Writer-producer Matthew Weiner

Mad Men‘s showrunner talks about the final season of his award-winning series and his plans after it ends.

Described as one of the most creative forces in 21st-century TV drama, Matthew Weiner has been the scribe for numerous shows, including AMC's Mad Men, which was conceived from a spec script he wrote years earlier and has won four outstanding drama Emmys—the first basic-cable series to win that award. He also helmed HBO's The Sopranos and co-exec-produced both programs. In addition to his TV credits, Weiner wrote and directed the feature film, Are You Here, which premiered at 2013's Toronto International Film Festival, and previously wrote, directed and financed an indie feature with his winnings as a Jeopardy contestant. Born in Baltimore, MD and raised in L.A., he has an MFA from USC's film school.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: “Mad Men” is one of those seminal series that’s generated some of the most intense debates about what its main character, Don Draper, has to tell us about ourselves.

The series creator, Matthew Weiner, has said Don is an every-man, a hero who is an antihero. We’ll take a look at a scene from the first half of the final season of “Mad Men” and then I’m going to ask Mr. Weiner what he means by that.

[Clip]

Tavis: All right. Glad to have you back [laugh].

Matthew Weiner: I’m glad to be here, always.

Tavis: Yeah. You want to start by unpacking what you meant by that comment about Mr. Draper?

Weiner: I don’t usually refer to him as an antihero. I think I was sort of talking about the fact that, you know, antihero gets used a lot to like mean, you know, who’s the character you’re following with all these negative qualities. I just don’t judge him.

I feel like he’s – my point of view on him is that, whether you like it or not, you’re looking in the mirror on some level in terms of just knowing why people do things. I think what he has to say about whatever, it’s a lack of judgment.

It’s the fact that people behave in a certain way. Everybody has a reason for why they behave that way. It doesn’t make them good or bad. He’s very virtuous…situationally. He’s trying…

Tavis: Situationally is the operative word [laugh].

Weiner: I know. I think he’s trying. I think he’s trying. I mean, to me, I mean, there’s no drama without the guy doing bad things. I mean, that’s sort of like any character has to – there got to be conflict or have bad things done to them. So that’s part of the part that’s different. But I always feel like it’s hard to be a person and that’s kind of my perspective on all the characters in the show.

Tavis: You always give me something to think about and I always steal a great line from you. And tonight you’ve already done it this early in the conversation. I’m going to start referring to myself as virtuous situationally [laugh]. I am virtuous situationally.

Weiner: We all are, thank God. Didn’t you know? That’s what the Ten Commandments are about, you know. You wouldn’t need them if everybody behaved great all the time.

Tavis: We all are, but how could a character be as complex as Draper and we not judge the guy?

Weiner: Well, you know, a lot of that’s casting. It really is. You can say whatever you want. I had a litmus test when I was casting the pilot and I was given the luxury by AMC of getting to pick someone who was not famous yet. And I knew that they would be that character of people. They wouldn’t have previous associations or anything.

But what I had, my test at the end of it when I got down to a couple of guys, is I was like at the end of the pilot – spoiler alert – you find out that Don is married. And I said, “Am I gonna hate this guy when I find that out? Am I gonna think that he’s ungrateful, a jerk, a cad, all these other things?”

And Jon Hamm has this quality which really has to do with just there’s a natural integrity there and a conscience and maybe he feels bad. But whatever else it is, it made it less – it made him that he wasn’t a jerk, you know, that he was real person.

I think, you know, back to the Ten Commandments, real people do these things and there’s repentance, there’s prayer. There’s all these things that you can do in your life, apologizing, and there’s a journey to be a better person.

But I think his awareness of the damage that he’s doing and the damage that was done to him and his desire to sort of make it right over and over and over again is kind of what saves him. And Jon projects that. It’s a chemical. I have nothing to do with that.

Tavis: Speaking to what Jon projects as Don, you’re the guy behind the pen, obviously. You could have written him in a way – there are all kinds of characters who, you know, have gone on to be iconic like J. R. Ewing that we end up hating and he plays the role extremely well. You could have written Don in a way that made us like this guy less.

Weiner: Yeah. You know, I don’t think about what’s likable. I mean, Jon has more of a – Jon added a lot of the temperament to the character. So like his sort of like explosive temper or his desire – like a lot of these business confrontation scenes, they were always meant to be confrontational.

But Jon added that kind of like an athlete, like kind of stuffing somebody’s face in it, you know. I didn’t write that. So there’s good and bad with that.

