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Humpday’s Lynn Shelton on Directing Last Night’s Mad Men

To paraphrase Chekhov, Matt Weiner has spent much of Mad Men season four placing guns on the stage — and in last night’s episode, he finally started shooting. “Hands and Knees” brought dramatic plot twists for Don, Joan, Roger, Lane, Pete — everyone, really, except Peggy, who was mercifully spared by being absent. It’s a little surprising, then, that this high-stakes episode was directed by Lynn Shelton, the auteur behind the understated indie comedy Humpday. Before this episode, the Indie Spirit–winning, micro-budget director had never directed anything of Mad Men's pedigree or scale. The filmmaker called us from her home in Seattle to talk about re-creating the Playboy Club, overseeing Don Draper’s panic attack, and working with actual scripted dialogue.

I don’t even know where to start with this episode. It was epic.
It’s a whopper, isn’t it? It really is! It’s amazing. You could knock me over with a feather when I read the script. I couldn’t believe it.

So, how did you get involved? Start from the beginning.
Well, I’ve just been up in the hinterlands of Seattle making movies my own weird way. And I never really saw myself intersecting with Hollywood at all, because I'd figured out a way to self-produce my own work. And then Humpday made a little bit of a splash at Sundance in ’09, and I suddenly had fans in Hollywood. So I’m in development on some really cool projects with producers, and as those things take some time to launch, I was asking my rep, "Is there a way I can, like, make a living in meantime? Because I kind of need to pay my mortgage ... And they were like, well, you could direct TV ... Mad Men was absolutely at the top of my list. Of course, I was a superfan. Just getting that meeting, I was so thrilled! I was like, "I don’t care." I cared, of course, but even if nothing comes of this, just to sit in Matt’s office for an hour and a half — I was beside myself with joy.

So this is the first time you’ve done any TV?
Oh. Yeah. And it was such a huge, huge experience for me, because it was the first time I’d worked in L.A. on any kind of project, the first time I’d worked with an all-union crew — I had to join the union. I’d never set foot on a soundstage, much less directed on a soundstage. I remember when the production designer took me on this little tour of the set, and I was like, "I’m standing in Betty Draper’s kitchen!" It was a total mental disconnect, like I’ve gone through the looking glass, people! I shadowed the amazing Phil Abraham, for three and a half weeks during his prep period and on set when he was shooting episode eight, “The Summer Man.” It functioned as kind of a film school for me. It’s like, okay, this is how the big boys do it.

When I first heard you were directing an episode of the show, I did a double take, because Mad Men is so stylized and scripted down to the last millisecond.
I know, it’s the opposite of Humpday! The show has to be word-perfect. The writer is God, the script is the Bible on the set. Down to syllables! I mean, it’s really, really specific that way. There’s a certain sort of way that people talk — there’s definitely a style to it. But Matt is a huge proponent of excellent acting and naturalism. He doesn’t want the scenes to feel stilted and written, he wants them to be grounded in some real authenticity and naturalism. And I think that Humpday has pretty consistently gotten a lot of praise for that, for the level of naturalism in the performances. So even though I got that result in a completely different way, I think he was hoping that, as somebody who’s really comfortable with actors, I could really bring that out of them. A lot of my friends have said, "It’s just so different from the way you work," but it was liberating for me. You know, Humpday, every line was improvised. So to have that taken care of, it was really fun.

How long did your episode take, from start to finish?
You get seven days to prep and eight days to shoot. It’s mind-boggling. I didn’t get my full script until a couple days in. 'Cause they’re just writing, writing, writing — they just never stop writing! Sometimes they come up with a final draft on the first day of shooting. Usually Matt writes in the middle of the night, so he’s completely sleep-deprived. I mean, it’s a really intense pace. They're so tight-lipped. They want you to know the backstory, what’s come before — but you often don’t actually know what’s going to happen in your episode until you’re into your prep. It’s crazy.

