'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner: Don't Read Into Our Promos (Q&A)
As his AMC drama kicks off its seventh and final season with some flight-themed art and teasers, the showrunner tells THR that it's all about aesthetics and breaks down the good and the bad of the split order.
Matthew Weiner approaches Mad Men's latest return in unfamiliar territory. Currently on a monthlong break in filming, he's almost working on several seasons at once -- since AMC announced last year that the final 14 episodes of the flagship drama would be split into two runs of seven episodes.
The first batch, in post-production and launching April 13, will have a few more contained stories than originally anticipated. The creator and showrunner, who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday afternoon, says the biggest challenge of the split has been working in two premieres and two finales. (He and his staff are currently in the middle of penning the second half of the season, with photography on the series wrapping for good in June.)
In typical Mad Men fashion, the well-guarded secrecy of where this season resumes is only being teased out -- by quick video of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) disembarking an airplane, a trippy poster by design legend Milton Glaser and now a slew of airport promotional stills (see below). But Weiner, for as much as his series tries to make people think, says he just wants the images to excite viewers. He also chatted about getting ready to write his characters' final scenes, his love affair with the past and the advice he recently gave David O. Russell.
Where are you in production right now?
I'm writing episode nine, and we're doing post on the first seven. The way we structured it, I directed episode seven -- the finale of the first half -- so the writing had to stop. We gave ourselves a month-hiatus from production, but the writers are now working 24 hours a day.
And when you're back filming, that's it?
We resume shooting in March, and then we'll be done shooting in June. Then I'm burying them. We shoot the final scene on June 15 or something, and then we're putting them under lock and key until April or whenever of 2015.
There has been a lot of airplane imagery in the promotions.
I don't want to disappoint any attempts to read into any meaning for the show, but we pick a milieu for the publicity photography every year where we can lean on the good looks of the cast and place them in an environment that puts people in the mood for the show. We love the contrast because there is zero glamour in air travel right now. It was just an environment to take pictures. And the fact that we had access to an old airport and real airplanes, we thought, "Why don't we just do this up?" It is in such stark contrast to today.
Where did you shoot it?
Ontario Airport in California.
One of the fastest shrinking airports in America.
Well, that might explain why they didn't have a problem with us filming there. But it's just an environment. We've done debutante parties, bar scenes, office scenes; we've done abstract a couple times. Frank Ockenfels shot them. To me, it's pretty glamorous -- but it is not related to the show. And that's not a smokescreen. It really isn't.
Six months later, how do you feel about the decision to split the seasons?
I didn't resist this. I don't think I could have. Believe it or not, I don't have control over every aspect of the show. But I also looked at it as a challenge. It was so successful for Breaking Bad building an audience that I was intrigued. The difference for us is that we don't have a year off between doing these two halves of the season. That's been positive for me, writing-wise; I can continue the story across and tell a 14-episode story, the way we always do it.
What I didn't anticipate was the seven-episodes chunks would have to, to some degree, stand on their own. Organically, we've always told the show this way. Last season, hour seven was the merger. "The Suitcase" [season four] was episode seven. "The Gold Violin" [season two] was episode seven. We're always sort of using the middle of the season as a fulcrum, but when we started writing -- I thought, "Oh my god, episode eight is a premiere, which means episode seven a finale." We need to tell some stories that are contained in those chunks. It's been intense.
Does it make the goodbye any easier?
I know it's going to run by in just seven episodes, but it feels like longer. I feel like if I was watching the show, I would be excited not angry that it wasn't [ending this year]. As a TV viewer, I know it's going to be a bummer when it ends. If I was watching the show, I would be bummed.
Are there any characters you were most eager to revisit after last season?
You put characters on hiatus for episodes -- sometimes they don't get juicy stories that last a season, and sometimes you look back and go, "Wow, Pete had an amazing story last season. I didn't realize that." We didn't start off the season going, "Pete is going to be really important this season." The only person I start out the season worrying about is Don.
That doesn't change in the final season?
What has really been the pressure this year, no matter what happens, is that these people are going to end this season frozen in time. That's the last time we see them. There's a pressure to make sure that everyone we deem important in the show, which is a huge ensemble, that they're treated with responsibility. I look back at the finale every season, and we do wrap up more than people think. They always feel like series finales to me. They always do. I write them that way, and I direct them that way. A couple of times, as far as I knew, they were the series finale.
With this really being the final season, are there things you've been planning a while?
I had this thing in my pocket that I've had since between seasons four and five, of how I wanted the series to end. Then I started thinking about everything that happened and what year we'd be coming back. All of that coalesces into how I want to leave everybody when the show is over. This is what Roger's last scene looks like... This is what Peggy's last scene looks like... all along the line. I have this incredible writing staff, and I've been doing that every year. And they help me get there in the most interesting way. How quickly did it happen? It happened very quickly, but what I didn't know was that we'll have had to cover some ground by episode seven. I always feel the pressure to hold the audience's attention week to week, believe me. I want episode five to be mind-blowing. I always want the premiere to drag them into it. But it changes year to year. I'm sure that when I'm writing the finale, it will be the same process it always is. I try to get out of everything. I try to get out of these corners we get painted into. It will be the same process it always is. They'll talk me into it, and I'll be happy in the end.
A lot of Mad Men collaborations, like the poster with Glaser, have been wish fulfillment for you. How satisfying has that part of the job been?
It's incredible that I've gotten to hold hands with the past like this. I feel incredibly blessed that some of my idols have appreciated my work -- and, on the other side of it, just being in creative conversations with people you admire. I take the past very seriously. I either remind people these people are there or I just have the satisfaction of being a fan and talking to them about their work. It's very encouraging as an artist to work with Robert Morse. When the show started 1960, he was the biggest star on Broadway, and he's still working. I have Robert Towne on my right staff. I work with Frank Pierson and now Milton Glaser. For me, they're my idols. Even if I have to lure them in by employing them, getting them in my creative life has been inspiring. I hope that someone does that to me one day.
David O. Russell, who departed a ABC series, says you told him he'd have to give his whole life to TV if he did a show. Were those words of encouragement or caution?
It was a reality check. David is a very serious artist, and I think led to believe that he could walk by this thing. And I said, it's the same job as feature filmmaking. It's going to take your whole life for you to do it the way you want to. I don't understand the huge distinction between the two forms. My kids watch everything in our house on the same screen, but going from one medium to the other, back and forth like that, becomes an issue. I think he'd been misled on some level about what it would take to do the show the way he does his movies.