In The Paris Review‘s storied history, they’ve only done four in-depth interviews on the art of screenwriting: Billy Wilder, John Gregory Dunne, Terry Southern, and now Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner have all weighed in on the delicate art of writing for the screen. Weiner’s interview was the highlight of the spring 2014 issue, and it’s now online in its entirety. (One of a plethora of Matthew Weiner articles out there: do check out his By the Book column in The New York Times Book Review, too.) Here are some facts and writing advice that we’ve picked up from Mad Men‘s mad genius. Caution: spoilers ahead, I suppose, if you’re Matthew Weiner.
1. The work of John Cheever is in the bones of Mad Men. John Cheever sounds “like the voice in my head — or what I wish it sounded like,” according to Weiner. He elaborates:
Cheever holds my attention more than any other writer. He is in every aspect of Mad Men, starting with the fact that Don lives in Ossining on Bullet Park Road — the children are ignored, people have talents they can’t capitalize on, everyone is selfish to some degree or in some kind of delusion. I have to say, Cheever’s stories work like TV episodes, where you don’t get to repeat information about the characters. He grabs you from the beginning.
2. Christopher Reeve’s father was his professor in college at Wesleyan. (And what is Mad Men, if not a show about the idea of the superman and what’s behind it… )
This Vermont Yankee, log-splitting son of a bitch. He had gone with Robert Frost to Russia. Incredibly handsome and charismatic — in fact, he was Christopher Reeve’s father. I imagined he was in the CIA. So I went to his office and brought my poems with me. He shredded them. I had some line that was like, “Where does it hide?”—this is sophomore poetry, right?—“Where does it hide to gently squeeze the pitch of morning into orange whispers of dusk, squeeze the pitch of dusk into orange whispers of morning,” and he said, Lose the split infinitive and juice squeezer. It was brutal. Then he said, When do we start?
3. His senior thesis was in poetry, and his poems were funny. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was “the most interesting thing in the world to me. I loved that it was so personal and grimy and gross and epic at the same time… The high and the low together. It is so important to my life as a writer, there’s so much dialogue, so much rhythm that I have tried to emulate.”
4. Mad Men had its roots in a screenplay about “an American picaresque character.” “By picaresque I don’t mean like Candide… I mean a guy who is making his own future because he has no other options.”
5. Everything you need to know about writing is in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2.
How to tell a story, where to start the story, whose point of view it’s from, at what point you leave their point of view, when you should see a character in a scene by himself or herself — all this shit that drives you nuts when you’re trying to structure something. And then, the fact that there are no rules. That’s what both movies are saying — there are no rules, the audience is not as rigid as you think, and certainly not as rigid as the people paying for the movies to get made.
6. He made his own, improvised movie called What Do You Do All Day?, inspired by Clerks‘s DIY ethos.
7. The likes of Bill Clinton inspired Mad Men. “I realized that these people who ran the country were all from these very dark backgrounds, which they had hidden, and that the self-transforming American hero, the Jay Gatsby or the talented Mr. Ripley, still existed.”
8. And Mad Men is about reinvention.
Everyone loves the Horatio Alger version of life. What they don’t realize is that these transformations begin in shame, because poverty feels shameful. It shouldn’t, but everyone who’s experienced it confirms this. Sometimes people say, I didn’t know we were poor—Don Draper knows he’s poor, very much in the model of Iacocca or Walton, who came out of the Great Depression, out of really humble beginnings. Or like Conrad Hilton, on the show. These men don’t take no for an answer, they build these big businesses, these empires, but really it’s all based on failure, insecurity, and an identity modeled on some abstract ideal of white power. I’ve always said this is a show about becoming white. That’s the definition of success in America—becoming a WASP. A WASP male.
9. Weiner’s time working on The Sopranos gave Mad Men depth. “Take the risk of doing the extreme thing, the embarrassing thing, the thing that’s in your subconscious.”
10. Part of his writing process involves remembering people’s precise sentences. “Now I have a ton of stuff like that I’ve saved, things people have said to me that are concise and devastating and sum up some moment in their lives. When I’m talking to some woman on an airplane, and she says, I like being bad and going home and being good, that is very useful.”
11. Like Billy Wilder, Weiner dictates his writing these days. “Then, because I was working all day, I stumbled on the idea of dictating. I found that I was constantly thinking of dialogue and couldn’t write it down fast enough. I heard that Billy Wilder did it, too. He walked around with a riding crop while his writing partners would type. Joseph Conrad did it. So did Henry James.”
12. Mad Men‘s directorial style is influenced by Wong Kar-Wai’s work.
But I felt that, since these actors were so good and they pulled off these transitions in front of our eyes, why cut away? So I’d stay with their performance. They would do the entire speech, and then there would be a pause on one side or the other for the other character to respond. That, to me, magically creates a first-person experience, though none of this was intellectual. That’s kind of the way I experience the world. It feels normal to me.