Matt Weiner in Person

Matt Weiner QA

With the final seven episodes of “Mad Men” almost upon us, AMC Networks has ramped up a public relations campaign that the rest of us in the business can only envy. Matt Weiner, John Hamm and crew seem to be everywhere giving elegiac interviews or appearing on panels. The characters are on the cover of magazines. There was a great “Mad Men” ad on the Oscars, and it was the best thing on that dreary show.

Meanwhile for true “Mad Men junkies, there’s a remarkable collection of artifacts at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria in Queens.

On display are Matt’s Weiner’s old notes, scripts, and journal entries, which trace the evolution of the series over 20 years. I was particularly interested to see an early draft of the famous Kodak Carousel presentation. It was good, but not the tight, economical but powerful speech it later became, and I was encouraged to see that even Matt Weiner needs an editor.

MoMI has also recreated the sets of the Draper kitchen and Don’s office (see below).

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As someone who grew up in the 60’s, walking into the Draper kitchen is a shock of recollection – so many kitchens were like that in the early 60’s, with the pine cabinets, Betty Crocker cookbooks and yes, ashtrays.

It’s also great to see the dresses worn by Betty, Meghan, Peggy and Joan, the other artifacts of an ancient civilization, like the Almaden wine bottles, and all the modern furniture.

But what’s really a revelation is the “Mad Men” origin story in display in the Weiner’s notebook. It turns out that “Mad Men” is really two stories grafted together. Twenty years ago, Weiner wrote an unfinished script about a baby named Peter Whitman, whose prostitute mother died giving birth to him and whose father was killed by a the kick of a horse. In this outline, Peter Whitman goes off to Korea and assumes the identity of a dead superior officer and becomes a successful but philandering executive under an assumed name. In other words, except for a few details (like original Whitman being blonde and having the name Peter) all the flashbacks in Season One of “Mad Men” were laid out from more than 20 years ago.

Weiner claims to have forgotten about that script when he pitched a series about advertising executives in the Sixties and that it was only after he was asked to come up with a full season narrative arc that he remembered Peter Whitman and realized his early story and his current pitch was all one seamless tale (or as he puts it, “I’ve only had one idea in twenty years.”)

Thanks to the good people at AMC I was able to attend a Q/A with Weiner on March 20, in which he elaborated on these and other aspects of the show. For me the biggest revelation is that he doesn’t consider Man Men” to be the blistering take-down of mid-century consumerist society that it seems. This is another example of why I sometimes wonder if artists really understand their own work, because if “Mad Men” is one thing, it’s an unsparing depiction of the inner decay at the heart of 1960s America.

That’s not really how Weiner sees it, though. He doesn’t pass judgment on his characters. For him advertising is a great job – fascinating and fun. That advertising exists to convince people to buy products they don’t need – and which can sometimes kill you – is not the point. He’s not interested in historical relativism, i.e., judging people in the past by the values of today. Today we might think that ad executives who promote cigarette smoking should be listed somewhere between war criminals and pedophiles but for Weiner these are just interesting ambitious guys trying to make a living.

Weiner grew up in the Seventies so “Mad Men” is an attempt to understand and explain his parents’ generation. It is explicitly about how the average white American experienced that decade, which explains the absence of black characters.

Weiner didn’t say much about the ending, which has been a source of intense speculation for several seasons now.   Everyone wants to know if Don Draper dies. I’ve never thought that would happen but it is a persistent question. In a commentary in the exhibition, Weiner notes that there are few deaths on Mad Men because he doesn’t want it to that kind of show – a melodrama where plot and narrative challenges are resolved by wiping out a character (I’m looking at you “Downton Abbey”) so I don’t expect any other characters to go to their future reward.

