AT LACMA Fri 3.27.2015

What If Peggy Had Been Played By Bjork? And Other Funny Things Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner Talked About Last Night

The most surprising thing about seeing Jon Hamm and Mathew Weiner at last night’s Film Independent at LACMA Tribute to Mad Men was how blithe and funny the two are together. Their banter-filled, jokey conversation with Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell was a jarring shift, considering the themes of alienation and longing and guilt that had saturated the episode that had just screened.

It was a nice surprise, nonetheless, to see Hamm as the anti-Don, mugging and cracking jokes with an ebullient Weiner, who himself had selected the finale of season five, The Phantom, to screen.

In it, the SCDP partners are coping with Lane’s grisly suicide—he hanged himself from his office door; mid-life crisis-ing Pete (who gets punched out by two different guys in same train car) has a heavy fling with a woman whose electroshock therapy zaps her awareness of him from her brain; Don, suffering a debilitating toothache, is haunted by his dead brother (who also hanged himself) and Megan, flailing to find her place in the world, begs Don to breathe hope into her lifeless career. And, lets not forget Peggy. At one point in the conversation, Weiner summed up the symbolic scene of her plight in this episode: “You get this great job and you’re basically sitting in some horrible hotel watching two dogs fuck in the parking lot.”

The episode ends with Don alone in a bar at night. Two beautiful women are on the prowl. One approaches, needs a light, asks, “Are you alone?” He says nothing—and everything—with his eyes.

“Don seems to be a different guy at night,” Mitchell observed, to kick off the conversation.

“He’s not usually at work at night,” replied Hamm, “which presents its own set of challenges for Don. I think he gets a lot of … let’s call them… creative ideas at night.”

“A lot of crappy stuff has happened to him during the day,” added Weiner. “Who knows what night is to Don, he takes a nap a lot of times.”

“It’s a tool in the story that you tell and use in the writers room, when something happens, day or night, and sometimes you forget it’s a tool that you can use, just later in the day or time passing, or whatever, or day turning into night which I find particularly terrifying, as someone who naps during the day.”

“This episode in particular is a transformation for Don, not just the removal of his tooth. It’s strangely influenced by the Jewish holiday of Passover… I was told as a child that in the book that you read about Passover, Moses’s name is not mentioned. He was basically the lead in the Passover story and he’s not in there, the feeling being that if he was talked about, he would become worshipped instead of God—because of what he did. I love the idea that after Lane had died which everybody felt bad about, which Don feels coupled with in some way—he told him to make an elegant exit. He didn’t tell him to do that… His brother had killed himself… [Lane] dying in that way was something that Don could have fixed and he didn’t. It was guilt.”

Lane’s presence, that’s why it’s called The Phantom, not just because of Megan’s phantom career… There is a twilight feeling to the episode, and Lane is never mentioned but his presence is there.”

Weiner explained that they used lighting to underscore the phantom theme. For instance, when Don goes to Lane’s widow’s house, Lane’s red chair is quite well lit in the background. “There’s a lot of issues with focus in this episode,” Weiner said, noting that they were “able to afford swing-and-shift lenses, where you have two fields of focus.“

Mitchell asked about the James Bond song You Only Live Twice, which plays over Don’s final glance. Weiner said he was thinking about using the Bjork version in the pilot, which sparked a laugh. “You can laugh,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Hamm deadpanned, “Bjork was originally going to be Peggy.” More laughs. “You can laugh, but she was amazing.” Hamm smirked. “That’s so gonna trend.”

Weiner geeked out over James Bond. “He was so deep in the culture….  This super spy… There were so many great things about James Bond… best-selling books…there’s many great things about James Bond…  You Only Live Twice is this amazing movie… but this song, if you listen to the words, which you get to when you throw it up over picture… “

“… I know some people don’t listen to words in songs, and that’s disturbing to me,” Weiner said, shielding his eyes from the stage lights to peer out at the audience as if he could identify the guilty parties.

“Stand up and tell us about it,” quipped Hamm.

“We built this entire season around this ending concept, of Don giving Megan the job [a commercial for his shoe company account] and walking away from her and the set receding in the background…”

“The ends are always, … uh, tricky.” Hamm said. “And none more so than the end of the end, the final end, which we finished shooting in July. But they always feel very final and yet for the last three or four seasons, we’ve known we’re coming back in some way shape for form. So it was sort of like junior year in high school, where you’re like, ‘Oh this is sad, but we’ll see each other next year.’ And this was sort of like ‘Oh, this is sad, but wait a minute.’ So they’re always difficult in that sense, from a personal standpoint, emotionally saying goodbye to everybody and saying goodbye to the character. And then you layer into that, from an acting standpoint, trying to land the emotional resonance of the story, and make that a complete chapter that lives and breathes and feels like some sort of end, and yet knowing that there’s going to be another chapter.”

“It’s the end, it’s the last two miles of a marathon, so we’re all running on fumes,” Hamm said, “and you’re pushing through at that point too. I don’t want to sound like acting is so difficult in a back-breaking way… but it is emotionally challenging after four or five months and it represents the culmination of a lot of hard work and you so hope it lands.”

“We shoot 14, sometimes 15 hours a day and Jon works 12 of those on average,” Weiner said.

At the start of each season, Weiner said, “I have an idea everybody’s story sketched out in terms of a three-act structure. I don’t know how it’s gonna work. I don’t know how it’s gonna happen, and then just some idea of what the ending image is and for this one, at the beginning of season five I played this song and talked about what was going to happen.”

In the writers room, Weiner said, they usually ended up at the end of each season with nothing left—no storyline to carry into the next—with the exception of this one. Going into season six, they knew there was going to be a merger. “I want to get rid of everything we’ve had for the entire season, that’s it, there’s nothing left. That is a little bit scary but it’s also kind of satisfying.”

Pamela Miller / Website & Grants Manger