'Mad Men' Season 6 interview: Matthew Weiner on Jon Hamm, anxiety as a theme and feeling 'oversensitive'
During a surprisingly lengthy and wide-ranging roundtable discussion at the show's recent Los Angeles press day, Weiner fielded questions about key events from Season 5, the general themes of Season 6, his relationship with the network (AMC) and studio (Lionsgate) and his own "addiction" to reading feedback online. The highlights follow.
On the themes for Season 6, as hinted at in the poster...
Matthew Weiner: "What you really see on the poster ... is that you do repeat things in life. [It's about] coming back to a place where things are not so great, and starting to realize that maybe you are the problem. [There is] anxiety that is created by all of these characters wondering why they are the way they are. Maybe you're a fraud. Maybe you're facing all the bad things you've ever done in your life. But you are back in a place where you are the issue. In the first episode when someone says, 'People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,' that's what this season is about.
"I feel like more than ever it's in line with where we are right now. [We live in] a very different economic time and different political time than when the show takes place, but we're talking about a period of powerlessness. [There was] a huge boom in technology that might be more alienating than we like to believe. The society is having an identity crisis just like Don is. Can you change?
"There is a general anxiety right now, especially in this country about who we are and what we're supposed to do. I try to capitalize on it as much as possible but it really has to do with facing yourself."
On Jon Hamm's ability to play silences [as demonstrated in the Season 6 premiere]...
"Without even addressing anything about the episode, there are episodes from the first season where Jon Hamm has like 11 lines. He is a commanding presence. I've had to train the directors that have come in to explain to them that he is not talking and the scene is about him so that they will cover him and understand that the tiniest things that he's doing [are important].
"When I was selling the show I remember saying, 'This is about how talking is heroic. This man doesn't have a gun. He talks his way out of a lot of stuff.' But a lot of that is based on the fact that he doesn't talk until he needs to. And to hold your attention and to be intimidating and formidable you gotta be someone like Jon Hamm."
On the controversy that erupted over Joan's decision to sleep with a client in exchange for a partnership last season...
"Honestly, there's a lot about trading your body for your job in the show, always. It's always about that to some degree. Last season to me was really about this question of success and what does it take. I was kind of surprised that people were so scandalized by the Joan thing. I don't think she has exactly, as a character, been the model of propriety.
"[Pete] pimped her but she didn't have to say yes. If you take the public element out of it -- which is shame -- I have to say I really don't think it's that big a deal, I really don't. Was that the only way for her to make partner? That's criminal. Was it worth it to spend one night? I mean if the guy looked like Jon Hamm everyone would've been like, 'Why not?' I didn't think it had to be super pleasant."
On his love/hate relationship with online commentary, reviews and recaps...
"I really was off it for a while and then 'The Suitcase' happened and everyone was like, 'You got to read this. You have to read what people said about this thing.' So I read it and I loved that episode. But the episode that was on the week after that was actually my favorite of the season, 'The Summer Man.' It's a very emotional story for me and very beautiful and it's got this wonderful voiceover in it, you get to hear Don's voice in Don's head. So of course I read [the reaction] the next week and it's like brutal. The immediate response is hatred, anger, disgust, betrayal. And I'm like, 'I can't believe I let these strangers hurt me.' You try and stay away from it, but what usually happens now is somebody, a 'friend,' will send me something. And it's [an] addiction.
"Here's the worst part of it and this is human nature: There are two jars in the next room. One of them is filled with papers, little fortune cookie fortunes. And the other one has two [papers] in it. [The full one] is the good things about you. [The almost empty one] is the bad things about you that people have written. [Someone says] 'Go in there. You get to pick one piece of paper.' You pick the bad one. I will keep looking until I find something bad. And what I think is bad is so embarrassing and I'm so oversensitive about it, I can't even tell you."
On the battles over the rising cost of producing the show...
"It's gotten more expensive because the actors are finally being paid for their work 'in success.' That's sort of the agreement when you sign up for a pilot. Unless you're Glenn Close, the rest of the world has to say, 'In success will you reward me?' And in success [the actors] have been rewarded, six seasons into it. And all of a sudden the show is very expensive and [they] say, 'Well, where is this extra money going to come from? Is it really going to cost us more or can you make the show for cheaper?'
"That's where all of the conflict comes from now. Me saying, 'I'm not making the show cheaper.' I'm certainly not going to make it cheaper than Season 1. That is below the line. And after some initial disagreement, they've been very supportive. It's actually been really good for the rest of the season and I have a very good relationship with both AMC and Lionsgate."
On whether or not fans should read anything into the Season 6 advertising tagline "the affair of the year"...
"They suggested that to me and I didn't even see the double entendre. To me 'affair' is like the oldest word for a party that there is. [It] sounds like 'my parents' catered affair.' And I love the idea that the show hinges on that, but Don's infidelity to me is like so low on the list of tensions. If you think the show is dependent on that, we've really failed. And 'the affair of the year' is just like -- I embarrass myself, I'm such a writer and everything's got subtext and I didn't even [notice]."