SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Mad Men Season 7 midseason premiere.
If Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had a right-hand man for the seven seasons of his acclaimed AMC series, it certainly had to be fellow executive producer Scott Hornbacher. Having worked with Weiner on The Sopranos, where he was a co-producer, Hornbacher has been behind the scenes for the whole run of the tales of Don Draper and what has become Sterling Cooper & Partners. He also directed nine pivotal episodes of the series — including the Season 6 premiere and tonight’s Season 7 midseason return.
Long story short – Hornbacher is the man beside the man behind Mad Men. I chatted with him recently about what it was like to direct the first of the last of the Emmy-winning 1960s-set show’s final episodes, how it feels to see the end of an era, and how it really all ends.
DEADLINE: Directing the first of the last of the final episodes of Mad Men, how much did you know of how it is all going end on May 17?
HORNBACHER: Well because of my collaboration with Matt, I was certainly as up to speed and knowledgeable about what was coming in these final seven episodes as anyone was as we embarked on this first episode in the last seven. So I knew a lot of what was being set up in this episode, which is a gift and helpful when you’re telling a story. To some degree, I knew more than a lot of the actors and almost everyone else on the crew about the larger picture. And the script was strong, of course, which we’ve all come to expect
DEADLINE: The marketing for these final episodes has talked about “the end of an era,” which works both figuratively and literally. Watching this first of the final seven episodes, it feels a lot like the story was reaching back to the very beginning.
HORNBACHER: Yes, to me, the story of the episode evoked the first season of the show, in terms of the kind of storytelling it was. It was a very Don-centered story. In some ways, it’s a little more pared down, I think, because it’s focusing in on Don and the core characters of the show and I think that because of Don’s experience of reconnecting with Rachel Menken in his dreams, and then learning of the demise of her in real life, it’s sort of a reckoning for him and starts the beginning of him having a deeper questioning about who he is and where he’s going.
DEADLINE: It’s an interesting tactic for a show’s ending.
HORNBACHER: I think even the fact that they were in a diner that our production designer Dan Bishop did this amazing job of making it feel like a really, really old New York place. It was not glamorous. It felt very much like the kinds of places we went in Season 1. So I think that there was a sort of self-nostalgia aspect for the earlier origins of the show in a great way. Because, I think, to get the audience to start to feel some sense of nostalgia about the characters and what’s going on, which I think Matt has tried to avoid up until this point. It’s a great way to hook people in now.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Mr. Weiner, with that long collaboration you have had in one form or another since The Sopranos, how have you seen him change over the seven seasons of Mad Men?
HORNBACHER: I think that he, like the characters on the show, is in essence the same person. I’ve watched his mastery of the process grow and mature, and his ability to orchestrate the writing machine and to convey his vision to all of us here helping him execute that vision just got better and better.
So I think that the confidence, and the camaraderie, and everything else was reflective in all of us these last couple of seasons. I think we’re much different in that when you practice a lot at something you become more comfortable and confident. And I think Matt, myself, I mean all of the other folks who contributed to the show creatively, we were in our stride.
DEADLINE: Producing, directing a number of important episodes over the show’s run, it’s now several months since Mad Men truly ended production so how are you feeling going into this last stretch?
HORNBACHER: I’m so grateful, because this is really, other than my wife and my three boys, the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Certainly in my professional career. And it’s been such a rich part of my life. So I think it’s a normal human thing to feel emotional about these things, and just trying to embrace that, and sort of accept it, and as much one can enjoy being sad sort of enjoy the fact that letting go of the show.
Definitely the whole year has been pretty cathartic. And the end of production, and saying goodbye to everybody all standing in the same place was definitely a challenge.
DEADLINE: Of course, the big question is how is it all going to end after seven seasons? Matt wouldn’t give specifics, but he did tell me that it wasn’t a mystery to be solved like the finale of Lost. What do you think is going to be the reaction among Mad Men fans to the end of Mad Men?
HORNBACHER: I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some amount of controversy, because everybody has expectations. I feel like on some level every year when the show goes on the air people are a little bit upset that it’s not what we did the season before. So then they kind of get on board with what the story is and all the sudden they realize what’s happening and they like it. So I think that Mad Men demands a certain amount of processing sometimes to really think about what is going on with the characters and what it means.
I expect that that will hold out to be true for the finale. But I feel very strongly that the way the show ends is a culmination of Don’s story and the series in a way that it is very appropriate and gratifying. I feel like we did everything we could to execute it in the best way possible, and I’m pretty sure people are going to embrace it. It certainly is a fitting end in my view.