But I think when you have a show like this that doesn’t have huge plot points and you get to find out why people are doing things and the difference between the way we are when we’re with other people and when we’re alone, so much of the show is about privacy and how people behave when they’re alone and like telling one person one thing and telling someone else another. And you kind of start to get this understanding.

But the fact that people root for him and still are interested in him on some level, you know, I don’t know what to tell you. That ambiguity…

Tavis: It’s fascinating for me.

Weiner: It’s been fascinating for me just about human nature because I think they’re nicer to Don than they actually are to other people in their lives [laughter].

Tavis: Well, he’s a handsome guy.

Weiner: Yeah, that helps.

Tavis: That counts for something.

Weiner: Believe me, that the sad truth.

Tavis: He looks great in a suit [laugh].

Weiner: That’s a big part of it.

Tavis: With all due respect – and, I mean, they’re wonderful actors. I mean, you obviously, you and your team, cast this series beautifully and you cast it with some great actors we’ve all come to love now.

Weiner: Thank you.

Tavis: But I was thinking in advance of our conversation, I guess, a day or so ago – again, I don’t want to take anything away from them. I know how modest you are about this because they’re, again, good actors. I don’t want to hate on anybody. I’ll just set this up properly.

But you have given these people – I don’t want to overstate it and say you’ve given them careers, but you’ve put them on the map in the way that they have not been regarded before. I mean, you’ve really given these people, you know, some space to show their wares.

Weiner: They’ve given me a lot too. You know what I mean? I used to wake up the first season and say, “What if I didn’t cast Jon Hamm? This thing would be over,” you know. So it’s a two-way street and I’m not just being modest. It really is. You pick the wrong person, you’re done. The thing that’s been great for me is that all of these people were working actors when I met them.

I hate that sort of prejudice against credits and inexperience. You know, God forbid you do something that fails or whatever and, all of a sudden, no one wants anything to do with you.

I like experienced people and they all had very long resumes and been working quite a bit. They just hadn’t had that thing that put them – no one saw them as the person who could carry it or be important.

You know, Christina Hendricks who played Joan, she had had deals with other TV shows. She’d been on TV a lot and been in films. And, you know, she took this job and her manager dropped her, fired her. They’re like what are you doing? Why are you doing this?

That kind of like risk-taking with a long resume of people who had been in the jobs, you just get people who make it right away don’t always behave when they get it. I think that’s the biggest – you know, it’s a truism. I mean, it just is.

And there’s something about them being adults. It’s not all age. You know, Elisabeth Moss who plays Peggy, Vincent Kartheiser who plays Pete, they are child actors. Elisabeth’s resume is longer than anyone’s on the show. She’s been working since she was three and I mean really acting.

But when you get them into this – to me, what’s exciting is that they are known for these parts and they don’t have other associations, but they have just grown so much. I just see – we got to make them change over time and not change.

Part of my dream when I started the show was like, if I get to do the whole decade, how amazing will it be to just – you know, the pilot was all about this period is not what you think. It’s darker; people are more like people are now. They’re not so virtuous.

You know, it’s not Ward Cleaver; it’s not “Leave it to Beaver.” These are real people and they come from a dark place just like all people have challenges. But you still will look back on that pilot and be nostalgic and say like, “Oh, look how simple it was,” you know [laugh]? It’s cool.

Tavis: I was thinking the other night which, again, sometimes things just happen. They’re out of your control, but sometimes are good things though.

Weiner: Sure.

Tavis: I was thinking the other night about the brilliant way, the artistically brilliant way in your writing, you have covered the tumult of the years, the social, political and economic tumult of the years that you covered. And I was thinking how well you’ve done that, but I also found myself the other night situating it in the here and the now.

Which is to say, I think about Elisabeth and the character she plays, her interaction with Hamm’s character, in the context of Jill Abramson being fired at the New York Times and what it says about women and – you know where I’m going with this.

Weiner: Oh, I do. I understand it.

Tavis: Man, that’s…

Weiner: Yeah. I mean, a lot’s changed and a lot hasn’t changed. To me, the interesting thing is like we knew Peggy Olson is the secretary and we know she didn’t go to college and we’ve seen her sort of get her opportunities for various reasons. She gets pulled out, you know, Don’s been her champion, as she said, but he’s also been, you know, he’s been a bit of a problem for her.

But the idea of somebody earning their confidence, to me, it’s all about earning something in the story. What happens in the real world, I mean, people should watch that show every day and be grateful that it’s not like it was.

But the issues of being a person, those haven’t changed. And a lot of things are just as bad as they ever were. The thing that’s the biggest difference to me when I look at this period and I say, “I cannot deny this anymore,” part of it’s because I have kids.

