Matthew Weiner's Amazon Series Revealed: Russian Royals, 'Mad Men' Ties, $50M Budget

It’s been nearly two years since audiences said goodbye to Don Draper and the many other indelible characters of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. In that time, his sprawling cast has moved on, joining other high-profile film and television projects. Now, it’s Weiner’s turn.

Until now, all that was known about his Mad Men follow-up is that it had landed at Amazon, following an intense bidding war, and that it would be an anthology — though whether that meant a seasonal anthology like American Horror Story or an episodic one a la Black Mirror was kept vague. And Weiner seemed to prefer it that way, dodging questions about the new series as recently as late February at a star-studded party for Taschen’s Mad Men coffee table book.

But with the writers room now open, Weiner spoke by phone from Hollywood about the new series’ premise, plans to populate the show with Mad Men alumni (onscreen and off-) and the inevitable comparisons this drama will draw to his beloved Emmy winner.

You ready to let the secret out?

It’s funny, I didn’t want to talk about it at the beginning because I wanted to get the room open — but we’ve been working for a couple of weeks now, we’ve started writing, and though it probably won’t be available for streaming until this time next year, maybe a little earlier, I was like, "Why am I keeping this a secret? I don’t need to have a secret project when I know what it is."

So, what will it be?

We’re doing an actual anthology — and I say it that way because the word is used for different purposes now than it was when I was growing up. They’re contemporary, but every single episode — and there will be eight — has a different cast, a different story and a different location. The thing that holds them together is that all of the stories involve people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Romanov [family, the last imperial dynasty to rule Russia. The mystery surrounding the family dates back to 1918, when revolutionaries brutally murdered Tsar Nicholas II and much of his family. But the remains of one of his daughters, Anastasia, long served as a mystery, with lore suggesting she'd survived the tragedy and taken on a new identity. In the years since, many have claimed to be Romanov survivors.] And that’s the title of the show, The Romanoffs. [Weiner's spelling choice reflects the pronunciation as well as the way the family name was commonly spelled until recently.]

What inspired the choice?

When I was writing my novel [the dark contemporary fable Heather, The Totality, will be published this fall] I started collecting these stories — we’re coming up with new one, too — but I loved the idea both as a viewer and as a writer of being able to tell a story that really commits. I don’t mean that we didn’t do that on Mad Men or that you don’t do that on continuing series, but when the characters are not coming back the next week you have a chance to tell it in a different way — to resolve it. Black Mirror is a different genre, but if you enjoy the idea of seeing a new story every week, that will be part of it. And the reason that I picked the Romanovs is that in an era where we have social media and so much theoretical connection to each other it really seems like we’re further apart than ever. And I love this idea that these characters believe themselves to be, whether they are or not, descendants of this last autocratic family who are part of one of the great true crime stories of all time. I also love that it’s the chance to talk about nature versus nurture, what they have in common and what is left of a grand heritage.

I may be getting ahead of myself here, but if there were to be a season two, would you continue telling this story or would you select a new one?

Oh, I’d do more of these. I’m hoping that people enjoy this, but it’s set up so that if I enjoy this and Amazon enjoys this, we will continue. And to me, there’s no reason that you can’t do hundreds of these because the stories are very different and there’s no formula to them. As you know, I’m not a big fan of that anyway. So you’re never going to know what you’re going to get — where are we going this week and who’s in it — but for fans of our work, you probably will get more explicit coming attractions. (Laughs.)

Where will these stories be set? And for that matter, filmed?

It’s interesting because without a standing cast or standing set, it can be financially freeing in a way. So, of the eight, we’re planning to do as many as four in the U.S. — I don’t know how many of those will be in Los Angeles — and four abroad. And then shooting them abroad, too. They’ll most likely be shot all in English but with the ability either to tell stories about Americans abroad and, of course, actors from those countries here, too.

With Mad Men, you minted a half-dozen stars out of relative unknowns. Do you want to do that for more actors or are you working with names?

We actually talked about this, and sometimes name stars bring baggage with them, but that can be an amazing advantage also. So I’m keeping myself open. We never really wanted to destroy the fabric of Mad Men, so even when we had well-known people on there like Jared Harris or Linda Cardellini, we would hide them. I don’t necessarily feel the same way with this. We’re going to be casting in terms of people who are interested in being in a story that’s not a continuing job but rather one script. And I’m excited about what I hope is the opportunity to work with a lot of people whom I’ve always wanted to work with.

