May 7, 2015
Guest: Matt Weiner
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, the creator of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
H. RICHARD GREENE: (As Jim Hobart) Have you said it yet?
JON HAMM: (As Don Draper) What?
GREENE: (As Jim Hobart) Have you introduced yourself?
HAMM: (As Don Draper) I'm Don Draper from McCann Erickson.
GROSS: With only two episodes left, Don Draper, who had been concealing his real identity, has just had his professional identity changed against his will. McCann Erickson, a giant advertising company that took over Don's ad agency, Sterling Cooper & Partners, has just absorbed SC&P and shut down its offices. The characters we've come to know, at least those of them who survived the layoffs, are being forced to move into McCann's building and play by its rules. These shifts have left all the main characters in crisis.
Before I go any further, if you watch the show but aren't caught up, I want you to know that our interview will have some spoilers about last Sunday's episode, but you're not in danger of finding out how the series ends because there's no way Matthew Weiner is going to tell us. In addition to creating this series, he's the showrunner, wrote many of the episodes and directed the remaining two. He also worked on "The Sopranos" as a writer and producer. Let's start with a scene from a recent episode when SC&P was still in its own offices. McCann Erickson had asked the partners at SC&P to write a statement about the company's future. The assignment was handed to Don, who's considered the visionary there, even though he's had a history of showing up drunk or not showing up at all. As Don is thinking about the future, Peggy Olson, the head copywriter, walks into his office with a request.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
ELISABETH MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Ted told me I have to fill out my own performance review.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) I guess he respects your opinion.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I'm tired of this.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) I'd start with that.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I'm serious. I want to have my performance reviewed. I've had quite a year.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) What do you see for the future?
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Well - was that on there?
HAMM: (As Don Draper) No, I'm just curious.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I'd like to be the first woman creative director at this agency. That's funny to you?
HAMM: (As Don Draper) No. I'm impressed that you know exactly.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) What else is there?
HAMM: (As Don Draper) That's what I'm asking. Let's say you get that. What's next?
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Land something huge.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) And then?
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Have a big idea; create a catchphrase.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) So you want fame.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Yes.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) What else?
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I don't know.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) Yes, you do.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Create something of lasting value.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) In advertising.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) So you think those things are unrelated.
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) I didn't know you'd be in a mood.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) Do you want me to do this or not?
MOSS: (As Peggy Olson) Why don't you just write down all of your dreams so I can s*** on them.
GROSS: Matthew Weiner, welcome come back to FRESH AIR. And I greet you with sadness and happiness, happiness because I love talking with you and I'm loving the final episodes of "Mad Men," and sadness because it's going to end soon. I'm so sad about that. So it's the end of the series, and Don's looking into the future. He's asking Peggy to look into the future, and he's asking himself, I think, the questions he's asking Peggy. Like, what's next? What else? Peggy Lee is singing in the background "Is That All There Is?"
MATTHEW WEINER: (Laughter).
GROSS: And I'm wondering how you came up with the idea of putting all these kind of bigger questions, all these, like, existential questions into Peggy's annual review, her performance evaluation.
WEINER: (Laughter) That came from the writer's room. First of all, let me say, Terry, I love being here. Thank you for having me again. I feel like this ongoing conversation has helped me with my work, believe it or not. And I'm just such a fan of the show, so I can just say that. No, that came from the writer's room, and I don't know if people understand because the construction of the show centers around me, and it's - I've been used for marketing it, but there's a bunch of really, really smart people that figure out how to do these stories. What did sort of originate with me is I really wanted to do an episode where you ask this question about the future. I kept thinking, well, what would you want? Let's actually say - what - you have all this, what do you want? And it's sort of been the story of the season. So let's say that you've gotten this mountain of money that these people have received and status and success and, well, what else is there? And to get Peggy in there, who clearly seems focused at this point on her career, and for Don to say, OK, I see myself in you, but what else is there? And then the scene sort of explains itself because I think most people, if you really asked them and you pursued that question, it's going to be disturbing. It's not that clear for people. And that question is a big part of the end of the show. We're sort of channeling where we are on some level, assuming that we've had some success, but also what's going on with the characters.
GROSS: So you and I are in very different positions now. Me, I'm immersed in the final episodes of "Mad Men." I've even gone back to early episodes to re-watch them and connect the dots. You, it's over. I mean, you've written it. You've shot it. Do you feel emotionally like you've moved on?