But you take an example of something like Donald Sterling, right? Where people would have just said at some point, “The guy’s 80 years old. That’s the way it was.” I swear to you, you know that. That’s like five years ago they would have said that. And now there is zero tolerance.

And a business, you know, that is built on this that they have to buy into, everyone as far as I can tell is doing the right thing, and this man is going to be excluded from this economic opportunity because of his attitude no matter how old he is.

That to me, that kind of – let’s call it intolerance for that behavior, that’s not part of anything. The thing that’s different is the virtue of behaving well. That seems to me a little bit sketchy now. I mean, I think that society and the law is pushing on it and that’s exciting.

But I think that still privately – I mean, my kids, they’re race blind, they’re gender blind. They say ridiculous things that make me feel horrible all the time where I’m just like, “I’m sorry [laugh]. I’m sorry I said that. I don’t know why that’s so bad. You know, Chinese food is salty. I’m not a racist” [laughter].

You know, I don’t know what to tell you. But I do think that like the attitudes and what’s expected are different. And some things, we’ve just reached the end of, you know.

A woman can do a man’s job, but there’s still when we talk about “we,” we’re talking about white men. And a woman has to sit down there and say “we” are doing this and they know that no one is including her. Someone of color has the same thing.

And I still feel like a little bit of that success segregation – I always look at it and say like, if you’re a woman right now, you still have the same problem you’ve ever had.

You have to deal with having a family, which men do not deal with. We just don’t, you know. I’m a good family man. I love my kids. I’m there, but, you know, my wife runs her own business also and we’re basically, you know, spending a lot of time feeling guilty.

But, you know, in the end, somebody, you know, gets a cut at school. My wife’s going to get them. I’m not leaving my job for that. That’s a pretty hard – and I don’t want to be that way, but it’s just expected. They won’t even call me first, you know. That’s just the way it is.

Tavis: This is going to sound – or perhaps sound gratuitous. It is not, since you raised it. But can I just do a shout-out to your wife right quick?

Weiner: Absolutely.

Tavis: I mean, I wouldn’t say this if…

Weiner: Linda Brettler is my wife.

Tavis: I know this.

Weiner: Sorry [laugh].

Tavis: She’s your wife, but I do know her name [laugh].

Weiner: She smart enough not to take my name. I can tell you that [laugh].

Tavis: She’s a brilliant architect. I wish I had the magazine on the set where I could – maybe I can get it before I get off here. On the cover of “Luxe” magazine is a gorgeous spread of your home. I wouldn’t put it out there if it wasn’t on the cover of the magazine.

Weiner: No. I mean, kind of not hiding it anymore.

Tavis: But I love my friends – I love architecture and design. I’ve done, you know, two or three houses and built my office building. I’m just so into that. I love it. But what she did with that house. The spread is just – and your office!

Weiner: I know. I know I’m very lucky.

Tavis: She made an office for you like that in the house?

Weiner: You know what? I spend a long time working on the bed. I’m intimidated by this place. I gotta walk in there with all these awards, all these things that can really keep you from working [laugh].

Tavis: There’s a magazine called “Luxe”, L-u-x-e. If you can get it, you want to see the house that Matthew Weiner lives in, that Linda built for him, check out the magazine.

Weiner: What’s interesting about her is we have a similar take on things creatively, which is that she doesn’t believe in rules.

Tavis: Right.

Weiner: She takes it by the space and she takes it by the client and she takes it the person. And that’s kind of what’s so exciting, I think, about the house too. It’s like she’s faithful to the style, but she also really believes in like there’s no rules.

It’s not I’m just gonna make it crazy to make it crazy. It’s like what is this supposed to be? And it’s got a lot of whimsy in it. It’s like things are so bland and so pale right now and so homogenized. People are kind of afraid to live in color and in, you know…

Tavis: It’s very colorful.

Weiner: Yeah. I mean, she just did it. It’s a house filled with kids. That’s what we really wanted.

Tavis: How do you – thank you, thank you. I want this. I love this. Just walk out in the middle of the set and – thank you, Kim. I appreciate this…

Weiner: Can I get a chocolate milkshake [laugh]?

Tavis: Good Lord. I’m gonna show you two things. This house – can you get that. House is divine. And I want to show you one other photo with a feature in it. I’m sorry, guys. Linda, I love what you’ve done! I love it. I was talking about Matt’s office a moment ago. I hope this camera can do justice to this.

But this is Matthew’s office that Linda did for him, but I want you to notice behind his desk the bookshelf. I don’t know if you can get in on this real good here, Jonathan. Can you see this? It’s a window, just a gorgeous design that…

Weiner: How am I gonna work in there? It’s scary.

