Exclusive Interview : Matthew Weiner


Creator of the new Pay-TV series “Mad Men”

Even more than it is today, New York in the early 1960s was the centre of the universe in many ways. It was truly the place to be when it came to professions such as publishing, finance and the media, but one of the most glamorous and influential businesses in New York was advertising.

Madison Avenue, where the city’s ad agencies were located, was home to a type of man who worked hard all day conjuring up ways to sell consumers the American dream and played even harder after hours. They were known as Mad Men – it was a name they coined themselves.

But as the new pay-TV series ”Mad Men” illustrates, there was a dark undercurrent to the high life of the era. 21st century audiences may be taken aback by the casual sexism and racism of the early ’60s – this was a time when a man could say “I’m not going to let a woman speak to me like that” in all seriousness – but viewers of any era may well identify with a feeling of unease and uncertainty.

“There was a feeling that was part optimism and part prosperity, which kind of sounds like now, if you ask me,” says ”Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner. “A lot of people flocked to New York during that time, and there was a hedonism that accompanied that. But at the same time there was that genteel, repressed, buttoned-up atmosphere. And in the show, the men are all asking themselves ’Is this it?’ and the women are all asking themselves ‘What’s wrong with me?’”

So ”Mad Men” works on a number of levels – it’s a fascinating character study about people who seem to have everything but feel somehow empty and dissatisfied, it’s a smart, savvy comedy and it’s a stroll down memory lane to a time before the term political correctness was even invented.

Weiner admits that some viewers may be shocked by the politically incorrect points of view displayed by ad man Don Draper (charismatic newcomer Jon Hamm) and his colleagues but he also admits that it gives ”Mad Men” a sense of honesty and authenticity. (The fact that the characters are constantly smoking and drinking, even during working hours, only adds to that.)

“Time travel is one of humanity’s great fantasies,” he says. “And if a show is done right, with a level of texture and reality, it’s a really incredible experience. The fact that this trip to this era has humour and an involving story is even better.”

He adds that setting the show in an early ‘60s milieu allows him to make some interesting observations about masculinity and femininity. “I think there’s something to be said about the formality and the rule structure of the times,” he says.

“Even though these men can be horribly sexist and these women are so trapped, women have said about the show ‘Yes, he may be a horrible man but he’s a man. Why aren’t there any men left? I’d rather slap his face and call him a sexist than have him spend his life pussyfooting around, complaining about how he can’t get what he wants’.”

Plus, Weiner laughs, “If you’re going to travel to another time in history, I think one where you could smoke and drink and eat steak and have unprotected sex would be the place to go”.

Weiner wrote his first ”Mad Men” script seven years ago, and it became his calling card within the industry. Television networks and production companies were reluctant to actually get it made, however. “It was tough because the entire television business is fuelled by advertising, and people felt it was a little cynical about that,” he says. “It was not considered a commercial product because it’s very smart, it’s got all this racism and sexism in it – even though it’s not racist or sexist itself – and it’s a period piece. It was also filled with smoking, which is not allowed on network television in the States.”

The script did land him a regular screenwriting gig on ”The Sopranos”, though, and the acclaimed crime drama’s creator, David Chase, assured Weiner he would help Mad Men make it to the screen. It took seven years but Weiner did it, and he did it without compromising his original vision for the show.

Questions of self-image and self-worth are first and foremost. “When I started researching this show I looked at the attitude of these men in this job – they drink hard, they work hard, they’re glib, they have no respect for authority, they’re constantly biting the hand that feeds them, they’re allowed tremendous latitude because they have creative jobs and they take tremendous pride in their work but in the end they’re selling toilet paper. And they have self-loathing and contempt because of that,” says Weiner.

The central character of Don may seem a little more well-adjusted but it’s clear that he’s also wrestling with some personal demons. “I want you to be interested in him, I want you to forgive him his faults, I want you to identify with him,” says Weiner.

The fact that Hamm will be an unfamiliar face to many viewers only benefits Mad Men, adds Weiner, who cast the actor for his “old-fashioned masculinity and incredible intelligence, in addition to being very funny and good-looking”.

“When you don’t associate the actor with another role, you really believe them in the part,” he says. “But I’ve said to him ‘No matter what happens with this show, you’re going to be chasing some bad guy with a gun in your hand soon’.”

Weiner admits to being a fan of TV shows like ”Law & Order”, which follow a predictable but satisfying formula. “But there’s another kind of entertainment where you have no idea what’s going to happen, and everything surprises you. If it makes sense, it’s thrilling. If it doesn’t, you’re curious,” he says.

And ”Mad Men”, he feels, is that type of show. “The truth is, you have no idea what’s going to happen in this show,” he says with a laugh. “To my mind, the most exciting part doesn’t even happen until the first scene of the third episode. There’s a very satisfying mystery – not a whodunit but a character-based mystery – that is being unravelled over the next 13 episodes. I think it’ll pique the audience’s curiosity on a profound level.”

MAD MEN is now showing on Movie Extra