Matthew Weiner Interview: 'People Don't Change'

Mad Men Creator Didn't Want to Write a History Lesson

by | May 13, 2015 | Comments

Ahead of the Mad Men season 7B premiere, AMC released a keepsake hardcover book to the press. It was a collection of stills from the eight years of the series, along with a timeline plotting various important moments of history across the pages. At first flip-through, you’re struck by the different looks of the characters — the knee-length dresses that morphed into psychedelic, flowered miniskirts, the clean-shaven faces that sprouted Burt Reynolds-worthy mustaches. Then, as you delve further into those points graphed on the timeline, you start to think, ‘Well, I don’t remember Mad Men covering this.’ That’s when you wonder if Mad Men was ever really about the history — maybe it was just about the people who lived through it.

After talking to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, you realize both are true. Weiner never set out to do a history lesson — he was always interested in personal human stories at the most micro level. But Weiner did want to do a lesson about history, one that says your perception of history is far more personal than you ever realized.

Sarah Ricard for Rotten Tomatoes: I want to talk about this theme that keeps coming up with you, which is the personal lives of people in historical context.

Matthew Weiner: Yeah. That’s it. It’s very interesting to acknowledge that. The show was conceived with that as the basic premise — that your perception of history is given to you. It becomes metabolized a certain way by the culture…. My early childhood in the 70’s are M*A*S*H and Happy Days. Those are two period pieces, with different amounts of reality to them. I always want to say, people don’t change. The issues of your everyday life don’t change. I want to do something on a human scale. Setting it at that period was a great way to call attention to how different we thought it was. But, more importantly, just to let the audience be in an environment that was on a human scale. That is was about, not “I have to get you because you murdered my father,” but “I have to get you because you lied to me.” It’s something where most of us live.

RT: How did you avoid the Forrest Gump approach, where an individual is a part of every important historical moment?

Weiner: You know, it’s funny. I was working on this idea — the movie that became the TV show eventually. There’s five years in between abandoning the movie and writing Mad Men. I had this idea in 1992. I found these notes. I did not consciously know that Mad Men was an extension of that movie idea until the network was interested in Mad Men. They’re like “Well, who is this guy?” I couldn’t find anything. Then I found this movie. The last page of the movie said “Ossining 1960.” I said, “Oh my God, it’s that guy!” It had all of Don’s sort of childhood in it. We used all of the movie in the show. A lot of it in the first season. The last scene was him, after shifting bodies, abandoning this other guy’s body at the train station and his half-brother running after him.

Forrest Gump came out during that. I was like “I don’t want to do the greatest hits of history.” I’m not saying anything about that movie. The show came out. They’re like “Well, how come they’re not doing the Volkswagen ad?” I said, “I’m doing the losers. These are people.” It’s not that they’re out of touch.

Looking at the newspapers from the period, you don’t know what the events were at the time. If you take today’s paper and it’s 40 years from now, you’d look at what’s on the front of the paper and see how much it comes up in your conversation today. Now, what’s been the educational part of it is that sometimes events transcend that. The only thing that I can use really concretely [is] the Bush-Gore election, which I found immediate parallels to the 1960 election. Obviously different outcomes, but a tie ballgame that wasn’t really a tie ballgame and the person who probably won the actual election did not become the President. That was interesting to me.

On the other hand, take 9/11. Could you tell a story about people’s lives and not stop to say, “What did that mean to your life?” Yes, everybody was back in the mall by Halloween, but if you were going through a divorce when 9/11 happened — during that whole experience, that cultural experience, that national experience, the repercussions that came from the permanent changes to America from experiencing that — you were still getting divorced.

I did not want it to be a history lesson. I did have a weird thing the first season where someone asked me who was going to win the election. Nixon or Kennedy? I’m like “Really?” They’re like “Well, I know both of them became President. I don’t know which election they won.” But by the second season, people were going on Wikipedia or wherever they went to say “Oh, this is what they’re doing this year. They’re going to this. They’re going to do that. They’re going to do this.” And I did not want to do that. I did not feel the compulsion to cover it.

The most that history has ever intersected with the show, and it was only because it provided such a great illumination of Don’s inner state, was 1968. That’s season six, where I felt like what was going in the world was an expression of him. There were revolutions in every country. Don was going to be in that state. Don was not out of touch. The culture was exactly like Don. Seeing that collection of disasters that happened — many of them filled with hope for change, seeing that at the end of it, for the most part, there was no change. Richard Nixon was the President again. Napoleon came in at the end of the French Revolution. There was a reaction of stability and conservatism. That, to me, was like “I don’t want to miss out on that.”

