Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner’s Exit Interview: The Man Behind Don, Peggy, Pete and Joan

Matthew Weiner
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Matthew Weiner

For our lengthy Mad Men oral history, we spent two hours speaking with creator Matthew Weiner about the origin, evolution and ending of the show. Here’s an (extremely) edited transcript of that chat.

Let’s go in the Wayback Machine. It’s ancient lore now that you first started working on this script when you were on Becker. Tell me about sort of the original origins of Mad Men.

It was almost like a hobby. I would go home after work and there was no Internet really to speak of. There was Prodigy, but I didn’t know how to work it. So I actually paid someone else to go to the library and do research for me. Then between the second and third season of Becker, I pulled the trigger and wrote it at Paramount in my office there. With Robin Veitch as my writers assistant. And then I sent it out and nothing really happened for a couple of years.

At the time, the idea of doing a period show was unusual. And this was before cable was doing much original content, so there weren’t many homes for this kind of show back then.

There were a lot of things going against it. I was nobody, which definitely has an influence on things. It being a period show, everyone was like, “That’s a great idea, but let’s see if you can execute it.” There was a question about the smoking. There were a lot of questions about the tone. Plus I was considered a half-hour comedy person. I just think it’s a matter of timing. The big break came a couple years into it when I’d already left Becker. I had sent it to a few places but it would get rejected. Then my manager at the time got David Chase’s agent to read the script. The agent really liked it and a couple days later I got a phone call: “David Chase wants to talk to you.” I couldn’t even imagine that I’d be writing on The Sopranos with my background. But then I went out for an interview and I got hired on The Sopranos and I worked out my last week at Andy Richter Controls the Universe. Then moved to New York, and it was all because of the script.

Mad Men Season 7 cast
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

What was your original vision for Mad Men and how did that evolve over time?

There was seven years between finishing the pilot script and writing the second episode. A lot about my vision changed in terms of how the storytelling would be done. I just didn’t know if it was going to be a premise or if we were going to be able to do something like that every week. I didn’t really know how to do a show. In the back of my mind I thought I was writing in the tradition of the entertainment of the period that I was writing about. When I finally met casting people, they asked, “Who do you see as Don Draper?” I told them James Garner; James at the time was in his 70’s but a James Garner type. When I was writing it, I was thinking about James Garner. He had such a light touch with comedy and he always seemed to be virtuous in a way. And he’s handsome and charming, but also really cynical in a lot of these characters that he plays. As for my vision, I went through different versions of the way it could be done. At the time I kind of imagined it looking like Patterns by Rod Serling or Executive Suite or Cash McCall. These are all films and TV shows from the period.

What about the look?

I definitely knew that the design of the period was important to me. It sounds like a revisionist philosophy now, but I wanted it to feel real. I didn’t know specifically how that would be achieved, but I knew that reality took a lot more effort than glamour. And I wanted to kind of deglamorize it and make it less abstract.I didn’t want everything to be ripped out of Vogue Magazine. I wanted it to feel like the home movies.

How did AMC enter the picture, and what did you make of this classic movie channel wanting to do original programming?

Everything in life that is good news does not happen overnight. You do not get plucked off of a stool in the drugstore and get to make your TV show. It was a series of meetings. When I finally met [then-AMC executives Christina Wayne and Rob Sorcher], I was interested in anyone who wanted to make this show who didn’t want to turn it into something else. The first time I met Christina Wayne she mentioned Revolutionary Road, which I hadn’t read. But the industry response to AMC—by means of my representation and other writers that I knew—was very negative. “Why are you going to go there? You don’t want to be their first project. They’re not going to promote it. They may not ever pull the trigger on it. No one’s ever going to see it.” But I think that Christina and Rob would vouch for this, I was consistently enthusiastic about AMC because they wanted to make the show. And no one wanted to make the show. I would meet with people and they’d say, “This is a great script, a great writing sample. I see why David Chase hired you. So what do you really want to do?”

