You can read a lot of stories about "Mad Men" and interviews with its creator, Matthew Weiner, and come away without understanding of one important fact: He laughs a lot.
He makes a show that occasionally plunges headfirst into existential despair -- just see how low ad man Don Draper sank in Season 4 -- and which expertly dissects the uglier, more selfish and shameful aspects of human behavior. But like the drama he has shepherded for five seasons (so far), Weiner has a sense of humor. He talks about being "miserable" and about how his own neuroses and fears pervade the AMC show, yet he says that word with a smile and discusses his baggage with a self-deprecating laugh. So in the three-part Weiner interview that will appear on HuffPostTV in the coming days before the Season 5 premiere (Sun., Mar. 25 at 9 p.m. ET), imagine him chuckling every third sentence or so, and you won't be far wrong. In an hourlong interview in his Los Angeles office, Weiner was chatty, forthcoming and yes, unwilling to offer up any concrete details about the upcoming season of "Mad Men" (but then, fans of the show know how he feels about details leaking out before episodes air).
But as Weiner also says in this first installment, he's an entertainer. He's happy to be part of the promotional blitz for the new season, and no matter what the characters are going through, he wants to put on a show that will keep audiences coming back. Hence the decision to offer patient "Mad Men" fans -- who endured a 17-month wait between seasons -- a two-hour season premiere, a decision Weiner talks about below. He discusses last year's fraught negotiations with the entities that air and produce "Mad Men" -- AMC and with Lionsgate -- during which he and the powers that be clashed over not only his pay, but the show's running time and budget in a brawl that became very public and contentious. We also discussed about how long he envisions "Mad Men" running for, and why the production of Season 5 was special in many ways.
In the second and third portions of my discussion with Weiner, which will be posted here at the beginning of next week, he discusses weathering fan reactions to the new season (and he thinks there will be some negative ones), the character you won't be seeing much of and star Jon Hamm's stint in the director's chair (and you can read my interview with Hamm here and here).
We're just over a week away from the return of "Mad Men" itself. So shut the door, have a seat, pour a cocktail and listen to what its creator has to say about where the show's been and where it's going.
The interview below has been edited and condensed.
The gap between seasons -- does it worry you?
I'm feeling better about it as we get closer, because I see the expressions of anticipation and I am very pleased that the network has made a bigger effort than ever to publicize it. I have held up as much as I can of my end of the bargain by giving a two-hour premiere that I think is a healthy dose [of the show].
I'm in the entertainment business, and I want people to be happy to be back and to be excited about it. That’s why I did that. If I was watching the show, they got some 'splaining to do. I was like, "You know what? We're really sorry. We're really sorry, Ricky, but we made a really, really great dinner and we made Cuban food." Can I push this analogy any further?
Is that two-hour premiere partly to kind of re-acquaint everyone with where the characters are at?
No, it's the same [way we enter every season]. Well, it will be. There are a lot of new characters in it. It's the same way I do the show always, which is that we will [hit] the ground running and you will feel that you missed something and you will go back and say, "Where did that come from?" It may be something new, but it's the next stage in the story.
I'm worried always about changing the form. I was fighting over the minutes [i.e., the running time of each episode] and everything. I don't want to do something different once I've figured out what people like about the show. I mean, let's not be arrogant. Who knows what people like about the show? But once I figured out [what it's like] for me to do the show, I really didn’t want to change it. But this didn’t seem to be that big a jump in the format. The story that we had broken for Episode 1 was too big. The stories are always too big, but they’re usually about 25 percent too big. This was 85 percent too big, so we just put everything into it that we had. I think when you see it in its completeness, you'll get it.
But it's just like everything else with the show. I take dictates from the audience in the sense that I am the audience -- I am an audience member and I want them to be entertained, and I'm doing everything I can to satisfy that. But I don't take dictates in terms of what the content is or who the characters are paying attention to or whatever else, because I don't think [people would like that if they got it]. People are always like, "I love X in your show, give me more of it," and literally, if you follow that advice and do an episode with X in it -- more X -- they will be like, "Here we go again, more X. Have they run out of ideas?"
It's like dessert, you know? I'm always comparing things to dessert. It’s just like food or anything else in life that you take pleasure in. A little goes a long way. But I have to say that I have not been off as long as the show has been off the air. That is something people have to know -- [despite the contract situation] I literally started six weeks later than I would have [normally].
