The excellent TV series “Mad Men” is a drama about the lives – both inner and outer – of executives, writers and secretaries in an advertising agency in the 1960s. It has garnered numerous Emmys and other awards.
The show was profiled in a magazine article by Bruce Handy, who writes that “at its core Mad Men is a moving and sometimes profound meditation on the deceptive allure of surface, and on the deeper mysteries of identity.”
The article includes comments about and by the creator, producer and show-runner Matthew Weiner on some of his and his staff’s personal qualities and passions that help make the series (on AMC cable) so compelling.
Here are some excerpts from the article, Don and Betty’s Paradise Lost, Vanity Fair, September 2009, by Bruce Handy.
My added comments are indented and in italics. But first, here is a trailer.
The author Bruce Handy writes in the article, “Whatever Weiner’s demons, they work for him.” (See my earlier post Creative inspiration – Matt Weiner, Lili Taylor, Carl Jung on using our subconscious.)
“I’m of the persuasion that budget constraints are very, very good for creativity. I think people having unlimited amounts of money makes you really lazy. And I will be quoted on that, believe it or not,” says Weiner.
Maniacal attention to detail
Handy writes, “A scene-setting anecdote everyone in the Mad Men orbit tells is how Weiner came onto the set one day and focused on some pieces of fruit he said were too large and shiny and perfectly formed; produce in the early 60s—period produce—wasn’t pumped up. Get smaller, dumpier fruit, he ordered.”
“Matt wants real,” said Charlie Collier, president of AMC. For Weiner, Collier continued, “it’s not television; it’s a world.”
“Perhaps the only other producer as committed to the rules of his imagined universe is George Lucas. “Perfectionism” is a word the show’s writers tossed around when I asked a group of them about working with Weiner.
“Fetishism” was another. Alan Taylor, who has directed four episodes of Mad Men, labeled Weiner’s attention to detail “maniacal.” Call it what they will, it is a charge that is largely embraced.
“We’re all a little bit touched with the O.C.D.,” Robin Veith, one of the writers, told me, describing how she and her colleagues have researched actual street names and businesses in Ossining, the suburb where Don and Betty live; checked old commuter-train schedules, so that they know precisely which train Don would take to the city; pored over vintage maps to learn which highways he would drive on.”
**Perfectionism and obsession are often hallmarks of high ability, traits or qualities of many gifted people. These traits can also be pathologized, or considered “disorders.” Yes, there are extreme versions – but many talented people have creative obsessions, for example, that may be mistakenly called a mental health problem.
His female side
“Though he cut his dramatic teeth as a writer exploring the brutal world of The Sopranos and his own show is steeped in more urbane but equally unforgiving codes of masculine behavior, Weiner doesn’t hide his feminine side. He jokes that he was the first female writer on The Sopranos.”
“He stands five feet seven inches and is bald, with a trim, recently acquired beard. His laugh, which is easy, can verge on a giggle, and according to his writing staff—the core five of whom are all women, unusual in television—he is also an easy crier, tearing up when writing particularly emotional scenes or even, once, when simply describing a scene in the film Dinner at Eight that he admired for the beauty of its construction.”
** Androgyny and sensitivity are also qualities of many gifted and creative people. Many gifted girls, for example, may call themselves – or be called – “tomboys” and sensitive boys may have more access to their inner feminine nature or anima.
“I always tell this about Matt,” said Jon Hamm [who plays Don Draper]. “It’s impossible to get anything out of him, unless you do one thing: ask him. Because he loves to talk, and he will eventually spill his guts about everything, because he’s so excited about it.”
“Which isn’t to say his thoughts come out in linear equations. Ask him a question and he’ll consider it from numerous angles, turning it over and over, returning to answers to amend or expand on, perfectly content to live with contradictions, as with this summation after a long analysis of Don’s and Betty’s motives during a particular scene, which struck me as a kind of mission statement: “Anytime you can have a character wanting something and not wanting something, I feel like I’m in my life, and I hopefully am in the audience’s life.”
An early start on reading
“Weiner grew up in Baltimore and Los Angeles, third of four siblings, his father a prominent neuroscientist… and his mother a law-school graduate who never practiced.
“Theirs was an intellectual home steeped in academics, literature, classic movies, and 1950s-inflected leftist politics, a home where Weiner was raised on heroic tales of blacklisted writers, where he was expected to know who Gene Tierney was, and where his dad packed Swann’s Way for every vacation, never quite making it to the end.
“I wanted to be a writer since I was very little. It’s a vaunted position in our family,” Weiner told me. Indeed, when his father wasn’t struggling with Proust, he was giving Matt The Catcher in the Rye to read; this, according to Weiner, occurred when he was in the second grade, and he told me he liked the book.”
**Reading early is a possible example of asynchronous development, another characteristic of many or most gifted people.
Waiting for approval
Weiner’s parents, he said, “while proud of his accomplishments and especially his awards, haven’t really talked to him much about their take on the show itself, maintaining what sounds like a studied distance.
“I’ve heard Matt speak about his parents a lot,” said January Jones [who plays Betty Draper}. “I think he has a lot of respect for them and he has a lot of resentment for them. I think he’s still craving their approval, and I’m not sure they’re so willing to give it.”
**From the many artist interviews and quotes I have read, this seems to be a fairly common experience, maybe especially for creative people with high standards and also self-criticism and impostor feelings. A number of artists don’t seem to be able to “take in” the acclaim given to them and their work, which are signs of approval. Of course, many parents are emotionally restrained or think they should not praise children much, to supposedly avoid making them “too full of themselves.” But that can also fuel a gifted child’s insecurity.
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