In the new issue of Rolling Stone, we go behind the scenes with the cast and crew of Mad Men, the winner of three consecutive Outstanding Drama Series Emmys. In this exclusive bonus from our cover story, writer Eric Konigsberg sits down with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, to discuss the influences behind Mad Men, from Paul Newman to author John Cheever, and Weiner’s decade-long struggle to get a project made in Hollywood. Weiner also has some harsh words for legendary ad guru George Lois — who many believe inspired the character of Don Draper — even comparing him to Tony Soprano.
How do you define your role as the creator of Mad Men?
I’m a writer — I direct on paper, but I’m a writer, that’s my job. I’ve worked for other people, and you see the boss in a very limited way in the time that you spend with them, and then when you get the job, you think, “How does anybody do this?” because it’s really got 80 parts, but 50 percent of it is writing.
So you probably do much of your best work in front of a computer or with a pen.
Or verbally, because I dictate, because I’m a talker. I wrote for years at the computer, but I’m a procrastinator. When I started working on the Mad Men pilot, I had a day job. I was exhausted, so I hired somebody to take dictation from me. Since then, I’ve found all these famous people who wrote this way. I just read that Mark Twain dictated his memoirs. So did Joseph Conrad. And Rod Serling and Billy Wilder dictated. Jenji Kohan, who does Weeds, thinks that it’s cheating. The good thing about it is you’re not looking at the computer — the dialogue is spoken, so the language is more natural. Also, at the end of the day, let’s say everything you did was crap — you have 25 pages to rewrite as opposed to five pages.
It must be hard to find an assistant. You put a lot of trust in that person, and spend a lot of time with them.
Yes, and it’s chemistry. In my career, I’ve had five, I think.
Have some of them gone on to big careers?
There’s sort of the tradition that if they work the whole season, I will let them write the finale with me. It’s not a given, and they know that. There are certain things I learned as the process went on. This may make me sound like an old person — I don’t know if it’s generational, but I’ve found that with a lot of people between 25 and 35 there’s sometimes this real sense of entitlement, a real sense of “Why don’t I have your job?”
I’ve heard this from people in other professions too. A lot of these young people kind of overstep their bounds almost immediately and do not understand — it’s a very hierarchical business. I was 30 when I started and was told by my boss, “No one cares what you think, you’re here to learn and to write drafts.” On some level, I became a better writer because I struggled. When I pitched the show to the network and they thought it was good, that was a great moment, but it was all from a screenplay I’d started right after film school and had been working on for10 years. I still cannibalize that thing. That’s the Don Draper bible, and it’s horribly written.
What’s that script about?
It’s called The Horseshoe, and you see a lot of horseshoes in the show. It had a line: “Life’s like a horseshoe. It’s open on both ends and hard all the way through.” It was my attempt to do books and movies that I admired, like Little Big Man or Casanova or The World According to Garp, 100 Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, which is my favorite book ever written. I wanted to tell a story about the generation born in the Great Depression that came to run the country. It was about this man who fabricated his life, and it was very crude and gritty, and it talked about a lot of subjects in American history that are ignored, which have shown up in the show, like the fact that it made perfect sense to be a communist when there was no food — no one wants to talk about that, how 50 percent of the country was involved in revolutionary thought because things were so unequal. I wanted to follow it all the way to the millennium, but I crapped out around page 80.
So it just sat on your desk?
Five or six years later, I wrote Mad Men, and then four or five years after that, when AMC said to me, “What’s the rest of the story, who is this guy, where does it go?” I found the script. I was literally just leafing through it, and the last page of the script just said, ‘1960.’ ”
Where do you find most of the source material for Mad Men?
Who knows? I see shit all the time where I’m like, “Someone told me that, I stole that from that, that’s from this.” I watched one movie, The Young Philadelphians, with Paul Newman and Robert Vaughan, the other day. My mother loved Paul Newman, and I do too. We’d watch anything with him in it. I had no recollection of that one, but there was so much of the show in this movie. It’s why I tell young writers, “Don’t share your shit, don’t share your stuff.” David Chase would always be like, “Don’t tell me that story, because I will not remember you told it to me and I will use it.”
