Even though it will be 17 months between the last “Mad Men” episode and its fifth-season premiere March 25 on AMC, Matthew Weiner, creator, lead producer and animating force, will not disclose any details about the 1960s advertising executive Don Draper and his coterie of frustrated strivers and failed monogamists, or even the year in which the season is set.
What he will share is a single piece of dialogue: “There’s a line in Episode 3,” Weiner said, “where somebody goes, ‘When is everything going to get back to normal?’ And who hasn’t felt that right at this minute?”
“It’s always about change,” Weiner said, “and I’m starting to realize that 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 anymore.”
By this Weiner means the months of seismic economic, political and social shifts the world has undergone while “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 series.
The end of ‘Mad Men’?
It was one year ago that Weiner’s contract renegotiations with AMC and Lionsgate turned bruising, stoking fears that the series – which has won the Emmy Award for best dramatic series four years in a row – might never return or, perhaps worse, return without Weiner.
He said he was resisting efforts to push the show’s premiere into 2012, and to reduce the cast size and running time to cut costs. “We got this far this way,” he said. “Why would you change the brand?”
“And then they compromised, and I compromised. A little.”
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 end.
Weiner said he cannot “exaggerate how wonderful” his working relationships have been since his deal – with a reported $30 million salary over three years – was concluded. (He said the figure was not what he had asked for, adding: “My salary was revealed to embarrass me, and there’s no one on the nonartistic side whose salary is being revealed.”)
The ‘Mad Men’ team
While he is surely someone used to getting his way, he has seen his convictions validated time and again, taking an underrated team of talents and an overlooked cable channel along on his ascent.
“Mad Men” may not be the most popular show on AMC in raw numbers – it drew less than 3 million viewers for new episodes last season, compared to the 6-7 million tuning in for “The Walking Dead”; DVR viewings nearly double these numbers – but it is the most crucial to the network’s brand, and the latitude Weiner enjoys reflects this.
Describing the process of writing a new “Mad Men” season, Weiner said: “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 8-12 weeks before filming starts, also finds Weiner ruminating on his own life, talking with series consultants Bob Levinson, a veteran ad man of the 1960s, and contemplating the real-life history that might have an impact on characters like Draper (Hamm) and his ex-wife, Betty (January Jones).
Creating ‘Mad Men’
Then he gathers his writers, who are each assigned to bring in 10 story ideas; Weiner acknowledged he shoots down many 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 percent of it,” he said, “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, Weiner said: “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.” David Chase, the creator, operated in a way that was similarly unilateral and teeming with rejection.
Chase said: “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 realized that was his job.”
With other writers, Chase said, “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,” said Maria Jacquemetton, who, with her husband and writing partner, Andre, is among Weiner’s most trusted 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.“’
“Although,” Andre Jacquemetton added, “it gets pretty scary when the room falls silent.”
The end of ‘Mad Men’
In some ways, Weiner suggested, the new season of “Mad Men” will not differ greatly from its predecessors.
The story line will still closely track Draper, who concluded last season with a shocking marriage proposal to his secretary, Megan (Jessica Pare).
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.
“I did not say, ‘Oh, I’ve got three more seasons, I’m going to plot them out right now,’ ” he said. “I do not have the ability to do that. I took everything I could possibly think of and did it this year.”
“It’s just very difficult to end a series,” he said.
Weiner said he 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. But he isn’t sharing that. “I hope that in hindsight it will look like it was all planned out,” he said.
The only clue Weiner would offer was his remembrance of how he first pitched “Mad Men” to AMC, promising a series that would tell the story of how a decade changed people’s lives.
“After the finale,” he said, “you will look back on them and say, ‘Look how young they were.’ And you will look back with nostalgia.”