When I met with AMC they said, “we think this can be a TV show,” and I was like, “me too.” There was nothing about their inexperience or lack of cache in being on a fledgling network that was disappointing to me. It was actually an incredible opportunity. They were all really excited about getting into TV. When we were almost in production, and this is months down the line, I was given the Breaking Bad pilot to read. I went, “OK, these two shows are going to be on the same network? They don’t really seem related to each other in any way.” I was impressed that they were doing two very interesting shows but I didn’t know what their brand was. They said, “Our brand is to do good TV shows that we want to see.”

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How scrappy did you have to be early on in making this the show work financially for AMC and Lionsgate?

It’s actually been that way all the way to the end. We’ve never just let the horses run free. I don’t regret ever saying it, but I know that financial limitations are often the origin of creativity. I think that the show has benefited with some amazing solutions because of the limited amount of money. From the beginning we made it work.  If they promised me that I wouldn’t have any notes, I’m wasn’t going to have any interference, that I was going to get to pursue this peculiar creative vision, all I had to do was deliver it on budget and they would leave me alone. I have [executive producer] Scott Hornbacher who from the beginning found a way that to make the pilot for $3 million dollars.  It looks like two or three times that amount of money.  We took advantage of the fact that basic cable had different rules for everything. We hired a bunch of actors who were not household names. That was part of the way we maintained a certain kind of creative integrity, if we are willing to sacrifice financially, I found it to be most of the time not a particularly frustrating challenge. We came in on budget the first season and then the second season the budget was reduced.  But I am a pretty responsible person when it comes to that. I never said, “Whatever it costs.”

Your attention to detail of on Mad Men is famous. I can’t imagine that it’s easy.

That was philosophical.  Because I couldn’t afford to go outside.  Creating reality requires a lot more detail than glamour.  We had a philosophy that a very detailed interior will be as exciting to the audience as going out and re-creating Madison Avenue.

Take us through the casting process.

I look back at that and there were a lot of really hard decisions to make. We auditioned a lot of people. But I look back on it and there was some kind of magical thing going on. I honestly felt like in the end we got everybody that was the best audition in the show.

It’s impossible to think of anyone other than Jon Hamm as Don Draper.

I don’t know if people can remember this, but this was not the typical leading character on a TV show. To have someone who was such a leading-man type and was so handsome. It sounds like a no-brainer, that’s who you would pick for that part.  But at the time, TV was a much more of an anti-hero atmosphere. People like Jon Hamm were being cast mostly as villains and as the guy who lost the girl to a guy who looks more like me. Once we started seeing the auditions, Jon’s was so good and he had so much depth.  He has so much exterior confidence and radiates a sense of conscience. I knew that I was probably not going to hire someone who was a household name. I loved how on The Sopranos and in foreign movies you don’t know the casting and you think that those actors are those characters. There’s no baggage.

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Had you tested any big names or familiar names?

We had talked about some big names. I wanted everyone to audition. I don’t think any big names were really interested in being in a show on AMC.  They certainly were going to be a huge chunk of the budget. AMC was sort of interested in it as a flagship. And right around this time, Damages landed Glenn Close. I saw how when you get someone like that, you’re immediately on the map. Some of the people AMC suggested were more famous. They had a couple of British actors that they were very interested in. And I was kind of like, “Don Draper’s big secret is not that he’s British.”

We had a lot of people read for Don. And there were very different takes on it. It’s not like they were terrible, but Jon Hamm looks like a matinee idol. And there was so much more going on. The audition scenes where he was selling were so profound. He understood it. Then I had this litmus test, which was at the end of the pilot when you find out he’s married, are you going to hate this man? That’s really what was going through my mind when I met Jon Hamm. No, you’re not going to hate this guy. This is someone who has a reason for what he’s doing. The network was on the fence about him, because there was some question as to going with someone no one had ever seen before. Who was this guy? There was some question about his sex appeal, which I think is now legendary. But we brought him out to New York on airline miles. He met with the network, and afterwards it was done.  They got it.

John Slattery was perhaps the most recognizable star in the pilot.

