TV is a famously collaborative medium. And yet, the best TV shows are considered the product of a singular voice.
Both seemingly incompatible methods are no more true for any show than Mad Men. The game-changing AMC series, now approaching the crescendo of its theory-inspiring sixth season, is meticulously crafted by its creator, Matthew Weiner, who writes nearly every episode with the help of the series writing staff and, often, a partner.
And then there’s his assistant. Weiner has an unconventional way of writing: He dictates every word to an assistant, turning an otherwise solitary process riddled with second-guessing into a stream-of-consciousness performance. Here, once again, in rapid-fire monologue, Weiner lays out for Co.Create his way of working on Mad Men and You Are Here, his upcoming feature directorial debut, due out later this year.
“I can’t believe I said that, but it’s true. I mean, I love having written. At this point in the show, the process is so luxurious,” he says, barely pausing to clarify. “It’s not luxurious in terms of time, but I have a staff of the smartest people you ever want to meet who are concocting stories and writing drafts, giving their lives. This is not me doing something; this is an organism. It’s not a committee–that’s part of my reputation on some level–but that’s the only way it works. I’m in charge of it, but there are significant ideas, dialogue and really the stories are things that I am picking and choosing from gold that’s being given to me by really, really talented writers. That’s luxurious. As is the fact that everything that’s being written here is getting shot. So you don’t have to spend the time in your screenplay doing a sales pitch in your description. You don’t have to write a line of dialogue that’s going to attract an actor, or a line of description that’s going to attract a financier.”
“I’ve sat down and written a lot in my life,” Weiner says of how he used to do it–the old-fashioned way, alone in a room with his thoughts and a keyboard. But that’s not how he has written for many years. As he has revealed in the past, Weiner talks it out, stream-of-consciousness style, while someone else transcribes. “Yes, I dictate. I have a writer’s assistant, and I’ve had a few of them over the course of my career, most of whom are actual writers. So they have their own tastes and they have to get in my head with me, and I can be quiet and belligerent and irritated and ask them a question out of nowhere. But the not being alone, not staring at the screen and doubting every word you wrote, I eliminated that from the process. I was always thinking of dialogue and writing it down. Like most writers, I’m a vampire: I hear things, I write it down, I put it in my work.”
To explain how this style came about, Weiner goes back to his days on the staff of the 1998-2004 Ted Danson comedy, Becker. “To be a regular writer on a half-hour sitcom–aside from being a show runner–is probably the most demanding job there is in television. There are rehearsals every day, rewrites every night. On some shows, you’re also working on the weekends. You’re in a group, dependent on someone else’s schedule, and it’s very high-pressure because you need to turn out another script every week. I was working on Mad Men at the same time”–meaning, he was writing the pilot on spec. “I finally said, I’m going to hire an assistant and dictate this. They’ll take notes while I’m talking, and I can think that way. I found I could write huge amounts of material. Originally I thought, Oh, I have to show up and do this because it’s an unpaid job for me; it’s extra work; it’s all on spec.” He likens it to hiring a trainer as motivation to get to the gym. “How am I actually going to go to the gym? Hire a trainer. I’m paying them. They have to be there. I have to be there. And no matter what, even if I’m just sitting there in the room, I’m working.
“And then it became this great experience. My first writer’s assistant was Robin Veith, who went on to write on the show. I dictated Mad Men to her while I was working on Becker during the day and I made a lot of headway very quickly because I wasn’t sitting there editing my stage directions. All scripts before Mad Men I always did the traditional way, sitting in a room. It would take me a week to write the first four scenes, and then I would write the rest of the script in four hours. [Writing this way was] liberating to me. I had an ability to talk my way through it and to imagine the scene in my head that was a lot clearer.”
“I did the movie this way, too,” he says of You Are Here, an indie road-trip comedy due out later this year. “Mike Uppendahl, who’s now a director on the show. Erin Levy, Jonathan Igla. They’re all on staff. This year I have a new person, Carly Wray. You’re growing writers, in addition to everything else. They know me very intimately and they see it happen. I always joke with them that they can’t reveal to anyone a big part of this process: Self-congratulation. Where I’m like, ‘That’s good, right?’
“I can tell you right now, sometimes it feels like cheating. Jenji Kohan, [creator of Weeds,] who’s a close friend says, ‘You’re cheating.’ But whatever gets the script done is not cheating. A lot of people I admire, I’ve since discovered, have written this way. It’s just a different way your brain works. And when you said a joke, to hear laughter on the other end. It is cheating. And you’re not alone. You may be forcing that person to be there,” he concedes. “It’s almost the same as your relationship with a therapist.”
“In the beginning of the season, the hardest part is that I’ve gotten older and I’m more fatigued. I don’t need a lot of sleep, but the opportunity to make You Are Here–the cross-section of the actors and the money, all of that had to happen between the last two seasons. I promised them I’d do [the full postproduction process] on You Are Here after the show was over. Chris Gay is editing the movie and he edits the show, too. We started editing the movie during preproduction of the show, when the writers were just meeting and discussing stories for the season and trying to break the first five episodes of Mad Men. That’s a 10-week process. During those three months, I was editing [the movie] on a regular basis. Because Chris Gay and I have worked together and [producer] Scott Hornbacher, it actually went very quickly. By the time the show really got up and running and I had to have a script every week, I put the movie aside. And of course it’s been like It’s been this mistress. I always write all day on Sundays, so guess what? On Saturdays I’m going to be working on the movie. The show is very demanding. It has not gotten any easier creatively. I didn’t not want to slack off on it. It was tiring but you do this stuff because it’s exciting.”
[Photos Courtesy of AMC | Michael Yarish]