In preparation for her story “The Madness of Matthew Weiner” in the April issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin sat down with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner to talk about his vision for the show as it enters its final season. Weiner, 48, previously worked as a writer on The Sopranos.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’ve been reading a lot of your interviews lately, and I came across a phrase that someone used—“architect of silences”—to describe how you keep audiences guessing about things.
I try to communicate as clearly as possible.
Really? You’re not leaving clues or hints for people to obsessively put together?
Well, there is a thematic unity to each episode, whether people perceive it or not. Viewers just don’t always know what the theme is. What I’m trying to do, and what people get out of it, is something that I have no control over. That was a great learning experience for me, and has been a lot of pleasure. I think those moments of silence are filled with the depth of human experience: In a conversation, you don’t know what the person is going to say next. Most of us don’t, in dramatic situations.
And I also feel like the characters are so eloquent that no one could absorb what’s being said if they just spoke quickly, like rat-tat-tat. What usually happens when dramatists have people speak like that—rat-tat-tat—is they have to repeat things again and again. “He’s where?” “He’s there.” “He’s where?” “He’s there. What did I say?”
I’m trying to think of an example.
Bertram Cooper says to Don, “When you reach the age of 40, you realize you have met almost every kind of person that there is. And I know what kind of person you are.” There are two huge thoughts in there. One of them is an observation about human nature that I think is kind of profound. And then there’s “I know what kind of person you are.” We know more about Don, we think, than Cooper does. So Don has to sit there and he can’t just answer that. He has to be like, What am I supposed to say? Am I getting fired, am I getting complimented, am I getting punished?
And Rachel Menken and Don, in the pilot, was one of the first places where I put the silence in there for the exact opposite reason. It’s so the audience can say, did he really just say, “I am not going to let a woman talk to me like that”? Which is one of the first lines I had in the idea of Mad Men.
So it is intentional, but it’s the opposite intention of what we might have guessed.
Honestly, the intentional part of it is all from the gut. It feels very normal to me. It’s very close to the way I experience the world.
I know you‘ve talked about things you’ve taken from memories of your parents, like the Carousel, or the hot-dog shop, or Christmas parties. Are there any other places or events you’ve experienced that way?
All the time. I was at an awards show when I was working on The Sopranos, and someone who was drunk stood up and started talking to the host. The person on the dais. In a very intimate conversation. And it was an embarrassing public moment that everyone experienced.
There were a lot of writers there, and I don’t know who else’s show it ended up in. But I turned that into Duck Phillips at the Clios, because it was so dramatic. Things happen in real life all the time that are so dramatic. Somebody walks into work in the morning, sits down at the table, and 25 minutes into work you find out that their car has been destroyed. And they’ve been sitting there and listening to us talk about, ironically, how bad the traffic was and what a bunch of idiots there are on the road.
So it’s more the way the emotion is absorbed in those moments—it’s not that you literally think of copying the incident.
I copy the incident if I have to. I actually copy it as much as I can afford to copy it, production-wise. All the time, people say truth is stranger than fiction, or whatever the clichés are. I think all the great moments in the movies and the books that I love are very well observed moments that someone has witnessed.
Sometimes you do create them. I put people in situations for irony and things like that, and of course it’s crafted and manipulated in huge ways, with the help of many people’s lives. Someone tells you a story; they don’t even know what’s important about the story.
For example: We did a research call once on The Sopranos, and there were five writers in there. We all had yellow legal pads, and there was a writer’s assistant in there taking notes. At the end of a two-and-a-half-hour phone call, someone said, “I loved that thing about the wallet biopsy.” The writer’s assistant hadn’t even written it down, but the five writers in there who each had, like, two notes from the two-hour phone call had all written down “wallet biopsy.” Because that was the juiciest, strangest thing in there.
What is a wallet biopsy?
A wallet biopsy was a joke, and it ended up in the show! It’s when you show up at the hospital in an emergency situation and they go through your wallet to see if you have insurance. [Laughs] We didn’t know who was going to say that, but we were like, “We have to get that in somebody’s mouth.”
Is it your particular experience of reality—of time and how things move and how emotions are absorbed—that goes into the show, or is it universal?
I don’t do the Hollywood reaffirmation under moral circumstance—where someone kidnaps your child and injures them, so you have the right to shoot them. It’s very satisfying to see that person caught and shot by the parent in a story. But in our life, we believe in the law, and we say, “You can’t shoot him! What about the trial?” and “Maybe it wasn’t him.” We cling to the law; we made an agreement. Sometimes people don’t want to hear it, but I try to live in what I think is the emotional truth. I am always looking for that.
Meaning that it doesn’t necessarily have a satisfactory or a tidy narrative conclusion, but it might feel more emotionally true?
Right. The good guys don’t always win; bad people have reasons for why they do things. If you spend a few hours in the shoes of the bad person, you might do the same thing. Someone gives you the wrong change and you’re in your car already; do you drive back and give the change back? Probably not. But most people, when asked, would say, “Of course.” And “How dare that character do that.” I don’t like that in my entertainment, people who behave that way.