What are some of the less obvious cultural shifts in the culture since Don Draper took off his fedora?
I’m not a very intellectual person, but being educated was very in style in the Mad Men era. You can look at the bestsellers and see how proud people were of their intelligence. More people were in college in America from 1955, more people were being educated than anywhere on the planet in the history of the world. If you grow up with George Bush as the president, it is hard to believe that people in positions of authority have more intelligence than you. Nobody would have let George W. Bush watch their kids.
But clearly Mad Men is using very intellectual influences like John Cheever.
Yes, of course, but don’t you emulate the writers you love? So here were the writers I loved: J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, who I discovered in high school by accident at a book sale. I picked it up and said, “Oh, this is interesting, short stories.” I was not good at reading novels, so I had already become very interested in short stories. I’m more interested in the dramatic irony, which is the exquisite entertainment of watching a scene where you know something the characters don’t and where each of them knows something the other one doesn’t.
What about the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates?
I’d never heard of it. It was given to me by an executive at AMC after she read the pilot, and I’ve said this before, but when I read Revolutionary Road, it was like, “Hey, there’s a Beatles album you’ve never heard and it’s got 40 new songs.”
Do you see advertising as a good metaphor for dramatic irony?
The advertising thing was amazing, because the period that I picked was another thing where I said, “Oh, here’s an interesting thing about this year, about 1960” — the all-knowing reflected authority of advertising sort of starts to crumble away and become more subversive. Coincidentally, as Jews and Italians become more prominent in the business.
And Greeks, don’t forget about George Lois.
George Lois is a tough subject for me, it really is. I always say I’ve never heard of him. He wasn’t working when the show started, he wasn’t even interested in what year it was, and then there’s this man’s ego — I keep trying to remind people that he is not Jonas Salk. George Lois was really good at selling shit, and also, apparently, a big credit hog, according to the This American Life story.
Have you dealt with him?
They asked me to talk to him when the show was coming out, and I was like, “Sure,” and then it became very obvious that everybody who was from the period was like, “You don’t really want to — he’s the Tony Soprano of advertising. You do not want to owe him or cross his path — you do not want to be on his radar.”
What other reactions have there been from the real-life admen of the 1960s?
The thing I always found so amusing from the beginning is the men who were there, who survived, I’d say 50 percent of them were like, “We didn’t drink that much, we didn’t smoke that much, that’s not true,” and 50 percent of them were like, “Oh, my God, it’s 100 percent accurate.” Bob Levinson said, “You have a time machine.” The women, 99.9 percent said, “Oh, my God, that’s exactly what it was like.”
If only 10 percent said it, then you created your own universe.
It wasn’t my problem. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a history lesson. I work in TV.
It seems like such an incredible lightning bolt of inspiration to set the series in the advertising world of the 1960s. David Chase said The Sopranos was about lies people tell themselves and others to justify themselves, and he set it in the world of the Mafia as a parable. Was that your thinking?
As consumers, we think of advertising noise, as these messages we don’t want to hear. But the people who make it, the ones who know what they’re doing, are holding up a mirror, and they’re saying, “This is the way you wish you were, this is the thing you’re afraid of,” or, “Here’s something new that’s better. I know you will like it.” A really, really good advertising person is like an artist, channeling the culture. Don Draper, especially in the Fifties, reflecting an idealized version of ourselves.
Of the main characters, who do you think you identify with the most strongly?
Philosophically? This is all wish fulfillment and fear: They all behave in ways that I’m embarrassed to behave in, and they all have qualities that I wish I had. There’s no doppelgänger there. I am a mixture of Roger, Peggy, Don, Pete, Joan, Betty. I wrote a poem about George Orwell once and how I was never going to need a fake name, and I never had the desire to be unknown. Then I’m embarrassed because I literally want to get undressed in front of everyone. There’s the shame that goes along with needing that much attention and having to trumpet your own horn. So for me, to construct this world in a period with all these people, to talk about everything that I’m interested in about myself, which is what all writers do — that has been my realization. That’s what Mad Men is about: It’s a construct for me to talk about how I feel about the world, for me to talk about my family, my parents, my fantasies. To see my wish fulfillments, trash my enemies, vanquish my fears or see them played out — even just for a lesson.