Monday, October 18, 2010

Matthew Weiner Closes the Books on Season 4 of ‘Mad Men’

Arts Beat
The New York Times
October 17, 2010, 11:02 pm

Michael Yarish/AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene from the “Mad Men” Season 4 finale, “Tomorrrowland.”

One of the pleasures of being a dedicated “Mad Men” fan – and what are you doing here if you aren’t? – is connecting with other viewers whose knowledge of the show is as encyclopedic and as obsessive as your own. And no one fills that role better than Matthew Weiner, who created the show, oversees its production and would probably cater it if he had the time, and who is kind of like a walking Wikipedia of “Mad Men” (with a much higher rate of accuracy).

On a visit to New York to cheer on Jon Hamm in Thursday’s live episode of “30 Rock,” Mr. Weiner welcomed ArtsBeat to his hotel room to talk about the “Mad Men” season. Though he was tight-lipped about Sunday’s finale – even on the Friday evening before it was broadcast – Mr. Weiner spoke at length about the ideas that were in play during Season 4, his vision for the show’s characters and what the future might hold for the series.

A version of this interview appears in Monday’s print edition of The New York Times. These are extended excerpts from that conversation.

Q.Is it fair to say that one of the themes of this season was about major new undertakings, whether it’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis, coming perilously close to failure?

A.There’s definitely some of that. I always talk about how the show is about consequences, but also how the drama is derived from following things to the next step. Their marriage failed, and we did something people don’t usually do on TV shows – we actually ended the marriage. We actually changed the business.
I wanted to show that Don had lost his coordinates, was not married anymore, is getting older and is not good on his own. Who is? These big events: sleeping with that secretary and realizing that was a mistake; drinking until he blacked out, losing the only person in the world who could call him Dick, and you would see a different person there, that’s gone.

Q.Are these low moments meant to remind us that for all of his charm, he’s a guy we shouldn’t be seduced by? Is that the Tony Soprano in him?

A.I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I don’t want you to ever think that. I don’t feel like it is Tony Soprano – this is not a story about, crime doesn’t pay. This is a story about how hard it is for him. He has a lot of admirable qualities and is basically a moral person, and he makes mistakes. His morality is conflicting. It’s situational, which is the disease of the 20th century. I want you to put yourself in his shoes. I started off the season with those three holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s – to show, this is what it is to be divorced. Him coming back [from California] after finding out Anna was sick and corrupting Lane, that’s Don saying, “I can’t fix that, but I can fix this. I can make Lane feel better.”

What the audience is not used to, I think, is seeing him being rejected or make mistakes. I know people identify with this slick, super-confident, whatever it is. O.K., we have a feeling he’s an alcoholic, and if push comes to shove, he could become a problem drinker. That was not a surprise, people weren’t happy about it. We know he’s going to get older – people don’t want to think about that. The work part of it was where people got nervous, and I saw them projecting onto the story that his work was not going well. I think his work’s been going great. He’s been trying to do it on his own terms.

Q.As of last week, though, it certainly seemed like the agency had hit rock bottom.

A.I think the company was at rock bottom the week before, and there were consequences to the move he made. But in terms of what I’m trying to say – and I don’t own it, once it’s out there – I thought that that letter was a tremendous success. It’s the ultimate P.R. move to me. That episode was all about people doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Don’s making an announcement against tobacco but all he’s trying to do is get back at that company [American Tobacco] and change the brand of his company. Midge wants him to buy a painting, but she doesn’t. Betty finally decides to move – that’s the right thing. Why does she do it? Because she’s jealous of her daughter. That’s what’s in there.

Q.Was Don’s newspaper advertisement a deliberate nod to Emerson Foote?

A.There’s a bunch of people who did this move. I didn’t want anyone to think that I thought I’d invented this. On the other hand, when we talked to certain people in advertising about it, they were like, “Why would you do that?” Everything that Pete says in that scene, and Lane, that’s what they said. “You’re committing suicide. You’re euthanizing the company. You can’t do that, it’s tobacco.” Jay Chiat, actually, published a letter similar to this. It’s not an unusual move. For the audience out there, there was some question about whether or not Don could get an ad in the night before. [laughs] I don’t know why people thought it was unbelievable.

