Lately, Roger Sterling has been on the ropes at the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. He lost the Lucky Strike account and, for a moment, seemed to lose his mojo. Our commenters (and writers) have even been speculating that Roger might fall so low, he’ll off himself. So Vulture was particularly excited to speak with John Slattery after this week’s episode — both because Roger seems to have reached such a turning point and because it was Slattery’s second turn at directing an episode. We talked to him about Roger’s fate, the frustrations and pleasures of directing on such a hypercontrolled show, and why he thinks that Roger could truly be happy with Joan.
I have to say, I feel like I’m talking to the most popular guy in school after talking to some of your castmates.
[Laughs.] Is that true? Really?
Yes, everyone speaks very highly of you.
Well, that’s nice to hear! I paid them all off very handsomely.
Last night’s episode was incredible.
Thank you. You know, it’s funny — it’s been so long since I cut it together that I forgot almost all of it. I forgot what scenes came after what scenes. At first it was just entertaining, and then it was nerve-wracking, and then it was kind of — I don’t know. I was watching with some friends away from my home, and while I thought the episode was really good, it was kind of an out-of-body experience watching it on TV.
So how did it seem different from the first episode you directed?
Well, I’d forgotten that you turn it in, and it’s no longer your property. You feel proprietary over it, and then you turn it in, and then it’s — well, it always was Matt [Weiner]’s show, you’re just being allowed to shepherd it through its various stages of production. And you’re constantly reminded of that when you’re prepping it: Don’t do this, don’t do that, make sure that’s pointed up. You go through all these meetings and you’re educated as to what the scene is, why it was written this way — and there’s no mistake about. Then you try and shoot that, and in there, there’s room to move, there’s room to interpret. And I thought the second time would be less stressful, but I don’t think it ever gets really less stressful because — I talked to some of the other directors — it’s just that each script is entirely different in its content and in its purpose.
The other episode was earlier in the season: It was setting up relationships, it was reminding you of past relationships. And this is sort of setting up the last show. This one has a different function. My overall feeling about this episode was it felt like we were hurtling towards the end, almost hurtling into space, with everyone trying to grasp things around them and hang on. You know all these other people have all this internal stuff going on, but they still have to function in a work arena.
That’s been a constant theme throughout this season — the division between the characters’ investment in Sterling Cooper, and their investment in their personal relationships. Especially since it became Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, those lines have become dramatically more blurred than they were before.
Blurred in what way?
The characters have always been extremely invested in the business, but it seems like now, it’s just impossible for any of them to keep their business lives and their personal lives separate.
I know one of the themes when Matt was writing it was “reality versus perception.” I think that’s the sort of central metaphor for what he does with Lucky Strike, which was to turn it on its head and make it seem like, they didn’t dump us, we dumped them. And there’s sort of an ongoing theme in the show anyways, people creating an image for themselves and then trying to live up to it.
Even though this season, Don Draper’s image has really fallen apart.
We all have. Roger last week, between losing Lucky Strike and lying to everybody, and coming home and seeing the arrival of this memoir on his doorstep — he comes home at one of his lowest moments and sees the glorification of his career, which seems to be going up in flames …
Just so you know, Roger is killing us over here. We’re all very concerned about Roger.
It’s funny, everybody thinks he’s going to kill himself! I got all these links to blogs. Even Matt said, “It’s amazing, everyone thinks Roger’s gonna … ” People were telling me, when he was at the hotel room, people thought he was going to jump out the window. I’m entertained by it. Sometimes I think, Really? Hasn’t Roger ever shown that he has the backbone to withstand some of this? I mean, I don’t think he has — I don’t know. Sometimes I think that he handled himself in World War II, he can handle himself in business. He thinks on his feet, sometimes he puts his foot in his mouth, but only in an attempt to say something clever, or something that no one else has the balls to say. [But] he hasn’t actually had to fend for himself in his life that much. He inherited the American Tobacco account. But I mean, he managed it for 30 years. It has been made plain that Roger is resentful that no one gets awards for what he does, and he’s been doing it for 30 years and, even though it was handed to him, he didn’t fritter it away; he made the business stronger and better. And yet, he’s seen as someone who’s just a good-time Charlie.
What do you feel was Roger’s lowest moment this season?