Did I have to do Martin Luther King’s assassination? Did I feel an obligation to do it? No. Did I have to explain, that in 1968, that there was a non-stop barrage of violence and hopeful people being eliminated from the picture and feelings of change for the positive, whether it was the troops rolling into Czechoslovakia, the students in Paris, the massacre in Mexico City? It’s global — the Democratic Convention being the last part of it.

RT: And as a film buff, you were also aware of all the movies coming out at that time that were reflecting the culture.

Weiner: The movies always reflect the culture. Sometimes they reflect the culture’s desire to be the subversive part of the culture. Sometimes they are the mainstay. For example, right after World War II seeing the masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, which is all about soldiers returning to real life and how hard it is to integrate them, and how class broke down in the Army so that the poorest person with the least amount of possibilities with no family, played by Dana Andrews, is the hero in the war. He’s a pilot at the top of the chain. Fredric March is a sergeant. When he comes home he’s a bank president or bank officer. That irony is all tied up in this great story that was happening right at that moment.

Five years later, they are making Audie Murphy movies. The fact that the Green Berets is made in the middle of Vietnam — that Gomer Pyle is on TV when we’re at the most anti-military moment in the American public — just seeing how much film there was and popular entertainment from the mid-50’s on about unwanted pregnancies. At the same time, we’re supposed to be in this incredibly conservative period where everyone’s waiting to get married. Every other movie is about a young girl who either has to kill herself or get an abortion. You’re sort of saying “Well, the culture is in a different place than our perception.”

When Hollywood or network TV has Maynard Krebs, a beatnik, as a comic character in a sitcom, you know that that idea has permeated the culture. They’re not in the business of taking risks.

Next: Stop calling Don Draper an “antihero.”

RT: When you’re writing something that’s historical, how do you approach reflecting the culture in which the show is set? How much of it is reflecting now?

Weiner: Well, first of all, that is a magical process that is my own that comes down to my own taste. I don’t really have an agenda. What’s been helpful is to have the show take place in an advertising agency, which is by nature, extremely conservative and extremely derivative. They do not create trends. They reflect them; they hold up a mirror. They see it this way. They may promise clients that they’re going to create a viral video. You can’t reverse engineer it. I’m always firmly tied to where I am. I was born in 1965. I don’t know anything else. I have an imagination. There is nothing more satisfying in this process than finding research, events, whatever, that confirm my instincts.

RT: Do you think that Mad Men reflects our fascination with the anti-hero that the culture has had since Tony Soprano?

Weiner: I don’t know. I’m kind of touchy about that.

RT: About ‘anti-hero’?

Weiner: About the idea of an anti-hero. Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, is an anti-hero. But is he an anti-hero or is he an anti-leading man? Is he an every-man? Don Draper doesn’t kill people…

RT: Maybe, ‘flawed’ is a better?

Weiner: To me, name a show that you’ve ever been interested in where the main character is not flawed. I take a look at Bonanza. See the character types that are in that family. There are people with egos. There are impulsive characters. There are people who are proud. Every one of the seven deadly sins comes out in one of those people. Drama, with unflawed “heroic” characters is really boring. Perfect example, right in the culture for a long time will be there forever probably, Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is the hero. Is Han Solo an anti-hero?… I don’t know. He’s flawed. Is he a reluctant hero?

I love that people see any similarity between the show and The Sopranos. Certainly its acceptance of human foibles is definitely there. The fact that it’s happening on a familiar scale. It’s not particularly preposterous. It’s not lying about human behavior. I will take all of that. But, Walter White is a lot more like Tony Soprano than Don Draper is… It’s a very vague definition of behavior to compare those two people. Don does stuff that’s bad, but most of us do.

RT: What you’re teaching me is that maybe that the language we keep using about TV right now is kind of bulls—.

Weiner: I think it is. I think it’s a little bit bulls—. I have to say that most of it is in response to the way TV is usually bulls—. I’ll take someone like Vic Mackey on The Shield, someone who’s at the forefront of the beginning of whatever’s the current business model, at least, for television. And say that, spoiler alert, when he kills what we think is going to be his main antagonist, and he’s a police officer, in the pilot of that show, a lot of rules were broken. When Tony Soprano strangled that guy in episode five, in the college episode, a lot of rules are being broken. Those rules have to do with the way people are portrayed on television.

