The madness of Matthew Weiner

CREATOR Matthew Weiner jealously guards the secrets of the latest series of Mad Men, which reaches TV screens this month… except to admit to Dave Itzkoff that it was nearly never made

There is an almost Sisyphean sensation that comes from navigating the network of hallways, elevators and escalators at the Los Angeles Center Studios that lead at last to the dimly lighted office of Matthew Weiner and asking him, point blank, what he plans for the fifth season of Mad Men. As any true acolyte knows, he is too protective of his property to spoil the suspense – even by revealing the year in which it is set.

What the series’ 46-year-old creator, lead producer and animating force will share is a single piece of dialogue: “There’s a line in Episode 3,” Weiner says, “where somebody goes, ‘When is everything going to get back to normal?’ And who hasn’t felt that right at this minute?”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Forget the drunkenly pitched cereal campaigns and ambiguous plans for abortions that have become signature details of Weiner’s award-winning, television landscape-reshaping drama about a 1960s advertising agency. “It’s always about change,” Weiner says, “and I’m starting to realise that’s all I’m writing about. And I think it’s because we are living in a time of tremendous change, and you can’t pretend any more.”

By this Weiner means the seismic economic, political and social shifts that the world has undergone in the 17 months in which Mad Men was off the air. But he could just as easily be referring to a personal experience during that same time when he believed he had walked away from his hit television series.

“I quit,” Weiner says, his customary smile disappearing. “I had come to terms with the fact that it was over.” It was one year ago that Weiner’s bruising contract renegotiations with AMC and Lionsgate, the studio that produces Mad Men, stoked fears that the series might never return.

He says he was resisting efforts to reduce the cast size and running time to cut costs. “We got this far this way,” he says. “Why would you change the brand? It reeked of New Coke to me.” At his most frustrated, Weiner told his family and his representatives he was done with the show, and called Jon Hamm (who plays Mad Men’s central figure, Don Draper) to say he was sorry he could not work things out.

As Hamm recalls: “My advice to him was, ‘It’s your creation, so it’s yours to deal with however you want.’” He added another suggestion: “Put down your phone and don’t answer it for a few days and see what happens.”

Weiner says: “And then they compromised, and I compromised. A little.” He did not win his battle for a 2011 premiere, but his cast and running time remained intact, and a deal was struck to keep him at the show through a seventh season, when it will come to an end.

Hamm says of the negotiations: “It’s like talking to your parents. Sometimes words are said, and then you go back and go, ‘But I still love you.’ ”

Weiner has seen his convictions validated time and again, taking an underrated team of talents and an overlooked cable channel, AMC, along on his ascent.

Today he works from an office that is both a shrine to past decades and to Mad Men itself: His well-stocked bar once stood in the executive suite of Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and the ceramic chip-and-dip set of Pete and Trudy Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser and Alison Brie) – an actual wedding present to Weiner’s parents – sits on a shelf. His walls are decorated with vintage print advertisements and a thank-you letter sent to supporters by Richard Nixon when he lost the 1960 presidential election (a gift from the director Judd Apatow).

Weiner can be effortlessly funny, but he can turn abruptly serious and imperious, especially where his show is concerned. Describing the process that results in the writing of a new Mad Men season, he says: “There’s about a three-week rumination period, which involves a lot of napping, a lot of holding books. Whether I’m reading them or not, I cannot say.”

This period, about eight to 12 weeks before filming starts, also finds Weiner ruminating on his own life, talking with series consultants like Bob Levinson, a veteran ad man of the 1960s, and contemplating the real-life history that might have an impact on characters like Draper and his ex-wife, Betty (January Jones). “The thing I always have to remember is: don’t assume that because you’re living in tumultuous times, people are not also living their lives.”

Then he gathers his writers, who are each assigned to bring in ten story ideas; Weiner acknowledges that he shoots down many of these pitches. From what survives, an outline is generated, a script is assigned, and when it comes in from his writers, Weiner rewrites it. A lot.

“If I change less than 80 per cent of it,” he says, “I will leave their name on it by themselves. Now it’s unfair on some level because I’m deciding what I change.” On the other hand, he says: “I would never want my name on something that I did not write most of. Part of television is you get rewritten.”

That was Weiner’s experience at The Sopranos, where he was hired on the strength of the unproduced pilot script of Mad Men. David Chase, the creator and show runner of The Sopranos, operated in a way that was similarly unilateral and teeming with rejection.

Recalling Weiner’s tenure there, Chase says: “I would say to him constantly, ‘Well, no, not really. No. No. No. No, that doesn’t work for me. No.’ But that didn’t stop him. He would still come up with story ideas. He realised that was his job.” With other writers, Chase says, “once they hear no enough times, they stop coming forward.”

Writers on Mad Men understand that their role, ultimately, is to support Weiner’s vision, and they describe him as open and fair-minded. “You can state your case and your reasons why,” says Maria Jacquemetton, who, with her husband and writing partner, Andre, is among Weiner’s most trusted Mad Men colleagues. “He may say no to it, but he, more times than not, will say no and think it over, and then either say no again or say, ‘Well, I thought it over, and it might work.’ ”

In some ways, Weiner suggests, the new season of Mad Men will not differ greatly from its predecessors. “It’s not Finnegans Wake. There’s people, they’re in costumes, they’re kissing, they’re arguing.”

The storyline will still closely track Draper, who concluded last season with a shocking marriage proposal to his secretary, Megan (Jessica Pare). “We don’t know if, in fact, they are married,” Hamm says. “A lot can happen between here and there.”

A lot has happened in the show’s year-and-a-half absence that the Mad Men staff cannot control: Serialised dramas like Homeland and Downton Abbey have emerged as competitors for industry plaudits and fan adoration. And, beginning with the Mad Men renegotiation, AMC suffered an annus horribilis in which its most popular shows – Breaking Bad, The Killing and The Walking Dead – experienced behind-the-scenes drama or critical backlashes.

Weiner seems most concerned that Mad Men simply isn’t a new show any more – reason alone for loyalties to wander, and a problem that could be compounded by the many months the series has been missing.

As restitution he says he can offer only a new season that he hopes is as strong as he’s ever done, and a premiere that is two hours long. “Here is a double helping,” he says. “Stuff yourself.”

There is also the larger question of how Weiner will bring to a close a series that aspires to tell the story of the 1960s in roughly 91 hours. Not that he is promising any hints of his grand conclusion in the latest batch of episodes. “I did not say, ‘Oh, I’ve got three more seasons, I’m going to plot them out right now.’ I do not have the ability to do that. I took everything I could possibly think of and did it this year.”

Chase, who wrestled with a comparable predicament on The Sopranos, says a series finale is a highly personal and subjective decision for any show runner. “It’s just very difficult to end a series,” he says. “For example, Seinfeld, they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that’s the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner.”

Weiner already has in his mind an image for the end of Mad Men, just as he comes into each new season already knowing how he wants to finish it. “I hope that in hindsight it will look like it was all planned out,” he says. “After the finale you will look back on them and say, ‘Look how young they were.’ And you will look back with nostalgia.” «

• The fifth series of Mad Men begins on Sky Atlantic on 27 March. © NYT 2012