April 29, 2014

Mad Men @ SCA

By Phillomina Wong

The creative team behind Mad Men, the AMC hit about the advertising heydey of 1960s Madison Avenue, visited SCA’s TV SymposiumCourse (CTCS 467) on Monday, April 28 for a special Q&A session moderated by Professor Howard Rosenberg.

USC Alumni Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy

In attendance were creator Matthew Weiner, writer and producer Erin Levy, writer Jonathan Igla, co-producer Marcy Patterson and costume designer Janie Bryant. Weiner, Levy and Igla are all SCA alums. Weiner graduated from the Production division and was the recipient of the Mary Pickford Alumni Award at last year’s Commencement. The show’s director of photography Chris Manley, producer Scott Hornbacher and actress Elisabeth Moss (who plays copywriter Peggy Olson) also attended the discussion. 

Following a screening of a recent episode, students asked the panel questions about the inner workings of the series. Among the main themes that emerged, emphasized by Weiner throughout the discussion, were the importance of storytelling and allowing narrative arcs to develop organically.

One of the most popular shows on television (as well as a top choice of just about every critic) Mad Man uses historical events in telling its characters’ personal stories. The show’s writers use their main characters to show how people who lived through the time period perceived and reacted to events like the Kennedy Assassination, the Civil Rights Movement and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

While these are now considered defining cultural events, Americans weren’t consumed with their ramifications on a daily basis. “One of the things we learned from talking to people that lived through the era is that what they were (actually) thinking about is what was happening in their day-to-day life,” said Scott Hornbacher. In order to ensure that characters act authentically, the panelists said, they have distinguished between the actual perceptions of the time and the way we now think about the era.

Co-producer Marcy Patterson says she uses her mom’s experiences during that time, when women were not considered workplace equals, as a measure of authenticity. And during that time, she said, her mother did not realize the types of social changes that were taking place. “It definitely makes me happier that I am a woman working now versus in that time frame because I don’t have to work as hard to prove that I am capable as someone like Peggy would have to,” Patterson told the students. “It’s definitely opened my eyes to a lot of things for sure.”

Despite the time warp, actress Elisabeth Moss said she loves playing Peggy Olson, who began the series as a secretary before determinedly working her way up to chief copywriter. “Every time they say action and I get to open my mouth as her, it feels like I’m home.”

When asked if any one of the show’s female characters is stronger than the others, writer Erin Levy said, “All people have weaknesses and we’re just trying to portray humans.”

Weiner, Levy, Moss. Igla, Manely, Hornbacher, Patterson, Bryant and
Rosenberg at the discussion

Costume design is another important aspect of the show that helps in the storytelling and Mad Men is credited with bringing back 1960s fashions like pencil skirts and fitted suits. Costume designer Janie Bryant says many of the outfits the characters wear are drawn from real, everyday wear catalogs and family photos from the era. “I really do love the everyday catalog because that’s what the story is about; everyday characters’ lives and telling that in a very realistic way, ” Bryant said.

The show’s creator Matthew Weiner emphasized that everyone on the cast and crew is equally valuable in contributing to the stories and the characters that live them, telling the students that he first learned this lesson during his time at USC. “You have to remember that whatever your job is in this chain, you have to help tell the story,” he said.

Weiner said the process of doing a period show on television guarantees that challenges are going to crop up. Those challenges, he says, keeps the creators on their toes and make the show better. “Anything that comes along that is different is interesting and forces us to tell the story differently.”

Mad Men is currently airing its seventh, and final, season.

 For more information on Mad Men visit:http://www.amctv.com/shows/mad-men