Matthew Weiner says he pushed himself to 'go deeper' writing 'Mad Men'
After 7 seasons, "Mad Men" is headed toward its series finale. The show changed how we think of advertising and midday cocktails, and helped usher in an era of great TV.
The beloved AMC show "Mad Men" is headed toward its series finale, with just six episodes left. The series, which centered on a Madison Avenue ad agency during the 1960s, bids adieu after seven seasons.
The show changed the way we think and talk about advertising, midday cocktails and extramarital affairs. And it played a critical role in today's renaissance of great television.
"Mad Men" was created by Matthew Weiner, who spoke with The Frame's John Horn as part of his farewell tour.
Clearly the show has a broad reach. Were you always able, outside of Twitter and Facebook, to isolate yourself from the critical reaction to the show? Or did you want to hear what people were saying about it? And if so, did you ever let that affect the way you approached a season?
Matthew Weiner: No, I never let it affect the way I approached the season. And I have more than a morbid curiosity about what people think.
On the one hand, the best of the [comments] are people showing off their writing, and like, the recappers are trying to write the most poetic version of a recap they’ve ever done. [But,] some people need a lesson on a book report.
It’s very demoralizing a lot of times. It’s so critical. I’m so sensitive to criticism anyway. And usually, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway, so I don’t respond to it; but it immediately puts you on the defensive.
You’re immediately being accused of a crime and you’re not allowed to testify in your own defense because your show was your testimony. [laughs] So what are you going to say?
But there are comments…there [is] frequently this stream of vitriol, of like, ‘Why are you writing about this,’ or, ‘who cares?’ or whatever. And you’re kind of like, ‘I didn’t ask you to do it.’
All of this is to say, you have a curiosity about it. It’s like a review.
In the broader history of the show itself — in life — was there a moment where you overheard people talking about your show, and you realized it had become part of the cultural conversation?
Weiner: When the show was very first on, my interaction with the audience, because I was working all the time, was very limited.
I really knew people were watching it because the writers’ strike happened right after we went off the air, and I started being on the picket line and would have writers coming up to me like, ‘You did that show? I love that show,’ or whatever.
Then, you know, we went off the air the first season, around Labor Day, I think. And I had a prediction that I considered to be a measure of success, which is, if some man dressed as Joan at Halloween, I’d know we had made it — and that happened. Someone sent me a picture of that in New York City. And I was like, ‘You’ve poked through into a very important part of the culture.’
Novelists often say at the beginning of writing a book that they don’t know where a character is going until the book is written, that the characters kind of find their own way, and it’s sometimes a real surprise to the author. Is there an equivalent with "Mad Men"?
Weiner: Nobody wrote their own story, because it’s too much effort. There’s a bunch of writers in there and we do it an episode at a time, and there’s 92 [total] hours of [the show].
I wish. We used to joke that it writes itself whenever a line seemed appropriate, but it doesn’t write itself.
The surprise was going on this long. And the surprise was taking into account, when you’re making little decisions all along the way, what that means for the character in the long-term.
When you turn in a script on someone else’s show, and you have a good showrunner, and you’ve turned in your first draft, they want it to be better in certain ways. They want it to be like certain things they’ve given you notes on.
But, David Chase [creator and showrunner of ‘The Sopranos’] and the good bosses that I’ve had would write things like, ‘go deeper.’
If you keep that in mind, and I’ve given that note to other people too, if you start to understand what that really means…it’s not just about rejecting ideas, it’s not just about not following the cliché, it’s not just about seeing things in a binary way and flipping it on its head. It’s literally about, ‘Well, what is that person really thinking? Let’s say that they have their whole life, and a lot of stuff we don’t even know about that’s coming into play at this moment. What can you do?’
I have always pushed myself, and the writers have always pushed me, and each other, and I push the writers to be that way. And it shows in the show. It shows right down to the actors' understanding.
Check out part 2 of our interview with Matthew Weiner, talking the show's legacy and his own sense of loss saying goodbye to the show's cast and crew.