The Hobo Code). Out gays were around at the time, but they were choreographers and designers. If a gay man identified another gay man in the office, it was simply all over for him, as it was all over for Salvatore when Lee Garner Jr. identified him as gay. The closet was the reality for most gays of the era, and Levinson helped Matt write a Salvatore who really lived that experience.
Matt has said in many interviews in the past that he saw Joan and Peggy as not being friends (once Christina read for the role), which was so different for television. On other shows, they’d be roommates, and the episode where Joan rewrites Peggy’s roommate ad was a little bit of meta-commentary on that expectation.
About Don and Peggy, Matt said, “I love both of them. They’re fake, I know, but I love them. They’re parts of good people I know.”
He talked about how hard it was to get people to read for parts when the show first started. Christina Hendricks was fired by her agency for taking the role of Joan.
Matt said he’d been criticized that Megan’s name wasn’t Canadian. “Megan” is a friend. “Calvet” comes from the Maison du Pierre Calvet, which has hundreds of years of history in Quebec.
Asked why Stan has the Moshe Dayan poster, Matt replied that Stan is not Jewish, but that Dayan was a cultural hero and a sex symbol at the time–and that Matt himself had the same poster in his room.
In response to who the hardest character is to write for, Matt said it’s the one-scene people. He hates “Man 1” and “Second Cop” and “Lady”. He wants everyone to have a reality to them, and creating that in one scene can be a huge challenge. But it also attracts great character actors, because every role has something they can bite into.
In response to a question about introducing Diana, a step backwards for Don, Matt got defensive, and then got really funny about feeling defensive, acting out “Write your own damn show!” to the audience’s laughter.
Someone asked, if he could check in with just one character from the show in 2015 and see how they’re doing, who would it be? Matt thought for long moments before replying “Trudy.” “We’ve watched her get wiser,” he said, and he thinks she’d be an awesome old lady.
Afterwards, Matt was available to people who wanted to shake his hands and snap a picture, and he gave us each a warm hug.