It was a panacea for all those suffering withdrawal symptoms from the end of the adventures of Don Draper & Co., a packed house at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills for the Writers Guild Foundation’s “Inside the Writers Room with Mad Men,” a Q&A with series creator Matthew Weiner and his writing staff who worked on the final season of the AMC drama.
Moderated by another of television’s legendary creators, Matt Groening of “The Simpsons,” the May 28 event featured more than two hours of inside anecdotes about challenges and rewards for the creative team, production of the show and character development and casting on the award-winning series, which premiered in 2007 and concluded on May 17.
When Weiner first pitched his plans to AMC, he knew the ending — Draper sitting lotus-style at a California ashram modeled on Esalen in 1970, meant to signify the shift under way in American culture at the time.
Four years ago, when he was in difficult and lengthy negotiations with the network, he wanted to be able to tell people how the series would wrap up if he himself had to leave. It was at that point that an iconic Coca-Cola commercial came into his head.
“I was like, ‘Oh, of course — that’s the ‘70s,’” Weiner told the audience. “I liked the poetry of it.”
In discussing the finale, which was filmed last July, Weiner said he was amazed that 150 people could keep it a secret for so long, and that he had doubts about whether it was the right ending. “Over six months, I could feel my confidence slowly eroding,” he said, to which Groening interjected, “That should be the Writers Guild slogan — confidence eroding.”
Weiner said his fears were allayed when he watched the finale with the cast, crew and an audience of about 1,600 at a screening at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
“I had an amazing experience in that I knew I would not need to go online no matter what was written because I felt everybody kind of emotionally react to the end of the show,” he said. “And you don’t get that much in TV because people are watching it alone in their house. It was a big life moment.”
Then Weiner introduced a clip of what he called ”the most important scene in the series,” in which Jon Hamm’s Draper comforts and hugs a man crying during a group encounter session.
“I never wanted to say it was Esalen, but we shot it at a house in Anderson Canyon, which is exactly ten miles north of Esalen, I was trying to find a place [in Los Angeles] but it costs more money and I didn’t want to have another fight with Lionsgate about the very last episode of the show. I just thought it added to it, this idea that Don would be skeptical – he’s a fish out of water; it’s a comic situation, really – and then just the idea that he would reach out to another person.”
“There’s clarity and there’s ambiguity. I like that you can continue to contemplate and come away with different interpretations,” Groening said of the ending.
“They gave us an extra ten minutes. The pace feels like tension in real life,” Weiner added.
He talked about Hamm’s role as the lead, both on-screen and off. “Jon Hamm worked 14 hours a day, always on time, even when fame hit him. We never had anybody say all the crap you sometimes hear on a show. Jon was such a leader. He’s different than Don Draper. He carried the show on his shoulders.”
Each of the other writers on stage — Janet Leahy, Erin Levy, Tom Smuts, Lisa Albert, Robert Towne, Josh Weitman, Jonathan Igla and Carly Wray — also played clips and discussed why they felt they were the most resonant. (Semi Chellas and Bob Levinson were unable to attend the event).
The group represented a cross-section of men and women of diverse ages and stages in their careers, from three USC alums who started as writers’ assistants and later became staff writers to the legendary Towne, who wrote the 1974 classic “Chinatown,” considered one of history’s greatest films.
Many social and cultural issues of the time that still resonate today were dramatized during “Mad Men.”
“Feminism was the last thing of the 60s,” Weiner said. “Don mentions Betty Friedan. We got to tell stories of their reaction to the unfairness of how women were treated in the workplace. Betty Draper became politicized. My mother was a women’s libber and my dad was supportive.”
The discussion turned to the current hot topic of gender equality in the entertainment industry.
“I don’t care if they’re purple. Gender is not an issue,” Weiner said of his staff, adding that he’s fired a lot of women.
Yet it was Draper’s character that drew the most scrutiny, and it was noted that in his story, there is no genre, no guns and Don doesn’t fight crime. “He’s self-aware but can’t necessarily heal himself. Being open to experience leads to change. The show questions breakthroughs constantly,” said Weiner.
“I love the wordlessness of Don. It’s about how we’re perceived,” said Albert.
Towne quoted Mark Twain, saying “When in doubt, tell the truth.” “Don has lived lies his whole life,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen characters move so far with little words. There’s an effortless turn of character.”
Towne had called Weiner about the show, a written message Weiner said he tacked up and saved on his door, until after sending him all the episodes, Towne came in — joining the production. “It’s great to be in a room with smart, funny people,” he said about the other writers of “Mad Men.”
“Peggy was afraid of flying. It’s color, but it ends up being story,” Weiner said. “The premise was that in this most BS of professions [the advertising world], it was about them working together that long but at the end they really knew each other. For us, we wanted people to laugh and cry and to come back next week.”
Over seven seasons, Don’s secret life and the journeys of the other main characters including Peggy, Joan, Pete, Roger, Betty and Megan generated an abundance of honors, including 105 Emmy nominations, 15 Primetime Emmys — including four for Outstanding Drama Series — one Peabody Award and six WGA Awards.
And of course, in the midst of the current television awards campaigning season, more accolades could deservedly be in store.