Next to Matt Weiner, nobody knows the look and feel of “Mad Men” better than Phil Abraham. He was the cinematographer on the pilot, and he made an auspicious debut as a director for the series with 2007’s “The Hobo Code.” Abraham took a break from helming an episode of AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” in Atlanta on Monday evening to talk about directing his final “Mad Men” episode, the May 3 installment “Lost Horizon,” from a razor-sharp script by Semi Chellas and Weiner.
This episode had so many pause-worthy moments for Joan, Don, Peggy and Roger. Did you know that going in or did it evolve as you were shooting?
“Mad Men” is different than any other show because the objective is to create those moments on camera and define them in a precise way. They are so special and so carefully crafted by the writers. As a director you’ve got to make sure they play visually and performance-wise and that everyone who is watching is aware of them….That’s what makes “Mad Men” such a different show than any other I’ve worked on. There is a precision to everything.
Does that precision make it harder or easier for you as the director?
The rigor with which these episodes are crafted is something special. The only way you can have moments like the one where Don is sitting in the conference room hearing the research thrown out and seeing the disembodied hands open up their portfolios and all take their pens out at the same time — that’s all scripted. But it has to be visualized to resonate. When you have Jon Hamm it’s not hard to make those things resonate. … It’s this amazing dance of performance and staging and everything that makes “Mad Men” the unique series that it is.
Christina Hendricks steals the episode with Joan’s showdown with McCann’s Jim Hobart.
She’s so strong-willed and I thought such a worthy adversary to (Hobart). I remember going through those scenes with her. Those are long scenes, there’s a lot of words. We talked about the emotion and the lack of emotion she would need to go toe to toe with the big boss. It was great. (Actor H. Richard Greene) was fantastic as well. The two of them played off each other so well. That scene stole the show for me. The dance they dance. It’s been a year since we shot it so it was great to watch it.
Roger and Peggy had a long and entertaining ‘moment’ together. How is Elisabeth Moss’ roller skating?
Peggy says to Roger ‘I don’t think you’ve ever paid this much attention to me.’ I don’t think they’ve ever had such a big scene. Culminating in Roger playing the organ and Peggy roller-skating. It was a great way to leave Sterling Cooper. Slattery took organ lessons. He worked at it and got some of the fingering down. (Moss) was a roller-skater. It took some practice to create a path for her to go down at Sterling Cooper. We extended the scene for the purposes of shooting it.
Don and Betty also had an unusually friendly encounter.
They were connecting with each other in a way that we hadn’t seen them connect. They felt really good together. I remember seeing it again last night. You felt like it was the road not taken. Could they be thinking ‘We could have made this work?’ They’re very intimate with each other and that never goes away. You’re not not married any more but there’s this connection. I felt that scene with those actors in that moment — the connection was great.
How was it for you working on your last episode with these characters and that troupe?
For the most part everyone was excited. There’s some sadness. It was like a family, we were all together now coming to an end. We’re going out on a very, very high bar for the series. I feel so fortunate and lucky to have segued from ‘The Sopranos’ to seven years on “Mad Men.”
What will you remember most about “Mad Men”?
Just working on this series has been one of the great high points of my life. When you’re in it you’re slogging away, making the show. When you pop out on the other end and look back, you think, ‘We really did such amazing work.’ It’s something I’ll be proud of forever. For that “Mad Men” is truly special and always will be for everyone who worked on it.