Writer-producer Matthew Weiner

The award-winning writer-producer discusses the Emmy-winning Mad Men series that he created and talks about the show’s future with AMC.

Matthew Weiner has been described as one of the most creative forces in 21st-century TV drama. He's been the scribe for numerous shows, including The Sopranos, which he also exec-produced. After the HBO hit ended its run, Weiner revisited a spec script he'd written years earlier, which became AMC's award-winning Mad Men—the first basic-cable series to win an outstanding drama series Emmy. He also 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: Pleased to welcome Matthew Weiner back to this program. Following his award-winning work on “The Sopranos,” he has created the most critically acclaimed drama currently on TV, “Mad Men.” After a high-profile contractual battle that I assume we may get to in just a few moments, “Mad Men” returns this Sunday night with a special two-hour – love this – two-hour episode to kick off the fifth season on AMC.

As I mentioned at the top, “Mad Men” has won the Emmy for best drama in each of its first four seasons. So a lot to get to tonight with Matt Weiner, but first a scene from “Mad Men.”

[Clip]

Tavis: “Have a nice weekend.” (Laughter) That was funny.

Matthew Weiner: Yeah.

Tavis: First of all, good to see you again.

Weiner: Good to see you too, always.

Tavis: When you were walking on the stage I told you it was good to see you, and I really mean that. I thought I might not be seeing you for a while a few months ago.

Weiner: Well – yeah, yeah. That was – I’m glad it’s over, that’s all I can tell you. Everything worked out, and I’m hoping that when the show comes on the air this weekend, people will see it, they’ll be happy and none of this will ever be discussed again. (Laughs)

Tavis: I want to play a clip right quick – oh, we’re going to discuss it at least one more time. (Laughter)

Weiner: Oh, no, it’s okay. I don’t mind, I just -

Tavis: Only because I haven’t seen you in a while.

Weiner: Oh, no, I love it.

Tavis: So I want to play a clip right quick from David E. Kelley, another great TV writer.

Weiner: Sure.

Tavis: He was on this show not long ago and we started out the show playing a montage of his work. After playing this montage, I asked him -

Weiner: That’s a whole show.

Tavis: Yeah, it is.

Weiner: He’s done a lot of work.

Tavis: A lot of good work.

Weiner: Yeah.

Tavis: So I asked David E. Kelley, I said, “What’s the one thing about this industry that just annoys you now, the thing that over the years of your career has just changed so dramatically that you just can’t stand it?” Here’s what he said.

[Begin video clip.]

David E. Kelley: Well, I’ve dealt mainly on the broadcast network side, so this would speak to that, and that would be first the commercials. The commercials, it’s just gotten insane.

Tavis: Too many? Too many?

Kelley: Too many.

Tavis: Okay.

Kelley: When I started on “L.A. Law” I think our shows were 48 minutes plus some, with four acts. We’re now down to 41 minutes, six acts, in a one-hour presentation. It’s absurd.

[End video clip.]

Tavis: So you ain’t the only one in town dealing with this issue.

Weiner: Yes.

Tavis: So what’s your take on, for those who may have heard about the controversy, but your specific take not on AMC per se, but just on the notion of these networks wanting to put more and more and more commercials in the shows?

Weiner: I liken it to we’re in the midst of the dwindling oil supply, if you were to create a car right now that used more gas than any other car in the history of time.

They’re literally consuming – the audience has so many choices and so many places to see programming without commercials at all, and my feeling is they’re completely entitled to pay their bills. Network TV has a little bit different model. On cable TV, don’t forget the bargain that you make of, like, I will watch the commercials in exchange for having the programming for free. That’s the way advertising was always justified.

It’s like it’s coming for free into your house. Well, it’s not. You’re paying for it and you’re having to watch the commercials. My whole thing is that they’re completely entitled to put commercials in there, and I am in the business of helping them with breaking the show up and doing all these other things, and I love the idea of having this exclusive, time-locked, old-fashioned, like, Sunday night at 10:00, everything.

