TV Preview: 'Mad Men' creator Weiner is obsessive about the details
July 21, 2008 8:00 AM
Jon Hamm plays ad man Don Draper, the central character in "Mad Men, who stays cool in single-breasted suits and monotone colors.
By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LOS ANGELES -- Details matter on the set of AMC's "Mad Men," perhaps to an obsessive degree. Creator Matthew Weiner can look around the set during a tour and point out elements he insisted upon, little reminders of the late 1950s, early 1960s period setting that define not only the look of "Mad Men" but also the behaviors of its characters.
Sure, there are cigarette butts in ashtrays, some with lipstick, but even the ashtrays themselves matter. For instance, Weiner wanted tartan plaid beanbag ashtrays. And so he has them.
For a series that drew just 1.1 million viewers last season, slim even by basic cable standards when you consider TNT's "The Closer" had more than 7 million viewers for its fourth season premiere last week, "Mad Men" (10 p.m. Sunday) has drawn an inordinate amount of press attention. Then again, why shouldn't it? Critics have anointed it the heir to "The Sopranos'" throne as the most literate prime-time series, the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences showered it with 16 Emmy Award nominations last week and on Saturday "Mad Men" won three awards from the Television Critics Association, including best drama, best new program and program of the year.
Starring: Jon Hamm
When: 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC
So a lot -- as much as $10 million in promotion -- is riding on the second-season premiere this weekend. But if past is precedent, "Mad Men" is the type of series that starts small and then shows marked growth in its second season.
Outside the soundstages at Los Angeles Center Studios in Downtown L.A., a truck passes by, carrying a maroon Chevy Malibu that looks like it's the right period to be featured in an upcoming "Mad Men" episode. Inside Stage 4, the set of the Ossining, N.Y., home of ad man Don Draper (Emmy nominee Jon Hamm) is set up for a dinner party scene. Place-setting cards at the dining-room table reveal Don's work colleague, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and his wife, Mona (guest star Talia Balsam), are among the expected guests.
"Mad Men" follows the work and home life of Draper, the newly promoted partner at a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Draper has a hidden past -- he assumed the identity of an American soldier killed in the Korean War -- that was revealed in season one. He also has a tendency to engage in extramarital affairs, Weiner said, "to medicate himself with women ... to change his feelings or escape his situation or make himself feel alive."
Actress January Jones plays Don's wife, Betty, who is clearly onto Don's cheating ways. Her blond hair in a perfectly coiffed 'do, she walked through the Sterling Cooper ad agency offices on Stage 2 wearing a pale chiffon dress covered in large, colorful polka dots. In the office of unctuous young ad man Pete Campbell, actor Vincent Kartheiser sat at his character's desk, a football trophy on the credenza behind him.
"Every day I come in here and I get made fun of for that [trophy] by Jon Hamm and Slats, who could both beat me up with one hand tied behind their backs," he said, using a nickname for Slattery. "I have the idea that Pete bought it at a garage sale. I haven't asked Matt yet. I can't wait for the day for Matt to come in with a story line around this Heisman Trophy I have."
Weiner, nominated for two Emmys for writing first-season "Mad Men" episodes, wrote for "The Sopranos" before creating "Mad Men," which HBO and Showtime both passed on. At 42, Weiner was born midway through the decade that's the setting for his show.
"I don't know how I know a lot of this stuff," he said, looking around the Drapers' bedroom. Yet he can justify and explain every piece of furniture. "Maybe I'm a frustrated designer or something."
"You're observant," suggested producer Scott Hornbacher.
Weiner said everything viewers see on-screen has been thought about, discussed and sometimes debated. For instance, he knows that Betty Draper hired a decorator, but he appreciates the clutter around the Draper home.
"A lot of this story is about how much stuff these people are using," Weiner said. "Waste, hedonism, excess -- it's a big part of our culture now and it was really starting then. Has anybody ever seen Lunchables? God, there's so much effort put into wrapping a cracker! That hasn't started yet [in the 'Mad Men' era] but it was starting to happen."
For the apartment of junior Sterling Cooper copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Weiner decided she should have used furniture.
"It means a 1920s vanity may have been repainted," he said. "She might have found it in the garbage."
For the show's authentic props, prop master Gay Perello searches thrift shops for some things -- mixing bowls and a waffle iron -- and re-creates others, including a period-accurate bag of chocolate chips.
"Online we found an old Nestle ad and we took a current bag of chips and redesigned the ad and had it repackaged," she said. "The current bag doesn't have a window the same way, so we cut it out and stuck plastic in [for the period-correct window]."
She said her work is often a treasure hunt to find or re-create specific prop details described in scripts. Among those behind-the-scenes assisting in these treasure hunts are Florencia Martin, art department assistant, and Hannah Jacobs, costume department assistant, both 2004 graduates of Carnegie Mellon University. Series regular Aaron Staton, who plays ad man Ken, is a 2004 graduate of CMU.
Production designer Dan Bishop, who's nominated for an Emmy for the "Mad Men" episode "Shoot," filmed the 1990 HBO movie "Criminal Justice" in Pittsburgh. He said advertisements that appear on "Mad Men" are either from the period or made to look period-specific by consultant Josh Weltman, including a first-season ad for Bethlehem Steel.
"Because this is fairly recent history, I'm frequently surprised when things are not period, things that I thought were and vice versa," Bishop said of designing "Mad Men." "Because it's so close, we home in a little more. If I'm doing something from the 19th century, it doesn't matter as much if an item is [accurate to] 1865 or 1866, but it's a big difference here with such recent memory."
For season two, Weiner won't divulge many plot details. Episode 2 on Aug. 3 features a tragic turn that reveals character through reactions that may seem alien to modern viewers.
"We're always torn between the way we are supposed to be feeling and what we actually feel," he said.
Fans expecting quick information of what happened to Peggy's baby won't get their answer in the season premiere. And viewers may be confused about the relationship status of closeted gay art director Salvatore Romano played by Bryan Batt. (Hint: Pay attention to the ring finger of his left hand.)
"Trust me," Weiner advised. "I will give you the information as you need it in the most entertaining fashion."