Confessions of a Mad Man

294

Below are some highlights from Weiner. Watch the conversation here.

On the show’s characters:

“The show is very personal, which I think is surprising to people because it’s such a construct. And a lot of it is derived from my actual experience. This Don character is partly derived from the movies but he is where I was at my life at that time. I was 35 years old, which is significant, I think, at least from Shakespearian standards, and I had a job in network television, which is like playing Major League Baseball. There were 300 people who had a job in that world that I had. I was happily married, we had just gotten our first home—we still live there—and we had three kids at the time and I was literally saying, like, ‘I feel exactly the same inside as I did when I was 18. Is this it?’ And I think that’s where I started with Don, and then Peggy. They’re all parts of me. Pete was definitely a part of me. Peggy is a part of me. … Joan was someone who was originally more of a device and then I met this amazing actress and she became something more significant but there’s a lot of Joan in me too.”

“I think everybody has a lot of Pete. Pete is completely honest. Pete is the most truthful, unedited person. He blurts things out, he acts on impulse, he is always on the verge of a tantrum. He is the only man in the world who has an affair and becomes closer to his wife. He’s wounded and you know that scene the first season? I won’t talk about the derivation of it, but the scene where he goes to ask his parents for money for the apartment—if you don’t have that person in you I think you’re very lucky, but I think most of us do.”

“You’ll see as the show goes on that the concept of individualism is much more rooted in the economic aspects of the country than it is the cultural aspects. So Woodstock doesn’t seem to be an expression of individuality even though it was sold to us that way, whereas Conrad Hilton seems like he is.”

 

On Don’s infidelity:

“How close can he feel to this woman when she didn’t know who he was? It’s a double-edged sword. He loves her, she loves him for the kind of person that he made up. That’s a great feeling, but in the end there’s a psychic cost to keeping a secret like that. I think he also is medicating. I think he uses his sensations. I don’t want to call it an addiction, but he’s certainly addicted to other things. He drinks too much, he smokes too much and he has these conquests, which are based on something. He can hide behind his existential view of the world, that there’s no rules or anything, but I think the guy is seriously terrified about his mortality and wants to keep revivifying.”

 

On Miss Farrell:

“I think the idea of a woman who wanted to have sex with a married man and enter it with her eyes wide open about that was very confusing to people and they thought the story had to lead to him getting caught, because I’m telling a story. But it’s not conscious on that level, it’s really not.”

 

On the show’s view of America:

“When I was writing the show I thought I was going to do a scathing attack on America and how it’s not a meritocracy and you have to suffer and everyone has to conform, and something happened where I kind of got deeper into it and thought—it may be economic, some people certainly have advantages—but this is a very unique situation, the mobility that’s possible. … If something catastrophic happens here, will I leave everything? Even under threat of death, will I go to a country where I don’t speak the language? Am I one of those people like my grandparents? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

 

On the show’s more obsessive followers:

“I love hearing people talk about how we got something wrong. … We make plenty of mistakes, by the way, but I love the fact that we’ll work on something for, like, months and then someone off the top of their head will say, ‘Playgroups? They never used the word playgroups!’ I’m like, ‘Do you think we just did that off the top of my head?’ … We have the Compact Oxford English Dictionary in there this year. That was a total accident. The typewriters in the pilot: that was not an accident. I couldn’t get the typewriters we needed and I jokingly said, ‘If this show’s a success, we’ll hear about it, believe me.’ And we keep hearing about it. People are obsessed. I don’t know it all. I don’t get as much pleasure from pointing out what’s wrong with things as other people do. They get a lot of pleasure. I’m just like, ‘Wow, really?’ The show is supposed to make you feel smart, but not because of that!”

 

On Betty saying Sally might grow up to be a lesbian:

“It’s sounds modern but it’s not. First of all, the biggest error I ever made in the show was saying that [Betty] was in a sorority and then saying that she went to Bryn Mawr.  And then there’s this weird thing where I think people are upset about the fact that she seems kind of shallow and vain or whatever, and how could she have gone to Bryn Mawr? Impossible, right? I don’t understand that. My father is an academic and he has always introduced people by where they went to college, even in their seventies. I find that there are all kinds of people at every university and there’s plenty of people like Betty who grew up in the Main Line and went to school locally that were very smart, and there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s very smart. She’s also left-handed. It’s a very common word. It goes in and out of fashion. All of the clichés and stereotypes that go along existed then and some clichés don’t exist, but being mannish—read Gertrude Stein. Read some of the documentation of what Paris was like when Hemingway was there and you’ll hear it a lot. … It sounded modern. There’s a lot of stuff I enjoy like that that I know is going to get people rankled. That’s great.”

