It’s no secret that “Mad Men” launched the careers of most of its stars — Jon Hamm was best known for a recurring role on “Providence” before he slipped into Don Draper’s suits. Whether casting virtual unknowns like Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss or giving vets like Harry Hamlin and Julia Ormond a chance to shine (and land Emmy noms), creator Matt Weiner clearly has an eye for talent.
That knack for casting extends behind the scenes. Weiner is proud of having given many writers and directors their first big breaks during the seven-season run of the AMC drama. “The final season is being directed almost entirely by people who had their first episode here,” he says while walking the halls at L.A. Center Studios.
Production teams on long-running shows often become like family to one another, given the hours and dedication it takes to produce a drama series. Weiner’s loyalty is respected by staffers.
Many of the below-the-line crew — including composer David Carbonara and costume designer Janie Bryant — have been with the show from the beginning, in 2007. Bryant has earned three Emmy nominations for dressing the Sterling Cooper gang in period attire.
Director Michael Uppendahl worked with Weiner back in his sitcom days on CBS’ “Becker.” He earned his first drama directing credit on “Mad Men” with season-two heartbreaker “Six Month Leave.”
“I think it’s remarkable that Matt has helped so many people along,” Uppendahl says. “He is so willing to advance careers for people and take these kinds of chances.”
After working with Weiner on “The Sopranos,” Scott Hornbacher joined him as producer starting with the “Mad Men” pilot. He’s been the guy who makes sure deadlines are met and crises averted. But he also earned his first directing credit on the show, with season three’s “Wee Small Hours.”
Jennifer Getzinger was a script supervisor on the pilot. Having attended the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women in 2005, she let her hopes to helm be known. Her first assignment was season two’s “The New Girl.”
Although there’s no doubt that “Mad Men” reflects Weiner’s singular vision, writers are closely involved in developing arcs and major plot points.
“I don’t know when Matt decides who’s writing what episode,” says staff writer Jonathan Igla. “Twenty-four hours is definitely the most notice I’ve gotten. I was once pulling out of the parking garage, and got a call the night we had finished an outline: ‘Oh you’re writing this one.’ I think Matt took that from ‘The Sopranos’; it’s sort of to make sure everybody is as invested in breaking every story as if they were going to go off to write it themselves.”
Weiner has made a habit of penning the season finale with his writer’s assistant, and then promoting them. In the first three seasons, those assistants — Robin Veith, Kater Gordon and Erin Levy — won an Emmy for those scripts.
Levy, who had taken a rewriting class from Weiner at USC, recommended classmate Igla when she was promoted to staff writer, and Igla co-wrote the finales for both seasons four and five. Carly Wray did the season-six honors before her promotion. Explains Levy, who is now a supervising producer on the show: “When you work as a writer’s assistant, (it’s) six days a week. He gets to see what type of writer you are.”
Weiner prides himself on having maintained a wide age range of scribes, from twentysomethings recently out of college to the late Frank Pierson, an Oscar-winning screenwriter for “Dog Day Afternoon,” who was working on the show when he died at age 87 in 2012. He recently hired “Chinatown” Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne, 79, for the final season. “If someone can write, they can write,” Weiner says. “I don’t care if they’re male or female, young or old.”
Weiner says he’s begun having what he calls “consultantships” — where experienced writers can come in, bring fresh eyes to a story, and mentor some of the younger writers. He points to Janet Leahy, whose credits date back to “Cheers” and “Newhart,” who was brought on as a consulting producer and exec producer.
“For the young writers in the room to see her pitch to me and me say no to her 30 times in an hour and (watch her) keep going, they finally understood what the job was,” Weiner says. “That’s what I did (with David Chase) when I was on ‘The Sopranos.’ ”
Weiner says that in Pierson’s case, it was the older man who approached him about working on the show. And it was no favor to hire such an accomplished scribe, he assured. “I said, ‘You’re 85, Frank, this could be your last job.’ He was standing right in this office. He said, ‘Yours, too.’