WEINER: You know what's weird? It's sort of like somebody ripping a Band-Aid off over and over again. There were so many endings, and I was so excited about - and still am excited about - the audience seeing what we all did together. And we've sort of reunited at different places with the writers, and we've had some panels out here. I've gotten to see all the crafts people, and I try and keep in touch with everybody. That does not take away the fact that the actual experience of having two episodes left is hitting me in a way that I didn't expect it, which - where I'm realizing, like, hey, that's the end of the road. This is actually really happening. And I think that's kind of maybe the way I am. I don't know how other people are about experiences like this. It is more emotional than I thought it was going to be. And Monday mornings, in particular, when another one has sort of ticked off, and I'm staying off the Internet for my health...
WEINER: So I'm really kind of in a vacuum of friends and family and press, to tell you the truth, who are kind of experiencing this, you know, directly.
GROSS: I've gone back and watched some of the episodes of the first season, and I'm just kind of amazed at how you're kind of connecting things from the first season to what's happening now. And I just want to play an example of that. And this is from season one, episode seven, when Jim Hobart of McCann Erickson, like, the big corporate advertising company that recently bought Don Draper's advertising company, Sterling Cooper - so this is, like, back in season one, Jim Hobart of McCann is trying to woo Don to leave Sterling Cooper and join McCann. But Don decides to stay at Sterling Cooper. Then he goes into Roger's office to tell him and to negotiate the terms of his staying. Roger offers him a raise. Don doesn't want a contract. Don hates to be tied down to anything. And so we'll pick it up in that scene with Roger talking.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
JOHN SLATTERY: (As Roger Sterling) I'm not going to be a little girl and ask you why you stayed. I know it's not money, and I hope it's not to keep your foot on Pete Campbell.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) I like the way you do business.
SLATTERY: (As Roger Sterling) Well, I try to be as civilized as you can be.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) No contract.
SLATTERY: (As Roger Sterling) Forty-five and no security; well, what's in it for me?
HAMM: (As Don Draper) If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.
SLATTERY: (As Roger Sterling) What else is there?
HAMM: (As Don Draper) I don't know, life being lived. I'd like to stop talking about it and get back to it.
SLATTERY: (As Roger Sterling) I've worked with a lot of men like you, and if you had to choose a place to die, it would be in the middle of a pitch.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) I've done that. I want to do something else.
GROSS: OK. That's Jon Hamm and John Slattery in a scene from the first season of "Mad Men." And it's just amazing to me, like, in that scene you have Roger asking Don the kind of questions Don asked Peggy in this season...
GROSS: ...Like, what else? What else is there? Like, what do you really want? And you also have Don, in a way, suggesting what the end of the series might be 'cause Don says if I leave this company, it's not going to be for more advertising. He's basically just told us he'd never go to McCann and...
GROSS: ...Last night he walked out of McCann and...
GROSS: ...We don't know if he's coming back. So did - was that - when you - what were you thinking when you wrote that scene, you know, in the very first season?
WEINER: I was literally wondering what was holding him there. I mean, the character has a certain integrity that you can't really argue with. I'm not saying that he's a person with integrity. I mean that he has the substance that is that person, and you try to be true to that. But I remember thinking this is a hard thing to negotiate. This is a hard thing to figure out. I know that this man doesn't want his name on the building at that point 'cause he's afraid of being revealed. I know that he's not motivated by money. I know that he has a fantasy of the kind of person he wants to be and the life that he wanted. And at the same time, I think that we all live with this ambiguous relationship with our work, where we know on some level that it's not life or we don't really - or maybe I didn't even understand it at that time. I mean, I remember having an argument in the writer's room about why he was staying and what was making him stay there. And somebody said to me, well, he and Roger are friends. That's going to help. And I was like, they are? Oh, yeah.
WEINER: I mean, I just met Roger. I don't know (laughter). And this is a really - I mean, my answers are always long - I apologize for that - but I think that's who that man is, and we've just tried to hold it in there. And I have a hard time answering those questions myself, don't you? I mean, you've been doing this a long time.
GROSS: The what else is there?
WEINER: What else is there - and it's not such a negative question. This is called contemplation, and it can be destructive to people because it can make them feel unsatisfied with what they have, but it also is something. You hear about sabbaticals and things like that. It is worth taking an inventory once in a while if you're serious about - especially if you had goals and dreams and achieved some of them, if you're lucky enough. It's something to re-evaluate, and Don is a thinking person, and we've tried to treat all the characters in the show that they - that sometimes they ignore these questions and sometimes they just go on with them. I mean, what does Roger want? I mean, I've had to ask that a million times. The guy is super rich. He's like - you know what I mean? What does he - why is he working?
GROSS: The way things are going now, there's no place for Don anymore. His second ex-wife (laughter) second ex-wife...
