Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
TV drama makes a comeback -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

The creator of the series Mad Men joins Lateline to discuss the re-emergence of television drama.

Transcript

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: If you've ever thought, "I'll just sit down and watch one episode of The
Sopranos or The Wire," and then not found yourself not leaving the house for days so you could
gorge yourself on the entire series, you're not alone. Over the last decade or so television drama
in the US has enjoyed a renaissance. The advent of the DVD has changed the way people watch
television as well, meaning that very complicated, almost novel-like programs such as The Wire or
Deadwood can be watched in big slabs instead of once a week at a set time. The latest of these hit
series is Mad Men, a stylish 1960s drama set on Madison Avenue.

ACTOR, MAD MEN: Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is?
Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the
road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK. You are OK.

LEIGH SALES: So why has Mad Men become such a huge hit? Matt Weiner is the creator and executive
producer of Mad Men. He was also a writer and producer on The Sopranos. He joined me earlier from
Los Angeles.

MATT WEINER, CREATOR, MAD MEN: It's a pleasure to be here.

LEIGH SALES: Matt Weiner, you actually wrote the script for Mad Men a long time before it was made
and the show is of course set almost 50 years ago. What is it then about it that makes it resonate
so much with an audience today?

MATT WEINER: You know, I don't know that I'm smart enough to put my finger on that. I'd like to
think a lot of it is the entertainment value. It's a different kind of entertainment which is that
it's a story that's being told that you really don't know what the ending is and there's sort of no
formula. You don't even know who you're going home with each week, you don't know which character
it's going to focus on. And that's part of it. And then the other thing, I think, is that there is
a lot of similarity to that period to right now, both in what's missing and what's changed and also
what's the similarities of - you know, I think we're in a time of great repression right now and I
think there is a lot of questioning, at least in the United States, about the substance of
ourselves in the midst of whatever economic rollercoaster that we're on, which has been going - I
wrote it nine years ago, so I sort of have always felt that way, but I think that that's quite a
bit of it actually.

LEIGH SALES: So it's a show then not just about how much we've changed since the '50s and '60s, but
also how much we haven't changed?

MATT WEINER: I think it's a constant dynamic between what is the same and what is different and a
lot of it we have this tremendous superiority about like, "Oh, my God, they didn't know smoking was
bad for you," which of course they did. But they - you know, there's a superiority about what we do
know and what's changed and there's also this kind of resonance, hopefully, because I'm doing a
story about human beings and I think you can see that things really don't change and the human
problems don't change and the relationship issues don't change and our interactions with each
other, despite all of the social strata, you know, that's immutable.

LEIGH SALES: Why did you want to write something set in the early '60s?

MATT WEINER: You know, it's a tough question to answer. I love this period. I love the - you know,
to me, I set it in 1960 - I zeroed in on 1960 because that's when the pill came out, and that
really seemed to be a big part of the story that I wanted to tell about men and women. But also -
and the upcoming sexual revolution and so forth. But I love the '50s as a period in the United
States 'cause it's really our golden era. And I don't just mean in terms of the fact that we were
the centre of world culture, production, economics. Every - New York was the centre of the universe
at that point, especially in the late '50s. And 1960, actually, was sort of the apex of it. But
also I felt that we, as a culture, were more open-minded, more aspirational. Advertising in that
world didn't necessarily back that up, but there was a feeling I think that we could do anything
and regular people were expected to read bestsellers that were not - like Catch 22, things that
were not really escapist. So there was a lot of - I think it was a great moment for the American
culture and then things sort of go downhill from there. And I was also - you know, I grew up in the
shadow the Baby Boomers and that whole '60s experience that I missed out on, I kind of was curious
- you know, I felt I had more in common with the '50s generation than I did with the '60s
generation.

LEIGH SALES: The English historian David Kynaston has written of the '50s that if you were
different, it was difficult, if you were talented, you often had to wait until a certain age before
you could use your talents, it was not remotely a meritocracy. Do you agree?

MATT WEINER: You know I wasn't there. I don't - America's obsessed with youth and it really becomes
even more of an obsession in the '60s. I think that the world turns over a lot. There is a
conformity in the '50s and I don't know if it was recognised at that time, but I think it's both
self-imposed and culturally imposed. You look around right now, we're in an incredibly conformist
period. Men and women almost dress exactly the same. I think there's a tendency to disappear, to
kind of feel, "How normal can I be? Am I OK?," and I think that was a big part of it coming out of
World War II. But equally, I - you know, again, part of the inspiration of the show is if you were
born during the Great Depression and had worked your way up to being in charge of things in the
'50s, which that generation was for the next 40 or 50 years, I can't imagine what the '50s look
like other than heaven in some way, Economic security, education - at least in the United States it
was - there was - as I said, it's a repressed time, but I know feel like somewhat of an expert on
this historically to some degree and I would say that America is a subversive place and, you know,
there is subversion going on in the '50s at all times and that's part of the dynamic.

