Q&A: ‘Mad Men’s’ Matthew Weiner, ‘Homeland’s’ Alex Gansa on Secrets of Good Showrunning

Alex Gansa Matthew Weiner Conversation
Courtesy of Showtime/AMC

Both “Mad Men” and “Homeland” have made an indelible mark on the TV landscape — from the best drama Emmys they each won in their first seasons to the raft of nominations they earned this time out (11 for “Mad Men,” 5 for “Homeland”). Yet the men behind them — showrunners Matthew Weiner and Alex Gansa — admit their climb to the top of the television ladder wasn’t always a smooth one. In a candid conversation with Variety, they reveal the lessons they learned along the way.

You’ve both managed successful series for several seasons. What’s the secret of being a good showrunner?
Matthew Weiner: We all model ourselves on the people we worked for that we thought did a good job. Alex and I have both worked on lots of other shows, and you kind of pick and choose. I do remember before I started grilling people. Especially about story, because I was terrified I was going to be responsible for the whole story. My friend Daisy Mayer’s father was a famous soap opera writer who created “Ryan’s Hope” and she was his writing partner. I cornered her because I thought if anybody knows how to deal with story, it’s somebody who wrote a soap opera for 20, 30 years. After all my questions, she just looked at me and said, “You’ll find your own way. There is no one way to do it.”
Alex Gansa: I completely agree with Matt. We both had the benefit of having an apprenticeship in television, which doesn’t happen that much anymore. People come in and they are feature writers and playwrights and all of a sudden they’re sitting in the showrunner chair. “Homeland,” especially, has been challenging. On the third, fourth episode of the first season, I was in the middle of a major nervous breakdown. I didn’t know how I was possibly going to do all the stuff I had to do. There’s a hill I walk up behind my house every morning and I just was clearly in bad shape. Jason Katims, who lives down the street from me, happened to be walking his dog. I just grabbed him, and said, “Jason, how am I going to do this job? I honestly don’t think I can do it.” He said, “Alex, this is what you do. Go home right now, sit down and accomplish one thing before you get into the office. Just do one thing.” It was the best advice. I got home, I finished the script, I wrote notes on it and I was like, “OK, well that’s now in the done column.” If you start thinking about everything that’s in front of you, you’re going to be paralyzed.
Weiner: The funny thing is it’s a double-edged question, because we’ve both answered what we aspire to be. I like showrunners who made me feel like I was part of the show, that I was important, that didn’t tell me every detail of all their struggles because you take them on. They weren’t capricious with my time — I was very careful to not be capricious with other people’s time. I had bosses who would come in and relate every phone call they just had. You’re going to be there no matter what but you’ve got to resist the temptation to say, “I don’t have a life, no one else gets a life.”
Gansa: I guess if I had to identify with one quality that you want to develop or that you should have if you run a show, I would say an extreme openness to the process. A showrunner is working on five or six episodes at a time. He is breaking one, he is writing one, he is rewriting another, he is editing a fourth, he’s thinking about where the show is going to wind up. You have all this stuff on your mind and your brain definitely does expand. But you have to be available to people’s ideas, because you’re not going to come up with them all yourself. You need to have the big wide net out saying, “I welcome opinion, I welcome differences of opinion, I want to know if this isn’t working or if you have a better idea” — whether it comes from a PA, or whether it comes from your primary lieutenant. You have to know in your own mind what a good idea is and what a bad idea is and sometimes your ideas are the bad ideas. If you’re not open to that you’re going to make a lesser show.
Weiner: Absolutely. There’s so much in “Mad Men” about being the boss, because I’d never been the boss before. Your problems are being solved on a very high level if you are open to them. At the same time I would spend Sundays writing and pitching the story to the head of accounting because they are the only other person in the office that day. At the time I used to think it was a certain insecurity, but then I realized this is exactly what it is, it’s an openness, a curiosity, a desire to improve. A conversation with my wife ended up in “The Suitcase.” I said, “I can’t tell the difference between what’s good and what’s awful.” And my wife said, “They’re very close.”

Alex, you haven’t directed any episodes of “Homeland.” Do you want to?
Gansa: No, I haven’t directed. There’s something about actually making all those decisions on the spur of the moment in that process that just terrifies me. I would much rather be in editing when I’m correcting somebody else’s mistakes than making my own. It’s interesting because in season three of “Homeland,” the character Saul Berenson had been elevated to the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the same way that Matt was writing about being in the boss’s chair, I was writing about being in the boss’s chair that year. Saul’s litany all season long was, “I didn’t want the job, I never asked for the job, I’m not temperamentally suited to it” and that was very much the way I was feeling.
Weiner: I think everybody’s second season, if you’re lucky enough to get to a second season, is “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” The oldest joke in the world about being a showrunner is like winning a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.

We’ve seen many shows struggle with second seasons. How did you both manage it?
Gansa: We struggled ever since the first.
Weiner: I think if you’re committed to not repeating yourself it’s going to be terrifying. The second season of “Mad Men” every single thing — with the exception of one idea that I had come into the show with, and I had a lot — I had used. It was part of the reason why I skipped months, because I was like, “At least I’ll have a mystery to drive me through,” even just the first episode of people being curious about what happened in the time that they weren’t there. Then I realized if we get to keep doing the show I don’t have to tell the same story every season. I can stop and start over and do an entirely new story. I have all the advantages of being able to skip time, of keeping track of my characters, of having time move on itself.
Gansa: All of the best shows are like that. They really try to reinvent themselves each year. Let’s face it, your audience ultimately wants to see the same show over again. Then when something is different or when a fundamental relationship changes that they were heavily invested in, there is a natural tendency for people to resist it. Yet as writers and as directors and as actors you’ve got to keep it fresh otherwise we’re all going to get bored. If we’re bored in the writers’ room, you’re going to be bored watching it. You do have to battle with that pushback. “Mad Men” did it incredibly well. “The Wire” did it unbelievably well just in terms of telling a completely new story every year.