Could we see your Mad Men stars pop in, too?

I definitely would not rule that out.

Have those conversations already been had?

We don’t have scripts yet, so we haven’t cast it. But of course I’d love to work with the people whom I worked with on Mad Men. And by the way, behind the scenes, my producing partner is Blake McCormick, who was on Mad Men, and in the writers room, Semi Chellas is an EP and in charge, and Marie and Andre Jacquemetton are back. And in terms of production, I’m going to try to get everybody who is available. They’re scattered to the winds with their success and, deservedly, their talent, but I’m basically trying to get every single person who was involved with that show. As I said when Mad Men ended, I want to work with these people for the rest of my life. But we have a lot of new people — or people new to us — as well.

So, the band’s back together.

Yep! And you know me, I’m always up for a melancholy moment, but there was something amazing about the first day of work in the new writers room. And on the one hand, I was like, "OK, Mad Men is really over," and on the other, I was like, "I’m so lucky that I get to do this." And I really love that I’m doing something different because I’ve been watching TV in a noncompetitive atmosphere for the first time in a long time and loving everything that I’ve missed but also feeling like there was an opportunity here to tell a different kind of story. We’ve collected a lot of stories, and now we’ve gotten into the Romanov part of it and what that means in the 23andMe world — there’s a fascinating question of who are you and who were you and who was your family.

This is your first experience writing for a streaming service, which means without such things as act breaks and with a desire for viewers to binge the next episode. How has that impacted your approach?

The most different part for me is really the storytelling. No one’s coming back week to week, which is a very different way to tell a story for someone who has had continuing characters who changed but over 92 hours in eight years. But shows like this were the most popular thing on TV for the first 20 years of television. It was a way to get actors who might otherwise not do TV because they weren’t asking for much of a commitment. It was also a way to compete with movies and a way to offer something different. And really, that’s always my interest. You don’t want to be original at the expense of everything, and as I explained this is obviously not a completely original idea, but I loved that it was a different way of thinking. So I love serial TV and I love binge-watching just like everybody else, but there’s no burden here. You could watch them all at once, but nobody is going to have to “catch up.” So, right now it’s about how interesting can we make these stories and how many twists can we have. Also, there’s really not that many shows that are contemporary that aren’t procedural — and it’s not to knock them, but it’s kind of fun to write about people you recognize.

How many episodes do you intend to direct?

I’m going to direct four of the eight, probably. I don’t know how people do every single episode. And I’ll be writing as many as possible and overseeing the writers room the same way I did on Mad Men.

There was a significant bidding war for this. What did Amazon offer than the others didn’t?

Honestly, the budget was significant, the freedom was significant, and I had great conversations with Roy [Price], who was really smart and not afraid of anything narratively, which is kind of new. It reminded me of AMC when I got there, there was a kind of, "Well, I’d like to watch that." And when the executive isn’t projecting onto the audience and reverse engineering from what they perceive to be an audience, all of a sudden you’re talking to someone who thinks like a writer. So, it was a chemistry thing in addition to him being someone who was up for eight episodes and this mutual decision about whether we move on — and he was excited about doing something new.

That budget was reported at $70 million. Is that correct?

It’s not $70 million. It’s actually $50 million for eight episodes. By the way, the most annoying thing about that was that it was suggested that that was my salary. I wish! That would be amazing, but you’d have trouble getting me on the phone if that were my salary. (Laughs.) I’m very happy with how I’m being treated but that’s the budget for eight episodes — and it’s a generous budget but it’s not as insane as it was reported.

How are you emotionally preparing for the comparisons to Mad Men? Since David Chase never did any TV after The Sopranos, and Vince Gilligan quickly segued into a spinoff of Breaking Bad, this is arguably the most high-pressure follow-up in the history of the medium. 

Well, now I don’t feel so good! (Laughs.) Is it a burden to be compared to something that people really liked? No. Look, this is my job, and I didn’t want to stop working and I can’t really stop working. And I’m still operating from this show business concept of, I want to entertain people. One of my things that keeps me from being intimidated ever by the response to anything, positive or negative, is to keep changing and to follow what I’m interested in. So whatever comparisons are going to be made, the topic sentence will be, "This is different." Will it be better or worse? I don’t know, and I can’t think that way. Many people have said, "Be prepared to be measured against [Mad Men] for the rest of your life." But I don’t know, I don’t think that’s that bad.