I recently attended a panel with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner hosted by writer Robert Draper (no relation) at the just-wrapped Austin Film Festival. Here’s what I learned.
1. Matthew Weiner really doesn’t like the term “the golden age of television,” he thinks it’s “insulting to [his] profession” because it implies that there was a point where television wasn’t good.
2. Weiner was inspired by Bewitched, especially advertising executive Darrin Stephens. But men who worked in advertising at the time told him the comedy “had the significance of Spongebob to the ad world” and that it was considered “a kid’s show.” Weiner tried to use footage from Bewitched on Mad Men, but the plot was dropped. It would have revolved around a Hollywood writer shadowing Don around work because he was working on a pilot about advertising. Don didn’t want anything to do with it, so he pawned him off to Roger. The man left saying, “I didn’t learn a thing, but Larry Tate has to have great hair.”
3. He called himself a devotee of Twin Peaks, which unlike Mad Men, which took place over the span of only two weeks.
4. Weiner drew inspiration from Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, who had a revelation saying that he was supposed to have multiple wives and lovers. Smith was worried about explaining this to his wife, and someone told him to tell her that it was the will of God. Smith replied, obviously, you don’t know my wife. Weiner explained that essentially, he’s just a man cheating on his wife.
5. When AMC picked up Mad Men, the channel wasn’t known for running original content; just shitty action movies. Weiner once met Clint Eastwood and said, “I’ve always wanted to work with you, but I settled on being on AMC.” One of the show’s earlier lead-ins was Jerry McGuire.
6. While unemployed, Weiner set out to write an epic script, The Horseshoe, told from the point of view of a man who came from rural poverty and reinvented himself at the turn of the 20th century looking back on his life. He was on page 52 and his character was still 12 years old, and after a couple more pages, he abandoned the project. After he wrote the Mad Men pilot, Weiner turned to this script to work out the rest of the season. In it, the opening scene took place in Ossining, New York, just like Mad Men. It began as a flashback to the main character on a train ride where he switched identifies with a dead soldier and had sex in the bathroom. Then it transitioned to the present (1960), where he got out and greeted his family. “Don Draper is this guy,” Weiner said. The original character’s name was Pete, and his mother was Peggy. Weiner instructed us to not read into that.
7. Weiner can tolerate only so many A students in a writer’s room.
8. “Don is eternal,” Weiner stated, a man who has bigger problems. “He doesn’t care about the Beatles because he knows he’s about to die.” Jon Hamm was hired because he could “wordlessly express a consciousness.” He also said, “I know it ruins the show to point out the guy drinks too much.”
9. Draper is a Nixon man. “He doesn’t like Kennedy’s entitlement,” Weiner said. Peggy’s idealism is often punished. “I don’t respect cynical people,” Weiner added. “Roger has the aura of cynicism, but acts like a child.” Bert Cooper was the most cynical.
10. The scene with Neve Campbell on the airplane in the seventh season premiere was pivotal because it presented the question: “Can this man change? Can he reform?” Weiner then quoted a Billy Bragg line from “Must I Paint You a Picture”: “That virtue never tested is no virtue at all.” To Weiner, that’s what this scene was all about.
11. The time jump between seasons 6 and 7 was the shortest ever: just 8 weeks. He considers it “a gift to skip six months,” allowing viewers to figure out what happens, giving the writers that much more story to write. It also allows them to not repeat themselves.
12. Weiner’s summary of the first half of the final season : “Don is really sorry, but no one gives a shit.”
(Photo by Jack Plunkett)