Alex, you mentioned you had some struggles early on. How did you deal them?
Gansa: The struggles were only in terms of the response to the seasons, and that’s something you have absolutely no control over. If you have an eye on that, you’ve screwed yourself already. You can only move forward in a way that you believe the story should be moved forward. Look, you’re going to make mistakes, whatever that means. The idea is to work as hard as you can until the episode has to be delivered and then work as hard as you can on the cut of the episode that has to be delivered. Then you have to put it back in your rearview mirror and move on to the next one. I do not read anything that is written about the show until the season is over, because there’s too much vitriol and meanness on the Internet and there are so many things to deflate your sails along the journey.
Weiner: By the time you read it we’re so far ahead. You’re like, “I sure hope Bob Benson pays off.” I’m like, “I do, too. We locked him two weeks ago!”

Matt, did you read what was written about the show?
Weiner: There was an interesting thing with us. Every season the second episode of the season was always the worst received, always. But those are some of our best episodes, and I always felt it was very simple. People were excited to see the pilot at the premiere, the show is back, there’s a little bit of intrigue. But as soon as the second episode would start and they were realizing that nothing that went on in the story last year is related to this, that this is a completely new story, they would be like, “Why am I watching this?” Then we’ve been very lucky of having these reactions that were, “Oh it’s getting better.” I never wanted to have a formula and AMC was very supportive of that from the beginning. There was some anxiety, like “Why is Pete Campbell not in the second episode? He’s Don’s rival. What product is Don selling?” I was like, “I’m not going to do that every week.”

Matt, how have you made the transition out of such an all-consuming experience?
Weiner: The actual show itself gives me tremendous pleasure, that it’s there and it’s complete and it’s the way that I want it to be. We all felt like we left them wanting more. In terms of my personal experience I don’t even know what it is yet. I can tell you that I am not retired. And it took me a while to that figure out. You get a lot of advice, which as you know is people telling you what they want to do: “Take a big vacation, you should take a year off.” I’m never going to do that. I do not enjoy that. The immediate thing that’s been really incredible is spending time with my wife and my kids and not feeling the anvil hanging over it.
Gansa: You know when you’re in the middle of it anything can look like something that is so profoundly comforting. Like getting a root canal. I was sitting in my dentist chair, and I was like wait a minute — I have an hour here where I really can’t do one thing. How liberating is this? My career unfolded in such a way that by the time I was doing this so intensely for such a long time my son was already in college. I was able to enjoy that part of his life, but now I just savor four hours that I can spend with him. A couple of weekends ago we went to Chicago to go see the final Grateful Dead concert together. It was just this little pocket of time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it, but you just have to just grab that little moment of time and savor it because you know that there is a sword hanging over your head.

Alex, I’m not rushing “Homeland” off the air, but there does seem to be a trend of showrunners writing to an end. Do you have an end date in mind?
Gansa: You’re constantly thinking, what’s the way to go, how are you going to end the show. When, how long can you go and how long should you go and you’re battling the economic incentive for keeping the show on for more seasons than it should be on. The creative thing of when will the story end was interesting enough for “Homeland” because we didn’t get to the part of the series that I always thought we were going to get to, that is the show being about an intelligence officer. The show lasted for three seasons about a relationship and I always thought that was going to be season two. I always thought the Brody character was going to die at the end of the first season and then we were going to be a much more traditional franchise show about an intelligence officer. We actually bought ourselves a couple of years. So now in season four and five, we’re a much more traditional show that way. So maybe the longevity of the show is a little bit longer than it might have been otherwise.

Both of you have invested so much in research. How crucial is all of that work in lending authenticity to your shows?
Weiner: I feel like it was such a discovery process for me. I knew some things and I had the pleasure all the time of having my instincts confirmed. Any kind of equation that you would make, “OK there has been this new scientific discovery that means there is a rise in the occult — well look at that!” I know that from studying history that there is going to be a reaction to technology and it’s usually irrationality. I get to see these things on a daily basis being confirmed.
Gansa: Just in terms of how conversant all the writers are on “Homeland” with what’s happening around the world. It’s amazing we literally get a master’s degree every year in whatever area you were talking about. Our access is just insane. We sit down at the small CIA clubs and entertain a parade of current and former intelligence officers, White House staff and State Department people, journalists. Literally this past January we had Ed Snowden on a link from Moscow.
Weiner: What’s extraordinary is how much more competent the people in your show are than the real ones. Now my phone is going to be bugged.
Gansa: Well, clearly mine is.

What do you want the legacy of your shows to be?
Gansa: There’s a great line from Saul Bellow’s novel “Humboldt’s Gift” that said, “I had the attention of the American public for nine months and I taught it nothing.” You want the opposite, you want to have the attention and you want to have been a part of something. Whether it’s an idea or whether it’s just a question that you can posit.
Weiner: I don’t think I can answer better than Saul Bellow. I’ve been studying history for the last 10 years and know that trying to predict your legacy is ridiculous. I would like it to be something that people can enjoy for a long time or whatever form it takes on. I hope that at some point when people are commuting to another planet that it’s on one of the channels, Lionsgate or whatever they become, has put it on there for people to watch. Getting back to the first question about what makes a good showrunner? The showrunner is someone who is somehow able to withhold enough of their anxiety that everyone can enjoy the process and also can somehow share the pride and then instill that in people. I’ve worked for people who were unable to do that and I’ve worked for people who were great at it. I can say it’s not always related to the success of the show. We had almost 80% of the people we started the show with working with us at the end, and that’s pretty great.