When last we saw the work of Matthew Weiner, (spoilers ho!) the U.S. had landed on the moon, Peggy Olsen landed the Burger Chef account (with an assist from Don Draper), and Bert Cooper passed away, leaving us with a Broadway-worthy rendition of "The Best Things In Life Are Free."
Now for something completely different.
As we impatiently await the second half of the final season of Mad Men, its creator has gone and made a movie that’s part stoner bromance, part romantic comedy, and a complete departure from the period seriousness of his day job.
Here, the director discusses what it took to pivot to movies and what he learned along the way.
As Weiner has told Co.Create before, it took years of rejection and false starts to get cameras rolling on Are You Here (formerly You Are Here—more on the title change below). And, he says, having a day job kept him from working obsessively on it 24 hours a day. Then again, Mad Men gave him access to both big name actors and an incredibly talented crew. "I kind of cheated in the first-film territory by bringing my entire crew with me [from Mad Men]," he says. "So there were a lot fewer strangers. The producer, production designer, casting, cinematographer, hair, makeup, props, editor—we brought everybody, everything on the show, anybody who wanted to, because we did it during hiatus. And we kind of picked up and moved to location. So, it was pretty different. I mean, some of it was the same."
Another difference: Movie stars. The cast of Mad Men might now be stars, but that wasn’t the case when the show started. "I have a very different relationship with the actors who, on some level, we all started, and discovered each other together; [we're] kind of working shorthand at this point, even by the first episode of Mad Men that I directed, which was the finale of the first season. After having cast them and known them for, you know, there’s a year between the pilot and the second episode of the show, [whereas the movie's cast] are total strangers, in a way." Total strangers who, evidently, need special care. "There were just a lot of different challenges in terms of working with movie stars, you know," Weiner lets on, choosing not to elaborate. "You kind of have to earn everybody’s trust, and discover the story. And you put on your director hat and get all mad at the writers," he jokes (we think).
As for the movie's title change, from You Are Here to the somewhat more existential, Are You Here, Weiner says that was a matter of licensing. "There were just too many things with that title," he says. "So, I found it close enough, and there’s the sentiment which is in a lot of scenes about being in the moment, and experiencing life and not running away from it, and not numbing yourself to it, and not being afraid to feel things like love or need, or even joy, that that was what it’s about." All lessons Weiner had to embrace in the process, too.
"Comedy’s hard to pull off," says Weiner. "And people can talk about directing [comedy]—you can see people who can do it, people who can’t do it—but what it’s really about is casting. For me, the exciting thing was to get a cast." Are You Here stars comedy pros Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Poehler. "These people are all really good at it. The directing part of it is really getting the tone and the timing right—making sure that they know each other well enough. I mean, I don’t want to take too much credit for what’s funny about the movie, because it’s them. If I’m writing good jokes, and they thought it was funny, that helps—you don’t want them to not have any confidence in the material. But someone like Amy, who is so gifted at doing things from sketch all the way to very, very real moments. We had a conversation about gauging what the tone would be—how flip, how glib, how broad it would be to keep her [character] a real person. And she’s completely in control of that. It could have been broader and bigger and funnier, in a way, in some of those moments, but we chose to keep within the realm of a real person. And that’s telling someone like that to set it on seven instead of on 10." Weiner then sat back and watched.
"Then you just try and keep a tradition from what you know to be funny," he says, speaking of classic comedy filming. "If the actor is doing something physical, stay wide, so you can see everything that they’re doing. Someone like Zach has so much presence, and so much physicality, that you don’t want [the camera] just locked on his jawline. There are not a lot of close-ups in the movie, and that to me was to keep the physicality of these people intact, because they all use their hands and use their posture and use their physiques in a way that they probably know from [years of doing] comedy."
A lot of things were different on this shoot than Weiner is used to. First of all, there’s weather. Mad Men is shot mostly on sets. And when they do go on location outdoors, it’s in southern California, so rain is rarely a factor. But shooting on a farm in Pennsylvania, Weiner says, "You’re dealing with weather, you’re dealing with real locations, dealing a bit more with the elements. It’s not a set, so you can’t swing the camera around 360 degrees. And you have to sort of rehearse enough before you put the camera down to know what the scene is."
Doing a movie, even on a tight, indie budget, affords more time to shoot scenes than on a TV show, which requires churning out episodes one after another. And all that led to some major lessons. "This is going to sound strange, but I actually learned to be more patient," says Weiner. "And I’m such a control freak. I mean, you have a way that it sounds in your head, and sometimes you can exclude something that is better than what you imagined." Since actors on a movie have more time with the script before shooting than they would on a TV show, they to do more work on their characters before coming to the set. That meant that Weiner needed to allow them to express themselves, let them show what they’ve got rather than imposing his own vision.
"And then you start thinking about the story, and the actors come in and you just have a very creative experience later in the process than I sometimes have on the show. And I would actually say, when I came back to the show, I took it into the show. It gets perceived as having more confidence about what you’re doing, but it’s actually having less confidence in what you’re doing, and being open to what everybody else is doing, and having confidence that you will get the decision, you know. You will make the decision together. Of course, you still have to be the best audience possible, and that’s what I really think directing is about."
And it had an impact on the final season of Mad Men. "I felt, when I came back to the show, that I was more patient about everything, just more willing to wait for what I wanted, or to wait and see if something better came along than what I wanted—to see it in different ways. Same with the script." By the time he shot the movie, the script was nine years old. "I had worked it over so many times, and it was so codified in my head, and this is how it would look." But then reality hit: "You get to location, and [your crew is] like, ‘There is nothing. There’s no doorway here, or you know, there’s five doorways instead of one.’" And you just have to deal with it.