To get John Slattery in there, they told him that he was reading for Don. He prepared Don and he auditioned with Don. I was actually surprised. I thought he was coming in for Roger. But I heard that he wouldn’t come in otherwise. I didn’t approve of the trick but whatever gets you here. Then I really had to talk him into being a part of the show.  I had to tell him what I had in mind for his character and what role he was going to play. It’s part of the ambiguity of Roger’s age in the show that he is father figure, friend and son to Don Draper.

What about Elisabeth Moss? Did you plan for Peggy to become such a key, iconic part of the show?

When I wrote the script, I knew that there were sort of two main characters. Elisabeth was the second person who auditioned for the show, and the first person to audition for Peggy. I’d never heard the script out loud. I’d never heard the scene out loud. And I just saw this whole person. It was like, who is this actress? Who is this person? Casting people were like, “there’s nobody like her.”

Christina Hendricks was also quite a find.

Christina Hendricks came in originally to read for Midge. She became Joan, and then Joan became a major character in my mind.  She wasn’t originally going to be that. I imagined a character that would become Peggy’s best friend. But once Christina came in and read that part, I had this moment of realization where I was like, wait a minute; she is not Peggy’s friend. Who is this woman? This is someone who is very important who has a lot of authority and is standing on both sides of the fence and she doesn’t even know it. She has a ton of responsibilities, but really very little status. That felt real to me.

After the pilot you brought in Robert Morse who’s sort of a nice bridge to the actual 1960’s.

We knew that John Slattery I think really had not committed to being in the show for longer than a season. I knew I needed to create more of a world here in case John Slattery didn’t want to work here. I loved the idea of telling the story of the generations.  This would be someone who was Roger’s father’s age. Creating Cooper was just to have another authority figure in there to explain how big the agency was too. The eccentricity of this man was something that you get when you hire Robert Morse. He said “goody” in the audition and he said, “so much yarn, so little time.” And I put it in the script.

What happened between the pilot and Season 1?

We shot the pilot in April the year before. AMC picked it up in June. But they didn’t have a partner in Lionsgate until late September. I was finishing The Sopranos, but I had almost a year to think about what was going to happen in the show. I had a template of what the structure of the season was going be based on a movie script I had written called The Horseshoe.  It was Don Draper’s back-story. I only got to page 80, but the last scene I had in the script was this guy, Dick Whitman, abandoning his own body, going to his own funeral, switching bodies with someone else from Korea. I told the story to AMC and we decided that was the first season.

At the same time, you were also building up the Peggy storyline in having Pete’s baby. What was that inspired by?

During the pilot, someone said to me, “Poor Peggy, she just got her birth control pills that day. She didn’t know they take a month to work.” And I was like “What? Wait a minute.” The Peggy story for me was about her ascendancy and I always knew that she would be discovered in a focus group, because I had read about the focus groups and I’m like, what if somebody really had the talent? Some of the greatest copywriters in this period are women. The unique female perspective in the midst of this incredibly sexist environment was definitely utilized. That was going to be Peggy’s story, along with the fact that I wanted to tell a story about a woman going to work and being sexualized and physically reacting to it. I wanted her to be gaining weight. I thought it was a political story and a really human story. And I thought women would identify with it. The pregnancy thing paid into it perfectly because she doesn’t know.

Season 2 jumped ahead a year, beginning the tradition of keeping the time period secret before premiere.

In fairness, we had an unusual amount of secrecy from the very beginning of the show. January Jones was not part of the press launch at the beginning of the show because I did not want the audience to know that Don was married.

I had this confidentiality threat on the cover of the script was a little bit amusing to everybody around me. I borrowed it from The Sopranos almost word for word. Everyone said, “You’re lucky if anybody cares about this show. Who are you keeping the secret from? Nobody even knows it exists.” That was delusional, I said, “If it works, we’ll be really glad.”

The skipping ahead in time was a reaction to my fear that I did not have enough story. I felt that if I were to pick up the next season the day after Peggy had the baby, it would just become a soap opera. I realized that if I skipped ahead in time, there would be instantly be enough of a mystery of how they get to where they are. And I had this scene in mind from before we started that season of revealing that Don had come to her in the hospital and helped her get her act together

Did you ever worry about the characters’ likeability?

The words never came up. We never protected any of the characters. None of the writers were into it. The studio wasn’t into it.  The network wasn’t into it.  And the actors weren’t into it. They’re on board for the drama and the challenge and for the tragedy or whatever goes with them. I had promised AMC that there would be one “holy shit” moment every episode.  They wanted it to have that feeling like finding out Don was married.  But I wanted it to be earned.

Another landmark moment on the show was when Joan was raped by her fiancée.

You don’t want to be exploitive. But I wanted to show that in my research and in my conversations this was so common.  The thing that was shocking to me was that there was a debate in the public about whether this was rape.  Because he was her fiancée. I knew that Joan would survive it, but I wanted to express this reality.

Let’s talk about another iconic moment, probably the one maybe you may hear about the most: the lawnmower.

Actually, you know what I hear about the most? The trash. It’s Betty Draper throwing, emptying that picnic blanket out into the grass. That or Sally with the dry cleaning bag over her head. Those are the two things that people remember.

Everything about the trash scene was a real, to me, an encapsulation of a mindset. The fact that they drove out in the new car to have a picnic and the car radio was on and the door is open. The kid pees outside and Don throws his beer bottle and they dump the trash, and they leave. A lot of the show, I had overarching interest in the passage of time in showing certain things like New York becoming more and more dangerous and louder and more sirens and more violence and more crime, and language becoming cruder and people speaking to each other more directly and manners disappearing. All of that was a plan that if we got to do the show long enough, we would do it.

So anyway, let’s talk about the lawnmower.

It was one of the goriest moments on the show.

The lawnmower was inspired by the idea that we had heard about a lot of extremely dangerous, drunken behavior that happened in these offices. It came about as an idea that the British were going to take over the agency and that something horrible was going to happen to stop it. The lawnmower was a super fun thing to do. It was very intense to shoot. I think that the violence of it, as small as it is, he survives, he’ll just never play golf again, was to remind people of the fact that anything can happen in this office.

My favorite moment in the production of that episode, nobody wanted to miss riding around on that lawnmower or watching Lois crashing into the glass. But I do remember being on the set and the four people standing there when they were going to spray them as they were eating the cake. They really held it together, I don’t know how. That is an acting challenge.

Let’s talk about the decision to end Don and Betty’s marriage.

He’s confronted with his infidelity in Season 2, and he recommitted himself to the relationship and came back and begged Betty’s forgiveness, and she is pregnant. When she says, “I’m pregnant” in the finale of season two, it is not a congratulations moment. It is a moment that I think is very real for a lot of families, unfortunately, where the marriage is being held together to support this family. I was not going to spend the rest of the series playing cat and mouse with that marriage. And I was very interested in committing to what I felt was a realistic story, which is that this is over.

It was really great to have an arc for Betty where she realized that she didn’t love him. The interesting thing was, when we started Season 4 and he was divorced, I started having second thoughts about it, because I realized that there is not a big tradition in American culture or in any literary or film or anywhere, of telling a story about a divorced man. I came to the conclusion that stories weren’t written because they didn’t stay divorced very long. They were just, it was a very short period and they would get married right away. But it was scary to have made that commitment to them being divorced and then start that season and say, “What is this story going to be about?” Dr. Faye says it to him in the second episode, “You’re going to be married in a year.” That’s the statistic. And that’s what happened.

You mentioned the new office, which was another way to blow up the show.

That was the same kind of commitment as getting divorced. This is what happened in the 1960s in advertising. It gave us a great episode of them figuring out how to do it.

That was also a financial commitment that was exciting for me. I was inspired by Jenji Kohan on Weeds, where she just burned down the entire town. But it was a tough thing to get rid of that set. I was superstitious about it, and it was a huge financial commitment from Lionsgate to allow us to start over. But I felt that it was what would give new life to the show.

That must have made some of the actors nervous. Not everyone made it to the new agency.

Yeah, there aren’t a lot of deaths on Mad Men. But if you get fired you might as well be dead. There had to be stakes. Even having Peggy go to another agency, we did everything we could to convince the audience that Peggy was going to be a minor player at that point, even though at the time we knew they were going to merge.

