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Mad Men creator: 'I'm as close to the show as I am to my wife and kids...'


They’re back:
The cast of
Mad Men,
which is
in its
sixth series

They’re back: The cast of Mad Men, which is in its sixth series

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner


They’re back: The cast of Mad Men, which is in its sixth series

It is 10am in Los Angeles and Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, is getting to grips with the sunny end of what's destined to become a 17-hour day. The sixth and penultimate series of the drama he created will begin to air in the US next month. There are two episodes left to shoot, one-and-a-half left to write, and "six or seven" in various stages of post-production.

The clock is ticking, and Weiner – a self-confessed "fetishist" when it comes to 1960s period details – manages a quick hello before he ducks into a huddle with a brace of assistants.

"Facial hair?" he asks. An aide with an academic air shakes her head: "We shouldn't do it."

Weiner gives a quick nod, pivots on his heel – and is surrounded by another gaggle of crew seeking another snap decision. It turns out that Mad Men, arguably the sexiest show on TV, is produced from a very unsexy, largely beige office block on the fringe of Downtown Los Angeles, but scattered around are tantalising clues as to where the show might be headed.

The previous series left off in the spring of 1967 – there is often a time-jump between series – and here are books about Vietnam draft dodgers and the bloody Tet Offensive of January 1968.

Weiner is famous for guarding future plotlines with intelligence-agency levels of zeal. So it's surprising when he drops something of a bombshell: that he feels so guilty about Mad Men's glamorisation of smoking that he might just kill off a character with a smoking-related illness.

Weiner has an easy smile and a mischievous glint. His leading character, the advertising supremo Don Draper, is defined by his duplicity. Thinking about it, I wouldn't put it past Weiner to start rumours, or plant reference books, as deliberate misinformation.

He beckons me into his office. "You end up making 60 to 80 decisions a day," he says, describing his seven-day working week. "And the older I get, the less I sleep, the crankier I get. So that's really the tough part: not being a dick all the time."

It seems to me he shouldn't worry too much. Weiner is 47, balding and compactly built. He has a reputation for being demanding.

Asked if he's obsessive he'll say: "I am, I am, I am. And I don't call that a negative thing". But he's also earnest and engaging, and quick to share credit. Of course, he's on his best behaviour, eager to drum up positive press. But there's something charming about how he'll preface remarks with "this is going to sound pretentious and conceited, but I'm going to say it anyway . . ."

Weiner crafted his pilot script back in 1999, while he was working on a long-forgotten Ted Danson sitcom. For years it was knocked back, rejected by HBO (home to The Sopranos) and Showtime (the channel behind Homeland). Weiner's creation wouldn't get the chance to seduce viewers until 2007, when it was picked up by AMC.

Long on writing panache and with deliciously high production values, the show told of life among the hard-charging advertising executives who stalked Madison Avenue, New York, in the 1960s. It garnered critical acclaim and a cult following, placing Weiner among a rarified pantheon of "long-form" TV auteurs: David Chase (The Sopranos); Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad); David Simon (The Wire).

More than that, his creation seeped into contemporary culture: pocket squares, Jessica Rabbit silhouettes, three-Martini lunches, casually misogynistic asides – suddenly, they all appeared to be back in vogue and all "very Mad Men".

Weiner admits that he sold the show by promising that it would depict "the sexiest period in American history" and that Mad Men's success owes much to an alluring surface veneer: gorgeous sets and even more gorgeous leading players. "It's a show about clothes," he deadpans – and he might only be half-joking.

The appeal also owes much to a nostalgia for a long-lost – and quite possibly apocryphal – era. The draw is summed up by a spoof advert pinned on Weiner's office wall: "Madison Avenue agency seeks clever ad men for client schmoozing and consumer manipulation. Perks include corner office (with door), unlimited cocktails and first dibs on all secretaries. Smokers welcome. Ethics optional. Healthy libido a must."

As it happens, Weiner has a corner office, with a door, and an outrageously well stocked cocktail cabinet.