GROSS: ...Cleared out his furniture. His realtor didn't want him in the apartment when buyers were there, so she threw him out of his home. Now it's sold, and he's in a hotel. He had to move in new offices at McCann. He doesn't want to be there. He goes to bed. He's home to take Sally back to school. She's already left with a friend. Betty's busy studying 'cause she's back in college. He looks for his girlfriend, Diane, who's taken off. That doesn't work either. There is literally no place for him, in part because he's burned all of his bridges in a lot of ways. He's shut himself out, and now other people are shutting him out. So that's something you always saw coming.
WEINER: Yeah. I mean, you know, there's a harvest going on in a weird way. And there are things that are being taken away from him or that he's given away that hopefully are turning him towards other avenues, you know? A lot of times running away is a response to a crisis. This is a big moment in his life. That's what...
GROSS: It's forcing him to make a choice.
WEINER: It is forcing him to make choices. It is forcing him to evaluate. It is forcing him to keep looking, and what is he looking for? He definitely is not finding it. But I feel like if anything symbolizes the end of the '60s, it is the physical driving that ended last night's episode.
GROSS: Yeah. Don is on the road now, and we don't know if it's an "On The Road" Kerouac kind of adventure, or if he's on the road to nowhere, or if it's the end of the road.
GROSS: So many different road metaphors there.
WEINER: I don't know, I...
GROSS: So, you know, I've always thought that Don would either die - suicide, alcohol, health-related problems - or that he'd leave and, as Peggy said to Don, do something creative of lasting value. Like, maybe he'd write a novel or even a memoir about the advertising world. So I'm sure you played out many different versions of that, and you're not going to say anything about it probably, so I shouldn't...
WEINER: I'm not going to say anything about it.
WEINER: I mean, you know, there's - his contempt for advertising goes along with all of our relationship with our creative work (laughter). I don't know that it's really true or if he's just frustrated with it. I don't know. I mean, you heard him - when Megan was in it and Megan said she didn't want to do it, you heard him talking about wait till you see your work on a billboard. Wait till it's on TV and people start talking about it. He does love solving those problems. He does love being good at it. And people have sort of superimposed their own concept on top of the show, which is completely valid in every way, but this is not about a man becoming out of touch with the times. This is about a man having a reckoning with himself.
WEINER: Don is acutely trained and ready to understand what is going on in the world. He just doesn't have anything to hold onto.
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator and showrunner of "Mad Men." There's only two episodes left. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator and showrunner of "Mad Men." And there's only two episodes left. Let's hear another scene from "Mad Men."
GROSS: And it's from the pilot. And just a little bit of background, you know, Sterling Cooper has a new client, Menken's, which is a department store owned by a Jewish family. And now the daughter in that family is taking over the store. Don pitches her, oh, there should be, like, coupons and stuff, discounts, and, like, that's not her thing. This is an expensive store for people with money. And Don takes it, you know, as an offense that this, like, woman is trying to tell him something. And he says to her I'm not going to listen to this from a woman. He walks out.
WEINER: It's the first line I had in the pilot. Before I wrote the pilot was I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like that - like this.
GROSS: Wow, OK (laughter).
WEINER: And it really was, like, such a piece of time travel, you know, in itself. Just linguistically you're like, what? Oh, yeah, people used to talk that way.
GROSS: Right. So now he's taking her out for a kind of makeup drink, so that she'll come back and be Sterling Cooper's client. So they're at a restaurant together. She has a big Mai Tai with a parasol in it (laughter) and he's drinking, I don't know, scotch or something. And he's asking her why she hasn't gotten married, you know, a beautiful young woman like her. And she gives all these business reasons and then finally says she hasn't been in love. And he cynically replies that men like him in advertising have made up the whole idea of that lightning bolt kind of love. And then Don basically gives his philosophy of life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")
HAMM: (As Don Draper) You're born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow because there isn't one.
MAGGIE SIFF: (As Rachel Menken) I don't think I realized it until this moment, but it must be hard being a man, too.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) Excuse me?
SIFF: (Rachel Menken) Mr. Draper.
HAMM: (As Don Draper) Don.
SIFF: (As Rachel Menken) Mr. Draper, I don't know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected; to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There's something about you that tells me you know it, too.
GROSS: OK, so that's a scene from the pilot of "Mad Men." And so Don's philosophy of, like, you're born alone, you die alone. He's living like there's no tomorrow 'cause there is no tomorrow. That's a nice thing to say when you're young and trying to figure out your place in the world. But, you know, for somebody who is, like, a father and, at that point, is still a husband and has responsibilities at his office, responsibilities to clients and to the people he works with - that's really irresponsible. Not to say you live alone and you die alone, but just like, you know, that whole like yeah, there's no tomorrow.
WEINER: No, I mean, it's a pose - but you can - one of the things I think people enjoyed about that interaction is that it was clearly a pose.
GROSS: Right, right.
