When Matthew Weiner planned his next project, there was never a question in his mind: He wanted to get the gang back together.
After all, the creator of the acclaimed drama “Mad Men” is renowned for his meticulous attention to detail, and indeed that series won multiple trophies for every aspect of its production. So when he conceived of “The Romanoffs,” Amazon’s new anthology series about characters who claim to be descendants of the legendary Russian royal family (“It’s like being related to the Kennedys or the Rockefellers, a certain kind of celebrity,” explains Weiner), the first calls he made were to the skilled artisans who shaped “Mad Men,” from casting and production design to costume and hair and makeup.
“They are the best at what they do,” says Weiner, who wrote and directed every episode. “It’s not just a friendship. It’s a matter of trust, and a matter of respect.”
But this time, instead of painstakingly depicting advertising culture in New York in the 1960s, the team turned its eye to capturing half a dozen locations around the world, hopscotching from the intoxicating sights and sounds of Paris to the hilarious absurdity of an international Romanoff reunion cruise, veering tonally from a romantic comedy to a Hitchcockian thriller.
Indeed, in her review, Variety TV critic Caroline Framke praised the “impeccable production values,” singling out Chris Brown and Henry Dunn’s production design as well as Janie Bryant’s “meticulously rendered” costumes.
“It was like being with family; it was the feeling of really being at home,” says Bryant of reuniting with the “Mad Men” creatives. “We spent eight years together, and we all have such a shorthand and such a trust. It just felt very natural.”
All credit that shorthand, formed over the course of the “Mad Men” run, as the key to helping them navigate this unique assignment, which called on them to reinvent the show with each stand-alone episode while working seamlessly with local crews as they crisscrossed the globe, filming in seven countries across three continents in 10 months.
“That was really the glue that held us together, because everybody else we had never really worked with before,” says Bryant.
In fact, casting directors Carrie Audino and Laura Schiff say they wouldn’t have been able to tackle this project had they not previously collaborated with Weiner. The sprawling, star-studded cast, which numbers in the dozens, features American actors alongside international faces (and yes, a few “Mad Men” alumni, including Christina Hendricks and John Slattery). “I don’t know that we would have been able to really do it if we hadn’t had eight years of experience with him,” says Audino. Adds Schiff, “You get to know his tastes; you get to know the kind of actors he’s drawn to and the kind of actors that he doesn’t necessarily buy.”
Weiner praises his team of “incredible collaborators,” who rose to the challenge of creating mini-movies (each episode runs 80-90 minutes) in just three weeks apiece, but he also wanted to make sure that their familiarity didn’t stifle creativity. “Just because you’ve done something before doesn’t mean you know how to do it,” he told the crew.
While for “Mad Men” the challenge was to maintain period authenticity — never using products that weren’t available at the time — the challenge for “Romanoffs” was to accurately reflect each country they visited. That’s reflected in the casting (the Paris episode, for example, features Marthe Keller alongside Aaron Eckhart) as well as the locations: The series was shot with minimal sets, nearly entirely on location, from the streets of Prague to the Teotihuacán pyramid in Mexico City.
“Matt really wanted the audience to be able to relate to the people, and the characters to come across correctly on-screen,” says hairstylist Theraesa Rivers. “That’s always my goal, to make the characters believable to the audience.”
|The core “Romanoffs” team was supported by local crews at each location.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Makeup artist Lana Horochowski recalls being surprised by how understated Parisians are. “We had our own vision of what we thought Paris was going to be: super glamorous, everybody dressed up all the time,” she says. “Then we got there, and we were like, ‘Wow, they really don’t wear any makeup. And they wear all black.’ They’re very chic, but very subtle and understated.”
All were keenly aware of the pressure of living up to the legacy of their previous show together. “We used to always say when we finished ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Oh, it’s probably never going to be this good again,’” says Horochowski. “Because I think we all just assumed maybe one or two of us will work together again, but all of us? I think it’s pretty unheard of.”
“I didn’t think something that felt so creatively satisfying would happen again so soon, or at all,” echoes cinematographer Chris Manley.
In making “The Romanoffs,” the freedom afforded by streaming on Amazon allowed them all to luxuriate in the extended runtime and the lack of ad-driven act breaks — not to mention opening doors beyond the restrictions of fictitious ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. “The aesthetic of ‘Mad Men’ was very specific and very strict,” says Manley. “With ‘Romanoffs,’ we were creatively free to go off in all these other directions. My goal, personally, would be that when people watch these they would never know that the same cinematographer did all of them. I wanted them each to have a unique visual signature.”
What links them all though (beyond some Easter Eggs, teases Weiner) is the creative partnership behind the scenes. Just don’t ask any of them to
pick their favorite episode. “Let’s just say we never get bored,” Bryant says with a laugh.