The Apartment key to unlocking Mad Men

Don Draper sees what other men think

Man Men returns Sunday at 9/8c on AMC with a two-hour, fifth season premiere. Will viewers flock back after a 17 month hiatus?
The answer, of course, is yes. This is television’s best drama, an Emmy-winner four years in a row. The Sopranos sat out similar breaks and came back stronger than ever in the ratings.
Besides, there is so much built-in curiosity with a Man Men return. Did Don Draper marry his beautiful young secretary (played by Montreal native Jessica Pare)? Did Joan (Christina Hendricks) have her child? Is Roger (John Slattery) still smoking? And what year is it? Will we see Draper wear bell bottoms and love beads as this series slips deep into the ’60s?
Creator, writer, executive producer and showrunner Matthew Weiner was spilling nothing last January when he joined the cast at an informal meeting with TV critics in Pasadena last press tour. Still, a scrum with this guy is always worthwhile. Weiner is just so on his game and his insights on television in general are always worth noting.
While he won’t talk plot points about this season’s shows, the 46-year-old showrunner is a big classic film buff and is always ready to talk about one of his creative inspirations, The Apartment. (Curiously, on the same press tour, Ricky Gervais told reporters that it was also his favourite film.) Weiner has long acknowledged that the 1960 Oscar winner served as a style blueprint for his series, but its also a writing guide, he says. “Any comparison [to that film] is one of the most flattering things.”

Weiner didn’t see The Apartment until he studied it at the USC School of Cinema and Television. Like his series, he says it was a project nobody wanted to make. “People thought it was crass and crude,” he says. 
The Baltimore native says it is a great snapshot of America “between Eisenhower and Woodstock.” The movie shows that the era wasn’t as dull and grey as people today tend to believe. “There is infidelity going on, there is drinking going on, Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is dressing his Christmas tree as his mistress is calling him on the verge of suicide…sordid doesn’t seem appropriate in a Hollywoodmovie, yet there you see it at the nexus of popular culture.”
Draper would have had a key to The Apartment
In terms of storytelling, he notes how the film unfolds at a very unusual pace for a Hollywood feature. “There is an hour and 20 minutes in that movie when all that’s happening is catching the audience up with what has already happened,” he says. The movie finds single man office schlub Jack Lemmon loaning his apartment out to his superiors for trysts. “There’s no forward movement in the story except for the audience finding out what this guys life is like.” Does that kind of story telling sound familiar, Man Men viewer?
Weiner says director Billy Wilder and co-writer I.A.L.  Diamond were “one of the great writing teams of all time.” He finds The Apartment to be a very contemporary movie, “as contemporary as Desperate Housewives or any reality show. “People were seeing people they know and it was done in a very classic way, just masterful storytelling.”
Weiner was also asked about network attempts to tap into the same ‘60s vibe with shows such as Pan Am, The Playboy Club and the upcoming U.S. cable effort Magic City, all set in the middle of the last century.
More power to them, says Weiner. “I applaud anyone who can get a show on the air,” he says, referencing the 80 or so pilots broadcasters order each season before committing 20 or 25 to series.
Weiner says he got a chilly reception from most studio heads when he was shopping a series about ad men in the ‘60s. “Most of it feels like vindication just that they were making these shows,” he says.
Besides, he says, just because a show is set in the ‘60s doesn’t mean it’s a copy-cat show. “Those shows are no more related to this show than The Wild, Wild West was related to Maverick or Bonanza,” he says of the proliferation of westerns that dominated television in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Still, he acknowledges that style often shapes, if not dictates, content on TV. He says he was taught that “window dressing”—the clothes, the hair, the styling—is “literally the texture of the show.”
He tells a story of meeting Josh Brolin when the actor was shooting American Gangster. “He was wearing the most amazing leather jacket,” says Weiner. Brolin was given the jacket by Denzel Washington and told, “that is the character.”
That’s why Weiner plays such close attention to wardrobe in Mad Men. He singled out the polka dot dress that Betty Draper (January Jones) wore all day and night when she found out her husband had been having an affair. “Never take those clothes off. Wallow in it,” is how Weiner put it. “It gave her character irony to see her in this beautiful dress, incredibly depressed.”
For more on Weiner from that same TCA press tour scrum, follow this link to the story I wrote this week for The Canadian Press.

Follow @BillBriouxTV

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