Q.There might have been some question as to whether he could afford to buy the ad and also pay for Pete Campbell’s stake to keep the company afloat.

A.He made half a million dollars selling that company. He’s been making between 40, 60, maybe $100,000 a year then. He has a lot of money. It’s part of the story. An ad back then, it was probably $3,500. It costs the same as a car, like it does now.

Q.Was it by design that the home life of Betty Francis – and, in effect, the domestic lives of nearly all the characters – played less of a role in this season?

A.No. It was about was a guy who has no family, so he’s at work all the time. I hear people weigh in on this – one year there’s too much Betty, this year there’s not enough Betty. I always feel like, whose story do I want to tell? What’s the most interesting way to say it? Betty’s story, the home-life story, has as much screen time probably, and weight, as Joan’s story had last year. That’s a lot.

Q.I think people get concerned because, in the past, you’ve shown no hesitation about dispensing with characters when it would be most dramatic to do so.

A.It’s a totally organic experience. All the actors want to work, and they want to work every week. Everyone’s always worried they’re not going to be in it enough, and Jon Hamm’s always worried he’s going to be in it too much. The idea that people thought Betty wouldn’t be in the show was amusing to me.

Q.When we did see Betty this season, it was often in connection to Sally, and Sally seemed more like the adult in that relationship.

A.She’s childish, but I think there was also a twist that Henry has been good for her. When she tells Henry that she’s talked to the F.B.I., she doesn’t want to have secrets with him. There’s an attempt to have an intimacy. She’s had a hard time, Betty. I don’t hate her. I know it’s hard for people. I think they see a lot of themselves in her, and it’s very hard for them to look at it. They love the pleasure of thinking, I would never be like that. Hopefully they won’t. I’ve got to tell you, just as a parent, and imagining being divorced, if your ex-husband takes your daughter for the week and she comes back having cut her own hair, there’s going to be a lot of anger.

Q.You got some amazing performances this season from Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally. Could you have known when you first hired her that she would blossom like this?

A.You don’t. But I can tell you she’s always been more than a cute kid. In addition to her talents, she has a mom, Erin, who is not a stage mom. Her parents are very supportive of her desire to do this. And what that means is we can be more and more adventurous in the stories we tell. I’ll bring Erin Shipka in at the beginning of the season and tell her what’s going to go on. It started off with, she’s going to be making drinks and doing ballet, and she’s going to smoke a cigarette and she’s going to get her hair pulled, and then she’s going to drive a car. Her grandpa’s going to die and she’s going to get slapped in the face. She’s going to cut her hair and then she’s going to get caught masturbating. It just got more and more and more, and they’ve never said anything other than, this is a real person. Kiernan can do it, Kiernan wants to do it, and we will shield her as much as possible but have her be an actor.

Q.Back at the office, we got to see Peggy Olson spend a memorable night with Don.

A.At gunpoint. Don didn’t want to be alone, and wouldn’t admit it. But we see the closeness between them and it’s very satisfying.

Q.She’s probably become much more of Don’s disciple than she would want to admit to herself.

A.That’s probably true. I think she loves Don and he’s an important part of her life, and yeah, she wants to spend time alone with him. But she turns on you sometimes, because she’s so self-righteous and full of herself, and it embarrasses us. I look at the episode where Pete found out [Trudy was] pregnant. To me, that story was basically, Pete is getting older and Peggy’s getting younger. She’s going to go out with the kids in the Village and kiss that guy in the closet. And Pete is having a child and going to lunch with the men. Look at the scene between the two of them, when she does the right thing and congratulates him on this pregnancy: he’s in denial about it and so is she. I look at that and think, here’s Peggy making the decision to move on with her life.

Q.I don’t suppose you’ll want to answer this, but there’s been a lot of speculation about whether Joan Harris, Christina Hendricks’s character, actually went through with the abortion.

