‘Mad Men’: The Uncensored, Epic, Never-Told Story Behind AMC’s Critical Darling

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In 2001, Matthew Weiner writes his first Mad Men script, which goes nowhere until 2005, when AMC decides to shop for its first original scripted series.

Matthew Weiner (creator) I finished the script and sent it to my agents. They didn’t read it for three or four months. (They’re not my agents anymore.) I was advised not to send it anywhere because that was at a time when there were big overall deals for comedy writers. People would pay for the anticipation of what your project would be, and actually having one was going to hurt you. I kept trying to get into HBO, but I never got a meeting. And I met with FX, which Kevin Reilly was running at that time. He talked to me about making it into a half‑hour. Then people started talking to me about a feature. It was my manager’s assistant who gave AMC the script. That’s who they were pawned off on.

Rob Sorcher (former executive vp programming and production, AMC) I’d relocated to the East Coast, and I’m working at this network, AMC, that has a collection of shit-ass movies. It’s like the lesser TCM, and I’m supposed to turn it into something. [What the network needed was] a show for cable operator retention. You want something that can’t be replicated elsewhere — like a Sopranos — because if you have a signature show, then you won’t be dropped [by cable operators]. So your strategy becomes: Let’s go for quality. But we have no money. So I hire Christina Wayne, who’s never done a thing in her life in terms of an executive.

Christina Wayne (former senior vp scripted programming, AMC) Years earlier, I’d wanted to option Revolutionary Road [Richard Yates‘ novel about suburbia in the 1960s]. But I was a nobody screenwriter, and [Yates’ estate] held out for bigger fish, which they got with Sam Mendes. So when I read [the Mad Men script], it resonated with me. This was a way to do Revolutionary Road, week in, week out. When we had lunch with Matt for the first time, I gave him the book. He called me after and said, “Thank God I’d never read this because I never would have written Mad Men.”

Weiner [My agents] were like, “You’re going to be coming off The Sopranos. I know you love this project, but don’t go [to AMC]. It’s really low status, no money, and even if they do it, they’ve never made a show before, and you don’t want to be their first one.”

Sorcher Every possible reason on paper why this should not work was cited: It’s super slow, it’s [about] advertising, everybody smokes, everybody’s unlikable and it’s period. We couldn’t sell it.

Jeremy Elice (former vp original programming, AMC) We sent it out looking for potential partners and got some nice responses, but generally speaking it was, “Yeah, not for us,” and “Who the f— is AMC?”

Wayne So we self-financed the whole thing ourselves. The pilot cost $3.3 million, and we did it in New York in the downtime when Sopranos was [on hiatus]. We used all of their crew.

JANUARY JONES AS … PEGGY?
Casting for the pilot begins in 2006. Weiner and AMC agree on hiring unknown actors.

Weiner There were famous people who came in to read. The guys from That ’70s Show came in — not Ashton, but the other guys. I’m still impressed by Danny Masterson. But at a certain point, it was working against them. My theory was that The Sopranos casting was great because you didn’t know who any of those people were.

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Jon Hamm (Don Draper) Some people went in once and got cast; there was a little more reticence with me. I was on the bottom of everyone’s list. The one person who was an early champion of mine was Matthew.

Weiner Back in [2006], there were no handsome leading men. It was not the style. Not that Jim Gandolfini‘s not handsome, but he’s not Jon Hamm. There are moments in time when it’s Dustin Hoffman and moments in time when it’s Robert Redford. It was a Dustin Hoffman era. People like me or Seth Rogen got the girl, and people likeBradley Cooper were standing on the side of the street being like, “Come on!”

Wayne Matt sent us two actors: Jon Hamm and Mariska Hargitay‘s husband,Peter Hermann. The quality of the that we were using sucked, and you couldn’t see how good-looking Jon Hamm was. We were like, “Really, this is who you think?” And Matt said, “Absolutely.” He’d been in the room, and he felt something with Jon. We had him come in again. We had to be sold, so we flew Jon to New York and took him for a drink at the Gansevoort hotel. He was nervous, but I knew that he had star potential. I whispered in his ear before he left, “You got the job.”

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson) I was the first person to audition for Peggy. Matt showed us all our audition tapes at a gathering, and it’s hilarious because I don’t look anything like Peggy [in the tape]. I’m 23, blond, tan. I look like I just walked off of the beach.

John Slattery (Roger Sterling) I went in to read for Don; they wanted me to play Roger. Matt Weiner claims I was in a bad mood the whole [pilot]. I had a couple of scenes, but I wasn’t as emotionally invested as some of the people because there wasn’t that much of Roger in evidence yet. Being a selfish actor, I didn’t necessarily see the full potential in the beginning.

Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway) I was up for another pilot, and I chose Mad Men. The [agency I was with] was like, “It’s on AMC, it’s a period piece, it’s never going to go. Are you crazy? You’re not going to make money for us …” I thought it was a little impatient of them. So I moved on.

January Jones (Betty Draper) I came in for Peggy twice. Matt said, “Well, there’s another role, but I don’t really know what’s going to happen with her.” He didn’t have any scenes for me, so he quickly wrote a couple.

Weiner It had been years since I wrote anything in the pilot. And all of sudden, I need a scene by tomorrow for a character who only has three lines.

Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell) I only auditioned for Pete. My agents aren’t delusional enough to think that I’m a Don Draper.

Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell) I looked up a picture of Vincent Kartheiser and was like, “Oh my God. We kind of look like brother and sister. I could totally be his 1960s wife.” Couples kind of looked alike then.

Weiner Alison Brie was a big lesson because we couldn’t afford to make her a series regular. And we gambled [Community] wouldn’t happen. We were wrong.

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HOW DICK BECAME DON
Weiner shoots the pilot on location in New York in 2006, but AMC struggles initially to line up financing.

Sorcher Matt had an extremely clear vision for the show. We had only one or two notes that were key.

Wayne We said to Matt, “OK, this is a great show about advertising, but what are people going to talk about week in, week out? What’s the bigger story for Don?” He went off, and a few months later he came back and pitched the entire Dick Whitman/Don Draper story. We were mesmerized. Read the rest of this entry »


BOOKS: A Look at TV’s Third Golden Age

Posted by juliewbp, Reviewed by Andrew

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin

Difficult Men by Brett Martin is a great exploration of TV’s Third Golden Age, as it’s come to be known. On the cover is Tony Soprano and Walter White so the reader would be easily tricked into thinking that the book is about the anti-hero that dominates current TV. It is actually about the men who created these characters.

David Chase, creator of the Sopranos, is portrayed as a very serious and depressed failed filmmaker. He never gave TV any pedestal and always saw himself as an auteur like his French film making idols. He worked on numerous TV shows before he got his shot to truly change television when HBO green lighted the Sopranos. Since then, nothing has been the same. Read the rest of this entry »


A Tale of Two Seasons…

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Yesterday the New York Times broke the news that the final season of Mad Men will be broadcast in two parts (see more on this here). This isn’t the first time that a television series has been split into two – AMC recently adopted the same strategy for Breaking Bad which saw a gap of almost a year between the first half and the last half of the final fifth season. Nor is this necessarily even a recent trend – HBO notably broadcast the final season of The Sopranos (1999-2007) in a similar manner. In that instance, the decision to split the season into two was arguably more of an afterthought, as the series’ creator David Chase later decided that he wanted the opportunity to “round out the story”. But it’s not just TV (as the HBO slogan goes), this happens in cinema too. Franchises such as Harry Potter (2001-2011) and Twilight (2008-2012) have both recently featured two-part endings in concluding their narratives. The logic behind the two-part conclusion, whether it’s in film or television, is no doubt financially motivated. Indeed, why not draw out the story in two parts and reap the financial rewards? In the case of cinema, this form of serialisation is intended to increase box office takings (presumably people who saw part one will want to see part two), while in television the money comes from subscription fees and advertising. This economic gain may be the main impetus for this trend, but I’m more interested in the way that these patterns of distribution might impact upon the programme’s narrative. Read the rest of this entry »


‘Mad Men’s’ Matthew Weiner Talks His First Feature Film

Matthew Weiner

There’s a growing consensus among filmmakers that television, not film, offers the more hospitable climate for innovative work. While this might be true, here’s the anomaly: The very innovators who brought about this change still go back to movies to create their “personal” projects.

David Chase, who turned TV around with “The Sopranos,” shot his own personal story in his 2012 movie “Not Fade Away,” which pulled a fast fade earning less than $650,000 domestically. And now Matthew Weiner, who is prepping his seventh and final season of “Mad Men,” is unveiling his first significant feature directing effort, “You Are Here,” at the Toronto fest next week. His new film is a far cry from his first feature, a low-budget black-and-white pic in which he also starred, which was never released.

And while Weiner commands an imperial presence in TV land, he arrives at Toronto as a humble near-first time director, aspiring for some good reviews and, more importantly, for a distributor.

Read the rest of this entry »