“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner is crackerjack at character analysis and capturing the cultural zeitgeist, but a poet too?
At Lincoln Center to read a little Mark Strand for the Academy of American Poets’ “Poetry & the Creative Mind” event, the Emmy-winning writer-director-producer spoke about studying poetry with Christopher Reeve’s esteemed father Frank at Wesleyan University. Weeks away from a “Jeopardy” appearance, Weiner talked trivia, time travel and social progress (or the lack thereof) — although the father of four remained mum about his current writing projects for film, television and prose.
WWD: Are you ready for “Jeopardy?”
Matthew Weiner: I’ve actually been on “Jeopardy” before as a contestant from the real world. It was the only money I earned my first five years of being married. I financed an independent film with the money I won. It was a little more than $8,000 but I already was at poverty level so I didn’t pay any taxes. It was a chunk of money. “Jeopardy” definitely requires intelligence but knowing trivia is really just something like knowing baseball or whatever. Growing up I was actually in style. I read “The Guinness Book of World Records,” “Ripley’s Believe Or Not,” “The Trivia Encyclopedia.” I just knew facts. As a message to the iPhone generation, I don’t know if it was just my parents, but I was expected to know things, get a sense for things and know the generations before me, whether it was knowing what “The Shmoo” was or “Kilroy.” With my parents, you weren’t expected to say, “I don’t know” at the [dinner] table very much. My father is a neuroscientist and my mother is an attorney who went back to law school when we were little. She worked on the Civil Rights Commission, she was a clerk for a judge and then she was a mom.
WWD: Has poetry really influenced your life?
M.W.: I actually wrote poetry for my undergraduate thesis. At Wesleyan, there is the College of Letters, an integrated program in philosophy, literature and history. It doesn’t have any grades. You have to go abroad for a semester and learn to read literature in another language. I went to Spain. My thesis was a book of poems. I studied with Frank Reeve, who was a poet and a great teacher, on my own because I couldn’t get into writing classes. And I studied with Anne Greene.
WWD: What did you think of the readings?
M.W.: There’s an intimacy to that kind of performance. Emerson talks about the American insecurity, about will we have our own literature if we look to Europe and we live in their shadow. Obviously, there are great poets in many languages. But certainly we will carry [Walt] Whitman, T.S. Elliot, the poets that were read tonight all of the way through. Poetry is an important part of American literature. Poetry doesn’t require a purpose. Sometimes there are things you can’t put into words but a poem can. And it is so dense that it doesn’t just open for you right away. There are gaps in it — gaps in the way the mind works, descriptions with jokes. It all sort of goes together.
WWD: Do you know when you will be able to speak publicly about your projects?
M.W.: I have no idea. That is a showbiz question not a creative question.
WWD: Are you still bombarded with questions about “Mad Men?”
M.W: There’s no question, no comment that I don’t mind talking about. There’s something about not making the show anymore, not having any secrets to keep, not having to sell it. When you’re making the show and people say something nice to you, you feel a little insecure in a strange way because you think, Well, you liked that but I’m not sure if you’re going to like what’s coming.
WWD: Do you think “Mad Men” triggered the binge-watching trend?
M.W.: The binge-watching thing is an opportunity. We all benefited from people being able to catch up and so forth. I’m glad that people watch it in any form and I hope that they watch it forever. I’m not a big binge-watcher. I understand it but I really like to let it marinate for a week.
WWD: What are you watching?
M.W.: I’m a huge “Broad City” fan. I can’t wait for the next season of “Mr. Robot.” I love “Orange Is The New Black.” One of the great things about Netflix is you get to see shows from other countries like “Peaky Blinders.” I also have four boys [12 to 19] so I often watch whatever they’re watching. “The Legend of Cora” is an incredible animation film. I will never stop watching “The Simpsons.” It is one of the great pleasures of my life. I like “Rick and Morty.” I am a huge fan of “Forensic Files.” I love “Top Chef,” “Project Runway.” We’re in a time where we can watch anything that was ever made so [I’m] watching my children become interested in “Columbo,” which is still frame-for-frame one of the most entertaining experiences that there is.
WWD: Who intrigues you?
M.W.: Donald Trump makes you think a lot about character. I don’t mean positively or negatively. You’re just sort of curious about who that person is and how that happened. And who he thinks he is versus who we think he is. And how different he seems to be everyday, as we’re transforming from imagining him as the punchline. We’ve experienced this before in American politics. All of a sudden we’re forced to take something seriously, that we have no desire to. The pope is fascinating to me because he was a schoolteacher. For a religious figure, he kind of has an existentialist background — believe it or not. You never really know people from your experience in the public. My wife is the most interesting person I know.
WWD: What are you reading?
M.W.: Michel Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” and Gay Talese’s article. I don’t know how to perceive the public’s reaction to anything. I know that being a reporter, we all rely on what is a difficult stance. There’s trust, there’s secrets and then it’s public. I try to separate the person from the story. But eventually that story’s going to be there and you’re going to be questioning. I try to separate the subject and the reporter. I’m not really judgmental about it. I don’t know if I have the stomach for it but I’ve been the beneficiary of it many times in my life, as someone who is learning about human behavior and I hate to say it, entertained.
WWD: Do you dream in the Sixties?
M.W.: No, I never did. I do have experiences with a lot of historical periods. I always have. This is going to make me sound insane but I’m able to see things the way they were sometimes if that makes sense. I am not into psychedelic drugs. I’m not being visited by anybody. With the help of books and movies, I might have a moment of seeing the cobblestones, the horses and imagining the noise. I have an imagination for that, especially when you go someplace and someone tells you something evocative. Today I had lunch with a friend who was talking about the origins of Great Jones Street as a farm. All of a sudden you walk outside and think. This was farmland. I can see that for a moment if I’m informed. It’s not nothing that comes from outside that I can’t imagine. Every writer is like this. I don’t want to sound special.
WWD: So sometimes when walking, you can envision how things were a century before?
M.W.: More than looking at it, I have the feeling that I’m there..How old is this building? When I got up there [on stage] tonight after hearing Bill T. Jones sing and I thought, How many artists have been in this spot? and I could start to see the faces — whoever you imagine being here, Arthur Miller. This was certainly prompted. I’m a writer. I’m not on stage much…I believe in human energy and I do believe it has a life. If you’ve gone to a place where something horrible has happened, you may feel it in advance. I’m not the only person who feels that way. You don’t have to be a writer. If you visit Alcatraz, you will feel years of misery. It’s not just the bars. You can walk, and come and go as you want. In the film business, I get to visit places all the time that have been repurposed or abandoned. And you get it — do I want to work in this space or is going to help?
WWD: Will you get involved with the election?
M.W.: Whoever is the Democratic nominee, I will be involved. It’s important for us to win the Senate so I’ve been involved in events for Al Franken and Michael Bennet in Colorado. I will work for Hillary in the state of California…Those of us who are of a certain age have not seen this many homeless people in a long time in New York and Los Angeles — and drugs. Manhattan and Los Angeles are cities that are starting to feel like other countries where poverty is ignored — drug problems, addiction problems, homelessness is ignored. For the first time since 1980, I had to step over someone to get along the sidewalk today. I saw someone take an iPhone picture of someone passed out on the street and I was like, What is going on here?
WWD: What role does entertainment have in that?
M.W.: I try to put as much humanity into my work as possible. I don’t know what you can do other than alert people to the problem…Entertainers are not leaders. Artists are observers. And putting something in front of your face that you might not want to see, that might be part of my job. I don’t write law but I don’t mind being a conscience, though. As an adult with children, you find yourself in an embarrassing position of having to defend society and it’s indefensible.