A.You have to watch the show. I’ll have this conversation with you again in a week, but you have to watch the show. Christina’s a great actress, that’s all I can say. Whether you read that she did do it or didn’t do it, you feel the strength of someone who’s made a decision.

Q.Whether it was the hotel nude scene with Peggy and Stan Rizzo, or Don drunkenly pitching slogans for Life cereal or even the way the death of Miss Blankenship was handled, this felt like a more comedic season, with the humor coming from more unusual or dangerous situations.

A.I’ve heard that. I have to say, I think we always do it. I was a professional comedy writer for a very long time, so I’m not insecure about that. But there are so many things I laugh at that maybe other people don’t think are funny. When Roger has just lost Lucky Strike, they come in and he says, “David Montgomery died? There’s your silver lining.” Or what I think is the funniest line in that episode, when Megan says to Don, “How was the funeral?” and he says, “We’ll see.” There’s not one person on the show who is not a really sharp, gifted comedian. Every time Trudy and Pete are in a scene, it’s immediately funny, no matter what else is going on.

Q.The scene when she was first shown fully pregnant was hilarious.

A.I put in the script: Trudy is eight months pregnant but still in a shorty nightgown. And Janie Bryant goes to town when there’s something that specific. I saw that thing and I was like, what is that, a wedding cake she’s wearing?

Q.Even though Alison Brie is already playing a comic character on “Community,” you’ve been able to get a performance out of her that is very funny in a very different way.

A.She’s super-gifted. There is a very deft controlled, complete character, and she brought that with her. There is this parenthetical above her lines that’s like, Well, of course! Pete says, “I’m already drunk,” and she’s like, “Good for you.” And they have the strongest marriage in the show.

Q.She has a certain Lady MacBeth-like power over him.

A.I think that they’re a team, and she gives him good advice. When he was passed over last season, she asked him the questions that only a very sophisticated businessperson would ask. They’ve both grown up, honestly, and that season where they were trying to have their baby and he threw the chicken out the window – I’ve heard from other people, not just my own experience – that is a lot of people’s first year of marriage, especially if they haven’t lived together.

Q.We even got to see more of Glen Bishop this season. What does it say that you cast your son Marten as this creepy, off-kilter character?

A.I know people use the word creepy, I don’t understand it. I don’t find him to be off-kilter. I’m very proud of their conversations, because anyone who has seriously eavesdropped on children, that is the way they talk to each other. Glen’s always going to be defined by the fact that he asked [Betty] for a lock of hair and he walked in on her in the bathroom, and I know that. But we have a delusion, I will say, in this country, that children are not people. People forget the thoughts they had when they were 6 and 7 years old, and how much of them was in there already. As a dad, the anxiety I have is that he’s going to get some public retribution for being a peculiar person, and he’s not like that at all. He’s got very big eyes and very thick black hair and that may be part of why people think he’s so intense. But he’s a doll and he loves doing it. My worst fear is that he’ll read some of the [things] that people write about him on the Internet, which he never will. That’s all I care about.

Q.We’re now well into 1965 on the show, and there are no major black characters, no characters who are any kind of racial minority -

A.Do Jews count as racial minorities? Because there have been a lot of Jews on the show.

Q.I don’t think so. But is that its own commentary on the reality of the world these characters occupy?

A.That is the world they move in. It’s like saying, well, you’re telling a story about baseball, where’s Jackie Robinson? I’m like, Jackie Robinson is Jackie Robinson because he was one person, and this story is not taking place in that other universe. I’ve tried to show, obviously, as time goes on, this is going to change. By the way, it changes socially. It does not change in advertising. It still has not changed. And I will go to the mat on this thing. I defy any of these companies outside of their corporate retreat photos to show me people of color in positions of power. And those people who are out there, who have positions of power, who are of color, I have been in contact with and none of them think there should be more black faces in that office.

Q.I don’t mean it in an accusatory way.