For Weiner, the subtext is the real game. He says he's banned from reading the countless blogs that dissect Mad Men because he can't handle criticism.

The next series, he reveals, will hinge again on the character of Draper. But where most armchair critics have interpreted Hamm's taciturn, philandering ad-man as a reactionary throwback, Weiner sees him as being ahead of his time.

"The response from audiences has been that 'here come the '60s, and [Don's] going to be an old man in a suit'," he says. He cites a scene from the previous series, where Draper plays the Beatles track, 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. Weiner paid $250,000 to use it – and Draper listens to just a few bars before switching it off.

The point, Weiner suggests, was not that the music didn't hold meaning for his hero, but that it resonated too much. "The song is from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it's telling you to relax into love and to not be afraid of dying. And these are all things that are big issues for Don. And he's, like: 'Turn that record off'." All along, Draper has been plagued by a duality – what he'd like to be; what he is. The last series finished with him securing an acting job for his second wife, Megan. Don, despondent, then leaves the studio for a bar, where he is propositioned by a mysterious woman, raising the possibility that his second marriage may end up as a re-run of his first.

Weiner suggests that the final two series of Mad Men will depict American society "moving up to where Don is . . . To a state of anxiety, insecurity, revolution . . . I think that's the story of the season: what makes you anxious? Is it looking in the mirror?" In short, then, the aim isn't to recreate the past, but to needle today's audience. The self-destructive Draper, he adds, is supposed to be, in part, a critique of modern American capitalism.

And then there's the characters' fondness for booze, fags and steak dinners. According to Weiner, part of the point of Mad Men is "to show that bad behaviour is eternal". But so often do its characters light up, that the fact that the drama was originally scripted to expose the insidiousness of the tobacco industry may have been lost on many. "The whole reason I wrote the pilot was to show the callowness with which tobacco was being sold," he says.

Weiner wants you to realise that Draper's breath would smell less than attractive. But that might not be enough. "I have done everything I can to let people know that [smoking kills] short of killing someone through cigarettes. And the show's not over."

To indulge in a little cod-psychology, it seems possible that Weiner's guilt may owe something to his parents. His father is a famous neuroscientist; his mother a law school graduate.

"Don't say I smoke!" he begged a journalist from The New York Times who caught him puffing a cigarette in 2008. She asked him why she shouldn't. His face changed. According to the reporter, he suddenly seemed about 12 years old. "My parents don't know," he said.

The anecdote chimes with what you see of Weiner in person. He married Linda Brettler, an architect, after he graduated from the University of Southern California, and they have four sons. She supported him before he hit the big time, and she remains his most important sounding board. Yet he says, without any hint of irony: "I have as close a relationship with [Mad Men] as I do with my children and my wife" – a statement that makes it all the more extraordinary that he very nearly walked away from the show.

In 2011, a bitter contractual dispute led to him quitting. The spat was eventually resolved, but only after Mad Men was taken off the air for a year – and Weiner secured a three-season deal rumoured to be worth $30m.

"We got to the point where they had made basically a billion dollars off the show, and they were saying 'We want less of the show, we want fewer actors in it',"he says with a grimace.

"They were basically trying to eat the horse that they were riding". There's more than a hint of Don Draper when Weiner gets worked up: there's a seemingly righteous anger – but also some doubt as to what's really motivating him.

He says he told AMC: "I have a relationship with my writers, with the creative people, with the audience. And I'm not going to do a shitty version of the show just so you can make a dollar-ten instead of a dollar."

He takes a breath: "Now, I am a risk-taking person so I am often unaware of the consequences of such childishness and kind of spoiled behaviour. If I did walk away from the show I had no illusions that they [wouldn't] find somebody to replace me."

Predictably, the interview hasn't revealed Don Draper's fate. But at least we know this: the man behind Mad Men is still capable of getting pretty mad.

Mad Men Season 6 is on Sky Atlantic HD tonight at 10pm

Irish Independent