Tavis: I could shoot this TV show in that [laugh]!

Weiner: I want to live in there. It’s a great space. I’m just like telling you. I am not a good enough writer to work in that space.

Tavis: Well, there’s a cover there by the pool. You get a copy of this, you can see the home that they share with these four lovely boys. How do two creative people partner? I mean, the two of you are creative in different ways, but how does that work? It seems like a wonderful thing, but…

Weiner: It is. It is a wonderful thing because there’s a lot of understanding about how things are and we have different jobs, and that’s part of it too. I mean, this sounds really cynical, but one of the things that’s great about being with someone who’s creative, who has a different profession, is when she succeeds, I can be really happy for her. We’re not competing [laugh].

I’m terrible. She’s not like that. I’m in show business. She’s not like that. No, what it is, I mean, she had a line that she contributed to the show. I often point out that she reads all the scripts and is involved in the show. Not as involved as the writers, but, I mean, she’s a big part of it.

There’s a line in “The Suitcase” which is kind of a famous episode of the show where I said to her, I said, “I can’t tell the difference between what’s good and what’s awful.” And she said, “They’re very close.” I’m like that’s our relationship in terms of like what our work is.

The other thing is, we both love to work. So there’s not a lot of guilt about like being obsessed or like writing something down during dinner or sketching something, you know.

All my vacation photos, I have no pictures of the kids. It’s just like railings and stair treads, you know. I have to get used to that [laugh]. But, I mean, she’s obsessed and it makes a big difference.

Tavis: It’s a beautiful partnership. I love it.

Weiner: Thanks.

Tavis: Go back, if you will, and just unpack a little bit more for me this notion of success segregation. I love that phrase, success segregation, and where you see it most prominent in our society today.

Weiner: Well, I mean, we are a capitalist society that’s motivated by money. But I do think that there’s – I think peoples’ feelings about those who have not made it yet are criminal. I think it’s not Christian, it’s not American and it’s old.

I sort of grew up with this idea of hearing, you know, people on welfare don’t want to work, all this other stuff. And it sort of disappeared and there is an idea that, if you don’t have something nice, you’re not good enough.

If you are not successful, you haven’t tried hard enough or there’s actually something wrong with you and that you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. And I feel like that happens even at a high level when two people are very successful.

You know, a lot of “Mad Men” comes from reading the biographies and studying the great figures of the 20th century, and there is mobility in the United States. I’m not going to trash the United States. It’s one of the few places where you can get out of a prison camp in Cambodia and start like a nine…

Tavis: Not what it used to be, but we still have some mobility, yes.

Weiner: Well, we have some mobility. Oh, well, they’ve done everything they can to destroy it, you know. But that, you know, sounds simplistic. It’s like greediness or whatever. But to me, what I find is the idea is I’m successful so, therefore, I am a good person. And you’re not successful, so you did something wrong.

It’s almost like, you know, it’s Calvinism. It feels like it’s from like 300 or 400 years ago and I see it all the time. And the funniest part is, you start behaving that way, then the entire culture becomes run on payback because you should not count anybody out.

That person that you, you know, look down on is gonna be your boss. That could totally happen. You might try and legislate it out of it or whatever, but you’re going to run into them…

Tavis: Like Peggy and…[laugh].

Weiner: Peggy and Don. She’s his boss, exactly.

Tavis: Exactly, yeah.

Weiner: You know what’s funny? I talk a lot about that in the show. You mentioned that it was a lot about the history of business, economics. And to me, like it’s not just the personal part of it.

Like Peggy thought she was the boss when she fired somebody, but being the boss in a creative enterprise or in any enterprise means you’re the person who has to decide all by yourself if you’re doing the right thing and you can’t trust anybody’s opinion. So she’s living with that.

But I also think like, you know, personalities. It’s always stunning to me, you know. Roger Sterling says something like, you know, 99% of the time, this business comes down to I don’t like that guy, you know [laughter].

I feel like that has been the most interesting thing to me, that that really works at a high level. You know, this advertising merger that didn’t happen because these two guys couldn’t decide who was more important.

But I think, when I say success segregation, I just mean in the simplest form that women still can’t rise to the level that they’re entitled to unless they’re born with money or they’re unstoppable in some way. They’re an exception that proves the rule.

And forgetting about equality, just the idea that someone who is not where you are, who is not – and it gets worse and worse. You can pay an extra $100, you know, to not have to drive through a poor neighborhood, to not have to see it, to not have to go into the front of the airplane, to do all of this.

