Matt Weiner is a 15-time Primetime Emmy nominee and seven-time winner (six of them in the last four years alone). Now Matt Weiner is hoping his AMC drama Mad Men can capture its fourth consecutive Outstanding Drama Series Emmy and tie The West Wing for that many wins. But his biggest competition is HBO’s Boardwalk Empire from former Sopranos colleague Terence Winter. This spring, Weiner emerged bloody but victorious from a brutal contract battle, inking a three-year, $30 million megadeal to continue his show. Problem is, every twist and turn was played out publicly in front of Emmy voters. He recently spoke to Deadline’s Nikki Finke:
DEADLINE: Do you think it’s going to be harder to win an Emmy this year just because of all the publicity about your huge contract and the delayed start of the show and everything?
MATT WEINER: I don’t know how anyone survived the conversation that has gone on in public about the show. And one of the things that has been most frustrating to me is that I hope the fans know that my attachment to the show is very deep and, for some reason or another, it’s been misconstrued that my negotiation was responsible for the delay of the show. And that’s not true, and I have not been able to correct that anywhere. But the same way Breaking Bad was delayed, I was told in October that Mad Men would not be on until 2012. I fought to get on the air this year, I don’t like not being on the air this year, and part of that is because of the Emmys.
DEADLINE: You talk about the fans, but Emmys are decided by people in the industry. Do you fear there is resentment of you because it’s been so widely reported how much you are earning?
WEINER: Success has a lot of things that go along with it and I haven’t experienced any personal resentment. I can’t control any of that and I try not to worry about it. I hope that’s not the case, you know. Most of the writers that I know and artists that I know understand what was going on. I think there’s just as many things going on in the awards process that have to do with the show having won a few times. The Emmys are always plagued by the fact that, unlike the Oscars, a lot of times the same material wins every year and they like to spread things around. All I can say is that we feel like we did our best work last year and, hopefully, when people watch the episodes and the performances, they will give the award based on the show they think is the most deserving.
DEADLINE: My feeling is that if you have a show that people like, then pay you and everybody else connected with it all the money in the world. Why care? It’s not my money.
WEINER: All I can say is the show is a very, very lucrative property that extends way beyond whatever message people want to get from the ratings. A very, very lucrative property, and they wouldn’t have paid me what they did if it weren’t. But all that stuff has been over-reported, and I think it was put out there to embarrass me in some way, and I don’t know what to say. I’ve worked very hard. I’ve never been about money. I’ve walked away from money many times in my life, as I did during the negotiation itself. I’m about the show, and keeping the show the way it is, and in the end everybody was happy. And as far as the Emmy voting public being resentful of me and punishing me or punishing the show because of that, I actually in my heart don’t think things work that way.
DEADLINE: One of the Emmy episodes that you submitted to voters was ‘The Suitcase.’ Why?
WEINER: Yes, I know how people keep track of this stuff, and I know they handicap everything. I think that the episode was kind of a culmination. You have two characters, Don and Peggy, whose lives are intertwined in a very interesting way. He knows about her secrets, she
knows about his secrets, but they don’t talk about them when they’re in a professional environment. And here was this moment where Don was very vulnerable. He had spent the season basically dealing with being divorced and alone, drinking too much, breaking a lot of his personal rules, sleeping with his secretary, just being very self-destructive, everything. And of course this person doesn’t have a shrink or a bartender or any friends, and that’s also part of his machismo on some level to hold his secrets inside. And Peggy has her own life. And the idea that they could collide at that moment of this historic boxing match that was over in 90 seconds was a chance for a lot of the unspoken tension in the show to sort of come out for people who had been holding in their feelings for so long. And it was beautifully directed, and the performances are spectacular, and I had nothing to do with that. These few actors just rose to the occasion, and you get this non-saccharine emotional connection between two people you really care about. So it became a very special episode in the old-fashioned Emmy sense.
DEADLINE: Like ‘A Very Special Blossom’.
WEINER: I’ve been watching TV my whole life and I was thinking that when we did it. It felt like something that could happen in real life between those people, even though it was obviously a very tight dramatic environment. So that’s why I think it’s something that spoke to the audience and we knew it when we finished it, that it was something unique for the show.
DEADLINE: You told Deadline Awards Columnist Pete Hammond over a year ago that you thought this episode would be Jon Hamm’s ticket to Emmy — finally. One of the things that you did this past year in the series was to strip away all his veneer so he became the most vulnerable character. Was this at all self-conscious and on purpose to try and help him to Outstanding Lead Actor?
WEINER: Last season he had a great emotional depth. Jon is an incredible actor, but what he does is not very showy. I felt that this had more of the kind of performance where you could see all the range of what this man does in one place. I think he’s deserving of an Emmy in everything he’s ever been in. [For more, see EMMYS: Matt Weiner Lobbies For Jon Hamm]
DEADLINE: Boardwalk Empire’s Terence Winter is a good friend of yours and a Sopranos colleague. And he beat you at the Golden Globes. And you were kind of upset that you didn’t win.