But at a certain point they just started adding more and more and more commercials, and if you look at where it started, when television first started, it was like six minutes of an hour was commercials, okay?

Right now, they’re at a point on network TV where it is 42 minutes of programming out of every hour. That means that basically you can’t have, like, a C story. It means you’re literally dropping something out of the show, and for me, having this very unique product that has long chunks of kind of time-driven – people talk about the pace and everything, but part of it is slightly hypnotic or whatever.

But you’re getting a product, just in pure business terms, that you can’t get anywhere else. So when I was asked to shorten it to allow for two more minutes of commercials after I had already shortened it, right? I used to have a little bit more leeway. When I first got to the network they couldn’t really sell any commercials, so they were like, “Sure, take the whole time.”

We had two breaks and they would have big chunks, and they’ve always been very innovative and very open to doing things differently. We had these little reminders that were in the middle of the ads for a while where people weren’t sure – The TiVo, they would stop the TiVo and say, “Is the show back on?” They’d have a little factoid.

I’m all in favor of advertising and I know that it pays the bills, but the idea that you would change the product to accommodate a tiny percentage bump in it was something that I was like, “Well, I’m not doing it. I just figured out how to do the show. I’m not going to make a cruddier version of the show the more popular it gets. That’s just bad business.”

For network TV, I don’t even know what they’re – I don’t even know how you tell a story in 42 minutes. It’s not a one-hour story. I can tell a half-hour story in 42 minutes. Be really, really boring. (Laughter)

Tavis: Just to play devil’s advocate, does two minutes really make a difference?

Weiner: Yeah, it really does.

Tavis: Two minutes?

Weiner: Honestly, the scripts are 53, 54 pages, okay? So I’m always cutting five minutes out of the show by the time you see it, and I cut out everything that doesn’t work. So for me to – I can barely get to 47:30, and for me to take two minutes out of it is basically four or five pages of the script.

I know this all, like, sounds super-technical or whatever, but for me, it’s literally – a scene like that? That’s gone. The scene we just watched, that’s gone. That wasn’t even two minutes, by the way.

I do a very dense, very concentrated show, and I do it on a budget, quite honestly, compared to network TV, and I was, like – it doesn’t matter. It’s what the form of the show was. Adding the two minutes also, the other effect that it had is that the chunks of the show that you’re watching, they like to have this thing and they’ve been doing it forever with their movies, and we all know this from the late show.

Here’s a big chunk of the movie, then here’s a smaller chunk of the movie. Then as you get down to the climax of the movie, they keep getting the commercials more and more and more and more and you’re just watching three minutes at a time.

Well, having a three-minute chunk of my show is basically not watching anything. It’s a clip. So for me to take two more minutes out, we’re talking about having pieces of the show that are three and four minutes long, and that’s not what people are there for.

To me, you’re driving them to use the TiVo. They’re all afraid of the TiVo. You’re just ensuring that no one’s going to watch the commercials. People will watch them if they are entertaining and they are within reason, but at a certain point it’s just like someone hitting you in the head while you’re trying to enjoy something.

Tavis: I’m at PBS for one reason and one reason only – no commercials. That’s it.

Weiner: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, that’s a good reason, yeah.

Tavis: There are other networks to watch. I just like being able to talk to you uninterrupted. (Unintelligible) happen anywhere else.

Weiner: It is incredible. It is incredible.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s my (unintelligible).

Weiner: No, I get it, but the funny thing is is the marketplace is changing and you’ve got this DVR machine, so you’re always fighting to get people’s attention. To me, like I said, like, why would you add more commercials?

Actually, there was a little bit of a trend last year where network TV realized that they – they were starting to make the shows a little bit longer again. My whole thing is just charge more per commercial. If it’s scarce, you can raise the price on it. They’ve never really had the confidence to do that, AMC. They only have, like, one piece of new programming on the air per quarter, so you have to buy the whole network – I’m not an expert on how it works.