LEIGH SALES: You say it was heaven. What about for women though? Because of course one of the
stand-out characteristics of Mad Men is the sexism. Was it as bad as the program makes out?

MATT WEINER: I think that the sexism that's in the show lasted at least until 1990. I don't think
there's anything connected to that in the period. I think things have changed legally and thank God
the workplace has changed, but I think women as other in professions, this - I'm speaking for US
culture here; I can't speak for the world, but there is a quality to becoming a white male
Protestant that every person, no matter what their background is, no matter what their cultural
origin is, no matter what their gender is, that we aspire to in this country and that is the
measure of success. And anything, in terms of the way you speak, your education, your aspirations,
the car you drive, all of those things go along with that, and I think that that was true then as
it is now and certainly there was - there were trailblazers, but there was zero expectation that
women had even an understanding of what even women thought about things.

LEIGH SALES: Was it a deliberate decision to cast unknowns in Mad Men?

MATT WEINER: You know, it was for me. I think that we were starting off on this fledgling network
and, you know, you have to draw people's attention to - we were first show that they did. And you
really want to have stars. It's something - it's a bankable quality. But I felt - and part of it
from foreign films and part of it from having worked on The Sopranos and witnessed The Sopranos as
a consumer, someone sitting at home watching it on TV is that if I were to cast unknown people and
find the greatest actors that I could, that had no deals, no expectations financially, anything
like that, but case great actors who fit the part, that the audience would believe they were these
people. And having no previous associations with them would be something really valuable. And I
think that it really was - I kept trying to eliminate any attempt, any ability for the audience to
abstract themselves out of the show. And that's why I don't cast a lot of famous people on the
show, even now I've had the opportunity. A lot of amazing actors that I've always wanted to work
with have talked about being on the show and are interested in being on the show, but I really
don't want to disturb the world of what it is. And I'm also very proud of the fact that I think the
world has come to know that these are great actors and that maybe making stars out of them was as
satisfying as creating a world that was - you know, had no previous associations.

LEIGH SALES: On the point that you make about the audience coming to view the actor as that
character because they don't associate the actor with anything else, is that a two-edged sword for
the actor. And before you answer that, let's take a look at a clip of James Gandolfini as Tony
Soprano.

TONY SOPRANO: She fought it out with my mother and finally took off, first minute she could.

PSYCHIATRIST: What if you had taken off?

TONY SOPRANO: Well that never would have happened because I wasn't like that. I did what I was
told.

PSYCHIATRIST: Your father's son?

TONY SOPRANO: Yeah, that's right.

PSYCHIATRIST: And all that went with it?

TONY SOPRANO: That's right. All the success and the money.

PSYCHIATRIST: But beyond that, what else did you inherit?

TONY SOPRANO: I'll tell you what I inherited. My mother. Janice got laid, she took off, she laughed
at all this shit. Now the trip's over and she's back and she's one of us and she wants her piece.
Well let me tell you, she gets nothing, 'cause I got the scars, so it's mine!

LEIGH SALES: James Gandolfini was just so brilliant in that drama. Is it possible to look at that
actor now and not see Tony Soprano?

MATT WEINER: Well, James Gandolfini was slightly more famous than John Hamm was before he got that
part, but I don't know what - I don't know how an actor's life works. I can't imagine - you know,
they are in an environment where they are being judged on their physical appearance all the time
anyway. Their body is their instrument, and, you know, James Gandolfini, on some level, you know,
he used to joke about it that he would go to auditions and he would walk in and Tom Sizemore - I
don't know if you know that actor - Tom Sizemore would always be sitting across the play on the
chair. They were always up for the same parts. They are physical types and their body is their
instrument and as they get older you can go from playing the ingénue to playing the wife to playing
the mother to playing, you know, Judi Dench. And so you sort of look at that and say, "I would
rather have work and be associated with this great part than anything else." And, you know, who
knows, the show business part of it is so fickle. You always think that the audience does turn
against people when they try to do new things, but to get to see them play these parts. And I'm
very proud of the fact that the parts do show off different aspects of them. And career-wise, I
don't know what to tell you, I mean, I'd always rather land a part like this than worry about it
sticking to me, you know what I mean?

LEIGH SALES: I do. When you cast something like Mad Men and you look at John Hamm and you see him
as the perfect Don Draper and you look at January Jones and you see her as the perfect Betty
Draper, or in the case of The Sopranos James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, how do you know it's going
to work as an ensemble? How do you know that that chemistry is going to be there?

