'Mad Men' Creator Matt Weiner on Love, Sartre and Why Men Behave Badly

The season one finale of Mad Men, one of the most compelling shows to hit the small screen in years, airs this Thursday at 10p.m.  Several weeks ago, AMC re-upped the critically acclaimed drama.

The series, set circa 1960 in a Manhattan ad agency, teeters on the cusp of a cultural shift.  The tension is palpable.  Controlled, perfect lives feel held together by chicken wire, ready to fly apart.

Leading up to the series premiere last July at the TCA press tour, Mad Men’s Emmy-winning [for The Sopranos] creator Matt Weiner sat down for an extended stream of consciousness chat about love vs. desire, Sartre, tacky period movies, why men behave badly, and how such a nice mensch like himself makes a living by fearlessly divulging his forbidden thoughts.

Weiner dresses with a touch of whimsy and he let me snap a pic of his rainbow socks. (see below).

  I was really happy to see John Slattery again.

 You know how amazing he is.  Did you see [episode] #4?  Did you see the speech where he says I’m not used to being powerless?  About Pete in his apartment?

Mary:  Oh, yes, Pete - he’s buying the apartment, trying to solicit help from his parents….

Matt:  And he gets fired.  And there’s a great moment when Slattery [Sterling] says, this man saved you, and afterwards they [Draper and Sterling] have a drink in the dark and afterward Slattery says, “I’m not used to being powerless.”

Mary:  It’s a great scene.  I loved him in K-Street and I was disappointed when HBO deep sixed K-Street.  Speaking of HBO…

Matt:  I don’t know what they do.  But I want to be clear that AMC wasn’t the default position.  These people came to me and said how would you like your dream to come true.  They thought, here’s a chance to get attention because it’s different.

Mary:  I can’t figure out how old you are because you’re writing an authentic period piece but you don’t look old enough to be so familiar…

Matt:  I’m 42.  But I wish I had your head of hair.  

Mary:  I was transported the moment when the IBM Selectric was unveiled.

Matt:  And she says “the man who invented it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”

Mary: Yeah, it was one of my favorite moments in the pilot.  That and the switchboard scene.  One of the things you said [during the panel]: you’ve been fascinated w/ this period for a long time, you’ve been devoted to this concept for a long time.  You wrote the pilot about seven years ago?

Matt:  And I researched it for a couple years before that.  But it’s hard to work w/out being paid.  So I kept thinking about it, writing down notes, and trying to develop the story.  I actually pitched it before it was even written to a couple of people.  I pitched it to a man actually whose name I won’t name but afterwards, after he left the assistant said, “you just described his life.”

Mary:  How did he react to the pitch?

Matt:  He did NOT like it.  And I was like, wow, I thought this was great.  And he was, like “I don’t think anyone’s interested in that” and he got up and left.  And the woman said, “you just described his life.”

Mary:  oh, he felt threatened…

Matt:  He left a wife and three kids in Armonk [NY, where IBM is headquartered].  He was an alcoholic- which is obviously not part of the story – he left a wife and three kids in Armonk.  And went down to the village and became an actor.  In 1962.  I was like, wow.  I hit something on the head, but not for my career.

Mary:  Do you remember the moment when you became enthralled w/ this period?

Matt:  I will tell you honestly, it was this horrible movie, this very lackluster move on television called Dear Heart.  It’s 1963, I think. W/ Glenn Ford and Geraldine Page.  And she’s a post office clerk.  It has the distinction of being the last movie shot in Penn Station before they tore it down. And I watched this movie and I saw how easily these two people entered into this affair.  And I though oh my god, nothing has changed.  Nothing has changed.

(photo: Matt’s rainbow socks, TCA Summer Tour ‘07)

  You mean it was simply more underground, more hidden then.

Matt:  What I mean is, I’ve always believed that the act of intimacy is meaningful.  And Hollywood treats it like it’s not because we’re going for entertainment.  It’s like in a porn movie you don’t want to see two people who are married.  You want to see the pizza delivery man.  And I just saw that movie and I thought, oh, this is meaningful. You can never pretend like it’s not meaningful. 

And part of it has to do with.. I’ve been married for sixteen years now – but at that point I was married for ten years.  And I thought, these are my desires and I’m having a hard time w/ this.  Not that I was lusting after other women all the time but I was still a man and my wife was the same way – still a woman and we had three children and I had a good job and I thought, oh, I’m SO ungrateful.  I’m so ungrateful.  Why am I desiring more?  Why am I desiring this?
(click here for part 2)