WEINER: When she calls him on it, he looks a little unnerved, you know, he looks into his drink. It was all in the script there that he would be rattled by that confrontation. At the same time, I kind of feel like she is expressing the same kind of alienation, and the show is about, on some level, the contemplations that we have about what we want versus, you know, what we can get. And happiness is always that gap in between there. Happiness becomes this weird invention, you know, just something that's sought out of that other people have, and you're like, how do they get that?
GROSS: I want to ask you about - something about Peggy 'cause I think so many of us are rooting for her (laughter).
WEINER: Sure, me too.
GROSS: So when you created her as a secretary, what future did you see for her then?
WEINER: Well, in the pilot she is, you know, the other story in the pilot, which is her first day. And she's going to be taken around by what I consider to be the keeper of the harem, Joan, the queen of the courtesans, and be told how it works. And we will see - is she naive? We'll see how smart she is by how she handles this. She reacts immediately by making a pass at Don. But the whole premise of the show that I had from when I wrote the pilot - and you have to understand, there are seven years between when I wrote the pilot and when I wrote the second episode of the show. So I did have time to think about it (laughter). But I didn't think when I was writing it OK, this woman is going to ascend in some way. How will she ascend? Well, it has to be at Don's bidding, and Don does give her a promotion at the end of the first season. But I always imagined her being discovered. She doesn't have an Ivy League education, which is limiting to a lot of people going near advertising - forget about women in general. And women were utilized as a kind of idea factory. They were not paid for it. They would have these brainstorming sessions. And I knew that I wanted to do that the first season and that Peggy would shine and that they would recognize it - that it would be some sort of merit-based promotion or recognition. But it would still have what Freddy Rumsen says that it's still like watching a dog play the piano. He was surprised that she had that kind of insight. And it also was an education for the audience about what talent in advertising was about. Because we've tried to be very honest about the creative process and show a lot of mistakes being made, a lot of wrong roads being taken down, a lot of pitches that failed because the client's not up to it or because the person's not prepared or whatever. A lot of moments of inspiration, which I'm very interested in, you know, as much as drama will tolerate someone thinking. But I love the idea that Peggy knew a basket of kisses - that she knew that that was a poetic representation of the product that she just instinctively was on top of it.
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner. After we take a short break, I'll ask him about the character of Joan and if when he first created her, he pictured a woman whose amazing figure becomes an asset and a liability and how that figured into the casting. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with the creator of "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner. We've been lucky to have him on our show several times over the course of the series, and this is the last time before the series ends. There's only two more episodes left. Weiner is also "Mad Men's" showrunner. He wrote many of the episodes and also directed the remaining two.
So this is a question about casting for the character Joan.
GROSS: Was the...
WEINER: Joan, yeah - I didn't know Joan was going to be a main character.
GROSS: OK, well...
WEINER: Let me just say that right now.
GROSS: But that...
GROSS: But here's a question. Did you know that Joan had to have very large breasts and that that would be (laughter) an example of how she was stereotyped because of her - of the shape of her body and how men responded to it?
WEINER: No. No I did not. Joan, to me, in my mind when I was writing the pilot, was more like - dating myself here - like an Eve Arden type. Like, I thought she was very pointy and kind of...
GROSS: Yeah. Eve Arden was always, like, the best friend - the tough-talking best friend.
WEINER: The best friend, yes, but tough talking and...
GROSS: Very sarcastic.
WEINER: Yeah, sarcastic, realistic and not like the best friends now who are always like, God, I can't believe he did that to you.
WEINER: A best friend with an attitude of like, you're so dumb. Everyone knows how this works but you. That is a character point of view from that office dynamic that's almost a cliche. When Christina Hendricks came in and read for it, I just thought, first of all, she's so beautiful and so poised and conveys such confidence and comfort with who she is that I just thought, this is someone who if they were a man, would be running the world.
Well, guess what? Maybe she is running the world. Maybe she's doing it in the traditional, you know, Greek tragedy way, you know, or Lady Macbeth way. She's behind the scenes. She's grabbing power the way only a woman can. But her sexual confidence and her demand to be taken seriously and to not suffer any insolence or anything, her power, was immediately apparent in the audition. It had nothing to do with her physique, quite honestly, and it never has.
I was kind of shocked by the reaction to her physique, other than the fact that actresses and actors too - Jon Hamm as well - they are frequently symbols of beauty. We don't pick average people to do that. And they become sex symbols. And I could tell that she was a huge sex symbol. I could see that. But I picked her because she - honestly, I cast for performance and for voice, and she - the idea of her and Peggy walking down the hall together felt, to me, like that's the story of the show - two different women with two different sets of skills, ambitions, et cetera.
