“Mad Men” was almost a movie. Matthew Weiner used the pilot, which he wrote 14 years ago, to get him his job on “The Sopranos.” But when he tried to get his own project made, some said he should just turn it into a film. He didn’t and the rest is history.
But Weiner says he’s always written movies. In fact, between the first two seasons of “The Sopranos,” he wrote “Are You Here,” a dramedy about a hedonistic weatherman who accompanies his stoner friend to the country when his wealthy father passes. Only now, over a decade later, has it become a movie, starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis in the two roles.
Film and TV are different mediums: One of the most glaring differences is length. “The pure pursuit of resolution in a movie is a different thing to tackle, writing-wise,” Weiner says. “With TV, I’m always trying to make it so when it ends you want to spend more time with the characters — that you think, ‘What happened to them? Is that it? What’s going to happen next?’ Here, you have to think, what can I do to both not create a lack of resolution and still get them emotionally invested in the movie.”
Comedy vs. drama: Weiner cites, like many before him, the gritty Hollywood films of the ’70s, in particular Hal Ashby movies and “Five Easy Pieces.” He likes the way those films don’t subscribe to one genre but have a more nebulous relation to more than one. For one thing, “Are You Here” at least starts as a comedy.
“It definitely has a lot of jokes in it, and there are really funny actors in it. But the repercussions are very realistic and dramatic,” he says. “With Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler in it, people are expecting it to be funny. And it is. But the twist is you realize these people have actual problems. It’s about very flawed people — which I guess is my main interest.”
That Weiner is writing jokes shouldn’t seem odd — not because “Mad Men” is frequently hilarious (no one has better quips on television than Roger Sterling), but because Weiner spent eight years working for various sitcoms, including “Becker” and “The Naked Truth.”
“I’ve written a lot of jokes in my life. I am, on some level, a professional joke writer,” he says, laughing at the idea. “But I feel the ideal entertainment for me is: life but not without the jokes. There are funny moments in everybody’s life. The characters here, they think they’re living in a stoner comedy. And then real life steps in. And you slow start to realize their existence is pretty serious. Owen’s character has a substance abuse problem and is a womanizer and is unable to feel on some level. And Zach’s character is mentally ill. They’re both using drugs together. But it’s their way of not dealing with their lives.”
In fact, he says he tailored the main role for Owen Wilson to play against his onscreen image: “This guy who was very similar to some of the characters he’s played, but what if that guy was actually confronted with reality? What if that guy actually had to change?”
On directing: Most interviews with Weiner focus on his writing, but few deal with his directing. He didn’t direct an episode of “Mad Men” until the 13th, and has directed eight more (including two in the back-half of the final season, airing next year). Even before he was actually manning the helm he always focused on the show’s visual style.
“I had such a clear concept of what the show looked like. It was in the script,” he says. He worked closely with the pilot’s director, Alan Taylor (who’s since graduated to the second “Thor” movie), who still came up with some of the iconic images himself. “That shot on the back Don’s head — that’s Alan. He’s a shot-maker. Some of the shots are in the script. I try and direct as much as I can on the page. And you hope the directors will give you a couple of things you didn’t expect.”
“Mad Men” is so invested in visuals that it was even, up until the fifth season, shot on 35mm film. It’s since been shot with the Alexa, a high-definition digital camera — “a technological miracle,” says Weiner. “When the person who’s shooting your show, who is the person who cares more than anyone else about what it looks like, says, ‘You’ve got to use this camera,’ you’ve got to do it. I’m superstitious in a terrible way. I said, ‘We got this far shooting on 35mm when no one else was. Do we really want to do this?’ So we did a test and it blew my mind. It’s changed so many things about the way we work, in a great way.”
When the person who’s shooting your show, who is the person who cares more than anyone else about what it looks like, says, “You’ve got to use this camera, you’ve got to do it. I’m superstitious in a terrible way. I said, “We got this far shooting on 35mm when no one else was. Do we really want to do this?” So we did a test and it blew my mind. It’s changed so many things about the way we work, in a great way.
Spoiler alert: Though Weiner’s still working on “Mad Men,” which will air its final run of episodes next year, the shooting has already wrapped and the actors have moved on from characters they’ve been playing, in some cases, for eight years. He above all will not be giving away spoilers, but neither will anyone else.
“I think everyone’s gotten used to the pleasure of letting the audience discover the story as it’s happening. I think they love that people care,” he says. “On the very last day of filming, in the midst of a sentimental moment to the crew, I said, ‘And don’t forget, what we’re shooting doesn’t air until next year. Please keep it to yourself!’ And there was a group “oh, come on!” at this moment.”
Does he feel the same way about other people’s work? “I don’t like things that tell me the whole story. No expectations are the best expectations,” he says. “I like looking forward to things, and like the rest of the audience I’m a little star-driven. But I like having zero expectations. I really like not knowing anything.”
What’s next?: As for the future, Weiner isn’t sure if he’s doing television or movies, though he hopes to do both, plus theater and whatever else. “I’m going to keep sticking myself out there, because I have to keep writing. But right now, after making this movie and getting to do 92 hours of ‘Mad Men,’ I’m going to at least give myself a little of time to let my brain relax and go back to eavesdropping, which is where all my ideas come from.”
But he won’t take too much time off. “There’s a lot of anxiety, and it’s hard to work that much and then stop working. I probably secretly won’t stop working.
His actual first feature film: Technically, “Are You Here” is not the first movie Weiner has made. That would be “What Do You Do All Day?” a $12,000 film he made in 1996, starring himself, his friends and his family, and referencing his hardships breaking into the biz. Weiner says it was highly influenced by Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, and is a kind of early version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It was mostly improvised, and of the cast only Weiner had any acting experience. “I am clearly the worst actor in the movie,” he says, laughing.
“What it was was someone who had been out of work for five years, just like saying, ‘I can’t have this little control over my future,’” he recalls. “I didn’t know if the movie would sell, but I knew the risk was low enough that the process of making it would change my life. And it did.”
It didn’t sell, though, and Weiner laughs when asked if it’s at all available. “I’ve watched it recently. It’s an early work,” he says, “Stanley Kubrick tried to have his first film [1954’s ‘Fear and Desire’] destroyed. I don’t feel that way about it. But I feel it served its purpose. The movie is where I was at at that point in my life, and it’s great to have it. But I don’t know if it’s ready for public consumption yet.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge