'Mad Men' creator Matthew Weiner breaks down beloved drama
Matthew Weiner arrives at the Live Read And Series Finale Of 'Mad Men' held at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on Sunday, May 17, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Nick Patch, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, September 10, 2015 10:38PM EDT
TORONTO -- Matthew Weiner taught an inspired "Mad Men" masterclass in Toronto on Thursday, dissecting an episode of the show he created with obvious pride and his infamous attention to detail.
Weiner announced at the evening's onset that the Toronto International Film Festival-curated discussion would be "some mixture of film analysis, close reading and psychoanalysis," and no one present could accuse him of false advertising.
The episode in question was "The Wheel," the pivotal finale to the AMC show's rapturously received first season. And before the show screened with live commentary at the Glenn Gould Studio, Weiner issued a playful warning to anyone eight years behind on their appointment viewing.
"There's no spoiler issues here, I'm sorry," said Weiner. "If you've never seen the show, go outside and give your ticket to someone who has."
No one took the 50-year-old up on his offer, and given the rapt attention paid to Weiner's insights into granular elements of the show's production, it was clear he had a room full of serious fans.
"The Wheel" finds Betty navigating her first inkling that her marriage to Jon Hamm's womanizing Don Draper might be teetering on a cracked foundation. Meanwhile, Peggy births a child she didn't know she was carrying and Don delivers what's come to be regarded as his finest pitch: a moving ballad for the Kodak Carousel slide projector.
The episode marked Weiner's "first paid directing gig," and he still recalled plenty of minute details that might delight fans.
For instance, a wintry shot in a grocery-store parking lot was actually captured in 37-degree heat in Pasadena, Calif., with cut-up newspaper standing in for snow and star January Jones struggling mightily under a heavy coat. Weiner recalled that an extra sitting next to Don on the train was a "huge pain in the butt." And he remembered several perceived anachronisms from the episode, including the use of the term "self-worth," which he says he can prove dates back to the 1930s.
Perhaps more illuminating were the many connections Weiner made between the show and his own life.
He grew up with a mother "not unlike Betty Draper" -- minus the drinking -- and several awkward incidents that ensnare young Glen Bishop, a neighbourhood boy, actually happened to Weiner. It was Weiner who walked in on a babysitter in the bathroom, and he was the one so "obsessed" with a neighbour that he requested a lock of her hair. (Bishop happened to be portrayed by Weiner's real-life son, Marten.)
"The most satisfying thing in the world about the show is that it's personal," he said.
Weiner also saw some of himself in Don, particularly as the show-runner became an increasingly scarce presence in his own house when the show took off.
"I identified with him here because I had been working so much I didn't see anybody," he said.
That success, meanwhile, was far from guaranteed.
In fact, Weiner insists that the episode was made to potentially double as a series finale in case the network cancelled it after a season.
At a few points in the talk, he alluded to friction with network executives. He had wanted to direct other episodes prior to this finale, but "they wouldn't let me." Similarly, he dropped his idea for the show's RJD2-scored animated opening to be rendered in live action -- with a man jumping from a skyscraper and stopping just short of the cement -- because the "network did not like the idea."
Mostly, he had to fight for the show's lack of narrative hand-holding.
"They're always talking about some fictitious viewer they think they're smarter than," he sighed.
Still, Weiner acknowledged that he had the crucial autonomy to make some very unpopular decisions.
"As long as they were reasonably priced risks, I was allowed to do it," he quipped.
It was a long road for Weiner to "Mad Men."
Prior to creating the show, he had 12 writing credits on "The Sopranos" but otherwise a string of small contributions to lesser-known comedies, including "Becker" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." He once appeared on Jeopardy! and used his winnings to finance his $12,000 first film, 1996's "What Do You Do All Day."
He confessed to long stints of unemployment afterward, when his wife would go to work and he would fritter away the day watching TV, "having a secret affair with 'Alf' and the Lakers."
"I swore to myself I would never deny the struggle if I ever succeeded," he said. "I didn't have a job in my chosen profession until I was 30."
The show wrapped its seven-season run in May, and Weiner's still thrilled by how: "ending with an ad ... was the perfect thing to do."
He spoke in glowing terms of the "extremely intelligent" Hamm, with whom the collaboration was "constant."
"I would tell him everything," Weiner said.
Asked by an audience member about the inspiration behind Don Draper, however, and Weiner for the first time struggled to find the words. Though he initially demurred -- "I cannot answer the question," he said -- he eventually shed some light on his most crucial creation.
"I wanted him to be a hero who talks and doesn't shoot," Weiner said.
"Ninety-two hours later, it kind of looks like I had a plan."