Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
As the anticipation peaks for season six of the critically acclaimed culture bomb that is Mad Men, it’s worth noting that the pilot script for the show was famously rejected by HBO and Showtime. It languished for years until AMC picked it up and helped it become a culture-shifting event. You’d think that after its wild success, producers and studio heads would be clamoring for Matthew Weiner, its creator and executive producer, to make his first movie for them, right? Nah. In Hollywood, proven success in TV means pretty much zip in movies.
But Weiner did recently manage to write and direct his first feature film. You Are Here stars Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Poehler and is in postproduction now in preparation for a hoped-for year-end release. Getting the movie made took nearly as many years of rejection and false starts as his TV series went through. Now, as Weiner awaits the debut of Mad Men season six, the multiple Emmy winner reflects on what kept him going through the rough times.
“A lot of the business people and creative people that I’m fascinated by all have something in common, which is a lot of failure–a lot of dramatic failure–and a lot of rejection. All of us face conflict in our life and obviously no one just gives you anything–that might create its own problems. I don’t know about that. But you get to a point where you’re like, okay, I can be bitter and just stop or I can keep going because I really don’t have a choice. The key thing in all of that is that most of us have people in our lives who keep us afloat. Part of what kept me determined was not some amazing agent who said ‘you can do that’–because I really didn’t have that–but a family and a creative community of six or seven people who had read the pilot of Mad Men. My wife, in particular, was like, ‘This is good. You know it’s good. Don’t give up on it.’ “Or,” he continues, “‘You’re good but people haven’t found out yet.’ There is a string of failures that typify success. The weirdest thing is it’s kind of shameful to be rejected a lot, and a lot of people become dominated by that. It’s so embarrassing. You feel delusional.”
And then there’s a shame that might be unique to Los Angeles, land of screenwriters. “When you go to Starbucks and you see people working on their screenplays, there’s a kind of judgment that comes in. Everybody’s doing it and you’re like, Look at that guy. All I can tell you is I was one of those people and I still do it sometimes. That part of my creative process is just a kind of defiance.”
The success of Mad Men did help Weiner get his feature script into the hands of some actors who were fans of the show. But actors don’t necessarily decide their next moves; that’s what agents are for. “It’s harder than you think,” says Weiner. “The actors are very important to the financing of the movie and getting them is not just something that happens. Some representatives were very excited to get material from me, and some representatives were like, ‘This is a $10 million movie; this is not what my client does.’ So you hope that they’re going to make some gigantic movie that will pay them a lot of money and then they’ll want to do this just so that they can work with you.”
So Weiner went around the agents. He met Owen Wilson through his old Sopranos buddy Peter Bogdanovich. “Peter is close friends with Owen, and had turned him on to [Mad Men]. Owen loved the show and wanted to meet with me. We went to dinner. I said, ‘I know we’re supposed to have 20 meetings and become friends before doing this, but I have a script I’ve been trying to get to you for eight years. It’s written for you. Do you want to look at it?’ Now, he’s a writer, too–an Oscar-nominated writer–so I was nervous. He read it and loved it. The rest was all that business stuff that happens: How much money? When does it happen? I was a producer on the movie, but I tried to keep my nose clean and just focus on the creative side.”
Similarly, Weiner met Zach Galifianakis socially three or four years ago, before the actor’s career really took off. “I realized he was a real actor, in addition to being incredibly funny, who could play this role. It was a matter of, When’s the right time? Is he a big enough star for someone to pay for it? Of course, he just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and I kept saying ‘I’m here! I want to do this movie! Don’t forget about me!'”
“Here’s the weird thing,” Weiner says. “Other than allowing me to get [my film script] to actors who knew who I was, the show didn’t really help me much. I still had to go directly to most of the actors and find a producer who wanted to pay for it. I had to keep reminding myself that the journey to making the film was going to be the same experience as Mad Men on some level. It wasn’t like I walked into a studio and they were like, ‘Let’s make the movie.’ You might expect that having some success in television would change all that, but honestly there’s a kind of movie they might have done that for but You Are Here is a very personal movie; it’s not a big tentpole or genre movie. If you want to make something that’s hopefully as interesting as Mad Men, you’re going to go up the same road. I don’t know if you ever get to be in the place comedians talk about: getting to be so established that you go on stage and the audience is expecting you to be funny, whereas until then you go onstage and it’s like, Who the hell is this guy? I don’t know if that ever happens in writing or in television. I think maybe you can bring an audience, but in the end every piece of work is its own journey.
“I’m always trying to do something different, something that’s interesting to me. So until I’m just repeating myself and delivering exactly what I’ve done already, I’m always going to be in the position of trying to win people over.” And maybe that’s a good thing. “There are people I’ve admired, like Mike Nichols, Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, who had more than one success. They’re people who don’t repeat themselves, they don’t want to get bored. That’s my own observation. Also, if you do something for money or because it’s easy, that reflects in the work. I think you’ll pay for that another way.”
[Photos Courtesy of AMC/Michael Yarish/Frank Ockenfels/Ron Jaffe]