All I know is that in the end, leaving the show the way it was, different than what is on network TV, closer to what was on HBO, that’s how we got our foot in the door and that is how it stayed, and that, to me, like, in the end, there’s only one version of the show for the life of the show, however long it goes. It will be 47 minutes and 30 seconds, just like it’s always been, and that’s the end of it.

Tavis: Well, enough of the inside baseball stuff, because what we were told, then, that you all got through this, so we’re told, at least if I’m to believe what I read, that you’re going to stay through at least season seven.

Weiner: Yes, that’s the plan.

Tavis: It’s going to be it at the end of season seven. Maybe?

Weiner: Yeah, I think so. That’s the plan.

Tavis: So we got three more -

Weiner: We’ll see what it’s like when we’re one show away from it. I’m going to be, like, knocking on the door. Can I do a 22-minute version of the show? (Laughter) I just want to go – I don’t want to walk away yet.

Tavis: So we’ve got at least three more seasons, five, six, and seven.

Weiner: Yes.

Tavis: All right. The one thing apparently you all have also agreed on is that you ain’t going to tell us nothing -

Weiner: Yes. (Laughs)

Tavis: – about the season.

Weiner: I never have.

Tavis: I know, but -

Weiner: I’m so glad people want to know. It used to be no one even cared, and I was like, “I’m not telling you anything,” and they were like, “We don’t know who you are.” (Laughter)

Tavis: But it cracks me – you’re the only guy on television who rolls out a new season and won’t tell us jack.

Weiner: I think that is a unique thing for the show. I think you’re going to sit down and you’re going to have no idea, and you’re going to have an experience – it’s almost like going to a horror movie. You’re going to have an experience; it’s almost like going to a horror movie.

You’re going to have an experience that your pulse will be racing a little bit, you’ll be a little bit nervous and you will be taken along, and I, as an entertainer, I get to – you name your favorite singer. Sinatra did not come out and put his song list out and show it to everybody, “Okay, I’m going to do ‘Summer Wind’ next, then I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.” You’d sit there and say, “I hope he sings that.”

Tavis: Right.

Weiner: There’s always a certain amount of tension in every piece of entertainment, and there’s some theory that telling people exactly what they’re going to get is going to make them enjoy it more, and I am the demo for my show and I am in the demo for my show and I know what kind of entertainment I like, and I don’t want to know.

“The Sopranos,” that’s what I loved about “The Sopranos.” You’d sit down, you’d watch that show, you would have this knot in your stomach. You’d get through the thing of this whole roller coaster, and then you would watch it again with the ease of knowing that somewhere in there Tony was going to punch somebody in the face. (Laughter)

But you know what I mean? You get the tension of not knowing what’s going to happen.

Tavis: This is also the first time you’ve done a two-hour season opener.

Weiner: Yes, yes.

Tavis: All right, so you didn’t just get your -

Weiner: That was a special plan. That was really – because we were -

Tavis: Why this year?

Weiner: We were off the air for so long, I was like I want to come back and I want people to know I am still fighting for their attention and that I want them to get – I just literally did it for the audience. Give a special event so that people will get a nice, big dose.

Tavis: So just between the two of us, how much trepidation do you have?

Weiner: (Laughs) It’s just us here, right?

Tavis: Just the two of us. (Laughter) This is PBS. Between the two of us.

Weiner: Yes.

Tavis: This ain’t AMC. (Laughter) Between the two of us, how much trepidation do you have about that very fact, that the show has been gone so freaking long that is Tavis, is Brown, is Mikey, are these guys still interested?

Weiner: Well, you know me a little bit – I have that anxiety all the time. I have that anxiety week to week.

Tavis: Week to week.

Weiner: Yeah. (Laughter) I have that anxiety when I walk in my house, if my kids are going to want to say hi to me. That’s part of why I’m in show business, is I cannot get enough – I’m never going to feel secure about that. I’m always working my side as hard as I can.

But I don’t know what to say. I did the show and I try not to worry about that, but I at least think by doing this two-hour premiere I’m at least telling people I’m aware of the fact that we’ve been away, and here is something – I’m aware that I’m going to give you something extra.

I do think that for whatever reason other, the timing went around and hopefully the most negative feelings towards the network and the show and me, to some degree, have dissipated at this point, because it’s here, so why be upset, you know what I mean?

But I’m as nervous as I’ve been every single season. I’m as nervous as every single season. Is this going to be the season where we get bad reviews, and then is this the season where people are going to be like, you know what? I’ll catch it later, or I didn’t have time, or I heard that’s good, or I don’t know.

Tavis: Cast changes. Everybody’s back?

Weiner: Yes. I’m just going to – cast is story. Yeah. Everybody’s back that -

Tavis: I’m trying to trick you, and you’re -

Weiner: No, no, it’s all -

Tavis: You are not falling for the banana in the tailpipe. (Laughter) I’m trying to trip you up.

Weiner: I think that – I will make the promise that I think that people will feel like they got a lot these four – it really hits the ground running. It is a totally new story, which is always the juice of the show. It’s like they’re the same people and the period has moved on, obviously. I’m not going to say how much, but you will get into the story immediately.

Tavis: So what am I to take of these – of Draper walking past the mannequins and looking in a window and getting the reflection -

Weiner: Yeah. Well, you tell me – what did you get from that?

Tavis: I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of you.

Weiner: No, it’s -

Tavis: I don’t want to misread it.

Weiner: You can’t misread it, first of all. It’s a nonverbal message, so asking somebody to put it into words is already like a trick. But I feel like part of it’s a Rorschach test. I’ve had people say various things to me. I -

Tavis: This ad here -

Weiner: Yeah.

Tavis: – is -

Weiner: It’s striking, right?

Tavis: It’s striking, but it says something about this season?

Weiner: Yes, absolutely.

Tavis: Okay.

Weiner: Absolutely. But I think it also says something about Don and what you know about the show. It has certain qualities that are the show, which is that it’s kind of luscious, it’s a little bit dirty, but it’s not dirty. I’m on basic cable. I cannot swear, I cannot show nakedness, I can’t really show violence, to some degree. So I’m always working in kind of an old-fashioned arena anyway, considering it’s a cable-type show.

I love the idea that there’s a suggestion of it, but for me, what the poster is about is really what you’re seeing. It’s Don. He is on the outside, looking in, always, to some degree. The scene that’s in there is a man and a woman in a kind of domestic situation. So you’re sort of like – and you’re getting a look at his face in there.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that this show has been so successful – and I don’t want to all the names, but there have been other shows, there are other shows on other networks that failed pretty quickly? (Laughter)

Weiner: You know what -

Tavis: People have tried to copy this stylistically, and the period -

Weiner: That was fascinating. That was fascinating to me. It was -

Tavis: They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Weiner: I did find it -

Tavis: Was that flattering to you?

Weiner: I did find it flattering.

Tavis: Okay.

Weiner: I did find it interesting. I was curious what it was going to be. I did know that going through network machinery, that they probably would not be able to tell the kind of stories that I was telling, which is really what the secret of the show is, the show’s success, in my mind. So yes, they can do the makeup and the hair and everything like that, but the stories are hard to imitate, and they didn’t really even seem interested in that.

A lot of the creative people that worked on my show, and the pilot’s directors and so forth were involved in those shows. But for me, honestly, I look at it, I saw it as flattering, and there is – it is so hard to get a show on the air that the truth is when I run into the people involved in these things, I look at it and I was like, “Good luck. Seriously, good luck.”

The only part that sort of is negative, and that’s what is at the end of it, is – that’s the most interesting part, right?

Tavis: The negative part, yeah. (Laughter)

Weiner: Is that there were so – this show was rejected by every single person who -

Tavis: “Mad Men?”

