"It's iced tea – that's what's on the set," jokes Matthew Weiner, referring to the bottle of Glenfiddich on the coffee table between him and Town and Country editor-in-chief Jay Fielden. "Who knows what's in the trailer."
Wearing a steel-colored suit and chocolate brown brogues, Weiner has come to the Hearst building in Manhattan, home of American Esquire, to discuss one and only one thing: Mad Men, the AMC drama that has riveted viewers for over seven years. Becoming one of the most successful and recognisable screenwriters today wasn't easy, yet Weiner seems at ease talking about his frustrations. Things were especially tough at the beginning, when the Wesleyan graduate was finding his way around Hollywood, trying to figure things out.
"Living through rejection, having a support system, having people you trust that can make you not feel worthless" was critical back then, he says, because "being a screenwriter, you're dealing with a situation where people ask you what you do ... It's just low points and my mother saying, 'Oh, Steve's a writer as well, You should talk to Steve.'" Note that Steve was the guy hanging his mother's wallpaper.
"You're in an environment, especially when you're married," Weiner continued, and "as a man, certainly at that time, not earning money to support your family is not a great place to be in." Yet something clicked when he saw other writers' success. "I was at a really low-point when Groundhog Day came out," he recalls. But after seeing the film he had an a-ha moment. "Seeing something inspiring that's done well" inspired him to do something as life-changing.
Knowing What's Valuable
"Some writers expose this, and some more than others," says Weiner, who recognises the tendency to project a show's plot on the writer behind it. For example, on a show like Girls, it's easy to assume that everything comes from Lena Dunham's life. But in reality, he says of Mad Men, "the most interesting things that have happened in the show have happened to someone, not to me." The trick is in knowing what's valuable.
By way of explanation, Weiner offers an anecdote: One evening during dinner at a friend's house with David Chase, he happened to notice a cat staring at the wall. "What's the deal with the cat?" he asked jokingly. "Is there a rat or something?" The friend casually explained the cat was merely staring at a portrait of his mother. To find out for sure, Weiner's friends moved the portrait. Again, the cat kept staring. Later that night, as Weiner was putting on his coat to go home, Chase leaned over and whispered, "That thing with the cat is mine."
On Writing Characters
Weiner isn't afraid to admit the last names of several bit characters in the show come from the authors of books in his office. "At a certain point you're like, 'I've got to think of another name?'" he jokes. Oftentimes, actors who played those bit roles write a thank-you, along with some element of "I figured out how my character can return to the show." They'll even sign with their character's full name. Still, every character has a purpose in Mad Men, says Weiner, despite how unnecessary some of them may seem. "Characters are not in scenes to serve other characters. Everyone has a point of view."
Imitation Of Life
The literary references in Mad Men may come off as pretentious to some, but Weiner, who wants the masses to engage with his work, could care less about that. It's more about replicating the substance of real life, something his favorite author John Cheever boiled down to a science. When Weiner first read the author, he recalls thinking, "This man sounds like I want to sound: beautiful and sad." He also thinks the short story is closest thing to a one-hour episode there is. "Dickens to me is the first TV writer," he says, "those episodic lines, those characters, the way you feel when it's over. A Tale of Two Cities: best TV show ever!"
This article originally appeared on esquire.com