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An Important Lesson In Success And Failure From The Man Behind Mad Men

What Matthew Weiner learned from John Slattery, the ups (Mad Men), the downs (Are You Here) and other people’s anxieties.

An Important Lesson In Success And Failure From The Man Behind Mad Men
[Photo: Michael Yarish, courtesy of AMC]

Over the past seven years, Matthew Weiner has placed his stamp on culture. Mad Men was never an obvious slam-dunk, but Weiner persisted and ended up creating the kind of TV phenomenon that transcends just critical acclaim. “If I wasn’t able to recover from ‘We don’t like what you did,’ I would have a different job or I would be living in my parent’s basement,” he says.

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Matthew WeinerPhoto: Michael Yarish, courtesy of AMC

It may be easy to say that from a position of success, but it hasn’t all been triumphs with Weiner. Just last year, he released a movie, Are You Here, that received some of the worst reviews of any film in 2014. Weiner knows success from both sides, which makes his message that much more resonant: Never take to heart what other people say about you. Find your sense of self within. And keep pushing to accomplish what you want to do. “Part of my job,” he says, “besides writing and directing—is to let people know that they shouldn’t give up.” Hear, hear!

Read on for more hard-won life lessons from the man behind Mad Men.

Photo: James Minchin III, courtesy of AMC

EVERYBODY IS NOT YOU

“I like to think that every mistake we made I learned from,” says Weiner, whose lessons were myriad. “Here’s something that came to me very late in the process.”

John Slattery, who plays Roger Sterling on the show, directed five episodes of Mad Men after shadowing other directors on the set. When he was ready to do his own episode, he was suddenly sitting on the other side of the casting table, observing that process with fresh eyes. And Slattery pointed out something that Weiner had never considered. “Sometimes actors come in for a reading and they are quiet or even belligerently immovable,” Weiner says. “I thought their agent pushed them to be there and they didn’t really want to, or they don’t like auditioning. Maybe they’d never seen the show. But John told me something that had never occurred to me: that a lot of people who I thought were being belligerent, arrogant or unpleasant in some way, that that’s how they express their anxiety. The truth was they were nervous, and I didn’t see it.”

Not that Weiner is unfamiliar with anxiety. “I let everybody do [a reading] more than once. I always try to defuse people’s anxiety and give them a chance to perform, give them a note—even if it’s just ‘Do it again,’ but usually it’s more than that. You never know, you can dig a little bit deeper and someone’s anxiety will disappear from the process and you will see something amazing.” But to him, anxiety expresses itself in particular ways: “For me, and it’s probably an ethnic thing,” he says, referring to some not-untrue Jewish stereotypes, “but nervous people talk fast and laugh too much and run into doorways and are clumsy. To see someone come in and be, like, ice cold, and say something obnoxious that they don’t realize is obnoxious–or not say anything at all–or give this completely shut down, emotionless performance, I did not know that that was an anxiety.”

So Slattery opened his eyes. “Once I knew that, I tried to make it a welcoming environment [for them], and we ended up with people who might not have made it on the show before. That becomes a lesson about humanity. And I got a lot of those. I really got a lot of those.”

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Photo: MIchael Yarish, courtesy of AMC

DON’T TAKE SUCCESS OR FAILURE TO MUCH TO HEART

Last year, Weiner’s feature directorial debut, Are You Here, garnered a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. So after the wild success of Mad Men, the movie must have been a humbling experience. “Here’s the disappointing answer: The experience of being humbled is constant,” Weiner says. “I think people’s perceptions of what our successes on the show or what my success is personally and how it makes me feel and how I feel about myself [is different than the reality]. Those things do not change. Good things don’t change you.” So if people think that his sense of self was secured by the success of Mad Men, they’d be mistaken. “I’ve always had a healthy amount of confidence—or [perhaps it’s an] unhealthy amount of confidence—in my abilities, or I wouldn’t have worked for free and pushed [the Mad Men] script around town being rejected everywhere, telling everybody it should be a TV show. That is a delusional person. That is like, Who do you think you are? You’re a story editor on Becker”—Yep, he really was a story editor on that Ted Danson CBS sitcom at the time— “and you think you’re going to run a show on HBO? Go away.

“Talk about humbling, there’s a list of about 80 people who told me how bad the show was or, even if they liked the script, they told me it would never be a successful TV show. So I didn’t find anything about the movie experience humbling as much as disappointing that people didn’t see a movie that I put a lot of effort into, and a lot of other people did, and I think is a very complex and meaningful expression. So that is disappointing.”

“I actually feel like, believe it or not, that part of my job—besides writing, directing, whatever I do—is to let people know that they shouldn’t give up. And I try to tell that story in the show as well.”

Here’s the clincher: “But that is not why you do things. You work just as hard on things that are not received with the enthusiasm of Mad Men as you do on things that are. If I took disappointment as a message or took humbling as something that was in the cards for me—I mean, that’s not even the way I think. You just keep doing it. It’s a terrible feeling. No one likes it.”

He was surprised by the reaction to his movie. “It seemed like there was a disappointment in the critical community that it was not Mad Men.” But it seems as if it’s only fueling Weiner’s resolve to keep doing things his way. “I will never be sorry about doing things that aren’t Mad Men. I will never be doing Mad Men again. But if I wasn’t able to recover from, ‘We don’t like what you did and you’re no good,’ I would have a different job or I’d be living in my parent’s basement.

“The tenacity to succeed in any field—we talk about it in the show—especially in writing, where you might have to wait a long time, is essential. I have it documented that I had this idea for Mad Men in 1992.” It was a movie script with a character named Don Draper. “I wound up working in TV for a few years and abandoned that movie, then went and wrote Mad Men for free at night while I had a job.” Then he finally shopped it around and got one rejection after another. “Some of them just ignored me, which is the most painful. It’s kind of refreshing having someone actually say, ‘I don’t like it.’ As long as they do it quickly.” He laughs heartily.

“I actually feel like, believe it or not, that part of my job—besides writing, directing, whatever I do—is to let people know that they shouldn’t give up. And I try to tell that story in the show as well.”

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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