“When I write a script, I am telling a story that comes from my heart.”
Matthew Weiner, 9-time Emmy winning writer/producer (The Sopranos, Mad Men)
“He had a home,
The love of a girl,
But men get lost sometimes,
As years unfurl”
New York Minute
Lyrics by Don Henley, Danny Korthchmar, Jai L. Winding
I’m on a steady Mad Men diet. No, I didn’t see the season premiere of the Emmy-winning AMC TV program earlier this week. Not being a regular TV watcher it takes me a little time to commit to watching a show. But once I’m in, I’m all in. This week alone I’ve watched 9 episodes. (All which aired originally in 2007.)
It’s really more of a workout—literally. At the gym I set either a stationary bike or an elliptical machine for 47 minutes. (The length of an episode.) And I’ve even switched machines and watched shows back to back. So if you had a sedate winter give that Mad Men diet and workout a try. (Results vary.)
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”— but it sure can make for good drama. It worked for Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman and it works for Matthew Weiner and his writing team for Mad Men. In fact, the subtitle of Man Men could borrow words from Thoreau; “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Mad Men is everything that television usually isn’t; intelligent, philosophical, contemplative, and even spiritual. (Along with a good deal of smoking, drinking, and philandering.) And its use of subtext and visual storytelling* exceeds what you’ll find in the typical Hollywood feature film.
So I thought I’d find a little inspiration today for you from the Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.
“Writers were idolized in my home. My parents had a big poster picture of Ernest Hemingway on a wall in a hallway in our house. I thought I was going to be a poet and that I would find some other profession, teaching or something, to support me. After I graduated from film school at the University of Southern California, it was about 10 years before I got a paying job in the industry, but I never gave myself a time limit. I wrote the pilot episode for Mad Men in 1999 at night while I already had a job, and finally got it produced in 2006.”
A Conversation with Matthew Weiner by Bob Fisher
Don’t gloss over that 10 year deal. It was 10 years after Weiner earned his MFA from USC that he got “a paying job in the industry.” He also did his undergraduate work at Wesleyan University where he was in “a Great Books program with philosophy, literature and history mixed together.” Smart cookie, with educated and affluent parents, but it still took him 10 years to get a paying job in the industry. Say he’s 24 when he gets his Master’s degree, that puts him at 34 before his career started to take off.
I don’t know what he did in that ten-year period, but I bet he was cranking out pages. (He did have some scripts optioned for free.)
“I’ve learned that tenacity is a common part of the personalities of successful writers whom I have met. Now, maybe because I have had some success, I can say that the struggling for the 10 years or so before I got a paying job, made me a better writer.”
Looking for a word today to put on a 3X5 card to place on the wall behind your computer? Try tenacity. Meaning persistent, relentless—like a dog on a bone.
P.S. From the quirky connection category. Weiner is four years younger than me an attended the all-boys prep school Harvard in Los Angeles (Now the co-ed Harvard-Westlake School). When I was in film school I worked for Yary Photography taking pictures of sports groups throughout Southern California. I did several shoots at the Harvard School when I was 21/22-years-old. Weiner would have been a 17/18-year-old student meaning if he played sports our paths could have crossed for a fleeting moment.
And for what it’s worth, writer-director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) is also an alumni of the Harvard-Westlake School where the tuition for this school year is $30,000.
P.P.S. Care for a Midwest angle on Mad Men? Jon Hamm, who plays creative director Don Draper was born in St. Louis, Missouri and graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri. Same school Brad Pitt attended. Ironically, neither of the future stars and Sexist Men Alive were theater majors at the Columbia, MO college. And January Jones (who plays Don’s wife Betty) was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (about 10 miles from the Iowa border).
* Visual storytelling Mad Men example: In the episode Long Weekend, the number #2 man at the advertising agency Sterling-Cooper calls a secretary into his office (who is having an affair with) and just before she closes the door to his office she decides to leave it ajar about a foot. Nothing said, but so much implied. As the scene plays on it turns out she has seen Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and sympathizes with the Shirley MacLaine character and wonders if she herself is just being used.
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
“Unstoppable” Wesleyan University
Screenwriting Quote #32 (Mad Men)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) John Logan’s (Hugo, Rango) 10 year struggle as a writer.
Scott W. Smith
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