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‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner Admits It Was a ‘Tough Sell’ to U.S. Auds

In the nascent days of “Mad Men,” when creator Matthew Weiner was struggling to persuade buyers that his pilot script about ad execs on Madison Avenue in the 1960s held universal appeal — “there were no discernible TV stars in it, and it seemed like it was going to be a tough sell” — he likened his drama, flush with nuance and sexual indiscretions and dark psychological themes, to a “French movie.”

“I had a very non-formulaic way of telling a story,” says Weiner, who will receive the 2014 Intl. Emmy Founders Award during the International Emmys ceremony on Nov. 24. (“Mad Men” stars Christina Hendricks and John Slattery will be on hand to present.) “I felt that that sort of non-verbal, non-dialogue driven psychological storytelling was more European, very internal, and symbolic in places and that’s not considered part of the American language even though we did invent it.”

Knowing that a series in which “a client comes in every week and Don (Draper) saves the day” would not provide much in the way of suspense and intrigue, Weiner was eager to explore the interpersonal conflicts between the characters in his proposed series — “Who are these people? What’s at stake?” — but the networks, he recalls, were “pretty secure in the fact that they did not think Betty (Draper) was interesting.”

Which, of course, seems rather absurd in the face of “Mad Men’s” subsequent success, both on the critical and commercial fronts. Its first season out of the gate, the AMC skein amassed a haul of six Emmys, including nods for drama series and writing. Lionsgate, the company behind the show, promoted “Mad Men” heavily in markets overseas, and viewers around the world became hooked on every highball and curl of cigarette smoke in the Sterling Cooper office (and its various incarnations in the years to follow).

“I always thought that it might be popular in France because I am well versed in French cinema and I knew that the psychological texture of the show was a language that would appeal to them,” says Weiner of the series’ global distribution deals. “In England it exploded. It became really popular, almost immediately even, on what was then a new channel, BBC Four. And then all of a sudden I started to hear about Israel and Australia and in Turkey it was very popular right away, and what (the viewers) liked was not just the hairstyles and the attractive cast — they were into the story.”

“‘Mad Men’ is a touchstone for people in every place both in terms of how they think about themselves and their relationships,” says Bruce Paisner, president and CEO of the Intl. TV Academy. “It is a period piece it’s about such human things, whether you’re in the United States or China or Australia. It really is universal, you hear about it in every place, and people love it in every place and that’s why it’s particularly worthy and why (Matt) is particularly worthy (of the award). ‘Mad Men’ is one of the great shows of all time.”

And with the series finale approaching in 2015, to be feted on an international level is even more “incredible,” Weiner says.

“The idea that this show is playing in so many different cultures makes you feel like you are telling a more universal story, which was my intention,” he says. “It is a vote of confidence for the idea that if you tell a story that’s very specific, if it’s true about humanity, then it will cross cultural and language barriers. But personally, I can never get over being recognized for the show, and it’s very exciting to me that I have succeeded at something that I have just gotten used to, just in time for it to end.”

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