Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner Visits CalArts

Visiting Artist Matthew Weiner. | Photo: Rafael Hernandez

On Dec. 10, Matthew Weiner, writer, director and creator of the critically acclaimed TV show Mad Men, was a guest artist of the School of Film/Video. He provided words of advice to the students who came to his lecture, telling them, “Everything I’m saying is for the dark days, not for the days when it’s working. There’s going to be a lot of dark days; it’s part of the job description.”

Below are some highlights from his talk:

  • On success: Weiner says says that the success of Mad Men was an accident and he didn’t expect that critics would respond to it as well as they did, not to mention its commercial success. But he warns that commercial success shouldn’t be foremost on anybody’s mind. “I just wanted to make something I wanted to see. Furthermore, you are always a year behind on what makes an idea a commercial success, so don’t even think about chasing it. It will kill you.”
  • On storytelling: He talked about what makes serialized storytelling work, and warned against the common mistake that screenwriters make when writing for TV. “Some people write one plot of one movie and stretch it out for 10 hours, not realizing that they need more than one story. When I was writing Mad Men, I just refused to do things over again, which is one of the reasons why I decided to end the show: the machinery telling the story was worn out, so it had to end.”
  • On collaboration: He also highlighted the need for students to work with each other, saying, “The people sitting next to you are the one who are going to help you, not some famous person.”

Matthew Weiner at CalArts. | Photo: Rafael Hernandez

Matthew Weiner at CalArts. | Photo: Rafael Hernandez

Weiner also provided the writers and directors in the class with tips on how to improve their craft.

  • “Look at stuff that you like and see how they’re doing it.”
  • “Watch something new. It’s not that hard. It’s not reading.”
  • “Do anything differently. The more interesting things you see, the more interesting things you can steal.”
  • “It is not a compromise to be understood. It is the goal.”

On the more practical side, he iterated the importance of keeping a notebook to jot down ideas. “I really wish that I had taken my ideas more seriously earlier,” he says. “I wish I had written everything down. Of course, a lot of it won’t be any good, but it’s better to have a lot of garbage than have nothing.”

Weiner encouraged the students in the audience to persevere despite the many challenges, saying, “Don’t give yourself a time limit to do what you want to do, and don’t be too good at your day job.”

Matthew Weiner at CalArts. | Photo: Rafael Hernandez

Matthew Weiner at CalArts. | Photo: Rafael Hernandez

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