 

On his relationship with AMC:

“In terms of going to the matt—at this point—the contribution from the people at the network and the studio is literally the idea relationship. They are an amazing audience. They are super smart people and they basically have, especially in success, adopted what I wanted to be the philosophy from the beginning, which is, Do you like the show? None of us here is going to guess what the world likes. It’s a big mistake in entertainment. It’s a sure-fire flop. If you say, ‘This is what people like,’ you’re always wrong. It’s just not commercially very wise.”

 

On the personal story behind Sally’s loss of Grandpa Gene:

“That’s the way it happened to me. My grandfather died off screen. He died at See’s Candies on Wilshire Boulevard. He had dropped me off at Hebrew school—very different story—I waited for him and waited for him and I went home and stood on the front lawn. It was—I’ll tell you the real story— a Los Angeles police officer came out with a flat top and walked up in the dark and said, ‘Judith Weiner live here?’ I said, ‘Yes, she’s inside,’ and he walked right past me, told my mother, and acted like I didn’t exist. And I felt like I did. I had been waiting for him already for two-and-a-half hours at school and I knew something was wrong. I used to sleep in the same bed with him. He had this gigantic bed. They don’t exist anymore it was so gigantic. He had to take a Nitro to unmake the bed it was so gigantic. And I would lie in this bed on the other side of the bed and he would sleep and they didn’t call it apnea then, but he would just go [honk] and I’d think, is he dead? Is he dead? Oh my god. But I loved him. So anyway, we went in the house. My uncle went to get his car. It was 106 degrees that day. And I went in and I was annoyed at them laughing and there were peaches in the car. My mother ate a rotten peach because it was all that was left of him, and I kind of lost my shit. They told me to go inside and watch TV and I went in and watched TV and it was the day of the San Diego plane crash and I sat and watched the TV and saw a torso and a handbag hanging in the tree and had one of my first experiences with irony. … My parents had no idea they had done anything wrong. And when I watched the scene the first time cut together I started crying and was like, ‘This is a documentary. We’re not doing drama anymore.’ At the same time, I kind of sided with the parents. I was like, ‘Oh honey, we know. Believe me, we know what death is.’”

 

On his own thin skin and his advice to actors and writers:

“When someone from the network or studio writes me something and acts like they know more about writing than me, I’m immediately like—forget about the fact that they didn’t understand something or they didn’t like it—for just the tone of it, I’m like, ‘What? What the fuck have you written besides this note?’ And it’s not fair. It’s not fair to them. They’re entitled, and sometimes it is helpful to know that you’re not communicating. But my advice is, and you’re not going to like it, but you better learn to thrive on rejection. And you better dream of vindication.”

 

On his method of operation and writing process:

“I do a lot of rewriting, and I used to be kind of secretive about this, and there’s a tradition about how this works. It’s very elaborate and a lot of ideas come out of conversation around a table with a lot of people. But I have an idea for what the story is. I oversee the outline. We all participate in it and everyone contributes in many different ways to the outline. Then, because I cannot write all of the drafts and because I’m hoping someone will nail it, I give them a draft. They go off with the outline that I have basically pitched a lot of dialogue for and approved the story… and then they write a draft. If we have time I will give them notes and let them take another crack at it, or I will just take it and rewrite it. There is a tradition in Hollywood, in television in particular, where the executive producer doesn’t do that. They don’t put their name on it because they’re executive producer; they’re getting all the credit for it anyway. And I was not particularly raised in this tradition. I was in the sitcom, where they would come up after my first script and they had rewritten the entire script and someone pats me on the back and goes, ‘Great show.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t write a word of this thing. You guys raped me.’ Which is not a cool thing to say, by the way, to the people who rewrote your script. You’re supposed to sit there and take it. And I always felt like—David Chase put his name on scripts when he rewrote and he rewrote me plenty. Some of them have both our names on them. We literally split them in half. But my attitude was always I’m going to write a script that David Chase can’t rewrite. That did happen eventually, which was fantastic. But you’re writing in someone else’s style, and it’s a very hard thing to do, and it is way easier to rewrite off a first draft because you can see if the story works. There are plenty of things that people contribute, believe me, but I do a lot of the writing and I put my name on it because I A) wrote it, and I’m the executive producer, so it goes to arbitration. The Writers Guild would not give me credit for something. I’m sorry that I’m not as magnanimous as the rest of this tradition, but on the other hand I was never a writer who, and I can’t image a human being who— It’s bad for people’s psyche to have their name on something that they didn’t write. They wrote a part of it and they were essential to the process and I cannot do it without them, but we wrote it together, and that’s probably the first time I’ve ever explained that in public. But I don’t know that I have to be complicit in that tradition. You know, Larry David didn’t do that. Lots of people didn’t do it. It’s very hard. As a writer you’re very proud of what you did, and I’m very proud of what they did. I always tell people what people did. It used to happen to me all the time on a script. People would come up and say, ‘Great joke.’ I’d say, ‘I didn’t write that. David Chase wrote that. It’s not my joke. It’s an amazing joke. That’s why his name is on the script with me.’”