GROSS: And bodies too - totally different looks.
WEINER: And two totally different bodies. And by the way, having different bodies on the show, that was, like, part of my goal. I'm like, I'm not - I mean, I asked the actresses to stop working out their upper bodies. I wanted them to be a little bit softer, a little bit fuller. I was surprised that no one else had used her this way in her career.
And I was surprised, also, at the reaction to like, well, that's a real woman. There was sort of an insinuation that she was fat and wasn't it great to see a fat person on TV playing someone sexy. And I just kept saying, like, I don't know what world you're in, but this woman...
WEINER: ...Is like one of the most exceptionally beautiful people that you're ever going to run across. And the fact that TV or the society didn't see that as a standard at that moment was shocking to me. So I was happy to have all the different physical types.
GROSS: Did you go back and re-watch the first season, or did you feel like you knew it so well, you didn't need to re-watch anything to know exactly what language was used, to know exactly what plot points you wanted to pick up on?
WEINER: I tried - before we started the last 14 episodes, that was - you know, we shot them all at once even though they've been spread out over two years. I went back, and I said, I'm going to watch the entire series up to this point to prepare myself for writing these last 14 episodes. I did not make it through the entire thing because I ran out of time, and it is quite a commitment to do that.
GROSS: What surprised you about what you saw that you'd maybe forgotten or where you felt like, wow, that was interesting; I need to pick up on that? Did that happen?
WEINER: It's happened quite a bit, actually. Sometimes the characters - the actors remind you of it also. But Don's love for Betty and in their good times, he's older than her, and I forgot that, if that makes sense. He's appropriate for marriages at that time. It's - but it's, like, you know, 10 years. And I'd remembered that - the sort of idyllic nature of their family life being baloney 'cause I - it has now become rosier to me too as I've passed from it.
And I think remembering the dynamics - trying not to repeat the dynamics that I saw was more about cautionary thing, like, don't go there again. We did have a meeting in the writer's room. When we opened the writer's room for the last thing, I said, is there a story that we've always wanted to tell that we haven't told? And it could be something that I brought up or anything like that. We had a list on the wall. And a bunch of stuff ended up in the show.
GROSS: Give me one example.
WEINER: It was one of my stories that the writers had been urging me to tell - to put in, and I had always resisted it 'cause I think it didn't make any sense. But it's the story with Betty taking Bobby on the field trip and him eating her lunch. I was like, what does that have to do with anything?
GROSS: Oh, she's so angry about it.
WEINER: Yeah. When he says, I wish it was yesterday, that was - actually turned out to be a pretty resonant part of the show. But I was like, that's just a bad story about my childhood (laughter).
GROSS: Wait. You ate your mother's lunch, and she was angry with you?
WEINER: Yeah, yeah. And she came on the field trip. She didn't really participate in school that much. And I was so in love with her and so excited that she had come along, and then I kind of ruined it because I ate one of the sandwiches and gave one away - traded it for gumdrops. And I'd never seen her eat, so it was kind of shocking to me that she had brought lunch for her.
But I - it was irreversible and something that I would wake up and be crying about, you know, for years, you know, just like, oh, why did I do that? Why did I give her sandwich away? It's funny because it makes her sound bad in a way, and I'm aware of that. But I actually feel like what stories like this show is that maybe it's the combination of a slightly insensitive parent and an incredibly oversensitive child (laughter). So I - we both bear culpability in it. But that was a story that I was like, nobody gives a crap about that. Why are we doing that? And I had told that, like, the first week of the first season, and it was in the notes.
GROSS: Wow. So was your mother dieting like Betty was? Like, you know, her son maybe didn't see her eat because she tried not to.
WEINER: Yes, always. My mother was always dieting, and sometimes she failed. And she had put on weight at a certain point like Betty did, and then now she's the skinniest person in the entire world.
GROSS: All right.
WEINER: She's - it's a food - there is no alcoholism in my home despite you seeing it on the show. It was - all of the dysfunction is related to food.
GROSS: You told me in one of our earlier interviews that when you wrote the pilot, you wanted an excuse to exercise your demons and write a story about someone who's 35 years old who has everything and is miserable.
GROSS: Were you miserable when you wrote the pilot for "Mad Men"?
WEINER: Yes. Yes, I was. Not in my personal life, but I was wondering why it wasn't enough, you know? And I really didn't like my career at all.
GROSS: Why - what wasn't enough?
WEINER: Well, first of all, you - it's an expectation. OK, so now you have a job. You're making a living. You go to work every day. You have beautiful, health...
GROSS: Was this "The Sopranos" or and earlier job?
