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‘Mad Men’ Creator Matt Weiner on Turning Early Critics’ Barbs Into Success

As AMC prepares to air the “Mad Men” finale May 17, the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, harks back to his debut, 1996 microbudget film “What Do You Do All Day?” that he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. A Variety critic slammed the picture, but Weiner talked about how that whole experience fueled his subsequent work.

Talk about your early career.

I made an independent film before I started my life in television, and it actually helped me get my career started. It was a $12,000 movie. I’m in it, my wife’s in it, my car’s in it. It’s a strung-together, black-and-white movie. We sent it off to some film festivals, it premiered at Santa Barbara, and Variety ran a review.

Did you read Variety in those days?

I grew up in Los Angeles, and Variety has this sort of iconic quality. To be in Variety seemed to be part of whatever show business is. You imagine Groucho Marx sitting there reading Variety and getting angry.

Did you read the review?

This was before the Internet. I found out Variety would be delivered to the 7-Eleven at 5:30 in the morning. I threw on sweatpants and drove down to pick it up, and get in this long line of people buying coffee and everything. And it takes me until I get to the front of the line to finish the review, which is awful. I don’t remember a word of it, I just remember feeling like the blood was leaving my body. It was really harsh, so when I got to the counter, I just put the issue back in the newsstand and walked out.

Was there any upside to this?

Criticism stings, but it doesn’t really change my opinion of the work. That’s the key. The process of making the film was the most valuable thing. That changed me. I would not have had the confidence to pitch a joke in a room full of professional writers if I had not made my film a few weeks before that. It motivated me to write “Mad Men” while I had a job where I was still somehow unsatisfied, and then pushing “Mad Men” for years and years. It got me my job on “The Sopranos” and then that turned into AMC being impressed enough to give me a series and then what happened with the series. … None of that could be predicted.

So that film was a turning point?

From the minute I put myself out there, when I put my neck on the chopping block, my entire life changed. Because I was actively pursuing, and I wasn’t waiting to win the lottery or for something to fall into my lap. Now, as someone who hires people, I can see that’s a much better attitude.

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