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Seven Lessons to Learn From Matt Weiner About Story Telling

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In case you didn’t know already know, the critically acclaimed MAD MEN series is now over. After seven phenomenal seasons, the world said it’s final good byes to Don Draper and the rest of the Mad Men family.  Creator and showrunner Matt Weiner discusses with Anne Thompson (Thompson on Hollywood) his memorable experiences bringing his long-time passion project to life and the seven major lessons learned from those experiences.

Here are highlights from talking to Weiner about what makes a story as good as MAD MEN build and sustain a passionate following through seven seasons.

1. Fight for Quality
The Baltimore native had a tough time selling the show to the usual suspects, but AMC came through on something that felt risky and pokey and not exciting to other outlets. Even so Weiner had to argue with the AMC brass to keep his vision, the show’s pace, length and scale, and costly quality standards. Hence an unpleasant hiatus which still upsets him to think about. He wishes that tension hadn’t been added to the show, because it tarnished something beautiful. And it had nothing to do with money–on his end. He didn’t want his niche indie show to become a public business conversation, but AMC took it there. “It hurt,” he says. “They ruined the ideal. I felt completely unappreciated.” But, he’ll admit, “we recovered.”

2. Let the Story Breathe.
From the start Weiner argued with AMC over pacing and spending so much time with multiple characters. “I wanted to tell stories in a different way,” he says. “I didn’t like the movies at that time. I was interested in the passage of time in adulthood. I was a successful TV writer but I was unsatisfied…It’s like this for everybody, male and female.”

3. Hire Women
Weiner wrote one season at a time–with help from a writers’ room comprised of more than 50% women. He clearly loves and understands women. He says he does not hire writers on the basis of gender but on the quality of the writing and their ability to get along. Some people write one episode, some can keep going over time. “We created these characters together.” Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy, for example, grew from a young awkward secretary to a powerful executive; Weiner is impatient with the standard issue assumption that she and Don should be romantically involved. He defends their complicated relationship–mentor and protege, sometimes rivalrous and jealous, genuinely affectionate.

4. Make Yourself Available for Questions and Feedback.
“I was always accessible,” Weiner says. “Everybody reads the scripts.” For the crew, “it wasn’t just a job, it mattered.” 80% of the crew who started with him stayed through to the end, through 92 hours and seven years.

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5. Give Every Character a Story, Even Housewives and Kids
“Every character should have a story,” he says. “They shouldn’t be a character to serve another character.” When in the second episode of the first season he followed Betty Draper (January Jones), AMC said, “No one cares about that. We like the business story.” Weiner even insisted on giving the kids Sally and Bubby their own stories. “If you commit to that it makes your job easier,” he says. But he’s not thinking about what the audience wants. “You are telling them a story. They will like it or not.”
From his introduction, Weiner knew that Jewish ad exec Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) was mentally unstable and would eventually implode, even if it took a few seasons to get to the infamous nipple-slashing episode, when Ginsberg freaks out over the arrival of a “2001” monolith-style computer at Sterling Cooper. Weiner points out that there were many obvious clues that Ginsberg was losing his mind, including the revelation that he was a virgin, “death destroyer of worlds,” and from Mars. “I know I’m more interested in history than the audience,” Weiner says. “I wanted to use Peggy Lee’s ‘Is that All There Is’ (video below), which was a huge hit in 1969 and an existential song. I was looking at the slightly absurd quality of ‘Monty Python’ or ‘Catch-22′ or Sam Peckinpah. People were so aware that computers would replace their jobs and their lives would change. Whenever we have massive bursts of technology it’s terrifying.”

6. Keep Your Secrets
Weiner never lets AMC give out press screeners ahead of showtime because he doesn’t want ANY spoilers out there. (The East Coast/West Coast divide, he cannot control.)

7. When Casting, be Attuned to Human Beings
Casting was everything, he admits, from Christina Hendricks, who expanded the horizons of what Joan was supposed to be, to Jon Hamm as the show’s needy, womanizing, chain-smoking, alcoholic anti-hero ad exec Don Draper, who finds gratification at work but in his off-hours often feels sad and lonely. Weiner originally imagined an actor like William Holden. Hamm, like his character, had depths that Weiner only intuited during auditions. Hamm had a turbulent upbringing with divorced parents, it turns out, losing his mother at age 10 to colon cancer and his father to depression in his 20s. Like his character, Hamm also enjoyed drinking to excess, admitting that he went into rehab after finishing the show. Weiner won’t address that, but says that Hamm was always perfectly groomed and prepared on set. After his first meeting with Hamm, Weiner observed, “that guy was not raised by his parents…He did not behave like a man who was that good-looking, because he probably did not know for a long time.” Actors have an “emotional availability,” Weiner says. “They have an extra thing.” And in the mysterious first episode of the current season, casting “Twilight” star Elizabeth Reaser as the waitress Draper takes in the alley–“don’t I know you?”–follows a pre-set pattern. “He has a type, we all do,” Weiner says. It all goes back to the prostitute at the brothel who took Don’s virginity. “That’s the root of his promiscuity.”

As seen on Indiewire. Written by Anne Thompson (Thompson on Hollywood)

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