A method to his madness

A recent guest of the Tel Aviv University, ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner reflects back on the making of his iconic show and his first visit to Israel.

‘I’M NOT a teacher. I don’t have a message. But I do expect to elicit feeling from you... I want you to feel something,’ says award-winning TV writer Matthew Weiner, seen here speaking at the Tel Aviv University. (photo credit: YAEL TZUR)
‘I’M NOT a teacher. I don’t have a message. But I do expect to elicit feeling from you... I want you to feel something,’ says award-winning TV writer Matthew Weiner, seen here speaking at the Tel Aviv University.
(photo credit: YAEL TZUR)
"You live from season to season,” Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, told The Jerusalem Post at a reception at Tel Aviv University two weeks ago, when asked how far in advance he plotted the acclaimed series, which concluded last spring.
He was honored by the university for his achievements, and was in Israel with his wife and his children, including Marten Holden Weiner, his son who had a key recurring role on Mad Men, to teach master classes at TAU’s newly renamed Steve Tisch School of Film and Television.
“At first I didn’t know if the pilot would be picked up, and then I never knew if we would be renewed for another season. But I said, ‘If it goes 10 years, Don will end up in an ashram.’” This kind of self-deprecation is characteristic of Weiner, whose seemingly uncommercial series about a charming but deceitful ad man, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), in the Sixties, is considered one of the greatest television series of all time. In the show’s finale, Don goes to an ashram-like Northern California retreat to sort out his feelings, and ends up coming up with the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” iconic Coke commercial.
It was the most buzzed-about ending to a series since The Sopranos faded to black in 2007, and it’s no coincidence that Weiner was a writer on that show as well, working on it for its last two seasons.
Surrounded by admirers at the glittery reception before the award ceremony, Weiner looked and sounded more like a film school student fielding compliments on his first short than a celebrated professional whose show has been compared to great works of literature.
Unfailingly polite, he posed for photos and signed Mad Men books held by trembling fans, as television monitors played scenes from the show and bartenders served Sixties-style cocktails.
“In the past, I was always working ahead [on the show] and so when someone would tell me they liked an episode, I couldn’t really hear all the nice things,” he said.
But he’s hearing them now. At the ceremony, following speeches from Amnon Dick, president of the Israeli Friends of TAU’s Business-Academic Club, and Yaron Bloch, head of the film school, Weiner smiled when TAU president and professor Joseph Klafter said, “You’ve won nine Emmys, three Golden Globes, and now the President’s Award of Tel Aviv University.”
Weiner spoke about being moved by being in Israel: “This is my first trip to Israel and I’m part of a generation that didn’t rush here right away, I don’t know how to explain that.” Speaking about a recent visit to Paris, he said he was asked about the Babylon episode on Season One of Mad Men, in which representatives of the Israeli government turn to Don Draper to create an advertising campaign promoting tourism.
“That episode was about America’s love affair with Israel... It’s such a romantic part of my life to feel a part of this and to come here... It’s very important that this is a film culture, and in the state of the world right now, Israel is an example ironically for how secularism works but also for the role of the arts in people’s lives. I felt so much energy at the university and there’s so much creativity going on... It’s a pleasure for me as an artist to come here and get recognized.”
He recalled saying, “Well, I’m Jewish,” at a recent appearance in Paris, “and there was just this hush and you forget that it’s not the case everywhere in the world where you can just announce that you’re Jewish. And I would say on some level my parents raised us not to announce that we’re Jewish, but I feel lucky I’ve never had a problem with it, my children don’t have a problem with it, and I’m very proud of my heritage, and... seeing us up here I hope you can see how attached I am to your world, that we’re in the same place.”
Following the award presentation, he sat down for a conversation with Israeli-born, Hollywood-based television producer Alon Aranya, a graduate of the TAU film school who made the hit shows Hostages and Betrayal. Weiner said he and his wife, architect Linda Brettler, promised each other when they married 25 years ago that they would take a trip to Israel, adding, “It took way too long. But I also told her I was going to have a job... Can you imagine marrying somebody who didn’t have a job?” as if he still couldn’t quite believe it.
He credited his wife with playing a key role in the success of Mad Men, saying that her support and encouragement was like a “folie a deux – a shared delusion that something good would happen, and when people said no it did not deter me.”
Even though Mad Men seemed like the longest of long shots, Weiner went ahead and wrote the pilot, which changed his life.
“I wrote the Mad Men pilot and it got me my job on The Sopranos,” where he wrote for the last two seasons.
“I was a different person after I wrote it... the worst case scenario was I will have written something I am proud of, which will make me a nicer person.”
After The Sopranos ended, Weiner was determined to get Mad Men off the ground, and “sold it for nothing in exchange for being able to make it the way I wanted to make it” to the AMC network and Lionsgate entertainment company “that were at the bottom of their businesses, and were willing to take a risk.”
He talked about the stress of being a show runner – the writer/producer who in the end takes responsibility for every aspect of the production.
“My job is a writer, that’s the major part of my job... I’m involved with every other aspect of it because I’m trying to keep the product consistent, if you want to refer to it that way. The real tough part is delivering that script and showing up to work every eight days and having that script and making sure that it is producable.”
Weiner, who cared about the authenticity of Mad Men so much he recreated every period detail with as much accuracy as was humanly possible – replacing pieces of fruit on the set that looked too large and juicy for the Sixties with smaller, less appetizing ones, for example – often clashed with AMC executives on matters great and small.
He said he took the attitude that “they didn’t know what they were talking about” and recalled, “They were completely convinced that no one outside of the United States, including in Israel, by the way, would ever want to see a story about America in this period.”
How wrong they were.
Weiner, who was known for being extremely secretive about upcoming episodes of the show, has not yet announced plans for any major new projects, although he is directing an episode of the new season of Orange is the New Black, which was created by his friend, Jenji Kohan.
Asked about the changes in television viewing brought on by technology, he said, “I was not allowed to watch TV as a kid, growing up, so that why I picked this profession, and I missed out on the social aspects of watching TV... I spent a fair amount of college watching TV and I love the conversation that goes along with the TV show.” He said he was sad to see the “social aspect” disappearing, as people don’t watch shows together when they air, but watch online when it suits them. He said he particularly missed the anticipation of each new episode of The Sopranos before he worked there, and “the week of waiting for the show, we used to talk about The Sopranos and you dream about it and you discuss what it meant... that’s gone now.”
But he understands there is no turning back: “Who has people under 20 in their house who are not spending more time playing Call of Duty than watching The Simpsons? I am literally yelling at my kids, ‘Watch TV,’ I’m not telling them to go outside and play, I’m like, ‘Do you have to keep playing on the Xbox, you could be watching TV right now, that’s why I put the roof over your heads, watch some TV, is it so bad?’” As if he were worried he sounded like a curmudgeon, he said, “I’m not a teacher. I don’t have a message. But I do expect to elicit feeling from you... I want you to feel something.”