WEINER: He sure did. We’ve gotten so much. But I was a freak of nature, you know what I mean? I’ve never gone to one of these things and lost. But, listen, Terry is one of the great writers, and he’s a very close friend of mine. My wife is an architect and did his house. So we have survived far more tense things than being in direct competition at awards shows.
DEADLINE: What’s interesting here is how much you really want to win these things.
WEINER: Is there someone out there on the planet who doesn’t like to? There is no one who is not competitive. I’m a competitive person, and I always do want to win, and I can’t be upset if I don’t. I’m fine with it. I’ve won plenty. The show has been recognized in a ridiculous way. But if you ask me, ‘Would you like to win?’ then the answer is ‘Yes.’ And does Terry deserve the award? Always. Terry deserves every award that is out there. And the show Boardwalk Empire is fantastic. It’s just a matter of like, you know, if there’s a candy bar on the table, you would like the candy bar.
DEADLINE: And then you have HBO famously passing on Mad Men. Now Boardwalk is their big chance to come back to the table on a drama series. So there’s a good backstory to the rivalry.
WEINER: Listen, let’s turn back the clock and just think about the way television was before we started doing Mad Men, and what AMC was. And the pity I got from my friends that I was going to work on a channel where no one would ever see the show and where there’s no money and where they’re not going to promote it. And the fact that we are now a competitor to HBO is always a thrill. I’m not kidding. It’s flattering when you have a company with that track record and those pockets and that talent competing with you.
DEADLINE: I have to say you sound like less of an asshole than I thought you were. But when you mention ‘Matt Weiner’ to the TV community, they describe you as ‘arrogant.’ And I think it dates back to a couple of things, like when you fired the woman who’d won the writing Emmy with you.
WEINER: Well, let’s talk about that because I know that’s a constant source of discussion. So, OK, Kater Gordon worked her way up. I rewrite almost everything. And some people take credit on it, and some people don’t, and I take credit on it, and I always feel like that’s better for my relationship with the writer and my relationship with the show when I’ve done the amount of work that I do. It has to be up around a 70% rewrite for me to do that. And everyone agrees to that. And with Kater it did not work out, and I did not think it was right to string her along. And she knew that it had not worked out. And I wasn’t going to make her wait, as showrunners had done to me, until a week before staffing season to be told that she would be let go. I thought she had just won an Emmy and she would have the best chance of getting a job with this huge award in her hand. I was shocked at the reaction to it.
DEADLINE: What about the knock that you’re a control freak?
WEINER: To be honest with you, being a control freak, I don’t consider that an insult. I’ve never worked for someone or with someone who was successful and who was not a control freak. And the fact that I have an opinion and a vision or whatever you want to call it about every aspect of the show may seem overwhelming to people. That does not mean that I can’t be talked out of anything. I think my interpersonal aspect of control is very lenient when it comes to human beings. But my control over the work is absolute. And it gets brought out even more when you’re working on a budget like I’m working on. I can’t afford to reshoot anything. So all you’re trying to do is reduce the chances of failure. And it’s not completely possible, but at least you can say, ‘Well, I did everything I could.’
DEADLINE: Then there was your second Emmy acceptance speech which you began, ‘…As I was saying.’ People perceived it as you having an attitude of ownership towards the award.
WEINER: I had been played off in the middle of my other speech. And I had not been told that I wasn’t allowed to talk. And so that was my joke, because I was in the middle of thanking my wife, and the sound went out, and now I was getting to talk again. All I can tell you is I am a compulsively honest person and I have admitted all of my fears and failures and negative emotions in public. And the irony is, that has been transferred into arrogance, I don’t know what to tell you. Nobody wants to be thought of as arrogant. If arrogance is anxiety plus insecurity, then yeah, I’m arrogant.
DEADLINE: I totally get that.
WEINER: And let me tell you, going up and speaking in front of an audience that looks like someone dumped your television set out in front of you is not something I can do. Where you can’t hide behind the podium, and you don’t know if there’s pee spreading on your pants, and you’re really excited, and there’s a clock up there that says, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ So the fact that I was able to say anything and not swear by accident is surprising. I don’t know how to explain this, but the show’s success has been a surprise, having my name known by strangers has been a surprise. Because all I wanted to do in my life was to be known as being a good writer. And everything else that goes along with it I always feel it’s like the evil eye. I’ve read too much Shakespeare to not think that the minute you feel secure about things, it will be taken away from you. And I’m Jewish. I’ve got all these superstitions.
DEADLINE: Like what?
WEINER: Oh, I can’t tell you or it will take away their magic.
DEADLINE: Please tell me you’re not wearing the same underwear each awards show.
WEINER: No, no, it’s nothing like that. I mean I have talismans. I have good luck charms.
DEADLINE: Last question. If somehow you don’t win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series again, are you going to feel you have failed the show?
WEINER: No, it’s what I said: of course we want to win, it’s my family, I think we deserve it, and I think we did a great job. But we’ve won a lot and it would be unseemly to suggest that anybody owes us anything or that there’s an expectation. You never expect it to happen. I didn’t expect it to happen last year. I really didn’t expect it to happen the first year.