'Mad Men': The story behind 'Zou Bisou Bisou'
When Matthew Weiner cast Montreal native Jessica Paré as a pretty assistant at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, only a few people knew that she would eventually become Mrs. Don Draper. Initially, Paré was not one of those few, so even after a moon-eyed Draper proposed to her during the final episode of season 4, she understood that her next scene could very easily include her resting peacefully in a casket. But Weiner had other ideas, and in the long-awaited season 5 premiere, he unveiled a whole new show dynamic, with Don and Megan’s relationship at the heart of it. “I said it as a joke, but the story of the season for me is that Don and Megan are soul mates,” says Weiner. “They are one person and that person is Don. And right in that first episode, there’s a line from Roger where he says, ‘They’re all great until they want something.’ As soon as Megan starts to separate from him by rejecting advertising and pursuing her acting career, it’s very hard on them. It’s very hard on him.”
In that two-hour premiere, titled “A Little Kiss,” the seeds of the season’s tension were ingeniously planted with one amazingly hypnotic song and dance number. Harry Crane wasn’t the only member of the audience who was mesmerized by Paré’s sexy rendition of Gillian Hills’ playful 1960 single. “Zou Bisou Bisou” was practically trending online before the episode concluded, and the catchy tune would reverberate for weeks. Below, Weiner reflects on the kernel of the idea that sprouted into an unforgettable moment for the Emmy-winning AMC drama, and Paré describes the terrifying challenge of bringing it to the screen.
MATTHEW WEINER: It would be a lie to say there wasn’t a showmanship aspect to it. We’d been off the air for 17 months — against my will — and I really wanted to make sure that we gave the audience some bang for their buck. It wasn’t the major thing, but it’s certainly where some of it came from. For me, the origin of the idea was that Don had proposed to this woman, and the audience didn’t even know if he was going to marry her. And the audience didn’t know anything about her. And I kind of wanted to give her a character moment, especially if the whole season was going to be about their relationship and what it meant to Don — to sort of introduce her to the audience and to the other characters through her personality. What I thought was, it’s one of the old saws of all entertainment — the surprise birthday party — and I loved the idea that this woman was very different from the people at the office. That she was younger, that she had a different set of rules, that she was more fun-loving, that she was extroverted, and that Don’s intense, almost-pathological privacy was going to be broken by this woman’s personality. She is throwing the surprise party — which means he has no say in it. No one knew at that time she was going to become an actress, so what better time to show her do this song for him, in front of all his “friends.” I mean, it was story: this is who this woman is. I think people thought that the whole story was going to be about him hiding his past from her, but you find out right there and then that she knows it all. So where is the show going to go? Well, whether you realize it or not in that episode, you just witnessed the major conflict in their relationship. That she has her own personality and Don can’t control it. She is expressing her sexuality out in front of everyone.
I love music from this period. I didn’t know it was a genre, but I was raised on a lot of light French movies. There was a lot of this music in the Pink Panther movies and things like that, American movies with a little bit of European flair to them. So I was looking for the right sort of sexy song for her to sing, and for some reason or another I found this song, realized I’d heard it before, and it just had the perfect mix of childishness and sexiness that made it a socially-appropriate strip tease. The other thing was I wanted it to feel like a real person doing it. I didn’t want it to feel like it was some big, rehearsed choreographed number. I wanted to feel like it was somebody who had just sort of practiced it a few times in their house and had the guts to do it.
JESSICA PARE: I never heard “Zou Bisou Bisou.” It was completely new to me. I loved it. I think it’s so of that time and that place. It’s really a very French, very silly song, which was so en vogue at that point. And I loved that it was in French because I like using that part of my brain. But what happens immediately with that song, and why I think it’s such a brilliant choice, is that you hear it once and it’s stuck in your head for two weeks. And I think that has a lot to do with why it was something that captured everyone’s imagination.
WEINER: I cast Jessica to be Mrs. Draper, and we just started to see that she looks, to me, like a French movie star from this period. And I just loved that feeling of sophistication that she has. Even though she’s from Montreal, we exploited that as much as possible — this European character. I didn’t know she could sing. I was a little worried about that. I asked her. I always ask — when I have an idea, I’m like, “Can you do this?” I think I called her and talked to her about it. And then we sent her the song. I’m very lucky because I have a good relationship with everyone who works on the show, and they express their anxiety and their excitement to me. So, um… I talked her down a little bit. [Laughs] You know, they don’t want to fail. No one’s afraid of embarrassing themselves; they’re more about they don’t want to fail the show in some abstract way. You just have to say to them, like, “I really think you can do this.” And then the sleepless nights are their problem.
PARE: In the first season, I had nothing to lose. All of a sudden the stakes were going to be a bit higher, so beginning the season with a song and dance routine, which aren’t comfortably in my wheelhouse, was a big challenge. I like to sing, but so far it’s been limited to my car, and the shower, and the occasional family bonfire. Before this, I never sang professionally. I got to go into a real grown-up studio, and it was so cool to be part of that whole process, but it took me like five takes before I could even breath because I was very anxious.