So, maybe I’m going back on myself and TV was populated with a lot of heroes who really care and always do the right thing. I saw a show recently where the character said at the end of the scene “I wish I could do more.” I look at that and I feel like, “That’s a wish fulfillment indeed.” Some of our entertainment should provide that. I’m not taking a superior position, but I did not want to do that. I have never met anyone like that in real life. And I know a lot of amazing people who do way more valuable things than I do… Let’s take the most cliché, virtuous positions and pretend like we’re running a TV network. When you talk to those people, they have an extremely realistic view of human nature.

To me, there’s always this conversation about entertainment that is a fantasy of what we think entertainment should be versus what it actually is. Really good entertainment is filled with conflict, flawed characters, bad decisions and possible irreversible circumstances. I don’t care if it’s Sherlock Holmes. No matter what the formula is, even if they’re overcoming all the obstacles in the world. Look at a movie like An Officer and a Gentleman. If you watch that again, you will see the darkness that is in that journey that we don’t even want to remember anymore. Even Rocky. Take what people consider to be the most influential in Hollywood for a while — that rags to riches story that sounds like a total cliché. That guy loses.

Miami Vice was really big when I was coming up and David Chase was cited as saying it was the first place that television spent the money on making cinema… I always look at that and say “It’s a film noir.” Don Johnson’s character, Crockett, always lost. What’s been fun about Mad Men — and it’s also been what’s hard — is that it doesn’t have a genre.

The period aside — because that wasn’t my major focus ever — the human scale has to do with being kind of forgiving, or at least nonjudgmental about the way we actually behave. That’s why the ten commandments are there. We screened an episode recently. It was “Shut the door, have a seat.” Which is an episode that people really liked. I remember there’s a moment in it that came out of the story process where at the beginning of the episode, Conrad Hilton tells Don that McCann Erickson is buying Puttnam, Powell and Lowe and Sterling Cooper with it. Then they go and tell this big news. Then Don goes and tells the partners and they tell Lane and Lane says, “That’s not right. They’re actually just buying Sterling Cooper.” Then Lane tells his bosses in London they found out that they’re for sale, but all the details are screwed up because they thought they were buying Puttnam, Powell and Lowe too. His boss says to him “They are,” and Lane finds out that he is also being sold.

When you’re constructing the story, you just think like, “Well, what’s really happening. This will be the information.” But getting it wrong, and anticipating that people lie to each other, they’re unspecific, they relay information incorrectly just by accident, things become exaggerated — that helps you with the story, but it’s also not usually part of the lifeblood of a TV show. Murder’s against the law, so that guy will never kill that guy. That’s not true. Otherwise, you don’t have a story.

Next: Weiner asks: What would humans do?

RT: Do you think there’s a self-reflection that happens to people when they’re older that helps them understand history?

Matthew Weiner: There’s a weird thing about the show which is that it’s a period piece where fifty percent of the audience had some recollection of the period. They’re going to tell you when you get it right. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination for example, which was a shock and not a shock. It came in the middle of the night and everybody remembered. I remembered they must be saying “What! You got to be kidding me! Really? How could that happen again?” People told me that we got that feeling right.

We got the feeling right of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot twenty-four hours later. That gut emotion. We also got the fact right that a week later, after JFK’s assassination, was Thanksgiving. People don’t remember it. To me, all it is, I’m getting checked all the time. Sometimes we get stuff wrong. All I use is what I think is a little bit of insight to how we experience things now. And what’s different from that?

RT: You’re not researching how people reacted. You’re just like, “Well, what would people be feeling?”

Weiner: A little bit. But all I have is “What would humans do?” I wasn’t going to do the Kennedy assassinations. It’s been done so many times and done so well. Then I thought “I want to know how my people will react to it.” It became a story for me when I realized that is was going to bring up Betty’s sense of the fact that a lot of the rules and conventions of society were meaningless. A neolism that would allow her to leave her marriage, with divorce being very distasteful and taboo in the way she was raised. What would it take for her to feel like she could actually do that? A complete breakdown in the norms of society. That’s what becomes the story.

