Matthew Weiner is back in his element – a writers room stocked with “Mad Men” alums as he tackles his ambitious and unconventional new series, Amazon’s “The Romanoffs.”
“Romanoffs” will consist of eight hourlong episodes, each of which will tell a standalone story with no recurring plot elements or actors. The only common thread is that each episode will tell the stories of people in contemporary times who believe they are descendants of the imperial family that ruled Russia from 1613 until the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.
Czar Nicholas II, empress Alexandra and their five children were sent into exile and brutally murdered by a Bolshevik execution squad in July 1918. The Romanoffs’ legend has been burnished for a century by the lore that daughter Anastasia survived the slayings and wound up taking on a new identity.
For Weiner, creator and exec producer of AMC’s hallowed period drama “Mad Men,” the attraction of “Romanoffs” is not to revisit Russian history but to explore how people feel the connections to their ancestors.
“We’re at a place in our history where people are looking for a close connection to their roots, and for some kind of revelation about who they are,” Weiner told Variety. “There’s great debate about who is a Romanoff and what happened to the Romanoffs. The story for me is that we’re all questioning who we are and who we say we are.”
Weiner quietly opened a writers room in Hollywood a few weeks ago to begin breaking stories. He has enlisted former “Mad Men” exec producers Semi Chellas and Andre and Maria Jacquemetton and a half-dozen other scribes. “Mad Men” producer Blake McCormick is Weiner’s producing partner this time around. The Weinstein co. became involved in the show through its distribution arrangement with Amazon.
Weiner expects to direct four of the eight episodes, some of which will film in overseas locations. He hopes to interest some members of the “Mad Men” troupe in starring in the show, as well as other notable actors given the limited commitment of only doing one episode.
Budgeted at around $50 million, “The Romanoffs” came together last year. Weiner pitched the series to several TV outlets in the early fall, and felt the project was most welcomed by Amazon Studios president Roy Price.
“Amazon reminded me of AMC in the beginning,” Weiner said. “Roy has no fear of gaming the marketplace. He’s not risk-averse.”
Weiner and his team are energized by the opportunity to work on a production that essentially amounts to making eight hourlong movies. Each story will rise, or fall, on its own merits.
“I liked the idea of telling a story in a format where you don’t have the serial element – you have to commit to a resolution,” he said. “The escalation has to happen within the story — nothing is carried over from one episode to another. As a writer, that’s an exciting idea.”
Weiner came up with the notion for “Romanoffs” about a year ago, after a long break following the end of his work on “Mad Men” in late 2014. He had the chance to watch other TV shows “in a non-competitive atmosphere,” and he realized that there was room for a show of this nature. “The rise of (Netflix’s) ‘Black Mirror’ made it easier for me to explain it, even though this show is not in that genre,” he said.
Weiner hopes “Romanoffs” will be ready to roll on Amazon next spring. Before the series bows, the nine-time Emmy winner will publish his first novel, “Heather, the Totality,” this fall.
The novel was sparked by Weiner’s visit last year to the famed Yaddo artists colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
During his three-week stay, Weiner got the inspiration for the story that lent itself to a book-length treatment, and he also began to hone his vision for “Romanoffs.” He’s long had an interest in the legendary family, stoked by his love of Russian literature and four years of studying the language in high school.
Weiner credits the trek to Yaddo for igniting his desire to dive into a new challenge as a writer. The bar is high, given the legacy of “Mad Men.”
“I was alone with my computer for the first time since ‘The Sopranos’ days,” he said, noting that his work on “Mad Men” was usually dictated to an assistant.
Weiner’s return to work in series TV, in the work setting he loves most (“I thrive on breaking stories with a group”), is coming as the 10th anniversary of “Mad Men’s” premiere approaches in July. To mark the occasion, book publisher Taschen is releasing a glossy two-volume commemorative set saluting the artistry – and artisans – of “Mad Men.”
In recent months, Weiner has been polishing up the novel and a finished play, and working on an idea for another play. But for the foreseeable future, Weiner’s focus is firmly trained on “Romanoffs.”
“I am just not capable of juggling more than one thing at a time,” he said. “There’s no formula here. That’s the thing that’s most exciting to me.”