Weiner: “Mad Men,” yes, it was written as a spec and I had a lot of meetings with people who thought it was a good piece of writing, but that I had no idea how TV worked and I didn’t seem to watch TV, and that they would never make this show, and what else do you want to do?

Even when it went on the air, “Good luck with your little show,” and “Why would you go,” “AMC doesn’t know what they’re doing,” and “No one’s ever going to see it,” and blah, blah, blah. Then they’re out there immediately, trying to make something exactly like it. That was kind of very funny. (Laughter)

Tavis: Speaking of the good stuff, the interesting stuff.

Weiner: Yeah, yeah. (Laughs)

Tavis: So what happens in this town when you run into these people who told you, “Good luck, it will never work, it will never fly?” Seriously, how do you guys get along when you see each other?

Weiner: Honestly, you know what? If I were to put up a wall against everyone who rejected me, I would be alone.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Weiner: This is show business. I thrive on it in some way. I wouldn’t say that I don’t have an ego, but you cannot hold a grudge, you really can’t. It’s just – the funniest thing is that a lot of times you run into people – all I can tell you is that everybody out there, treat people well no matter what they are.

Be nice to your waiter. I always say that. You do not know who somebody is. You should be that way anyway, but I try not to hold a grudge. There are some people who were particularly obnoxious about it and I see them, and I just kind of smile, whatever.

But I don’t want the job of having to pick what show goes on the air. That’s a really tough job. Even when I was selling my own show, they’re like, “So, this’ll work.” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I never expected this to happen. But (unintelligible) particularly vindictive or anything like that, you can’t be. You really can’t be. There’s too many – I’m not kidding you. There is literally no one who has a job in TV who did not see this script and reject it, so what am I going to do, never work again? (Laughter)

I’m very forgiving. You know what, and if it had failed, I’d still be going back to them anyway. Hit me again in the face, I can take it.

Tavis: But maybe because I don’t understand how the business works, but I always crack up when I hear these stories where there’s “Mad Men,” wildly successful, “Cosby Show,” turned down by every TV network.

Weiner: I know, I know.

Tavis: There are these kinds of stories, but what are you to make, what am I to make, as a guy on the outside, of people making decisions and nobody can figure out that this thing could work, and then it works wildly?

Weiner: Everything successful has this kind of story. It’s back to those other shows you were talking about. Here’s an idea. Well, that guy took the risk, they went out there, they put their money in it and it happened. Let’s do that. As opposed to why don’t we take the risk.

It becomes a sort of machinery, especially when these things are not cheap, TV shows. So as soon as there’s money being spent and people have to make that decision, they’re always looking for the next thing.

Tavis: But it makes me wonder, though, Matt, for all the crap that we get every night, how much other good stuff is out there because some idiot doesn’t understand that they should greenlight this because it might work. Back to “Cosby -”

Weiner: It’s very hard to take it -

Tavis: A Black doctor, a Black lawyer -

Weiner: You know what, there’s not -

Tavis: – this will never work, and the guy -

Weiner: There is nothing, there is – and by the way, when I saw “The Cosby Show” I was in college, okay? I was not in the TV business, but I was like, “This is amazing.” That pilot is a very unusual structure. For someone who grew up on TV, I was like, I don’t even know what this is. It doesn’t even work like a sitcom.

This means we’re in a golden age. People are going to start trying amazing stuff now. Look at this chance they took on this thing. I knew Bill Cosby, obviously, you think that would limit your chance, but it was a chance.

So what happens? In a year, there are 20 shows just like “Cosby.” They don’t know how to take that first step out there. They do, but it’s just if you step out there and you fail, it’s – you’ve got to hedge your bet. You’ve got to hedge your bet. You have to have those elements in it, and that’s really the risk part of it.

It takes a certain kind of person to really take the risk, and Brandon Tartikoff, who was the one who programmed that, this is a guy who failed plenty and lived on that risk, and in fact most of the people that we admire fail all the time. There’s nobody who is a billionaire who hasn’t been broke. This is not a coincidence.