A.I don’t mean it defensively. To me, I’m telling a story about segregation and assimilation, and who’s coming along at what time. I hope people can tell Faye Miller is Jewish. I hope people know at some level that Jane Siegel, Roger’s wife, is Jewish. They are assimilated. Not everyone can be an heiress like Rachel Menken, who feels absolutely bulletproof. Bobbie Barrett and Jimmy Barrett certainly were transparently Jewish.

Q.I gathered as much.

A.Well, she said his name was Brownstein. “Grin and Brownstein would be the name of the show if it wasn’t for me.” I’m not doing a Whit Stillman movie, and by the way those are contemporary, right? So that has not gone away.

Q.There was an interesting debate about “The Social Network,” which some people have criticized for having so few female characters who are anything other than sex objects, and Aaron Sorkin’s response was that that depiction was true to the world of those characters.

A.That was a fascinating thing to me, a sense that the world of the women in that movie – and this is not a criticism – felt very similar to “Entourage.” It was really about a frat-house perspective. Whenever people are like, we’ve come so far, thank God we’re not like that any more, you’re like, Really? One of the stories we did on the show this year, I got from a creative director here in New York a few years ago. I think she started here in the mid-80s, and told me the story about the lipstick on her teeth. She had an all-male staff, and she gave her presentation with lipstick all over her teeth, and no one said a word. That’s where I got that from.

Q.At what point do you start thinking about Season 5 for “Mad Men”?

A.It’s not really scheduled at this point. There are so many business things that have to go on, that are operating at a level far beyond me. We have not officially been renewed, I’m assuming we will be. For me, these weeks afterward, I have to reacclimatize myself to my life, because I work long hours. I have to try and force myself back into the hole that I’ve left in my life, which sometimes closes up a little bit. My family, my kids. I start thinking about it as soon as I have a signed contract and I know what it is. Other than that, I put everything I have into every season. And when it’s over, it’s over. And I want the audience to feel that way too. I want them to feel like, it’s gone. And hopefully they’ll be so excited when it comes.

Q.Do AMC and Lionsgate seem to understand that the best way to end the series would be on your terms and not somebody else’s?

A.I think everyone has suggested that that’s the way it would be. And I also feel like there’s a way to end the show, to leave the taste in people’s mouths. That artistic decision, to complete it, is very strong for me. We have a gigantic audience – a gigantic audience, no matter what is said about it. It has a tremendous life on the Internet, and DVD and all these other things, and it’s been so good for both of these companies, as good as it’s been for me. So I assume that everything will work out.

Q.Are you able to enjoy the culture of 2010, or are you always on the lookout for stories for your show?

A.No, no, no. First of all, half the stuff I tell you comes from right now. And one of the great things about the show is that people share their stories with me, and I just say, “That’s mine.” [laughs] My job as an artist is to channel the feelings I have about society right now, these are the things I’m feeling about our isolation, about our ambiguous relationship with materialism, about failure, about our declining self-esteem. About our attitude towards change and technology. These are things I’m feeling every day, that I put into the show.

The other aspects of things that are going on in entertainment right now are frustrating to me. I’ve been very disappointed with whatever has happened to the business model that has made the movies so incredibly unattractive to me. I’m so starved for things, for any kind of entertainment. The Oscar things are coming out right now – maybe they saved everything good for right then and there. But it’s been a bummer. It’s a bummer to see movie after movie where so many talented people get together and so much money is spent, and they’re just bland, lifeless, familiar, fake. I’m not a superhero, it’s not one of my interests. It’s O.K. for it to be a fraction of the entertainment that’s out there, but it can’t be everything. And I have four little boys so I’m seeing everything. And they’re tired of going to the movies.

Q.That’s a sad commentary.

A.It’s a bummer. But we have things we watch together. We still watch “The Simpsons.” We watch “30 Rock.” We love that cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” We watch “Sym-Bionic Titan.” And we watch a lot of old movies. I probably sound like an old person. But it’s not a great moment for someone who just got out of working 24 hours a day and wants to be entertained. And I don’t blame the artistic community. I really don’t. Something happened that nobody can make a movie between $500,000 and $80 million. That can’t be possible.


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