June 12, 2013

[Interview] Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner on Why Don Draper is a Preservationist

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

The executive producer and architecture buff behind AMC's 1960s-set megahit Mad Men sat down with Preservation magazine for its upcoming Summer issue and dished on his work with the LA Conservancy, his passion for places, and why he believes Don Draper is a preservationist.

Weiner is so passionate about the topic, in fact, that we couldn't fit the whole interview in print -- which means you get to enjoy it here instead!

Matthew Weiner on set. Credit: Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner on set

You’ve been involved with the LA Conservancy and its preservation work.

Yes, my wife is an architect who has done quite a bit of preservation and restoration, and this has been a personal interest of ours for a long time. Even before we were married we were both interested in this.

It’s something that is very important to me. One of the things about the show that I really wanted to say is to tell people to stop tearing stuff down. You’re going to miss it.

A lot of what the L.A. Conservancy has been focused on in recent years has been of the same era of Mad Men.

Well, there’s a lot of it here in Los Angeles. There was a boom here and not so much in New York. New York has a different story because of how the land was developed and how it continues to be redeveloped, but I can tell you that when we finished the pilot, which we did shoot in New York, almost every location that we shot in was being remodeled or destroyed. This was… 2006? There’s only one place left that is intact. One of them was being remodeled literally the day we left.

What would you say is attractive to you about that time period?

I think the part of the story that I was telling was that most of the construction from that period was very commonplace from my childhood and aging on some level and associated (somewhat negatively) with big, aging businesses or government institutions. And so there’s an attitude about some of these things that is already negative so they don’t feel that they value them.

But for me, I see the extension of the modern as excitement about new materials. It has an idealism to it, which a lot of architecture has originally and then it just sort of becomes a commercial trend. [But] there was a real philosophy that went along with [Modernism] and I guess it went along with the International Style which was a lot earlier, but about putting a human being in the environment.

This was almost like an urban planning directive. How can you make affordable housing for regular people? Do regular people deserve a beautiful space or is that just for rich people? And having steel and glass -- things that we associate with rich people now -- was something that was designed originally to produce cheaper but more beautiful living experiences.

Businesses’ and people’s attitudes are always conservative, especially about the spaces where they live. New things are scary and they’re immediately negative. But there’s something about this period where at least the American public seemed very open to design and to novelty.

And so we spend a lot of time in preservation taking care of buildings that are older and things from the Victorian era and the very decorative periods, but this is a kind of openness and cosmopolitan attitude toward design that is very sophisticated and it’s part of the mass culture. It really becomes the mainstream.

Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm at Paleyfest in 2012. Credit: starbright31, Flickr.
Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm at Paleyfest in 2012.

Mad Men is well known for its historically accurate details, which is its own kind of historic preservation in a way.

When most people cover this period, they do everything from the period. And it’s all brand new, and it’s all [of that era]. One of the things that I’m always trying to show is the existence of all the periods at once. So there are steakhouses from the ‘20s, there are Victorian houses, they were outdated at the time. But Betty Draper is in a house in the country; she does not fill it with Danish modern furniture, it’s filled with early American furniture.

How often are you utilizing actual historic spaces, and how often are you recreating them?

We try not to recreate anything from zero. And the location question is kind of tough because [Mad Men’s production designer] Dan Bishop can turn anything that’s intact into something. We shoot each episode in eight days and I’d say three days of that we are out of the studio and that means at least two locations most of the time. They are always historic places and sometimes we’ve got to cover up TVs and digitally remove sprinklers and exit signs and fix door hardware.

You don’t have to see the whole place, so Dan Bishop will take a picture of it and just say, “Well, in this picture there are only 10 elements that are bad for us, but if you take a picture of the whole restaurant there’s 100.” And lucky for us, when you put Jon Hamm in that shot all of sudden it seems more interesting.

Have you been involved in other historic preservation projects outside of Modernism?

Oh my God, yes. When we first got married and I was an out-of-work screenwriter, we lived in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles and they were tearing down all of these beautiful Spanish duplexes. We were involved with trying to save those buildings right in our backyard.

I’ve just witnessed so many of these places disappear. It goes through waves, but there are times when there are just these voracious appetites for destruction. Usually all the destruction happens at once and there are a lot of empty lots and the economy will slow down and then hopefully the reconstruction will happen, but you’re sort of like “You really had to tear that down?”

I lived for four years right behind the corner which was the Gardens of Allah which Joni Mitchell wrote that song about: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” And by the way, it now has an incredible mid-century bank there (that replaced the Gardens of Allah) that I know has a target on it.

Do you have a favorite location where you’ve shot the show?

One of my favorite locations was kind of destroyed right after we left. There is a restaurant/bar where we shot most of “The Suitcase,” La Villa Basque. That was infuriating to me because I couldn’t explain to the owners who thought they were improving it that they were actually damaging the commercial value of the space. You want to let them know that the money that they’re going to spend modernizing it could also be spent refurbishing it and making it a very special place. It gives it character.

Right now we’re dealing with a lot of the stuff constructed in the 1970s which again we take for granted and consider Brutalist or ugly. [Many people are] just sort of like well whatever, it’s disposable. No one ever liked that and there’s going to be three of them left.

A Mad-Men-themed party. Credit: SanFranAnnie, Flickr
A Mad-Men-themed party

The show seems to be behind some of that popularity, people are doing Mad Men fundraisers for modern architecture and Mad Men-themed parties. How do you feel about that?

It makes me very happy. I do think some of it is a coincidence. I think part of the reason the show did hit a nerve is that this period had been forgotten and ignored and people got a look at it again. But I think that just looking at the cyclical nature of style, it might have come around at the right time to focus people’s eyes on it. I love that people are just looking at their environment and not taking it for granted.

The topic of preservation has even made it into the script of the show. Your characters talked about Penn Station’s 1963 demolition and Ada Louise Huxtable, there are themes about being haunted by the past…

Don Draper’s a curious person and he has an eye. He’s interested in objects. As Betty says when they’re remodeling their living room, “All you do is evaluate objects all day, where does the table go?”

I feel like the story of the show is, this whole battle of what is commercially expedient and what will the masses tolerate and what will businesses tolerate? Design seems like it’s decoration, it’s extra, what does it matter? If there’s icing on the cake why does it have to have flowers on it? All of that is pointless in some way, but I feel like the show is sort of saying it’s not.

Those spaces are very important to who we are and how we live. And that is a big story in the show and that’s what the preservation thing was about: So the world is changing, are you just going to get in the way? Are you so mired in what you already know that you can’t open your mind to something new? Or are you actually fighting for something that is virtuous? Is it important for us to value our past? Don Draper is someone who tried to erase an entire identity; wouldn’t he be the person who’d move into anything new? Yes and no.

Do you think Don Draper is a preservationist?

I think Don Draper is a preservationist. He appreciates design. Obviously, he has very particular tastes, but he’s also a curious person who’s open to new things and he, like the rest of us, is fighting a battle all the time over what you save and what you throw away.

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