For seven years, Mad Men used to command an entire floor of L.A. Center Studios, but when I went there on Tuesday to interview Matt Weiner, that once-bustling second floor was now a ghostly, quiet place populated by four people: Weiner, his assistant, and two people heading toward the elevator with packed-up boxes and discarded desk chairs. Mementos from Mad Men could still be seen in places — the show’s Sterling Cooper sign plate even graces the door to Weiner’s office — but now that filming on the AMC advertising drama has wrapped and the final episode’s early 2015 air date is set, Mad Men has been ceding its formidable floor space to a new era of television hopefuls. “The Tyra Banks pilot was just here,” Weiner said with a grin, ushering me in.
The end of Mad Men was weighing heavily on his mind, but Weiner also has a big-screen release to mull over — this week’s Are You Here, a comedy he wrote and directed starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis as two stunted best friends who’ve been coasting through life until the death of the latter’s father. They head back to their bucolic hometown for the funeral, and as events conspire to keep them there, both men are made to come to terms with the limits of their lifestyles. In particular, Wilson’s caddish weatherman learns to stop numbing his ennui with pot, a breakthrough that allows him to experience his friendships and relationships full-stop. “You’ll see that every time that there’s an emotional utterance from Zach’s character to Owen’s, he deflects it,” noted Weiner, wondering out loud, “Does this person fear that he’ll be overwhelmed with feelings?”“
Weiner knows whereof he speaks: When he directed Mad Men’s series finale in June, many of his cast members broke down in tears as the reality of the show’s end finally sunk in. As he steered the ship, Weiner tried to allow himself those feelings, too: “There’s a lot of reminding, a lot of saying to yourself, Don’t forget. Try to be here, and try to experience this,” he said. The release of Are You Here helps; so does the notion that after its finale airs, Mad Men can finally be looked at as one complete work. “Part of what’s overwhelming me right now is this feeling of going from ‘I’ve lost something’ to ‘I’ve made something,’” he said. During a wide-ranging conversation about his movie and Mad Men, Weiner explained to Vulture how he’s navigating all those emotions.
You don’t get many movies like Are You Here, where the characters have such distinctly different designs for living, and the conflict comes less from plot and more from their contrasting worldviews butting up against east other.
That’s interesting. Almost everything Owen Wilson’s character says is true in the moment, but it’s childish, and self-serving. Everything that Zach’s character says about nature and technology is also very true, but you see a guy who’s completely incapable of executing any of his plans. The deeper you get into the movie, you say, “Wait, Owen Wilson’s character has a drug problem, and Zach Galifianakis’s character is mentally ill.” The idea that it looks like a buddy comedy at first, and that maybe they think they’re in a stoner-buddy comedy — and that you then take it seriously — it makes the movie heavy. I’m fine with that. I really wanted to scrape underneath that.
With a lot of movie comedies, the characters are behaving in outlandish ways that would be unacceptable in real life, but you go along with it. This film plays by those rules at first, and then eventually calls them out on their behavior.
And that’s part of why you cast Owen Wilson, because his persona helps you get there right away, and he’s such a gifted actor and has so much depth as a person. There’s a line in the movie where someone says to him, “Guys like you can’t get away with this forever,” and Owen replies, “Guys like you say that, but what if you’re wrong?”
That exchange could also serve as a meta statement for Owen’s career in comedies at this point in time.
Yes, that’s true, too. I never even thought about that. You know, I’m a big fan of Billy Wilder, and there’s a movie he made called Love in the Afternoon, which I love. I remember studying the movie in film school with this great teacher named Frank Daniel, and he talked about this scene where Audrey Hepburn needs to get between two rooms on the fifth floor and so she has to walk along this little parapet. The parapet is three inches wide and she’s wearing heels, so it’s scary … but it’s also not scary, because of the rules of comedy. There’s tension, but you know she’s not going to fall off the building, right? And if she does, you know she’s going to land in a laundry truck. I like the idea of taking that laundry truck away, and saying, “What if you’re actually worried about these people?”
