As Weiner told Moviefone, he's concerned with storytelling and less focused on the medium, be it television, film, or theater. With that attitude, it should come as no surprise that the USC Film School alum makes his directorial feature debut this summer. His new movie, "Are You Here," stars Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Poehler in a tale of two childhood friends on a road trip home in the wake of a father's death.
In a candid conversation with Weiner, after revealing the five road trip movies he loves the most, we discussed the ill effects of technology, the warmth of Zack Galifianakis, and the "Mad Men" finale.
Moviefone: I recently re-watched your appearance on "The Colbert Report." You seem very interested in America and its transitionary period of the 1960s and '70s.
Matthew Weiner: I am. With "Are You Here," I really was trying to make a '70s movie and what I see in it is, there's a kind of social consciousness that's taken for granted and it just sorta made its way into the movie. What you get is a kind of grittiness, there's this mixture of tone that is closer to real life than the movie version of life. And a recognition that the world is changing around us and it's a strange feeling. The answer to this depressing question of What can I do about everything changing? Or what's happening to the country? Or what's happening to the world? Or is it just me getting older? is that you have an amazing gift of just being alive. And that's what I feel in a lot of these [road trip movies] no matter what the endings are like. There's always a kind of an answer to the question -- and it's certainly what I try to do in "Are You Here" –- saying, there is gratitude for friendships, there is gratitude for food. There's so much that is smaller than everything else we concentrate on, that is right in front of us, which we take completely for granted –- mostly other people.
Do you think as the country has developed, particularly with technology, we've gotten away from that a little bit?
I think that whenever there is a technological revolution, people tend to get irrational [laughs] and embrace things that are not substantiated by science or reason and that can be scary also. They can revert back to religion, either fanatical or intolerant. They can cling to the past, but I think for the most part it can be a reformation of the best parts of us, and we've done it on the show ["Mad Men"] about littering. We talked about garbage. Just the idea that there's consciousness about throwing garbage out the window.
I'm not a luddite; I love phones. I'm not a vegetarian. I just like to appreciate the fact that I don't want to be driven further and further away from people and from nature. And I think it is a reaction to massive technological change.
How did the cast of "Are You Here" come together?
When you make an independent movie, everything is dependent on casting. Probably, when you make any movie at this point. What you hope is that the actors are interested in the material and interested in working with you. I wrote the movie for Owen [Wilson]. It was about seven or eight years ago, and I got to meet him... and I said I want you to read this movie, I wrote it for you, and he said "yes."
Zack [Galifianakis] was not someone I knew about when I was writing it, but in the back of my mind, these two characters were Chevy Chase and Jon Belushi. Jon Hamm introduced me to Zack and Zack's work, and it was right before "The Hangover." I was like, this guy is so, so funny, so physical, and he has so much heart. I think you can see it in everything he does. His warmth counteracts anything he can ever say; you can just feel it. Amy [Poehler] I was a huge fan of, and I thought she would be amazing for Zack's sister. The casting, once you have the script, is the most important part of getting any film off the ground. I was very lucky everything coincided.
Why did you venture into filmmaking at this point, especially with "Mad Men" still on the air?
The script is something I wrote when I was at "The Sopranos." I always thought it would be my first movie, and it was a story that I knew was a movie, and something I had to say. I'm kind of motivated by story and then I kept trying to get it going and never really had time, or couldn't get an actress... The cast has to get a lot of traction on it... We actually shot the movie, did a season of "Mad Men," and then finished the movie.
If you could produce only TV or movies for the rest of your career, which would you choose?
I don't know. I hate to say it, but I don't even think of it that way. You have ideas for storytelling and it's a very specific thing. What story becomes a short story? What story becomes a play? What story becomes a novel? It's really that different. And the idea for a TV show has to have such a complex premise to sustain a long period that it's a different kind of idea. The idea for a movie has to have a climax built into a very short space and have a real sense of resolution. That's not really part of TV. You think of an idea for a play, you're like, I think this happens in one room, or two rooms; it's like four or five people. That would be the most boring movie in the world.
One thing is that I love watching TV, and I love watching movies, but I had no idea that I would end up being a television dramatist. I had no idea. It's been incredible. I didn't even know the [TV] world existed when I went to film school, and it turned out to be so exciting and fulfilling. I never expect to have this kind of success again with a TV show, but the pleasure of how quickly things are done once the show is running. And writing scripts that you don't have to sell because you have to shoot another one tomorrow. It's literally just blueprints of story. It's a very different environment.
Are you nervous about the audience's expectation to the "Mad Men" finale?
Not yet. We were all so happy with how it came off from a production standpoint. It was something I'd wanted to do for years, and the writers all felt good about it, that it was the right thing. But I have no idea how the audience will react to anything. I'm not kidding. [laughs] I'm never right, I'm never right. [laughs] Because I've been so lucky to have people be enthusiastic about the show, I still don't know all the time what they like or don't like. I can't work backwards that way. I use the audience that I have access to, which is my wife, my writers, my actors, certainly, and the people that I work with. Those are the people. No one lies to me around here. One of the great things about this experience, and I don't know if it's just my personality, but no one has ever hesitated to tell me that they don't like something.
It gets to the point where you just can't worry about the audience. They've put enough trust in you so far.
I would not say I don't worry about them because I am an entertainer, and I really am on my knees to them half the time. I'm always trying to excite them, and surprise them, and please them, but what will actually happen, I have no idea. And, in fact, there are so many stages of reaction at this point. "Mad Men" came about as the recapping thing happened. There was a little bit of it at the end of "The Sopranos," but the internet blew up, really, probably from the finale of "The Sopranos."
There are the people who write about the show while they're watching it, and then there are the people who write about it the next week, and then there are the people who write about it the next season. And then there are the people watching it on Netflix six years later. I'm carrying all of that and it's all different, ya know? It's all different.