WEINER: No, no. This was - I was on "Becker" when I wrote the show, and it was, like, my fourth sitcom. I had done a lot of pilots. It was the kind of job where I would probably get another job after that and probably get a shot at doing my own sitcom. And that kind of show was kind of dying. I think "Frasier" and "Raymond" were sort of the last of them. You know, if I had - if "30 Rock" was on the air at that time, I might have felt different about - oh, I could do that. "Seinfeld" was ending or had ended already.
So there's sort of, like - in my profession that I had sort of fallen into, I was extremely unhappy and unsatisfied and did not feel that there was any meaning. I'm not talking about getting personal attention or anything like that. I was always treated very well. I was always very hirable and was increasingly making more money at that job, but it was not - I have an artistic temperament, and I really wanted to express that. Why could someone who has - who, on paper, can check off every box that our society thinks is valuable is personally unhappy? Is it me? Is it the natural state of things? Why do I feel like I'm 18 inside still? Like, is that ever going to change? And I was the same age as the character, you know?
GROSS: OK, and...
GROSS: I was 35 years old.
GROSS: And now you're about to turn 50.
GROSS: And you're very successful by any measure. So many of us love "Mad Men," your series. So are you any less miserable? Like, isn't (laughter) - is being miserable a condition of your life, or was it changed by circumstances?
WEINER: (Laughter). You know, the minute you stop and say it, you're asking for trouble 'cause I'm so superstitious, but I am a lot mellower. And I have accepted those gifts. And my mantra for people that I would run into for the first four years of the show was, can you believe this s***?
WEINER: I could not get over that this happened. I could not get over good reviews. So much of it was contrary to my perception of the world, that the show was picked and that it won awards and that we got to keep doing it. And there was plenty of fighting. Nothing ever came easy. You know, they never give us enough money to make the show and drag me through the mud and made it a public spectacle when they, you know - all that stuff I'm still angry about.
GROSS: When your contract was being renegotiated?
WEINER: Yeah, just the whole situation of, like - and it's a cultural thing. I don't even think it's them, but the idea that, you know, they blamed me for the show being off the air for a year, which people still write about. So that sort of is inside me. I still have that fight in me.
But in terms of, like - I hate to say it - like, I have learned to love writing, which is my, you know, refuge. I never thought that would be that way, that when things are tough, I go to a place where I have control and let my imagination go and go to that state of flow. I so appreciate that. And I feel tremendous joy. And you know, my family has grown up, you know, and my wife has progressed in her career. And you know, all of these things have sort of, like - you're just sitting back and saying, like, when's the shoe going to drop, you know? That's - that never leaves. But the shoe is always dropping. I'm going to turn 50 (laughter).
GROSS: You've said that you didn't tell the actors what their last scene was going to be because you didn't want them to play it. Would you explain that?
WEINER: Well, you don't know yet because you're watching the show and there's two episodes left, but some people have had their last scenes together. And you just don't want to have the emotions - even the last day when people are doing scenes, you don't want them to play the meta-story, which is, this is my last scene.
WEINER: People are on the verge of tears. These are people who are paid for their emotions. We all are. And you know, yeah, they're professional actors, and they can fake - you know, they do huge things with green screens, you know what I mean? They work with, like, ping-pong balls and make it feel emotional. But I just didn't want to have the big moment infect what was just a story scene. And...
GROSS: So at what point would you tell the actors, like, that scene you just did, that was your last one.
WEINER: (Laughter). Never - I never told them.
GROSS: So they would look for themselves in...
WEINER: They realized it probably by the time we wrapped. They were like, oh, wait; that - was that my last one? That was, like, in episode two (laughter). It was like, yeah, sorry. I don't know. I'm uncomfortable with the...
GROSS: Would they be looking for their part in more episodes?
WEINER: I don't know what they're looking for. I mean, they were so - I try to be kind and hold - and be the adult and be extra good to them in the end, emotionally, to be there for them and to be the captain of the ship, you know? I did not have a parental relationship with these actors. It was an ensemble.
But in the end, I did have complete control over their life, and I tried not to abuse that. So telling them that they have a story coming up, telling, you know, Christina, season four, that, you know, you're going to leave the agency because your husband's going to get a job, and then he doesn't get a job. You will be coming back. You know, she needed to know that. Or telling somebody, this is your last day - I have done that.
But with the end of the show, you know, it's going to be everybody's last day. Jessica said that to me. She's like, it's going to be everybody's last day in five episodes. So I don't know what there is to say except for, let's enjoy this while it's happening.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Weiner, and he's the creator and showrunner of "Mad Men" - only two episodes left. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Weiner. He's the creator and showrunner of "Mad Men" who's also written a lot of the episodes, and he wrote and directed the final two, which are coming up. There's only two episodes left. I have another plot question to ask you.
