Like a great scene from “Mad Men,” the razor-sharp juxtaposition of emotions and circumstances was impossible to miss.
On the wall of New York’s Museum of the Moving Image were framed pages from Matthew Weiner’s journal circa 1992-93, written longhand when he was a starving scribe who spent many hours gulping coffee at Norm’s restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard.
As Weiner stood re-reading his meandering thoughts about the nature of art, commerce and television, surprised attendees of the “Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men” exhibit couldn’t stop themselves from approaching “Mad Men’s” creator/executive producer. Weiner was there on March 19 with any fanfare to check out the installation for the first time and to give Variety what amounted to a guided tour through the canyons of his mind.
“Can I just shake your hand? I seriously want to cry here,” said a young woman who told Weiner she was a film student at USC, his alma mater. (Before they parted, Weiner gave her PR contact info to get her a seat at the March 26 “Mad Men” screening at LACMA.)
“I just want to thank you for creating one of the best shows on TV,” said another breathless twenty-something woman. “I almost lost it when I saw you.”
Renaldo, who described himself as an art student from Italy, simply wanted a hug from Weiner, who was happy to oblige. Another woman was right behind him with a more specific request.
“Can I ask you one thing — Are Peggy and Stan going to end up together? I really want them to.”
Weiner smiled. “You’ll have to watch the show. I’m glad you have strong feelings.”
“I just care so much,” she assured him as they hugged.
The observations he wrote long before he was a rock-star showrunner were put to good use on “Mad Men,” which begins its final seven-episode run on April 5. “I wanted to write something in opposition to what I was seeing in entertainment — a drama without guns that was related to real life,” he said.
As the walk-through continued, Weiner marveled at the level of detail in the expansive installation, which encompasses several key sets transplanted from Los Angeles, a recreation of the writers room and a host of costumes, props and knickknacks small and large that enhanced the period feel of the 1960s drama. “Mad Men” prop master Ellen Freund was recruited to dress the sets to ensure as much authenticity as possible.
Weiner couldn’t believe all of the notes and script material that was excavated from his files to tell the story of show’s decades-long journey from spec to screen.
“It’s so weird — it’s like pulling your pants down in public,” Weiner said.
The material includes pages from his early screenplay “The Horseshoe,” which he realized after the end of “Mad Men’s” first season was essentially the pre-history of Don Draper/Dick Whitman — all of which was mined for the show, he added.
For years, Weiner was constantly jotting down snatches of dialogue and character descriptions, long before “Mad Men” came anywhere near a pilot order. Many of the notes were scribbled on Weiner’s personalized buck slips from his days as a writer on “The Sopranos.”
“I still probably have more (slips) left over from the ‘Sopranos’ than I do ‘Mad Men,’ “ he said.
Another find that impressed Weiner were script pages from the alternate season-one ending that he wrote out of extreme frustration when AMC, unaccustomed to dealing in scripted series, dragged its feet on renewing the show (the pickup didn’t come for months after the finale aired).
INTERIOR: Don’s car. Don and Betty are driving home from a visit to her shrink, after Betty has outed him to the shrink as having an affair. “Theme From a Summer Place” is playing on the radio.
Don: “Birdie, what do you want?”
Betty (sighing): “Whatever you want.” Betty cuddles up to Don.
“It’s a happy ending even though they are not happy,” Weiner explained.
The exhibit underscores the depth of the artistry and the creative collaboration that went into “Mad Men.”
Costume designer Janie Bryant created “mood board” collages of tonal influences for “Mad Men’s” central characters to help with her work. But those board wound up assisting Weiner and his writers just as much. Images on Don Draper’s early board include Italian star Marcello Mastroianni and legendary ad man David Ogilvy.
One of Bryant’s toughest assignments was creating the blood-splattered dress worn by Joan in the memorable season three episode “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” — the one with the lawn-mower mishap. Actress Christina Hendricks had to be careful with it during production as this particular frock was one of a kind.
Weiner’s famous focus on exacting detail went all the way down to ensuring that desks in the Sterling Cooper offices were cluttered with authentic office supplies of the day. Photographs that were seen only for an instant on screen had to be genuine. The shoebox that held the secret to Don Draper’s true identity had to have pictures of Dick Whitman and his family. That meant a full day of production and costuming. The same was done for the Draper family shots featured in the season-one finale “The Wheel.”
The re-assembled writers room at the exhibit is complete with the bookshelves stocked with dozens of titles that served as reference material for the era, for the advertising business and for New York City in particular. The memoir “Manhattan, When I Was Young” by Mary Cantwell was an invaluable resource, Weiner noted. So was a collection of bound volumes of Life magazine from 1966-68, scored from a library sale. “The smell of these books makes me nervous about having to work,” Weiner joked.
The writers room was equipped with two white boards for plotting episodes and story arcs. One of the boards featured color-coded index cards with code words (“Carpet pile” “Train” “Toast” “Earring”) to indicate major plot moments. The code was devised to keep actors and others from discovering too much in their visits to the room.
When the writers plotted the suicide of Lane Pryce in season five, the code word was “doorjamb.” They wound up giving that index card to actor Jared Harris. The scribes also had a running gag with actor Rich Sommer, who came to the writers room with his family at the start of every season to deliver a basket of cookies (a Harry Crane-like move, for sure). To coincide with his visit, a card reading “Harry’s Funeral” would be tacked up in a prominent spot. “He fell for it the first year,” Weiner giggled.
The array of material on display sparked Weiner to reflect on how “Mad Men’s” seven seasons have been life-changing for him and so many others on the show, particularly its core cast members. (To wit, later that night Weiner would cheer for Elisabeth Moss on the opening night of her Broadway revival of “The Heidi Chronicles.”)
But nothing in the showcase touched Weiner quite as deeply as the sight of the Drapers’ kitchen in Ossining. It’d been five years since Weiner had seen the set intact — it went into storage not long after Don and Betty split up in season three. From the curtains to the kitschy decorations to the stray pack of Salems on the table, the recreated room reinforced to Weiner how much time has passed since the pilot was shot in 2006.
“I just remember the kids being so small in here,” he said, quietly, as he pointed to the breakfast table where Betty Draper once reigned supreme.
“Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men” runs through June 14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York.