The movie doesn’t fit neatly into any particular genre, and your career has eluded those boxes, too: You started in network half-hour comedies, then movies to one-hour dramas like The Sopranos and Mad Men.
There are boxes. I’m not deliberately resisting them. When I wrote Mad Men, I didn’t even think of it as a comedy or a drama. I knew it was funny, and I knew it was heavy. Take an absurdist movie like Groundhog Day, and talk to me about the feeling you have when that movie is over: That movie is dark — and beautiful! I just tell stories. Comedy was where I got my break, but I never said, “I don’t want to do comedy anymore.” I just said, “I don’t want to do network sitcoms anymore.” The Mad Men pilot got me my job on The Sopranos, and honestly, I’ve never laughed harder than I did on The Sopranos. I know it sounds like cheating in a way, because the demand on a show like that is not to be funny through every episode, but when you have a sense of humor like [Sopranos creator] David Chase does, a really good joke just explodes.
All the same, people have been surprised that the guy who created Mad Men would make a movie like Are You Here.
I don’t know what my brand is, I don’t know what my stamp is. I’ll tell you one thing: This movie is severely lacking in glamour, and people who are expecting to enter another world of privileged excess — or however they see the world of Mad Men — will be surprised.
Yeah, the movie takes place in this small farming town where there’s still a significant Amish population — this living, specific remembrance of how life used to be — and yet when the characters go out to dinner, they’ll eat at a generic Outback Steakhouse. All these small towns that used to be incredibly different from one another, they now look alike.
Thank you for noticing that. That was an effort to show the homogenization of the entire country. The specificity of the farm and the family and the friendship are being ironed out completely, and it’s hard not to make a judgment on it. Going to New York City right now and seeing the entire place being turned into hundred-million-dollar condominiums, you realize that they’re stamping the character out of the city. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound like someone who hates everything new, because I don’t. I shoot in digital, you know what I mean? I’m not resistant to those things. But I think that after the technological explosion of the past ten years — which has affected us in ways we’re not even aware of — there’s been a further distancing of us from ourselves. That’s why you write a movie like this, where Owen Wilson’s epiphany is when he kills a chicken on that farm. Could you do it? Could you be honest, could you be closer to the human being you’re meant to be? I think people watch the movie and identify with him, and wonder if they could do something like that … and yet, 50,000 chickens were killed during this conversation, by a machine! A machine very far from us, and they’ll be all sanitized and deep-fried by the time they get here.
It’s a movie about friendship, but when you have a career as all-consuming as yours, and a family on top of that, do you have to recalibrate all of those relationships?
Yes. Having this much time devoted to my job, my family has had to take less of me, everybody has to take less of me. So much of what I write about is loneliness, obviously — I think it’s the state of the human condition. Life is lonely, and you’re lucky to find somebody. I was lucky to find my wife, and so lucky to have my children. I’m lucky to have friends. But you have to be on a page with the audience where they’re willing to admit that they’ve experienced loneliness, too. That’s why, believe it or not, my work is very popular with teenagers — and not just Mad Men, but this movie as well. They identify with that acknowledgment of loneliness, and as you grow up, you’re forced to deny it.
Are you in a state of denial right now? It’s not just that Mad Men is ending, it’s not just that this film is finally going to come out after several years of percolation … it’s also that your son is about to head off to college. Your life will look very different in just a few short months.
Oh, I’m feeling it. I’m feeling it as much as I can. I’m not someone who’s very good at anticipating emotions, even though I write about these things all the time. I can write through the emotion of having a horrible fight with someone where you may never talk to them again, but I don’t know what I’m gonna feel if that happens to me. I’ve got an almost childish ability to start fresh on every single one of these big experiences and not know what I’ll feel until it happens. I’ll move to a new house and a couple months later, I’ll start feeling really weird. And someone goes, “Well, you probably miss your old house.” And I’m like, “Oh! I do!” And they’ll say, “Well, everybody knows that’s what happens when you move! Moving is one of the most stressful things you can do!” And I didn’t know that.
