If you don’t see a lot of Roger Sterling in “The Rejected,” this Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, it’s because John Slattery was behind the camera for the first time. (Creator Matt Weiner was pleased enough that he’s asked Slattery to direct again, this season’s twelfth episode). Slattery couldn’t reveal any plot points, but he was willing to discuss the incredibly intricate planning that goes into every fabulous episode of the AMC drama.
Which of your fellow actors gave you the hardest time when you were directing?
Lizzy Moss [Peggy]. She started laughing in my face when I directed a scene with her. I was getting into the details of it, and she said, “I’m having a hard time taking you serious.”
What surprised you about directing versus acting?
It had as much to do with acting as directing. I was watching dailies of a scene that I was in as well as directing. I remember having this out-of-body experience while we were doing the scene. I was trying to remember my line — a complicated joke that I was trying to land and I wasn’t doing it right. At the same time, somebody was doing something that I wanted to change, and I couldn’t remember what take we were on, and I was thinking, I have to remember to change what she’s doing and what is my fucking line! And I was sweating. And I said it out loud, “I’m sweating — I feel like I’m sweating on every inch of my body”. It was only my second day and people were coming in from all directions — it was like a Marx Brothers sketch. I was overwhelmed and just trying to keep it together, to maintain a sense of authority, and I just said, “Keep rolling.” The surprising part, when I was watching the dailies, was that I couldn’t see any of that in the scene. It didn’t read at all.
Which is interesting to anyone, really, because people tend to worry that everyone knows how they feel.
And they can’t. There are so many moments when actors are going, “Holy Shit!” — at auditions or working with a Meryl Streep or Mike Nichols. But if you can keep your front up, it reads as something other than distress. Unless you start getting facial ticks …
How complicated is an episode of Mad Men?
I followed Matt and a few of the directors around for over a year in preparation for directing. The scripts go through lots of revisions, and by the week of shooting the director has read it about 25 times. We start with a concept meeting, where Matt will tell everyone what the episode should look like — all the props, that the car is blue with a white interior, whatever. They are trying to physicalize what’s on the page. The tone meetings, on Monday nights, are the most important for the director; they can go on for hours and hours. Matt goes through the script line by line, explains what each scene is about — the loss of someone’s identity, and it should have this feel, and I want you to shoot it like this. It’s your chance to ask any question you don’t have an answer to. It’s fantastic.
So you have quite a few safety nets.
You are incredibly well supported. Chris Manley, the DP [Director of Photography] is amazing and so is the crew.
Who wrote the episode you directed?
Bret Johnson — one of the writers’ assistants who was bumped up to writer — and Matt. You know, Matt rewrites everything.
I get the feeling there’s not a lot of improvisation on the set.
I started in theater, where the script is the script. So I don’t have a problem with the lack of improvisation. Besides, anything you think of in the moment, Matt has thought of before. I watch him in those meetings, and it’s amazing — he knows every aspect of what’s going on. There isn’t an inch of it that he doesn’t have a completely crystal opinion about.
So what can a director bring to it?
Barbet Schroeder directed an episode last year [“The Grown-Ups”], and one of the things I noticed is that the great directors can give you a note that will change everything. One single note. We were in a scene, and I was doing a phone call to my daughter, and she was describing my new wife to my ex-wife as crude, saying she hated her, and Schroeder wanted to get more out of the actress. He said [slips into a German accent], “I vant you to describe her as though she’s a fucking transvestite, that she’s not even a woman, that this woman is just a charade.” And you could see the actress’s lip curl, and the whole take changed. It set her off on something else that allowed her to be less self-conscious, because she all of a sudden had something else, besides herself, to think about. Anything that can get you out of your own head. In my own brief experience directing, the advantage you have beyond the actors is that you’ve seen eight or nine drafts of the script, and you’ve broken it down. It’s not like you have any great insight, it’s just that you’ve had a lot more time than they have.
You’ve worked on a lot of TV shows. How is this one unique?
What you don’t experience most of the time is someone treating the experience in a grown-up way. So many people on network TV shows make creative decisions they have no business making — that whole bureaucracy of executives making bullshit decisions based on likability and all that other horseshit which has nothing to do with why they bought the show in the first place. The system is so screwed. Matt runs interference on all that stuff — he doesn’t tolerate any interference from AMC. The trickle down is that we don’t have to either.
You were in just one scene last week, and you didn’t even speak! Are you in more of this episode?
I’m not in much of it. A friend of mine said, “No one will know that you directed that episode. You won’t hear a word from anybody. All you’ll hear is, ‘That wasn’t such a great episode for your character, was it?’”