GROSS: And this is another example of the current season echoing or connecting with the very early episodes. The final half of the final season started with Don talking to a beautiful woman who's wearing underwear and a fur coat. And he's telling her how to look even more sexy with it. And we don't really know - are they about to make love or what's going on? And soon the camera pulls back and we realize he's shooting an ad with her, and he's trying to coach her in how she should look. And I guess it's more like an audition, but...
WEINER: It is an audition, yes.
GROSS: ...Yeah, so anyways...
WEINER: But it comes off as like an S&M - mild S&M situation to begin with where he's sort of ordering her around, which we have seen him do with her.
GROSS: And which you and I have talked about.
GROSS: Talked about that theme in Don's life wanting to be slapped by a prostitute.
WEINER: Yes (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah, and the carpet cleaning...
WEINER: Who's the S and who's the M changes (laughter).
GROSS: Yes, right. No, exactly, exactly. But anyway, so, like, this fur coat thing is, like, why are we seeing the fur coat thing? And then he has a dream that Rachel, the heiress to the department store who's in the first season, she appears to him in a dream wearing a fur coat. And so when I was re-watching part of the first season, I was reminded of something that I'd forgotten over the years, which is that Don and Betty, his first wife, met when he was working for a fur company and she was modeling furs. And...
WEINER: Oh, you want to know what the significance of the fur is? Well, first of all, my grandfather, my mother's father, worked at a place called Manhattan Fleischer's, which was a fur dressing company. And they did fur - they were in the fur business in Russia.
WEINER: And I grew up with a lot of fur in my house. My grandfather used to watch the nature shows with us when he lived with us. And he would, for all the wrong reasons, be like, oh, yeah, Hudson seal - that was a beautiful animal. I must have handled 40,000 of those.
WEINER: I'm like, Grandpa, that's not - that's an endangered animal. And he would pet people's dogs, and you'd see him, like, rubbing the fur the wrong way on the dog - he was an expert on that.
And it was a big part of the period. And Janie and I, my costume designer, we love - both love that, so I felt that Don worked in a fur company because I love the fur business. And that it was totally - it's something that's completely politically incorrect now and was a gigantic business and was something that you would give one fur to your wife and another to your mistress. It was literally like buying someone a home. So it is the ultimate symbol of luxury. And they are doing an ad for Wilkinson Razors, and there is nothing to convey smoothness better than naked skin with fur on it; that's the cliche world that they're working in. Call it fetishism, but that's what it is. But it is earned fetishism because it is part of our family business. Ironically, my other grandfather, my father's father, was in the shoe business. So you'll see a lot of - or footwear, as it's called, so you will see that.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, that's right because Joan corrects somebody about it. He says shoes and she says no, it's footwear.
WEINER: Oh, yeah, they do not - yeah, they do not like it to be called shoes (laughter).
WEINER: 'Cause shoes sound like something you put on a horse and it's kind of crude and it doesn't have the elegance of footwear. And footwear is all-encompassing - it's boots, it's sandals, it's socks sometimes, it's hosiery; you never know.
GROSS: Did you grow up with antique furs? Do you still have any?
WEINER: Yes. My parents have a fur closet with all the inherited furs, and I actually - there's a "Sopranos" episode where a woman buys a fur coat that I wrote. Yeah, I know the difference between fox and chinchilla and, you know, and sable and a Persian lamb and all those different things. So - seal. You know, it's a terrible thing, but they did - in fairness, they did come from Russia. It was really cold. It wasn't just about killing animals.
GROSS: What are you doing with that part of your brain that used to be devoted to thinking about "Mad Men?"
WEINER: That is a great question. I have thought of a few stories for "Mad Men" that I will never be able to do (laughter). So there's obviously a machine there where you're like, well, could I just superimpose that somewhere else? I have been watching a lot of movies that I love, not necessarily new things. And I've been saying yes to a lot of new things. I was a juror at the Berlin Film Festival, which is something I would've never done before and saw 25 movies from around the world. I have been reconnecting with friends. I have been basically turning my imagination back to the place of taking notes, eavesdropping and trying to not, let's put it this way, the impetus for "Mad Men" as an idea was definitely, like, this would be a cool idea. Then who Don was and what it was about and, you know, happiness is the smell of a new car - these are things that came as I was working on it. So I'm sort of trying to prime the pump with life experience because I have been in a, you know, beautiful, amazing but sort of isolated, you know, state of creating the show.
GROSS: Well, I wish you the best with the next step and in the meantime...
WEINER: Any ideas, Terry?
WEINER: I do frequently ask people. I mean, it's a joke in my family. My kids 'cause they're always messing with you, and when I wake up in the morning, they're like hey, what are you going to do next (laughter)? But I do turn the tables frequently, and it is interesting to hear what people say that they think I should do. But for the most part, you know, I'm just in it.