He did say that he likes to take high risks, and that his wife, the cast and the crew were all happy with the ending, so it might be something completely unexpected. There could be a clue in the exhibit – that early journal entry about Peter Whitman (see below)

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Whitman’s projected decade-by-decade chronology reads a lot like Draper’s, including Pennsylvania in the 1940s to Korea in the 1950s to “NY-wife-secretary-advertising” in the 1960s. If we follow the trajectory to the end it says California in the 80s. It’s hard to believe the hyper-secretive Weiner would have allowed such an obvious clue to be shared publicly, but it would make sense in the context of the show for Don – perhaps even under his real name of Dick Whitman – to return to California, where he’s had some of his happiest times.

For my part, I think the first six shows will follow the normal pattern or jumping ahead one month at a time, ending sometime in December 1969 and that the final episode will take place sometime five to 10 years later as a wrap-up. How else to explain this promo in which all the male characters seem to have aged a lot.

Matt Weiner is a great story-teller, not just on the screen but in person also. Some of the tidbits he shared with his audience included:

— AMC took a great risk on “Mad Men,” investing $3 million in the pilot at a time when the network wasn’t even producing original content. Still, money was tight all the way around and when they flew in Jon Hamm for an audition they paid for his flight with frequent flyer miles.

— AMC auditioned Hamm several times before Weiner saw him because they wanted him to be rehearsed and improved when he met Weiner. It must have worked because Weiner wanted Hamm from the beginning. Among other things he was impressed with Hamm’s intelligence: he used the word “Dickensian” to describe Dick Whitman’s childhood, a word that is apparently not in the vocabulary of the average actor.

— AMC had been willing to spend heavily on several well-known British movie stars to play Draper but Weiner insisted on Hamm. The rest of the cast were other unknowns except for Robert Morse, the star of the classic Sixties corporate musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying.” Although thrilled to have Morse in the cast, it was not Weiner’s idea. He also said that Morse was a “lunatic” on the set, by which I think he meant an irrepressible, albeit elderly, cut-up.

— Weiner’s two most important literary influences are J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. Like Salinger, Weiner is a New York Jew trying to understand the ways of the WASP elite. He even named his son (Marten Holden Weiner, aka “Creepy Glenn”) after Holden Caulfield. And Cheever, of course, is the best-known chronicler of Sixties WASPs in the Sixties. Throughout the series, Weiner has been trying hard to dramatize the sense of loneliness, dissatisfaction and incompletion from which Cheever characters suffer. And it’s no coincidence that the Drapers live in Ossining, NY, where Cheever himself lived.

— He does not get permission to use the brands featured on the show, relying instead on “fair use” interpretations of the First Amendment. As long as they are using the brands dramatically and not trying to profit off them, they feel they are ok.

— When they filmed the pilot in 2006, there were two other Sixties-based major motion pictures being filmed (“Revolutionary Road” and “Across the Universe”) and the costume designers of those movies had snapped up almost all the men’s suits from the Sixties that were available for rental. Consequently, they could only rent small-size suits and had to hire small-size extras for the background scenes.

— Sometimes truth is too strange for fiction. Many of the most bizarre things that happened on “Mad Men” are based on real events. There is, for example, a scene where ad executives throw plastic bags of water on the black women and children who were protesting the last of blacks employed in ad agencies. This actually happened in real life at the firm of Young & Rubicam, but many critics felt the incident was too extreme to be believable. Weiner talked to the New York Times reporter who covered the protest for a front-page story and confirmed that it happened as depicted on the show, but that didn’t mollify the critics who thought Weiner was overdoing it.

This certainly not Weiner’s final public appearance talking about Mad Men. In addition to the numerous interviews he’ll be doing he will also speak March 29 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and April 28 at the 92nd Street Y. The New York Public Library will host a “Mad Men” event after the finale in May and will publish a “Mad Men” reading list, based on 25 titles mentioned during the show’s run. The Brooklyn Academy of Music will host a two-day “Mad Men at the Movies” festival, April 22-23. Weiner or a cast member will attend each screening to discuss that film. So if you haven’t been out to see him yet, there’s a still a chance.


note on the photos: I took the photo of Matt Weiner being interviewed by CBS’s Anthony Mason.  Photography was not allowed in the exhibit so the other photos are publicity stills.


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