MATT WEINER: It is exactly that: it is chemistry, and it is really tough to figure that out, and
you - it's a nail-biter. I mean, when you have a really big part to cast you really do want to have
the people read together. We did not have that advantage, because when I shot the pilot, January
Jones's part was three lines, and I actually was just going to cast a model in the part or a very,
very low-scale actress because we had no money left. And then if the show got picked up, you know,
do a real casting suggestion session and have the actors meet each other and so forth and I never
got to do that. And what happened was a stroke of luck, which is that they said this actress -
January had come in to read for Peggy Olsen a few times. I didn't think she was Peggy Olsen. I
thought she was a great actress. And they said, "Can she cast for Betty?" And I said I cannot cast
a part this big for four lines, and I had to write a scene under the gun, which I eventually did
cannibalise and use in the show 'cause I liked the scene, but it was also how I discovered who
Betty was. And we cast January off of that and I saw the two of them together and I just prayed
that it would work. Sometimes it doesn't. I've experienced that. But you know what? I am - it's a
malleable art form, and if it doesn't work, you can also take the story a different way. You know,
neither John nor January have children and John's a former school teacher and he's great with kids
and January is good with some kids and not with other kids. All this personal chemistry of people
playing their children, it starts to become part of the story. And as someone who is able to change
and to incorporate these aspects of reality into the show as I grow to know the actors, we back
into a lot of interesting things, we really do, you know. You hire someone for some tiny part like,
you know, January Jones' - Ryan Cutrona, who plays the father. I hired him for four lines, and I
was like, "This is an amazing actor. I'm going to find a way to put more of him in the show."

LEIGH SALES: We're meant to watch TV for escapism from real life, but if you look at some of the
big hit shows of the past decade - The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, they all have
at their heart some real darkness and stress. Why do you think it is that we as an audience choose
to escape into that?

MATT WEINER: I didn't know we were meant to watch television for escapism. I'm, you know - I'm an
entertainer and I - without being pretentious, the history of entertainment is filled with
different kinds of entertainment. There are the formula entertainments, you know, there's Agatha
Christie, which I love. It's an escape, but it has a murder in it. And then you go and see
something like The Sopranos, which has different kinds of murder that are very visceral. I believe
that catharsis is part of communication and I actually think that people in the privacy of their
own home, more than even in the movie theatre and on an ongoing basis can - you know, a television
show is really like a feature but you don't have to do the character work every week, you don't
have to introduce these people every week. You start the ground running on a 48 minute TV show and
you don't have to do that 20 minutes of the movie where you figure out who they are. It's the best
part of the movie sometimes and the easiest part of the movie, but that continuation of who these
people are and living with them each week allows you to actually go into the depth of getting to
know them and caring for them. And for me, I think that the audience wants to reflect. I think the
audience wants to be taken into a state where they can actually let their guard down and whether
they like it or not, part of the entertainment for them - whether they like it or not, I can't
believe I said that. Part of the entertainment for them is actually looking at themselves in the
mirror. And sometimes they feel superior. Sometimes I liken it to the Titanic, you know: you're
walking around talking about how safe the ship is but everybody knows the ship is going to sink.
And then the other times you're looking at something and saying, "Oh, my God, is that me?" And on
this show in particular I get to sort of linger on very, very private moments. You know, that
moment where you are getting out of your car or unlocking the bathroom door after washing your
hands and you're about to walk out; that moment right between being your private self and your
public self. And I think that that is a place for people to look and recognise themselves and they
enjoy that. They enjoy seeing their parents, they enjoy seeing themselves, they enjoy seeing the
history part of it. So, I don't think - you know, escape can have meaning and entertainment can
have meaning and, you know, catharsis is dark, but it is entertainment.

LEIGH SALES: Hollywood has had a terrible summer of flops with even big names like Bruce Willis and
Jennifer Aniston and Will Farrell unable to open movies. In the past TV was considered the poor
second cousin, if you like, to film, but with the success and quality of shows like The Wire and
Mad Men, has that changed?

MATT WEINER: I think that TV has a distinct advantage right now which is that being on a network
like AMC or HBO or one of these places where there is a niche audience allows you to do a more
specific kind of entertainment. And when you have to do mass entertainment that requires so much to
market and costs so much to get out to the world, half of which is not even speak the same
language, it has to be a film language. Things have to be boiled down and simplified and for
whatever reason or other this is not - you know, I think they're done actually with a little bit of
contempt for the masses, that they're just being simplified to the point where they think that
every single human on earth can buy this product and I don't think that's good for entertainment. I
think the specificity is more universal and on television we get to be very, very specific. We get
to sort of pick off a little piece of the audience and to be in our world and that is a more
satisfying entertainment experience and, I mean, the movies used to provide that. There used to be
much more specific niche, quirky movies and I think that there's just - it costs so much to make
them and to market them right now that they haven't figured out how to do that - except for the
kids' movies, which are very specific.

LEIGH SALES: Matt Weiner, it was a pleasure to have you on the program. Thank you very much.

MATT WEINER: Thanks. Thank you. It's a pleasure to talk to you, Leigh. Those were great questions.