GROSS: Well, I guess what I want to say is thank you for so much - so many hours of really pleasurable, thoughtful, reflective, sometimes funny, viewing. It's been so great to watch "Mad Men." I look forward to the final two episodes. And I'm really grateful to you for those shows.
WEINER: I hope to come back and talk about something new.
GROSS: Deal. Matthew Weiner is the creator and showrunner of "Mad Men." This Sunday is the next to the last episode of the series. Coming up, John Powers reviews the final novel by Ted Lewis, the late British crime writer who also wrote the novel that was adapted into the film "Get Carter." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The crime novelist Ted Lewis, who died in 1982, has long been well-known in his native Britain for writing the book that became the movie "Get Carter." He was less known in America, except among buffs and other writers, but in recent months, Soho Press has begun releasing his major works. The latest to appear is his final novel "GBH," which has never before been published in the U.S. Our critic at large John Powers says it's proof that Ted Lewis deserves his corner in the crime writing world.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In his famous essay, "The Simple Art Of Murder," Raymond Chandler put down the classic British mystery, making fun of its arcane killings and hokey air of gentility. He preferred the tough American style and praised Dashiell Hammett for, as he put it, taking murder out of the vicar's rose garden and dropping it in the alley where it belonged. The man who did the same for British mysteries was Ted Lewis. Between 1965 and 1980, Lewis wrote nine novels, whose gritty propulsive storytelling would influence writers on both sides of the Atlantic. The best known of these is "Get Carter," one of three novels about a gangster named Jack Carter. This tremendous book got turned into one of the greatest crime movies ever, with Michael Caine in the lead. Ten years later, Lewis wrote his final novel, "GBH." The initials stand for grievous bodily harm, and many fans think it's even better. The book is now available from Soho Press, and it's a pulp fiction triumph worthy of Jim Thompson or James Ellroy. I can't remember the last time I turned pages so eagerly.
"GBH" is narrated by a London gangster, George Fowler, whose business in rough, exceedingly illegal blue movies has made him rich, powerful and dangerous. He's got a posh lawyer, cops on his payroll, a trusty goon of a side kick named Mickey and a gorgeous, sexed-up wife, Jean, who's every bit as kinky as he is. George has everything a bloke could want until he spots a loose thread in his seamlessly smooth operation. When he pulls it, his whole world starts to unravel.
That's the simple version, anyway. But Lewis doesn't tell this story simply. Instead, he deftly intercuts two time-frames. One is set in the present in the off-season resort of Mablethorpe where George keeps a seaside hideout and finds himself getting involved with Leslie, a blonde who may really be a brunette or a brunette who may really be a blonde. The other storyline takes place in London, nicknamed The Smoke, and chronicles what happened with his wife, lawyer and sidekick that forced George to hide out in Mablethorpe. As we hopscotch between present and past, The Sea and The Smoke, we gradually discover that George is so mired in events that he doesn't fully grasp his own story.
The same may have been true of Lewis, a self-destructive sort who died and 42. He was a boozer, a womanizer, and I've heard it said, not immune to participating in dodgy enterprises. True or not, his sense of the criminal life is utterly convincing. You won't find any debonair cat burglars in his world. He knows the appetites that drive violent men, knows the codes of honor that give the underworld a kind of morality and knows how the British ruling class has its finger in every pie - even the illegal ones.
Not one to glamorize criminals, Lewis is brilliant at showing us the seedy world they inhabit. "Get Carter" is one of the best-ever fictional portraits of a small, industrial English city with its tawdry shops, dingy rooming houses and suffocating air of decline from something that wasn't that great to begin with. It's matched by the disillusioned pungency of "GBH's" vision of off-season Mablethorpe with its talent-challenged cabaret, shuttered amusement park and gigantic hotel bar that George describes as having all the charm of a crematorium. Lewis really knows and feels the places he's writing about, and his work cuts to the bone, both literally and metaphysically. At his best, he achieved something that only a handful of crime writers ever do - the chilling sense of cosmic fatality that links noir antiheroes to the likes of Oedipus and Macbeth. Now, it might be a tad much to call "GBH" a tragedy. George lacks the requisite nobility of soul. He's a thuggish porn baron, after all. But his story is one of hubris, and it leads him to an inexorable fall. The cocky George is a clever masterful man who learns, too late of course, that he's not quite as clever and masterful as he thought.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed Ted Lewis's 1980 novel "GBH." If you want to catch up with FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like the performance with Pokey LaFarge or the interviews with Mike Matheny, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Scott M. Gimple, the showrunner for "The Walking Dead," check out our podcast.
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