The Perfectionist: Matthew Weiner Turns the World Mad
Long before he was an awards show darling at the helm of one of the most obsessively consumed shows on television, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was a bitter hater. "I think expressing myself changed [that], and realizing that it was all my problem, and that if I wanted my life to be different, it was up to me," Weiner says. His expression has become a smoke-filled, whiskey-soaked drama about capitalism, consumption, and careerism at their highest and lowest. It's an incisive look at American history, a titillating tale of sex and power, and a heartbreaking story of a doomed marriage. We chatted with Weiner, one of the influential television industry players interviewed for TVGuide.com's Best of the Decade section, about the enormous success of his show, what tips he took from his stint on The Sopranos, and TV becoming more powerful than movies.
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TVGuide.com: Tell me about working with David Chase on The Sopranos.
Matthew Weiner: It was an amazing experience. I worked for a genius and someone who works harder than every person at the job and someone who trusts his creative instincts. [He was] vindicated for taking chances, and that was very satisfying for me, and a very important thing for me to see. Even though I had written the [Mad Men] pilot before I got there, it definitely wouldn't have become the kind of show it became if I hadn't worked there. It made me aim higher and have more respect for the audience and have more faith in my own ideas.
TVGuide.com: How did Mad Men end up at AMC?
Weiner: No one was interested in it. I never expected the networks to have interest in it, but... I really thought [HBO] would be interested in it and they weren't. Showtime was not interested. I was so excited that AMC wanted to make the show. I was really greeted by writers working in network TV with a lot of pity, because they all loved the pilot and they were like, "You're going to waste this show; no one's going to see it." I just wanted to make the show. [AMC] had a very amazing attitude about what they were doing. Their philosophy was: If we like it, it's good. We will not try to guess what the masses, what the world, will think.
TVGuide.com: Why set it in the '60s? Why not make a contemporary drama?
Weiner: It was a period that I had been interested in intellectually, historically. My parents are steeped in it, and I love the art from that period. It was really a golden age, especially for mass culture. Catch 22 was being read the way people read The Da Vinci Code now. When you read a Jane Austen book, the manners really allow you to tell a story about what's the same and what's different. I definitely felt like a lot of what I was writing about is the way things are now and what we've lost and what changed.
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TVGuide.com: How is Mad Men's view of the '60s different from other portrayals in pop culture? What did you think they were missing?
Weiner: There was a huge revisionist thread in this. Being raised in the shadow of the baby boomers, there was a version of the '60s and '70s that was being passed down to us that was all about how amazing these people were. And of course the big cliché was they'd all sort of sold out. I was very interested in showing that cultural changes are drastic and huge and there's no denying them. I wasn't interested in just sugar-coating it and playing the Stones and showing people with long hair. I was talking about what it's like to go through a big change like that. What would the death of Kennedy look like?
TVGuide.com: Why do you think the show has struck a chord?
Weiner: I think it's got an addictive quality to it, and I think the people who watch it are very evangelical about it. They really want other people to have the experience. It is offering people a different kind of experience which to me is commercially very valuable... It offers an intimate experience that is based in some way on some universal truth. I've never been in a situation where I had to murder someone or catch a perpetrator or deal with the justice system, thank God. But I have dealt with having to lie to my family or something as small as not wanting to answer the phone. You just don't see that on TV. And that is a very truthful experience for people. I think they were blown away once they were trained to realize that's what the show is about.
TVGuide.com: What are you most proud of in your career?
Weiner: Not letting my ego get in the way of going to AMC. I'm proud of the fact that my desire to express myself meant I didn't care how much money I was going to make, and I didn't really care about the prestige or the bragging rights in my community. I didn't even care about reaching an audience. I was just going to express myself artistically and that was an opportunity I wasn't going to miss. It was my dream to do the show.
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TVGuide.com: Anything you're not particularly proud of?
Weiner: There was a period where I was steeped in jealousy for other people's success and outraged about the unfairness of the universe and how come it wasn't happening to me. I was one of these people who was just a hater. I think expressing myself changed it, and realizing that it was all my problem and that if I wanted my life to be different, it was up to me.
TVGuide.com: How do you think TV has changed in the past decade?
Weiner: I think it's been good and bad, mostly good. It seems that more people are watching more TV than ever. I think The Sopranos is the fountainhead of all this and should be recognized as that, because it was very artistic, very thoughtful, had great characters, was rooted in a wonderful genre that people love that wasn't usually done on TV. I think that television has attracted great talent, and that's why the entertainment has been so good. Innovation is possible because these channels allow people to shoot for smaller and smaller audiences. There are all different kinds of entertainment, but it's never been richer, more personal.
TVGuide.com: Where do you hope it goes in the next 10 years?
Weiner: I would like to see there stop being a hierarchy in the arts. I don't know what's at the top of it, but certainly film is above television. I can't compare watching The Wire or The Sopranos to anything I've seen [at the movies] in a long time. I wish that TV would get a little bit more respect. And I also hope there are people out there who are inspired to tell personal and artistic stories and not assume that because they might have a mass audience that the audience is stupid.