A lot of press reports speculated at the time whether Elisabeth was leaving the show.

We were writing about Don being horrible to her, and her struggling. And it brought up the idea, Peggy’s going to leave, right? There’s no way she’s going to keep putting up with this. We were damaging the character in an unbelievable way. It was unrealistic that that woman would put up with that crap any longer. The writers’ room had their idea, about her going to Chaough, which had already been set up as the worst place for her to go, that would personally offend Don, and that they would then merge.

And then Megan entered the picture.

We knew he was going to marry his secretary. Don not knowing her too well is why he proposed to her, and this again derives from real life. I realized that psychologically, Don has almost lost his business, he has come through the suitcase, he lost Anna, he is getting his head clear, he’s evolving in some way, and they lose Lucky Strike. Now they don’t know if the company will survive but he has compromised himself as an advertising man. Don bit the hand that fed him and broken the code of not having a morality about business. In a way its immoral, what he’s doing, to the code of advertising. With that all in flux, I realized how we set it up from the beginning of the season, he would choose between someone who was appropriate and loved him but was going to help him become a better person, vs. someone who was young, looked up to him, and told him that it didn’t matter who he was before then, he could be whoever he wanted to be. She saw him the way he wanted to be seen.

To me, it was the act of a man trying to completely start his life over. The impulsiveness of it, that is Don Draper. That is the romance of it, the excitement of it. Let’s get married right now. That is the thrill for him, turning a stranger into a customer.

I think he really lived in the romance of that relationship in Season 5, and that story to me of how Don Draper had an idealized version of that relationship, that really didn’t include anything Megan wanted. To him, they’re one person, they’re Don. As soon as she expressed a desire to follow her own dream, that was a rejection of Don.

Megan Draper to me is the first contemporary woman on the show. She’s an actress and that’s not a normal profession but in terms of her ambitions and asserting herself and what she thinks she’s entitled to, and her wanting a life just like a man would have, it never occurred her to do anything else. It’s very brave for her to go off and pursue this. And we see at the end, when Don agrees to help her, he also agrees that their relationship is over, and that’s the moment at the end of Season 5.

Speaking of Megan, the Internet also was convinced that she would eventually become the victim of the Manson Family.

It is totally amusing to me and hit me by surprise. It also suggests a level of Byzantine plotting and symbolism that I don’t think we’re really doing. I hate to disappoint people, but I wish sometimes we were that subtle. Certainly there are symbolic things in the show, and foreshadowing, but this was a total shock to me. It was this weird thing where you get accused of trolling. The story was locked before I even heard about this.

You address some landmark historic moments, particularly in 1968.

I don’t ever look at the show as a history lesson and never feel the compulsion or duty to hit historic events. In skipping time we miss a lot of big things. I can’t tell you how many people asked about the blackout, and we happened to miss it. But 1968 to me was a perfect opportunity to show that Don’s inner state and the state of the country both were the same. There’s a series of events that happened in 1968 that when you look at the calendar, you cannot even believe that happened all at once. You feel the crushing of idealism, you feel civilization itself on the precipice. You feel the drama. I also felt there was a revolution going on. And it was going to end, just as the French Revolution did, with Napoleon. With Nixon. Then with a conservative reaction. But on the way there this was a chance to see Don completely adrift. All of his impulses, all of his insecurities, coming back. This man is about to ruin everything. Through a series of his impulsive actions, you see him merge with Ted, then destroy his relationship with Peggy, destroy his marriage with Megan, destroy his relationship with his kid, then destroy his professional reputation. That to me was 1968. It’s always about how can we use history to tell the story of these characters, not the other way around. I don’t want to be the 800th person to figure out how to put a peace sign on somebody.

Talk about the series renegotiation in 2011; it looked as if there were moments you might not return.

That was really bad, and very hard. First of all, there had been a renegotiation after the second season. This was not a renegotiation. This is someone who had a contract whose contract had expired. My contract was allowed to expire, and there were conversations going on between AMC and Lionsgate that I didn’t know about, of them working out business stuff. I didn’t hear about what was going to happen for a very long time. There were some demands made on changing the show, the running time of the show, product placement in the show and the cast. I did not want to do it. All I can say is I am so happy that is over and so happy that it did not turn the show into this bitter diatribe against these parties. But it was really unfortunate, a product of a bunch of people who had just realized this product was successful.

