How to Direct an Episode of Mad Men

By  · Published on May 29th, 2015

Matthew Weiner asserted that he’d only do “one talk” dissecting that whole Mad Men finale situation. Although two sentences later, he also asserted that “you know me, I can’t keep my mouth shut.”

I’m happy to report that Weiner’s not holding to his word at all. On Wednesday, the Mad Men showrunner (flanked by Mad Men directing regulars Scott Hornbacher, Jennifer Getzinger, Michael Uppendahl and Chris Manley), sat down in LA for an event called “A Farewell to Mad Men.” Led by David O. Russell (a Mad Men superfan, given the way he cried out “fantastic!” or “what a barnburner!” any time anyone said anything), the directors shared some “My first experience with Mad Men” stories and unpacked some of their favorite Mad Men clips.

It was neat. And neatest of all was the sort of unofficial Weiner’s Rules of Order that crept into the dialogue. Five directors all swapping directors’ tales, and it became pretty obvious they were all following the same specific Mad Men style guide. And what that style guide entailed.

So here it is.

On Being a Period Piece:

The most crucial, all-encompassing part of Mad Men’s period-piece chic? Not being like every other period piece. Weiner mentioned What’s Love Got to Do With It? (“which I thought was a great movie”) as a noteworthy offender.

“When it was 1971, you go to Ike and Tina’s house and everything is from that day. And I was like, ‘I think we should make it feel more the way it does now, where people are wearing stuff from high school, and Betty Draper’s house has early American antiques…’ all the periods would exist at once, the way they do in our lives.”

“You could get character out of that. Peggy’s wearing clothes from the ’40s and it shows that she’s poor. Betty Draper wears the same dress, like a real person- even though she’s Betty Draper.”

Real people also leave crap all over the place, so Mad Men’s characters would too. “I want to see wrinkles. I want to see collars without stays in them. I want to see sweat stains. And I want to see the cigarettes everywhere and the dirt that goes with it. Frayed clothing. Don’s shirts fresh back from the cleaners with the wrapper on [them].”

On Choreography:

Weiner’s love (also, fanaticism) for every actor’s movements was everywhere, all the time. “I want to do this like an old-fashioned thing. I want to lay track, I want to block it and I want to plan it, so that I know when they’re standing up and sitting down.” That includes charting every footstep in the writers’ room before shooting. Also: “I don’t like people exiting or making an entrance unless it’s written.”

Part of that stems from Alan Taylor’s direction on the pilot episode. “He does shoot the sets, which really became a style of the show. To let things play out in wides. Make sure that the choreography was such that you weren’t announcing to the audience, sticking their nose in shit all the time.” (And for the record, Weiner’s inflection on “shit” is the way you’d say “stuff”- not something you’d rub a dog’s nose in).

The West Wing happened in the years between Weiner writing the pilot and shooting the pilot, so Mad Men had to distance itself from the Aaron Sorkin walk-n’-talk, too. “I had a rule where everybody had to look at each other when they were walking and talking. Even if it meant running into a pole or something.” Also, everyone else. “Everything was this sort of unmotivated steadicam. There was this kind of ‘live’ feeling to things. Which is cool. But of course, like everything cool, it was everywhere, and I don’t want to do that.”

According to Getzinger, Mad Men (and Weiner) developed a reputation as a choreography stickler- “I remember in the beginning, a lot of people used to ask me, ‘Well, isn’t it hard to direct?… I’ve heard it’s really rigid and he won’t let you do anything.’” Rigid has its benefits, though. “In a way, what was so great about it was that it was all about the actors… you couldn’t lean back on some fancy camera move.”

On Don Draper:

The golden rule when Don Draper’s in a scene? Always. Shoot. Don. Which was surprisingly tough to stick to. Most directors gravitate to the person speaking, and Don tends to sit in the corner, sip booze and look quietly dismayed. Says Weiner: “We had to remind people from the very beginning!… Jon Hamm doesn’t get a lot of dialogue. Don doesn’t talk a lot. He has the strength… of keeping his mouth shut and waiting for the right moment to talk, and it’s very strong.”

Weiner cited Don’s tearful (and wordless, of course) group therapy hug with Leonard, from the finale. “That guy [Leonard] is invisible. Right from the beginning. You’re disappointed Don’s not going to get up. And you can’t believe that guy’s going to be talking in the scene.”

On Shooting Indoors vs Outdoors:

Constructing a pristine ‘60s-appropriate street/park/outdoor anything is much pricier than an equally pristine office interior. Weiner’s solution? Never go outside. “I couldn’t afford to really go outside, ever, and I just said ‘if we have a well-appointed interior, it’ll be like going outside.’ “

It didn’t help that the Mad Men crew were cursed every time they could spare the funds for an outdoor shot (like the scene above, from the season seven premiere “Time Zones”- directed by Hornbacher). “Whenever we go outside in California, we never get sunshine. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because it’s scheduled in the morning. I don’t know… [sequences shot outdoors] always [have] this slightly colorized feeling to it, because we tried to pump a little sun into [them].”

On The Unbearable Strain of TV Schedules:

The number one complaint about directing an episode of Mad Men? The enormous, ever-present time crunch. Especially on the post-production side of things. “They don’t have enough time to edit the shows, and you get great stuff but you have a time limit. It’s 47 minutes and 30 seconds, and they have to edit 24 hours after they wrap, which is insane because nothing is healed. You’re still in it, you don’t know anything.”

“You watch an editors cut literally 24–48 hours after you finish the show, and then [the editors] have three days and all that they do is put in the shots that they love and no one ever gets to finish it. They’re not allowed to. Also because they can’t take out lines of dialogue or anything. You know, it’s sort of in there that [the editors] can’t take out any dialogue that’s in the script before I see it, so their hands are tied.”

Eventually Weiner revamped things and gave everyone some post-production breathing room, but the new system was not without its flaws: “A lot of times, there’s a line of dialogue that’s going to be important in five episodes and it’s been taken out.”

Here’s a nifty fact to end on: that image of the back of Don’s head, that opens the Mad Men pilot? Apparently Weiner (and Taylor) cribbed it from Wong Kar-wai (Weiner mentioned In the Mood for Love, specifically). Keep that in mind when you eventually re-binge the entire series from the beginning.