A year after Don Draper bought the world a Coke in the series finale of Mad Men, his creator, Matthew Weiner, has returned to television — not as a writer or show runner but as a director on Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange Is the New Black.
Weiner helmed the penultimate installment of Season 4, The Animals, which ended with a tragic plot twist inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and, arguably, the most devastating episode of the series to date.
We recently spoke to Weiner about the experience of being a director-for-hire. Spoilers to follow, naturally.
Q: The episode you directed is pretty gut-wrenching.
A: Jenji (Kohan, the show’s executive producer) had floated the idea to me. I didn’t know when, or if, it would happen. It worked out for my schedule, and that’s all I can tell you. I wanted to be the director that hopefully wasn’t doing any of the other things that bothered me when I had Jenji’s job. Including learning 65 names. I really wanted to come in there and not feel like I was cashing a paycheck. It was really a challenge. It’s actually kind of scary.
Q: In what way?
A: I’ve never directed anything I haven’t written before. This is the life of a visiting director. You’re coming into a machine where people are very close to each other. You’re new, and you’re not part of any inside jokes, and you’re not part of the success of the show, honestly.
Q: Why did you want to do it? You directed many episodes of Mad Men, but directing someone else’s show seems unusual.
A: I love the show. I feel like it’s one of the only contemporary things on television that has so much bite. It’s so thoughtful. And then there’s this great ensemble of people that I’ve never seen before.
The other thing is I really respect Jenji as an artist. We know each other because our kids went to school together. Marti Noxon, who worked on Mad Men, is her sister-in-law. David Kohan, her brother-in-law who created Will & Grace, went to college with me.
The funny thing is I’ve always respected her as an artist. Weeds being on the air when I was on The Sopranos, it was so unconventional. Jenji was one of the three show runners that I had a conversation with before I started Mad Men.
One of the things that was particularly inspiring was that Jenji is very unafraid story-wise. Her mantra is there’s always more story, which is very helpful to think about and helps you exploit the opportunities you have instead of dragging things out as long as possible. She’s been an extremely influential creative force in my life. Then there’s just commiseration. It’s a very strange job. I know that people perceive that it’s absolute power, but it’s actually absolute insecurity. She was always comforting.
Q: What were the particular challenges of directing this episode?
A: I had all the challenges you could have. First of all, you’re always working under financial pressure. How to get the most without being cheap is already a problem.
The big finish, I think, has the most cast I’ve ever seen in one place (on this show). It had the most people on the call sheet. The only time we could get everybody together was on a Sunday. There were four cameras in that last scene. And every single person who was in that cafeteria was important.
It was the closest thing I could describe to being a military leader. The floor was filled, the ceiling was cut apart so I could get that shot at the end.
Of course, all of this was particularly difficult under the context that a beloved character is in peril but also a beloved co-worker is leaving. Forgetting about the gasp that went out when we were just walking through Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) putting his knee on Poussey — the gasp of everyone recognizing the tableau of the policeman on top of a person of color — other than that there’s the fact that, Oh, my God it’s Samira (Wiley).
It’s a technical, logistical and emotional nightmare. When you’re in show business, those are the things that make you nervous about going to work.
Q: With Poussey’s death, the allusion to Eric Garner is very clear. Did you refer to the footage at all when you were figuring out how the scene would look?
A: No. That image is so symbolic in our mind. From Rodney King on, from the first time we had a repeated video exposure to powerlessness at the hands of authority, I think it’s just there. I was much more oriented to the logistics of the scene, and those were specified. Those were written down. You don’t want to tip off the scene or the ending at any point in the episode.
There’s so much chaos going on, which is kind of how it happened. As a writer, I particularly loved all of these two-person scenes that were so hopeful — not just in Poussey’s story — everybody is making up, everybody is talking about the future. There’s a feeling, even with Caputo (Nick Sandow), that somehow we can think beyond this moment.
We know that Bayley is not suited for the job. He’s not a cruel person. He’s also aware in the flashbacks of his privilege. All of that is built in thematically. When you get them into that final scene, all I cared about is that you didn’t know it was going to go that bad.
Q: It escalates so quickly. That’s part of what makes it so devastating.
A: That’s what chaos is. In the end, you can see that Bayley is completely in the wrong place. He’s completely unqualified to be in that position, and Piscatella (Brad William Henke) has set a stage where innocent people can get hurt. He’s a fascist.
Q: Did working on this series make you want to get back in the writers room?
A: It was just such a different experience. I was happy that Jenji was happy. She was on set. She was rewriting (Episode) 13. I was like, she’s not going to get pity from anybody in the whole world except me. I’m like, Oh, man, I’m glad I’m not you right now.
// Notes from the Road
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