Let’s talk about Joan and Roger. I’m always excited about a new Joan episode, because she doesn’t seem to get a lot of screen time compared to the other main characters.

And the thing that was so difficult about working with the actors [on Mad Men] is that you get so little time with them. Basically, they come on set for their scene, you run through the scene once, maybe twice, they run off to hair and makeup, and then you start shooting. It’s crazy. I just couldn’t believe the limited amount of time. And then there's the performance level they’re expected to get to, and succeed in getting to, so quickly. There was this one day with Jon Hamm, the stuff where he’s having a panic attack and all that stuff was so intense. The level of performance? It's like he rehearsed Long Day’s Journey Into Night for four months, and now it’s been up on its feet on Broadway for several weeks. That’s where I felt he was able to get in in just a few hours. Given that limit on time, I felt like Christina [Hendricks] in particular was really open and receptive to that kind of connection. I feel like we really connected. I like to bond with everybody and I feel like she’s the same kind of artist that I am, the kind that really likes to have that connection. She was sort of seeking it in the same way I was.

If you make a movie starring Christina Hendricks, I will see it three times in the theater.

Well, believe me, when I find somebody that I really admire, that’s the way my brain works. Humpday was designed for the actors. Believe me, she’s in the mix in my head! For sure.

So: Joan and Roger. This show really manipulates your feelings about Joan and Roger, because objectively they’re pretty terrible for each other, but you can’t help wanting them to be together. Would you be surprised if I told you that I wanted Joan to keep the baby?
No, not at all! There’s just such an incredible chemistry between those two. Whether or not you approve of their being together, there’s just something so compelling, and obviously they keep getting drawn back together. The line — I mean, I cried like a baby when I read it in the script, and I was a mess when I was onset shooting it, and then seeing it last night, too — the line where Roger comes into her office and says, “I wish I could hold you right now,” and the last line, when he looks at her and says, “You look so beautiful.” I just lose it. It feels so tragic to me, the way that they keep being drawn together. As you said, it’s not the healthiest relationship, but there’s something so compelling about it. And yeah, I completely relate to that desire that you mentioned.

Mostly fans just want something good to happen for Joan!
Oh, I know. She’s always sort of the stalwart warrior, you know, that no matter what comes at her, she’s able to handle it with such grace. But it’s like, yeah, come on, give her a break!

How did you go about re-creating the Playboy Club?
That was amazing and kind of terrifying. Like, what if we can’t pull this off? Of course, the art department completely killed it. And then the bunnies? Oh my God. There were a lot of casting sessions for the bunnies. To get permission to do it from Hugh Hefner, after we already had two or three casting sessions to find all the bunny extras, it turned out that Hugh said, "In order to do this, you need to use actual current Playboy bunnies." So we had to toss the casting list that we had, and cast again from a new pool of actual Playboy Playmates. Which is an interesting challenge as well, because the ideal body shape is very different now. And then there’s the whole issue of how it’s very normal for people to have had a lot of plastic surgery done on their bodies and their faces …

So you were going through back issues of Playboy, looking for real boobs.
Yeah, exactly! It was crazy! And so I can’t tell you how many women I saw in their swimsuits and their underwear. I mean, it was amazing how many casting sessions. And then the costumes were copyrighted … It was quite interesting, and we had a lot of the crew going to hang out at the Playboy Mansion to get research materials.

And what about Alison Brie’s crazy pregnancy nightgown?
Oh my God, it’s the best. The best! I loved it so much! It was nice to have at least a little comic relief here and there, because it was a pretty laughless episode overall.

Are you working on anything new right now?
A project that I worked on with MTV is going to launch in November. It’s called $5 Cover Seattle, and it’s a sort of portrait of the city via the local music scene, a narrative web series. And then I’m in development on a project called Then We Came to the End, with Anne Carey and Ted Hope, and it’s a novel [by Joshua Ferris], and we’re turning that into a film and Focus Features is producing.

Photo: Mychele Daniau/AFP/Getty Images