Magicians are not supposed to reveal their secrets — unless you’re Matthew Weiner. Weiner, of course, is responsible for his work on television programs such as Mad Men and The Sopranos, which have been credited for ushering in a golden age for television. He also happens to be a powerful speaker who uses a combination of storytelling and video to captivate audiences with behind-the-scenes stories about the making of these iconic TV shows. We feature him in our occasional series of posts about memorable speakers for his ability to show and explain how creativity works.
If he had not been one of the creative forces behind The Sopranos and the mastermind of Mad Men, his life in show business would be a compelling if sometimes not always easy story. He started out as a screenwriter in the late 1990s and struggled to make it. Fortunately, his perseverance and vision led to major breakthroughs in writing and producing. For instance, he had the vision to write a treatment for Mad Men in 1999 and the patience to keep pitching the idea to TV executives until the idea took hold with the launch of the show eight years later. Ironically, his career took off not because of his writing talents but because of his ability to produce episodes of The Soprano starting in 2004.
The rest, as they say, is history: critical acclaim, fame and Emmy Awards for his work on both shows, which has served as a launching pad for creating feature films.
Because Weiner has managed every detail of the shows he has produced, including writing plots and casting actors, he is well qualified to share insight into how some of the more memorable episodes of Mad Men and The Sopranos were filmed. He shares freely the struggles of making great television. For instance, he has discussed publicly that Emmy-Award winner Jon Hamm almost did not get cast for the role of Don Draper on Mad Men because Hamm was unknown, and he did not audition well. So Weiner arranged Hamm to meet personally with his detractors at AMC — which literally allowed Hamm to give the performance of his life.
One of the highlights of a Matthew Weiner presentation is seeing him deconstruct some of the more memorable scenes from his favorite TV episodes. For instance, he discusses how working with a limited budget has required him to choose scenes requiring simpler sets and the use of on-location shooting, which, he admits, lends authenticity to the episodes.
He is a big believer in delivering authenticity. For instance, during a recent conference, he played for the audience a scene from Mad Men in which Don Draper demonstrates for a client the Kodak Carousel slide viewer (remember, the show is set in the 1960s). Weiner explained that the slide used for the scene consisted of actual slides of his family, taken when he was a child. Their use made for not only an authentic scene but also a deeply personal expression. In fact, the slides from his youth — mementos tucked away in storage — inspired the episode.
When he goes behind the scenes to explain how he achieves memorable creative breakthroughs, he also shares little lessons about creativity, such as:
- The importance of scribbling down every idea that pops into his head, however silly they seem at the time. “My life is made out of cocktail napkins,” he has been quoted as saying. “Got an idea? Write it down before you forget it.” The process of writing down an idea forces you to think it through and develop it, even if you have no immediate use for the idea.
- How ideas are everywhere. “Don’t question where ideas come from,” he says. “People are saying inspiring things every day right in front of you.” He says he has often gotten ideas for memorable dialogue or titles of episodes by overhearing snippets of conversation on airplane flights.
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Image source: AMC.com