We take our queues from those risk-takers, but the rest of us, the rest of the people are really trying – it’s a lot of what “Mad Men” is about. You’re just trying to get your job done, and you’re trying to keep your head above water and you’re trying not to make waves and you’re trying to have a nice house, and those are the same people who are making these decisions.

Knowing what will creatively hit – here’s the thing. The only thing that frustrates me is why don’t you just use yourself? Because anybody who’s trying to guess what the public wants or says they know, that’s – even Barnum didn’t know. You know what I mean? He’s like – half of his stuff is failing.

So that’s always what I say. When I was even trying to sell it, I was like, “Do you like it? I don’t want to hear what you think Mr. and Mrs. America think, because you don’t know. Also, when you go and ask them if they like it and they tell you, they’re not telling the truth.

“Do you like this poster with the sexy image on it?” “No, I find it offensive,” and everything. “No.” “Do you really? What if I were to bring you a framed one? Would you want it in your house?” “Yeah, I might.”

Focus groups are touchy, people not being able to stand by their own opinions are touchy, and it requires a certain amount of bravery to take a lot of cash – this is not putting up a lemonade stand – and go and do it. So what do you do?

Well, I know this worked, I know this star worked. I have no stars in “Mad Men.” There was no one on that show who was really known to the public. That spirit at AMC, that’s why no matter what happens I always feel this deep loyalty to them, because they were, like, we had a meeting where we were talking about the show, and we’d look at each other and say, “Do you like it?” “Yeah, I like it.”

“Well, I watch TV. In fact, I’m the kind of person that I want to watch AMC.” That was the way we made the decisions.

Tavis: We’re full circle here with two minutes to go, and I’m glad we came full circle, because you and I have known each other a little bit. We’ve hung out a little bit.

Weiner: Yeah.

Tavis: When this controversy kicked up – we’ll close on this note – I said to myself, “The show’s over if Matt isn’t there,” because you write all the stuff, which leads me to ask, like, if you ever get pneumonia or something, what happens to “Mad Men?” (Laughter)

Weiner: It’s bad. It’s bad.

Tavis: I was like, “Who else is writing?” You write all the stuff.

Weiner: I am, but a lot of TV shows are like that. A lot of TV shows are like that, and that’s just a risk you take. Honestly, what happens – what happens when Kobe’s sick? What happens if somebody’s on the bench, you know what I mean?

Tavis: It ain’t happening for the Lakers now, and Kobe ain’t sick.

Weiner: I know. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s another conversation.

Weiner: I know, but you know what I mean? (Laughter) But it really is. You’re a very important person in that thing.

Tavis: Well, forget getting sick – what happens if the ideas stop coming to you?

Weiner: Well, I don’t do it by myself completely, and that’s the best thing about working with talented people, is that they help stimulate ideas.

Jenji Kohan, who does “Weeds,” is just, she’s from a long show business family and she’s just a deeply creative person and kind of like a sister to me, and whenever I’m in my worst panic I always talk to her, and she always says, “There’s always more story. That’s the way life is. There’s always more story.”

That’s the part that gives you the panic. The thing that really gets you is when you start doing it and you start feeling like it’s not good. That, I have no idea.

When that starts to happen I’ve got to take a break or do whatever else it is. That is something that I’m dealing with all the time. But thanks for making me worry about that, too. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, well – that’s why he’s the writer. (Laughter) Because there is more story, and thankfully there is, there are more episodes of “Mad Men.” So this season marks season number five. As I said, the first four seasons, they win everything, all the awards, so here’s season five, and here’s to season six and season seven and here’s to your annual visit when the new season begins.

Weiner: Oh, I love it, I love it.

Tavis: Come back anytime.

Weiner: I hope you enjoy it on Sunday night.

Tavis: I’m looking forward to it. Good to see you.

Weiner: Thanks a lot, Tavis.

Tavis: I don’t know crap about it, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 14, 2014 at 5:40 pm