I think the moments that are difficult for anybody are when you see what your life could be, if only you had the courage to take the steps needed. With respect to Joan, I think that’s where he’d be happy. He’d be happy with Joan. Personally speaking. He’s uprooted his life once: left Mona, was enthralled with Jane, and I think for a time was happy with Jane. But if he was entirely happy with Jane, he wouldn’t keep coming back to Joan. I think, just as a viewer, as an observer, I think, yeah, those two characters seem to understand each other. And he couldn’t help her out, he couldn’t do what he needed to. He couldn’t tell her to keep the baby and figure out a way to be together. He let her make the decision. I just think not being able to be with her is pretty low.
I thought the fake call from North Carolina was a devastating moment.
Joan’s disappointment in him was hard to take. Going over to the house, and her saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” I think it had a lot to do with her disappointment in the way he handled himself. Those are the rules he lives by, too, so there’s a philosophical understanding of it, too. This is the way you live, this is the way you die. You have this kind of relationship with a woman like Joan — if you keep treating her like this, she’s going to get fed up with it. I think he understands that better than anybody. You treat your clients like this — you treat them one way and sneer at them when they’re not around — it could blow up in your face. It’s just who he is.
So will he commit suicide?
I think he has the courage to get through it, and I also think maybe he doesn’t have the backbone to kill himself anyway. I don’t think he has any interest in killing himself! It was a surprise to me when I saw all that. I think he enjoys his life. He has his painful moments, but I think he’d rather be alive than not.
I think it’s just been so difficult to see Roger not be able to spin everything into a joke this season, because that was something the audience could always count on, no matter how tragic things got.
See, when it happens to other people, it’s easy to make a joke about it. But the type of situation that he’s in, it’s tough to make a joke out of it, find the humor in it. Which is great! That’s what makes the show so good, I think. Just when you think someone couldn’t be more glib or heartless, then that’s when their humanity comes out.
You said that when you were watching the episode, it was hard to tell where your work ended, and Matt Weiner’s work as writer and editor began. Was there a particular moment that you did watch and remember contributing something a little extra to?
There was a moment where Bobby Morse [Bert Cooper] showed up with his shoes at the end and said, “Good luck, everyone.” That was not in the script, as I recall. So that was funny actually. You try to remember: Was there a moment in between this scene and this scene? It’s hard to remember: Did I do that, or was that in the script? 99.9 percent of it is scripted. The actors interpret the material, but even that is anticipated because he knows these actors so well, he knows these characters so well. There’s room for a more angry take, a less angry take, more funny, less funny. But most of it’s right there in the script. Your job is to give options, put the thing together, tell the story that’s on the page as well as you can. I mean, there are shots I put in that he didn’t use. There are edits that I didn’t anticipate.
So from start to finish, it’s just a further lesson in how you really are just a piece of the puzzle. Actors put such a burden on themselves, thinking: Oh, the whole thing’s hanging on my performance. Not really. They’ll use a piece of this and a piece of that. Between an audition, you’re thinking about it for days, and then you go in and you realize, for the directors and the producers, this is just a ten-minute slice of their day. And then when you direct this thing and turn it in, then
what you see is as different as it is when it’s on television — you realize that you’ve just provided another function, which is to get the thing shot, get it cut, and then give it to the person who wrote it so that he can finish it.
Isn’t that the nature of TV, that everything is so collaborative? Do you think it would be different if you directed a film?
I think it would be. I have a film that I’m going to hopefully make, and I want to see what the difference is, when the creative process begins and ends with you. At least until you hopefully sell it to some studio and they’ll do what they want with it. Because there’s something frustrating about it, to be honest. Even if someone manipulates it and makes it better, like I just described. It’s better the way he did it, absolutely. But it’s frustrating that I didn’t think of it. Or that I don’t have the freedom to do it — ‘cause I don’t, none of us do. You do what’s on the page. At least, that’s where I am now.
Before I go, is there anything more you can tell me about the film you want to make? Or are you keeping it under your hat for now?
I’m keeping it under my hat, because I’m not sure I’ve got the rights nailed down. Of course, I wrote the thing thinking that I did … I’ll tell you what I am: grateful for the opportunity. The whole thing is such an unbelievable education in what’s possible. What you can do, what you don’t think you could ever do, and then you get this opportunity and you think, Oh, there it is on film. I guess I can do it. It’s an incredibly generous thing that he’s done for me by giving me this opportunity, because it’s a real leap of faith. I never directed anything before this year. And I hope you’ll print that somewhere. You know, I don’t know how he does it. I mean, all these stories — if I tell all these stories, doesn’t that mean there are less stories to tell? It doesn’t seem that way. On this show, it seems like the more stories you tell, the more ground you open up for new ones.