'Mad Men' Director on Premiere Wish Fulfillment, Dream Sequences and Subtly Entering the '70s

"I think fans should feel sad, optimistic, wistful and entertained," says "Severance" helmer and EP Scott Hornbacher.
Michael Yarish/AMC
'Mad Men'

Mad Men returned with the first of its final seven episodes on Sunday night — and though not technically a "premiere," the mid-way relaunch of the seventh season brought a few noticeable changes to the AMC drama. (Don't read on if you haven't watch the April 5 episode, "Severance.")

Nine months after the events of "Waterloo," the episode finds the higher ranks of SC&P enjoying the fiscal success of their sale, though personal lives continue to languish. The focus is largely on Don (Jon Hamm), boozing and bedding at least three women over the course of the hour. "Severance" also marked the final directorial effort of Mad Men executive producer Scott Hornbacher. He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his last time helming the series, the episodes' distinctive dream sequence and how he hopes longtime viewers will feel about the beginning of the end.

This episode isn't technically a premiere, even though it's been 10 months since the last episode. What was the process of making it seem like more of an event than just a regular episode?

We were in the series the whole time. The real break was for the audience, waiting for it to come back. But to service the opening of the season, I think Matt has always been incredibly artful about writing a mysterious opening that reveals something about Don and the other characters' circumstances. And then he gives out these breadcrumbs of the time and place that we've arrived at. There's not a big leap ahead, but everyone's circumstances have changed slightly. Part of the story here are the characters you loved, and have loved from the beginning, and following them. For me, as much as anybody who's a fan of the show, I have an appreciation and love of these characters, 92 episodes in. It's very gratifying to have this almost pared down story that focuses on our Don, Joan, Peggy, Roger, Pete, Harry and Ken.

How do you want people to feel after watching the episode?

I think fans should feel sad, optimistic, wistful and entertained.

The time jump to April 1970 is most discernable by a Richard Nixon address about Vietnam playing in the background. Is that on page or something decided during production?

Yes, the date is correct. That's something that's specifically decided by Matt and the writers as a way to reveal time and place. The costumes, hair and makeup... the mustaches, those are all subtle clues that we've taken a leap forward.

People read a lot into Mad Men dream sequences because they tend to be very subtle. Do you film them any differently than other scenes?

There's a quality that's already there on the page — but what I do is try to see if there's the possibility of adding something by how you tell the story with the camera. Chris Manley [cinematographer] helped me figure out how to shoot both of those scenes; they were stylized and we used somewhat tighter shots than we normally use. There's a fluidity and a little bit of slow motion that gave a quality of surrealism. If it feels somewhat familiar but slightly off, that's what we wanted.

The flight attendant really did a number on Don's carpet when she spilled that wine. Did you have to do it in one take?

There's a stunt-like aspect to building a scene like that. For me, the technical part of directing I love is figuring out how to do that on a production level and reverse engineer the filming of the scene to figure out a process that makes it work. It required a lot of planning and some tricks. You don't want to be in a situation where you can only spill the wine once, but you want to make sure everybody believes you spilled the wine.

This was your last episode directing Mad Men. Did you have anything on your bucket list that you wanted to do?

I don't think so. I felt my creative role was always to service the story as closely as I could, hitting the essence of what was there on the page. Part of the creative process is having an intuitive sense of how something should be filmed. There's always pitching ideas back and forth with Matt, but I'm usually trying to circle tighter around his intention. His intention is always good. I just always looked forward to having another script to direct and finding those moments where I might be able to add something. It was always very gratifying to be in that process.

How does it feel revisiting this episode almost a year after you wrapped the whole production?

Watching the episodes finally on the air is a little bit like Don seeing Rachel Menken in his dream. It evokes a lot of the emotion I thought I put behind me when I was standing on the set and saying goodbye to everyone. It was such a great, amazing experience on this show. It's an opportunity to embrace sadness as a normal part of the human experience. As much as possible, I'm trying to appreciate letting go.