In February 2005, I was hired to launch the original scripted department at AMC. Up to that point, the channel had only aired old films and had made a few attempts at unscripted programming.
Rob Sorcher, who ran AMC at the time, had tasked me with finding and making the channel’s first scripted series. In the spring of 2005, while we were in pre-production on “Broken Trail,” a limited series starting Robert Duvall, I traveled to Los Angeles to find our first scripted series. In a meeting with Industry Entertainment, manager Ira Liss handed me a pilot script. He told me he thought I would like it, although the script had been around for eight years and had been passed on by every buyer. It was Matthew Weiner’s pilot script for “Mad Men.” I read it on the flight back to New York and immediately fell in love with it.
A few years earlier, when I was making my living as a screenwriter, I had wanted to option the Richard Yates novel “Revolutionary Road,” which was also set in the early 1960s in the New York advertising world. Since I wasn’t an A-list screenwriter, the estate of Richard Yates would not let me option the book. When I finished reading the pilot for “Mad Men,” I was excited because it was a way to do the world that I loved in “Revolutionary Road” week after week. On my first meeting with Matt Weiner, in the back garden at Bottino restaurant in Chelsea, I gave him a copy of “Revolutionary Road,” which he had never read. He called me after reading it and said if he’d read it before, he never would have written “Mad Men.”
During that lunch at Bottino, Rob Sorcher and I explained to Matt that while we loved his pilot script, a series just about the advertising business wouldn’t generate the type of water cooler conversations we wanted the show to spark. We asked him to come up with a storyline that would continue on from episode to episode that was more character-based and would get people emotionally hooked on the show. Matt came back a few weeks later — he was busy at the time working on the writing staff of “The Sopranos” — and pitched us the entire Don Draper/Dick Whitman storyline. At the end of his pitch we sat in silence and then let him know it was brilliant. It was one of the most amazing story arcs I had ever heard.
It was after that pitch that we greenlit the pilot to production. Matt made only two changes to the pilot script to incorporate the storyline for Don Draper and his hidden identity: One was the addition of the scene where Don pulls his desk drawer out and a purple heart from the Korean War falls out, and the other was the scene where Don lies down on his couch and stares up at the ceiling light in his office. In post, Matt added the sounds of bombs dropping in the background. How genius was that!
Because AMC had never financed a TV pilot, we needed to find a studio partner to share the cost and distribute the show if it went to series. We met with Lionsgate, Fox Television Studios and Media Rights Capital. All three turned it down, saying they didn’t want to make a period series about the advertising business. So AMC bit the bullet and decided to finance the entire budget of the pilot. In the spring of 2006, we shot the pilot of “Mad Men” in New York City.
While casting the show, Matt would send us his top two choices for each character. This was before the days when you could watch auditions online so we would wait for DVDs to arrive at our office. Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser and Elisabeth Moss nailed their auditions and were quickly hired. John Slattery originally auditioned for the part of Don Draper, but he was the perfect Roger Sterling and was offered that role.
January Jones came in to read for Peggy Olson, which she wasn’t right for. I saw her immediately as Betty Draper, although Matt had originally envisioned Betty as more of a Jackie Kennedy brunette. I suggested January read for Betty and for Matt to think of her as more of a Grace Kelly type. Matt wrote an entire scene for her to read the night before since Betty didn’t say much in the pilot. January’s audition for Betty Draper was illuminating because it really helped Matt form the character seeing January as the icy blonde suburban housewife.
When it came to casting Don Draper, Matt knew from the start he wanted Jon Hamm. The audition tapes he sent were of very poor quality and it was hard for us to see what Matt saw in him from that crappy tape. So we made Jon fly all the way to New York to meet with us in person. Pilot director Alan Taylor, AMC production chief Vlad Wolynetz and I took Jon for a drink on the roof of the Gansevoort hotel. Once we met Jon in person, his charisma and charm shined through. Before Jon headed off for the night to meet some friends, I whispered in his ear, “You’ve got the job.” I couldn’t let him fly all the way back to L.A. not knowing.
From day one, the cast, Matt, executive producer Scott Hornbacher and Alan all bonded and became a tight-knit family. The night before the first day of shooting the pilot, we all went to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. There was a feeling in the air of excitement and that we were about to embark on something truly special. Little did we all know how much the next few years of making “Mad Men” would change all of our lives.
It was clear from the start of production Matt knew exactly what he wanted for the show. He stood beside Alan for every shot. I remember being crammed in a closet with Matt and Alan in Don and Betty’s house as we shot the last scene in the pilot, as the camera pulls back from Don watching his children sleeping — looking in the monitor and seeing the beautifully lit and framed shot and slow pullback. It was one of those moments you never forget, because you know that what you are experiencing is poetry.
Once we showed the finished pilot to the same three studios we’d gone to before, all three wanted to partner on the series. We decided to go with Lionsgate in the end because of favorable deal terms. Also, I was friends with Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns, and I trusted him with the show.
“Mad Men,” of course, went on to become one of the most award-winning, critically acclaimed series of all time. I learned so much about script structure from Matt during my years overseeing the series. Working with Matt and the “Mad Men” team for multiple seasons was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had making a show. I loved getting the episode outlines and scripts because they were so good. I even loved debating with Matt how to end season one. Matt was always willing to debate for the betterment of the show. Sometimes the debates got heated, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed it because when you are really invested in creating something that is so extraordinary, it’s all worth it.
When I read the script for the last episode of Season 1, “The Wheel,” Matt had written that Don returns home after the amazing scene where he sells the “carousel” pitch to find Betty and the kids at home. He embraces them and they all get in the car and drive off into the sunset to go away for Thanksgiving.
I called Matt and explained he just wrote a happy ending which felt tonally off given the nature of the series. I asked him who was coming back to watch Season 2 when everything was all tied up in a bow.
Matt defended his ending, so we debated for a while with me pitching him the idea that Don imagines coming home to his family and it’s all happy, but then you cut to the reality: They’re all gone and Don is left alone.
Let’s just say I didn’t convince him on that call. Later that night while at home I got a call from Matt. He said he thought about what I’d said and cried as he realized he couldn’t end the season the way it was written. He was going to change it to the ending that exists now with Don imagining his family at home as he’s on the train, and then jump-cutting to his actual return to find the house empty. Don is left sitting on the stairs as Bob Dylan sings.
Matt ended the call by telling me the reason he’d written the original ending was because he loved his characters so much, he just wanted them to be happy. I felt overwhelmed with admiration, respect and joy. It is incredibly rare in this business to get the opportunity to work with someone so passionate and talented. I was grateful.
I’ve since gone on to oversee “Breaking Bad” for AMC, to produce “Copper” for BBC America and now “I’m Dying Up Here” for Showtime and “Will” for TNT. They are all great shows, but it’s “Mad Men” that stands out as one of the most sublime creative experiences. Maybe that’s because it was my first, but more likely because it went beyond just making a great TV series. It is art.
Christina Wayne, CEO of ITV Studios-based Assembly Entertainment, served as head of scripted series for AMC from 2005-2009. Wayne also spearheads TelevisionSchool.com, an online educational course about the creative and business sides of creating content for television and digital platforms.
(Pictured: Matt Weiner and Christina Wayne at “Mad Men’s” farewell Black and Red Ball gala in March 2015)