'Mad Men': Matthew Weiner on the Final Season, Emmy Shutouts and International Appeal
"Don Draper is not in the rapture of being left behind; Don Draper is completely aware of what's going on"
Ahead of accepting the International Emmy Founders Award on Monday night, Matthew Weiner spoke openly on his Mad Men cast, critics and the creative process at an International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences luncheon at the New York Hilton Midtown earlier that afternoon.
"Since we're here at an Emmy organization, it is one of my great frustrations that they haven't been recognized a little bit more," he told the ballroom of guests. "None of these actors have ever won an Emmy. I think they are the gold standard, and in a weird way, I don't think people know — but they'll know soon — how much they're acting, because Mad Men is its own private world. They're admired and nominated, but there's always a story on why someone else deserves to win."
Weiner clarified to The Hollywood Reporter afterward, "We did not do this for the awards, we did it for the story — I was more worried about the actors feeling it was a fitting ending for their characters. Getting an award is gravy, but it's so external and doesn't last as long as the show either." He noted that he didn't try to frame any Emmy-specific spotlights for his yet-to-win cast in his upcoming final batch of episodes. "I wouldn't know how to do that if I tried — when I see what wins, and the clips, I think, 'I would never do that....' It just doesn't fit the style of our show. There's always some story about why someone did it, and I don't think it's content. There's not enough screen time, or this or that. But for the rest, probably, of Jon Hamm's lifetime, he will be the measure of a leading man on TV.... It's a significant impact, and the idea that he wasn't recognized is gonna be part of that story — unless he does eventually get recognized, which would be great!... I don't know exactly what people get rewarded for. I'm never right."
"We always joked that Elisabeth Moss is gonna come back at 70 years old, playing the mother to someone like Peggy, and she'll win," he laughed, adding of the entire cast, "How could they not actually win? I don't know.... But who am I to say anything? Of course I think they're the best!"
Yet of the series finale, he said, "Jon Hamm has been included in everything; he just needs to know that he's my partner in that. I don't know if he's said he doesn't know, but he knows. He knew very early on exactly how it was gonna work and what I was planning and trying to execute."
Currently in a phase of relaxation — Weiner spends his days catching up on Homeland, The Strain, Sherlock, The Simpsons, Top Chef, Boardwalk Empire and Olive Kitteridge, as well as 30 Rock reruns, plus old movies from Dodsworth to Almost Famous, and gaps in his recent film education like Zero Dark Thirty — the showrunner isn't sure what his next creative move is, but definitely isn't hesitant about jumping back into television.
"I really don't know what I'm gonna do — I don't know if that next idea is a TV idea, a movie idea, anything," he told THR. "I don't know. I think I will do a few things at once, which I've never done before. And no matter what, I'm for sure not doing more than like keeping a diary or anything until the show's off the air." Creatively, "I'm at zero, in a good way. I know that I can do something, which I always hoped I could, and now, I'm at zero. I'm looking to see what's interesting to me."
Throughout the lunch discussion, moderated by The New York Times' Dave Itzkoff, Weiner traced the drama's roots as a rejected project that "not only changed AMC's profile but also created a competitor," and has become a internationally embraced series. Though he was told early on that audiences beyond the U.S. wouldn't be interested in the period piece, Weiner recalled how Band of Brothers was the top-selling DVD at the time because it was more than just a war story, and was always struck by Japanese viewers' fascination with 1950s America while he grew up in the '80s. "That was the best version of us. A lot of countries modeled their businesses, their arts, culture, everything, on General Motors in 1955."
Though he set out to make a show about "success," "human behavior" and "regular people in a historic situation," he "did have something to say about the '60s, I will not pretend — I started out trying to say something different than what I ended up saying, because I didn't know it was gonna go on that long and because I learned so much!... I just wanted to say, 'If you were raised in the Great Depression, 1968 does not look like a big deal.' What were those people thinking? Don Draper is not in the rapture of being left behind; Don Draper is completely aware of what's going on, and most of the world that is not 18 years old,... they did not realize that their parents who they thought were so square and so dumb, were saying, 'Oh, here's this again.' "
Of telling a specific story with universal appeal (and with a cast of initial unknowns), Weiner's been most surprised by audiences in China. "They're kind of going through their '50s right now," he explained. "It has come back to me in various anecdotes that the show speaks very much to a generation of Chinese — that is amazing and it makes me feel we struck on something that is true."
Of jumping from The Sopranos on HBO to Mad Men on AMC, Weiner laughed, "These places are all owned by the same companies," noting that those who complain about CBS' The Good Wife being a perennial nominee should remember that the network owns Showtime. "It's just another division. We make a sports car, we make a family car. I'm mystified by the whole competitive aspect."
Praising the successful second runs of shows like Law and Order and Nip/Tuck, he continued on reaching a big-enough slice of American households on AMC, "There needs to be some thanks given to the unions for their willingness to encourage the expansion into basic cable, and the local residuals and basic minimums that were given in the '80s to encourage the business, and that's why basic cable is what it is.... It created an opportunity for drama and a lot of other things, and basic cable is the most profitable part of the entertainment business — movies, everything, in terms of dollars spent and dollars earned. And then they'll max that out and business will turn over, and it'll change."
Weiner also expressed his thanks for Sopranos showrunner David Chase's mentorship ("He gave me the confidence to not rely on formula"), joked that his kids couldn't sit through the show (He considered their early feedback: "Dad, it's a lot a work, every episode's like five movies," to be a compliment) and reflected on pundits who review episodes while they air live ("They're watching a forest fire, they have no idea what's going on") and those who give them letter grades, "to which I say, f— you! I did not get into entertainment to get a letter grade!" he laughed.
Still, the most emotional moment while letting go of Mad Men has been watching the editors' cut of the series finale. "I sat there thinking, I [first] wrote this 14 years ago, and this is the last one I'm ever gonna see." While he's nervous about the inevitable reactions, he admitted, "I don't care, I'm just doing my job. I'm just trying to do something meaningful with the people I work with."