In the end, I came out of it with the show exactly the way it was, and everybody getting rewarded for the success as promised. A promise we’d get to end the show the way we wanted to, on a schedule we wanted to. Splitting the season, I didn’t really understand at the time, but everything else, I hope we can put all this away and move on. For some reason, I’m better than Don at doing that. It was really hard and I don’t live in it at all anymore. I really forgot about it. But I was glad I stood up for the show and stood up for myself and for my cast. In the end, it worked out.

I knew in the end I had my pencil, and I could go work somewhere else if I had to. The cast supported me but no one was going to be able to leave if I left. The great thing was being able to go back to work and pretend like it didn’t happen. There was so much more openness after that. For me, it was just another business story that I unfortunately didn’t understand what hardball meant. I had a lot of support.

Going into Season 6, Bob Benson became another phenomenon.

That was its own little accident. Casting had a lot to do with that. James Wolk, he really stands out. He was an important part of the story, there to show that Pete had grown. He was Pete’s protégé, another Don. We always thought he was funny. And James Wolk was so charming, and this is another thing based on a real person, you don’t just invent something like this. Add James and it becomes a whole other thing.

Talk about the decision to have Lane commit suicide.

That was a hard thing to do. It was hard emotionally and its one of these things when you’re writing it, you’re not even aware of what its like to actually shoot it and talk to the actor and lose a castmember. Part of that season was really about success, more than anything else we’ve done. That was the fruit of success and Lane was excluded from it, he’d always been excluded from it. It’s a religion in America, and his wife says to Don in the end, “How could you put dreams like that in this guy’s head?”

Joan’s choice to sleep with the Jaguar guy didn’t sit well with Don.

Of course he didn’t want her to do it. He didn’t think she needed to do it, and he thought he would win anyway. It’s been accepted as a realistic situation. The only thing not realistic about it is I don’t know if anyone got a partnership out of it. But besides someone peeing in their pants in the office, the story of a woman having to sleep with a client to advance was relayed to me on many occasions. Figuring out how to do it and what was at stake was kind of interesting. And to this day, one of the most impressive things was the writers figuring out how to tell that story. I don’t think people understand, Matt Weiner does not do this by himself. I speak about myself in the third person because I don’t think people realize, I’m not that person. You cannot do 92 hours of television without a real brain trust of people.

Talk about splitting up the final season.

It made us focus on the first seven episodes on the main characters. You do want to get somewhere. A lot of [the first half of the season] was about repairing the relationship between Don and Peggy. It’s the smallest gap we’ve ever had between seasons, between Season 6 and Season 7. That was to make sure people knew Don had just gotten fired. That transition I did not want to skip over.

Where did we leave things?

In the end, they all got rich, but Bert is dead. Turned inward a little bit. As the material world is being solved, can Don and Peggy have a relationship again? Even if it’s a new form of it. Can Don and Roger have a relationship again? Can Cutler, who has every reason to hate Don, for all the reasons we hated Don in S6, can Don prove himself to him? It was a chance to work toward a victory for Don and the agency, but with this ironic edge on it. You’re in Don’s mind at the end of that episode, and he seems to be the person who knows what’s really been lost.

So you’re adamant, no spin-off.

I’m not interested. I know I won’t budge on that. It came up, and there was some thought because Vince Gilligan pulled it off. But there are a lot more episodes of Mad Men than there were Breaking Bad. I think Vince still has more story to tell. For me, I love having the integrity of this being the whole story. And I love this is it. If people want more, then you did your job right.

How are you feeling now?

This is ending, this has been an incredible experience, but we have to say goodbye. 85 percent of our crew was there from first season. Despite all those hiatuses and unintended delays. This is a family. We’ve grown up together and it was a place people came back and it would always be a home.

All I kept thinking the entire time, how lucky to be able to end the show and end it the way you want to end it.