It’s one of those things that reminds you that you’re getting older, that you have a past now.
Listen, did I watch Boyhood and cry for, like, 25 minutes? Yes. I think some people who watch that are crying for their lost childhood, and some people marvel at seeing the aging process cut together. I was crying because I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to walk by my son’s empty room in a week.”
So Patricia Arquette’s Boyhood breakdown, when her son is heading to college, that must have hit home.
Oh my God! I’ve been feeling that for sure. I have four sons, and it’s always been that way — one could be away at a sleepover or something, and when the whole unit is not there, you feel it. My wife and I were wondering, “Is this the biology talking in some weird way, like when you go to a funeral and feel like you’re ticking off one more thing in your life?”
So what have you been surprised to find yourself feeling as Mad Men comes to a close?
It started off in anger, I think.
How did that play out?
Everything was dissolving and ending, and I was like, “Why am I so angry?” I wasn’t angry at people, I was just in a bad mood. And then I was like, “Oh. Oh, you’re sad.” It was delayed. Is there anybody able to experience every single thing as it happens? If you have a job with responsibility, some of that requires sucking it up and acting like the big boy and letting everybody know it’s gonna be okay.
Did you feel like every character should have a “moment” before Mad Men ended? Like, did you want a big Joan moment?
Gosh, I don’t know if I ever see stuff that way. I don’t know what’s big for them until we actually do it.
Or until you see how the audience responds to it?
Exactly, and I’ve been surprised by that. When someone says, “Wow, season three was really Betty’s season,” for example, or “Pete’s season was season five,” well, we didn’t even think that way. One of the great things about having this orchestra with all these amazing musicians in it is that when you get bored of something, you can move on to something else, and then the thing you stepped away from … well, I remember David Chase saying about some Sopranos character, “Let’s put him on hiatus for a little bit, and let the viewers work up to wanting him.” Take the second episode of Mad Men: Pete Campbell’s not in that episode, even though he’s the driving antagonist in the pilot. The network and the studio were alarmed, asking, “Where’s Pete? Can we check in with him?” I even wrote a scene from his honeymoon that we never shot, just to remind people he was on the show. But anyway, did I want every character on Mad Men to have an ending? Yes, I did.
Have you become more set in your ways as you’ve gotten older?
I don’t even know what my ways are, I really don’t. The biggest thing that happened in my creative life is that there were eight years between finishing the pilot of Mad Men and getting to write the second episode, and during those eight years, I worked for three of them in the half-hour comedy world, and then I worked on The Sopranos for four of them. Being on the inside with someone like David Chase, and realizing that not just him but all the artists I admire trust their subconscious … that came to me with more confidence. You start trusting the way your mind works, and that trust was the biggest change. You’d like to think that you’ve gained wisdom, but what really happens is that you start recognizing who you are, and start to see yourself a bit more clearly inside. I spent a lot of my life feeling like the kid who was late for school, like I walked into the classroom and everything was under way, and was someone going to tell me what we were doing? Do you know what I’m talking about, that feeling where you’re so slow to understand certain things? On the other hand, you eventually feel good about seeing things in your own way. And now I kind of feel like even the person who got there one minute before you doesn’t know what’s going on, either.
So do you feel ready for the next phase of your life — a phase where, again, you’re not necessarily going to know what’s in store?
Thank you for asking all those questions about it, because you know what? It’s a huge feeling, it is. I feel an almost biological sense of other human beings telling me that it’s gonna be okay. So many people ask me what I’m going to do now, and when I say, “I’m gonna go back to daydreaming and eavesdropping,” they go, “Well, you’ve definitely earned a break.” That’s kind of amazing! What a nice expression of humanity, for a reporter to say, “I think you’ve done a lot and you can take a break.” No one’s ever said that to me before!