David Chase told a story, and it’s actually in his film, he was at Wake Forest when Kennedy was assassinated. People were leaning out the windows cheering. There were students doing that. He was not liked and they responded. When I look at the disrespect for Obama and think about the office of the President, it reminds me of looking at these cartoons of William Howard Taft. There are times when there is no respect and it seems okay. People who trade in “decency” seem to be the worst offenders.

RT: You must be very sensitive to that. It’s like you’re part psychologist.

Weiner: Yes, it’s all psychology, and sometimes I’m wrong. I mean, a lot of times I’m wrong. That’s why there’s this amazing writing staff. There are lots of points of view. You can’t generalize about psychology in terms of men or women or race or anything. I wanted to do this story after Don got divorced about Thanksgiving. They were going to have Thanksgiving at Henry Francis’ house and Don would be there. It would be this awkward thing. Bob Levenson, who was divorced right around 1970, said to me “No. No. No.” He goes, “That whole idea of having a civil relationship with your exes? That is way later.” Nobody was having a party together with their exes.

I could not find the word “depressed” for a long time in the arts, in literature, anywhere. People did not say “I’m depressed.” And men never said it. It was a medical condition. Now, it’s kind of like “Oh, that’s depressing.” Tony Soprano always found the whole thing depressing, right? “It’s depressing.” You can hear him saying that. That’s modern.

When we were constructing the pilot — I had written the pilot already — and one of the notes from the network was like, “Who’s his Dr.Melfi? Who’s he going to talk to?” I said “That’s part of what’s different about this time, is nobody.” Don says, “I was raised in the Midwest. We were told it’s not polite to talk about yourself.” This sharing, the Facebook “Look what I had for lunch” moment, that was considered private. I actually think privacy has changed a lot just in the last seven years.

RT: Do you think that the culture now, if we were going to encapsulate it, is how the internet has changed the world?

Weiner: I’ve been working on this show too long to try and make predictions about what was the most important thing to happen in the last fourteen years. We mention Malcolm X in the show. His death was not on the front page of the New York Times. And you cannot tell the stories of the 60’s without that being one of the points on the chart. The Watts Riots, covered by black newspapers, the New Amsterdam paper and so forth. Eventually covered on the radio. Not in the paper for days. I always say, for me, as a student of history, Obama’s protection and vote of confidence for General Motors was a turning point in the economy. I don’t know if that’s going to show up for people. I was there when it was happening. I know it was a big deal. I’m jumping back and forth in history. In 1960, a bomb went off in Grand Central Station that killed ten people.

RT: I didn’t even know that.

Weiner: Nobody knows it. It’s in William Manchester’s book. It was Puerto Rican anarchists fighting for statehood. It definitely hastened the decay of Grand Central, which was eventually saved, but it’s one of those things that has a long footprint where less people went the next day. It never recovered.

When 9/11 happens and someone says “There’s never been an act of terrorism on US soil.” Okay. Does Oklahoma City count? What are the rules? We remember what we want to remember. The story gets told in the way that it’s going to be told. For better or worse, always take it down to a human level. I read Joseph Smith’s biography by Fawn Brodie and she has a quote in there where he is talking to the second in charge of the church as the church is being founded. He has had this revelation that he is supposed to have multiple wives. Smith’s wife is one of the financiers of the entire thing. So he keeps it a secret. The other men in the church say, “Why don’t you just tell your wife you had that revelation?” and he says “You obviously don’t know my wife very well.” I read that and I was like “Nothing has changed.” The language. The emotion. Everything. It’s humanity.

RT: Well, what’s cool is that we get so much of what we know of history from movies and TV and it’s the same icons over and over and over again. Mad Men gives us a new perspective on the ’60s.

Weiner: I didn’t want to revise history, but I wanted to revise our perception that history is not being created by people. If somebody’s in a bad mood, it could affect everything. I think it’s the wisest thing that Roger Sterling ever said for sure. For me, it was this great moment of insight that I am proud of saying. People in business know it already. He says to Pete Campbell “Ninety-nine percent of the time, business comes down to ‘I don’t like that guy.'”

That’s what I’ve been trying to sort of inject into whatever the story is of the times. That’s why I hate having it reduced. Not reduced. It just hasn’t been my interest — that it’s turbulent or whatever. I didn’t know the show was going to go on that long anyway. I just wanted to just say it, if we could, once even in the pilot.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.