Basically, your attitude about other people which, to me, you know, I’m obviously revealing my politics, but I just think it’s very bad for this country.

To assume that someone who does not have what you have is less of a person than you is just not something that – maybe I’m being naïve, maybe it’s always been part of the culture, but I see it now.

People are so – not since the 80s, not since I went to college and saw somebody with a poster on their wall that said, “Kill the Poor,” you know. I don’t get it.

Tavis: I think what you’re talking about, I don’t think you’re naïve at all. I think what you’re talking about is one of the remnants of income and equality run amok and it’s…

Weiner: But the people – I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to advocate for religion per se. But you take someone like the Rockefellers. You know, this man was a carnivorous capitalist, destroyed a lot of businesses, took a lot of people out.

They built Spelman, they built the U.N., they built Lincoln Center, they built Rockefeller Center. They financed these things during the Great Depression to give jobs. They built the University of Chicago.

There was a sense, even if it was the most patronizing thing in the world, that your job is to make the world a better place. With all that, I don’t see any of this money being shared and I think there’s a contempt for everyone who doesn’t have it.

And the worst thing is, I think they’re screwing themselves – I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that – because who’s gonna…

Tavis: I think you just did.

Weiner: Who’s gonna buy everything? Who do they think is gonna buy everything if they don’t have any money and they don’t have – so your phone’s cheap. You got to have something else in life.

Tavis: You are preaching to the choir, brother. I couldn’t agree more. I thought about Quincy Jones’ advice to me. Q told me years ago, back to what you said earlier…

Weiner: Sure.

Tavis: He said, “How do you put it, Tavis? Be careful because the toes you step on today may be connected to the behind you have to kiss tomorrow.” [Laughter] That was Q [laugh].

Weiner: That is sage wisdom.

Tavis: I cleaned that up a little bit for public television.

Weiner: I bet, I bet.

Tavis: Can I just say in the minute or so that I have left…

Weiner: Sure.

Tavis: I am not happy. I understand how this works, but I am not happy that I have to wait until 2015…

Weiner: I know, I know.

Tavis: To see these last seven episodes, man.

Weiner: Do you know what? I’m hoping that you’ll be really happy when Sunday’s episode airs that next year’s there’ll be some more show ’cause we’re working really hard on it.

And it’ll be a big finish to the show and, you know, that wasn’t my decision. But I feel like, you know, “Downtown Abbey” is eight episodes every season and no one’s complaining.

Tavis: Well, you’ve done good, as my grandpa said.

Weiner: Thank you.

Tavis: My grandpa said you done good. And it is amazing to me how a show that comes out of nowhere on a network that you helped put on the map becomes part of the American zeitgeist.

I mean, it’s the conversation we have every week. That’s got to feel good that you actually done something they’ll be talking about for years, for many, many years.

Weiner: I don’t know if I’ve absorbed that. I love to hear it.

Tavis: It’s true.

Weiner: It’s a minute right now and it’s ending and you sort of say like I’m just very grateful and I’m grateful to the people. Part of the story, you know, of just the work family, I’m grateful that I got to meet all these amazing people and learn so much and test myself.

Tavis: We’re going to be on hiatus, I think, in August. We got a movie coming out this summer?

Weiner: Yes. It’s called “You Are Here” and it has Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler. And it’s about some of the things we were talking about today, even though it’s a comedy.

Tavis: Well, ain’t no grass growing under your feet [laugh].

Weiner: I’ve been lucky to be busy. You know that.

Tavis: Linda? I’m inviting my – where you at, Linda? There you are. Hey, Linda, I’m inviting myself over to the house. I think it’s the least you can do is just give me like a tour of this wonderful place, so I’m just inviting myself.

Anyway, this Sunday, last episode for this season and we’ll be waiting for a few more months for those last seven episodes come 2015. But something tells me, knowing Matthew Weiner’s work, it will be worth the wait.

Matt, always honored to have you on this program. These conversations are always so rich for me ’cause there’s so much more, although we could talk about “Mad Men” for ad infinitum. But you bring so much more to the conversation. I really appreciate talking to you.

Weiner: Well, I appreciate talking to you ’cause you really listen [laugh].

Tavis: Well, thank you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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  • Felicia Eaves

    This was a great interview! Loved the part about “success segregation”. I live in Washington DC and you have’t made it here unless you went to xyz Ivy League School and your name ends in an alphabet soup of degrees and not to mention that you know somebody that knows the President of the United States! Thank you for that insight, ’cause at the end of the day, it really won’t matter what you did or who you knew. What I admire are those everyday people who made a difference and it didn’t get into the news.

Last modified: May 27, 2014 at 9:27 pm