“I write and I produce. I have a lot of help with these things, but the writing process is literally we try to get five or six stories broken and five or six drafts going before we shoot anything. I go off and write the first episode by myself and it happens and that’s in the works. There are drafts. Lots of drafts. There’s a very crucial stage at some point where my wife reads the draft and I refocus the show. Sometimes it’s a big rewrite. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s too late and I have to yell at her. I’ll give you an example: The lawnmower episode was a real bear and literally when I finished the rewrite of that script, I yelled out the window, “I beat you!” because it was a really hard story to tell. A lot of times I know what things are about inherently, but you have to have—and I definitely learned this from David Chase—you cannot give up on these things. And you never feel like it’s perfect. It’s still a shadow of what you had in your mind on some level. Maybe a year later I can look at it and see it, or you know, on this show, I can see the actors do it, even at the table read, and it’s like, Oh my god, some of this is really good and it’s better than I think even, when I hear them do it. The outline was one thing. I was zeroing in on it, zeroing in on it, and Linda read a draft fairly after I thought I was close. That’s the other thing: you think you’ve beat it and then the next day you wake up and think I have so much to do on this thing it’s going to kill me. But Linda read it and she gave me a line, which was at the very beginning when Don says, ‘Why are you afraid?’ and Sally says, ‘I’m afraid of what’s going to happen when I turn off the light.’ And that was the key to the whole show. It was a show about expectation. And so I did some tiny things. When you’re that close, tiny things make a huge difference. And Don being so excited—we’ve never seen him like that. He was going to go to London! And Roger was forced to make up with him. And that expectation was huge. Joan’s expectation about Greg had been going on for days. And you know that scene with them in the emergency room said it all. ‘I bet he felt great when he woke up this morning.’ … And the way [Guy] he walked down the hallway I know that every single person thought This is what it’s about. This is Don’s new guy. This guy’s in charge. And then you just pull the plug on it, but you know, that I had already. It’s little things that you’re always wondering how to execute. Like, I had written the whole thing and realized that Peggy hadn’t said goodbye to Joan. How could I have let that go? And we had this great sentimental moment, which is cut off—literally—by Lois running the guy’s foot over. That scene with Don and Joan in the emergency room, that’s like one of my favorite things ever. It really is. There’s so much significance to them. They both have let their guard down. They’re both so disappointed. It’s the champagne thing. Peggy says, ‘This champagne’s pretty good.’ Don goes, ‘I don’t think so.’ So the writing process is basically keep rewriting. Keep rewriting and then you get into the editing room and you rewrite it again, because you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

“I don’t get writers block. I really don’t. I’m not trying to be obnoxious about it. What I have is an idea I have not worked my way through. I’ve learned to have confidence in the fact that if I’m having trouble writing it, it’s not good and it’s not done and I need to do something else and loosen the machinery. And I don’t care if it’s gambling or drinking or just talking a walk, which is probably what you’re supposed to do, but you need to change your state. And I talk to people. I tell the story over, and over, and over again. Our head of accounting, Ladonna Conard, and I worked out the end one episode. I worked it out with her. I talked to her about that at three in the morning, because she’s the only person who works more than I do. And you know, I bang my head against the wall and you can bang your head against the wall and do fine, but it’s the advice Don gave to Peggy: Think about it intensely and then do something else and it will be right in front of you. You can’t force it. I also work well with a gun against my head. I’m not trying to invite writers block, but usually what writers block is, is imaging all the possibilities of a blank page. And the other thing I do—oh my god, I can’t believe I’m about to say this—I have an amazing way to get over this, which is that I do not sit down at a typewriter and write or a computer. I dictate. That’s how I got over it; I’ll be quite honest with you. It used to take me five or six hours to write a scene. I’d sit there and I would procrastinate and play solitaire and write screen directions and just lots of things in the creative process. Call people on the phone and complain, whatever. Now even if I’m on the phone and doing all the procrastinating things, when I’m dictating Don comes in, he sits at the typewriter…It works just like that. I get into the scene and at the end of the day I can write an entire draft in a day. It might be garbage, but I can rewrite it. And that was a breakthrough for me. I could never do it on The Sopranos because it was so top secret, but I wrote the pilot this way, and Jenji Kohan writes Weeds and I told her, and she said, ‘You’re cheating.’ I said, ‘You know what, everyone has their own way.’ I found out a lot of things were written this way, actually. … One of the greatest byproducts besides getting over writers block—because you’re not staring at it and looking at it, rewriting descriptions over and over again and worrying about how long it is or anything like that—you end up with dialogue that’s very easy to memorize. If you can say it, it can be said. You repeat more words. It’s much more natural, unless your Shakespeare or something. It’s much more natural. And Rod Sterling did it that way too, I found out.”