Yeah, there was no time slot for it. I don’t know if that’s clear to people and I've tried to explain this to everyone, and I don’t know if it’s of interest at this point and I probably should just let it go. But the delay of the show had nothing to do with me. Nothing.
There was a plan in place in 2010 that the show would not be on the air in 2011. You don't just throw in "Breaking Bad" because "Mad Men" is not available. They have four shows. They do them one at a time, and God bless them for the fact that "Breaking Bad" got an audience, because of where they were this summer. I'm very happy about that, because people should see that show.
But when were we going to go on after that? They moved "Breaking Bad" to the summer. "The Walking Dead" is the fall. They have "The Killing" in the spring and they have their new show, "Hell on Wheels," for Christmastime, and so this is where we are. Nobody wants to launch a show during the Super Bowl period or the Oscars, so this is where we are. I fought to be on the air. I lost that battle, but I won a lot of other battles and honestly, there are no more battles. The audience is going to get the show on a regular basis, but I haven't had that much time off. I've been making it the whole time.
At the end of production for Season 4, did you feel like you needed more time off to recharge? Were you fine with the amount of time off you had, and did it recharge you any way?
Being in that contract dispute was not recharging. Artistic people should not be put through that. I don't have the temperament or the stomach for business at the level, especially when it was so personal. But I got over it because I got to go back to work and I think that it actually was a special kind of recharge for the show, because we all realized that it almost went away and there was a certain amount of gratitude and rebirth for Season 5.
If we had just rolled into the next season [as we usually do], it would have felt like more work. Instead, everybody was like "Oh my God, we got to come back." We had 85 percent of our crew come back to the show. Everyone who works in television production is a freelancer in some way, so the idea that we got the team back together was just this testament to how much we all enjoy working here.
You've said that you want to do seven seasons and then be done. Is that a fixed plan for you or could that change?
You know, if I decide at the last minute to do another season, it won't be for money, but that is the plan. I mean, to ask somebody on mile 18 of a marathon, "Do you want to run 30 miles instead of 26?" Seven seasons feels like the show, but I'm not being a politician or anything like that. That is what I think the end of the show should be. That's what the plan is. If I get there, and a I change my mind, everyone can say I'm an idiot, but right now that's how I feel about it.
I'd imagine it might be more difficult to get the cast back for a theoretical eighth season because all their careers are doing so well.
Yeah, this is their day job, but they also have contracts and stuff. They sign on for it if they want to sign on for it. Is it a thing we have to think about now? I hope not. Jon Hamm and I, our contracts are tied together, so it ends when we both decide when it would end. That's sort of how it is and he takes his cue off of me about how much story is left.
But they don't work as many months of the year as I do on the show, so that's part of the reason why they've been able to do other things. We shoot for an intense five-month period, but we start writing about three months before that, and I do [post-production] about one-and-a-half or two months after that. So I have a 10-month job.
There is never enough time off in between, but knowing that I'm coming back next season and being able to see that on a calendar -- I've never really had that before. When I wrapped Season 4, I said goodbye to the cast and went to that last mix of Episode 413, walked out of that, did the DVD commentary, not having heard a word from the studio or the network about whether or not there would be more show because the pickup wasn't even announced… The [Season 5] pickup wasn't announced until the middle of the [contract] negotiations. So I don’t have that problem [of not knowing about the show's renewal status] anymore ... none of us do. And honestly, as awful as that experience was, it’s been great. [Season 5] was the most fun I've ever had doing the show.
Yeah. I hope that it hasn't made the work [less interesting]. I was still miserable. You'll see what's on my mind when you see the show. I just was like … you expect a certain amount of security with success, and we had never had it, and we sort of had it this year. I'm serious -- the gratitude, people showing up for the first day of shooting, the actors, people coming into that first table read -- [the season] went so fast. That’s the silver lining, and I feel like [that silver lining] should be there for the future.
I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to write because I had no one to fight with, but I found people to fight with, mostly in my home.
That's always the best place.
That's where they belong.
Check back here for more with Matt Weiner with Part 2 of the interview on Mon., March 20 and the final installment later in the week.