WEINER: Dancing is more tough. Jessica is very athletic and was slightly self-conscious about it.
PARE: I’m not a dancer. I mean, I like to dance — I took ballet until sixth grade, I think, like every other girl in the world. I have to say, my first experience with the choreographer was pretty frustrating because Mary Ann Kellogg is an incredible dancer, and it’s just so effortless for her. Everything just seemed so overwhelming and so complicated for me. I think we had three or four six-hour rehearsals. It’s long and it’s hard if you’re not a dancer. Mary Ann is a lot of fun, so that helps, but I would break down and eat a Snickers bar in between and cry. [Laughs] But then we just broke it down into elements in the song where we could bring in these ‘60s dance moves. So we just ended up doing it that way, finding a few videos online that we really liked and trying to find where we can fit them in, and sort of filling it in around that.
WEINER: Of course, what it becomes about is that this woman is actually a character, and deciding what kind of character she was, we do it the way we always do it. What had she done that we knew of? She had gone to New York to be an actress and failed. That already requires a certain personality. She had gone to work in that advertising agency. She had gone after Don, to some degree. And then, when the opportunity was right and he asked her to marry him, she said yes, so she’s impulsive.
PARE: We would rehearse and every couple of hours, Matt would come down with the whole writers room and just sit there and watch me to do this dance. I was like, “It’s not fair! We’ve only been working on it for two hours!” But it was extremely helpful because there were pieces that got cut immediately, and there were pieces that were elaborated upon, and there was an element of performance of bringing “Megan” into the dance more. Because when you’re working with a choreographer, they just want to put a dance together. Matt was there to remind us that this isn’t a professional dancer; this is a woman doing a sort of sexy dance for her husband.
WEINER: [Jon Hamm’s reaction] was scripted. It’s one of those things where the character could go many different ways, and my basic feeling was — and Jon loved this — that Don would be embarrassed at first, and then he would really enjoy it. Because he loves that woman. And we’re kind of wondering the same as Peggy, who says, “I don’t recognize that man.” He’s in love, and he’s changed. The other thing that’s great is that Jon gives you such a range of behavior, but he really gauged it. And director Jennifer Getzinger worked with him; we had a lot of talk about how he sat down, and his sort of getting lost in the song at a certain point.
PARE: She’s giving him a gift. She spent time in secret to practice a dance routine probably with a dance instructor, and it never once crosses her mind that it might be embarrassing for him because… how could it be? She’s giving him this performance. I think that’s so lovely. It’s not something that I would find in myself, but I really get it. It’s something my mom would do, for sure. It’s nice to be able to take inspiration from her.
WEINER: The most amazing thing about it is after doing the choreography, and the director coming in, and doing all this preparation, and recording our own version of the song with David Carbonara, and having Jessica sing it, when we got to the set, the cast is really there. Everyone you see at that party was really standing there when she did it the first time. I’m telling you, my heart was beating so much. And when she did it, everyone just burst into applause. Seriously, it’s the thing that separates them from the rest of us: the ability to commit to something like that and not be embarrassed. It’s very impressive to me. Something I can’t do.
PARE: Everything leading up to that moment is sheer terror. Very cold and hot all at once, and I definitely felt like I might just pass out, which would be embarrassing. At that point, you just let your body take over, and you do it. There’s no place to hide any more, and you trust that your body has memorized the dance and all the lyrics are in your brain. It’s a leap. Jumping in with both feet and not only doing this dance, which I’m not comfortable with, but doing it in front of these incredibly iconic performers — I mean, Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks and Lizzie Moss — was unnerving. But I think part of my enjoyment of the scene is knowing exactly how terrified I was. I don’t think I ever quite got through it perfectly every single time, but with the luxury of multiple takes and the incredible editing team [led by Christopher Gay] — honestly, if you had seen what was happening on set, you’d be like, “Oh good for you, honey. You did a good job.”
WEINER: There are a huge amount of people on this show who can sing. Some of them say they can’t, and then you get them in there, and they sure can sing better than I can. We all said to Jessica, “You might want to change your email from whatever it was. There’s a chance that you’re going to be more famous than you were after this airs.”
PARE: I’ll be perfectly honest with you, the next day [following the premiere] when I was walking down the street, I thought I was going to be f—king famous. [Laughs] I popped in the grocery store and was like, “Hey guys, ‘Zou Bisou,’ anybody? No? Really? No one? Okay.” But after a few weeks, you could tell that people were catching up [with their DVRs], and then I went to New York, and that was a whole different story. I definitely was getting recognized. Occasionally, I’ll get into an elevator and people will be quiet — like they’ll be talking, and then I’ll get in and everyone shuts up. And I have this little fantasy that maybe I’ll indulge one day where I’ll let the moment of silence sit for a second, and then just be like, “Zou bisou bisou…” But I always lose my nerve because maybe they’re just being quiet because I have something on my face.
WEINER: Whenever anybody says that they’re trying to create watercooler sh–, they are insane. You have no idea, and you don’t even hope for it. All I knew is that we could not stop humming that song, and by the time it came out, I was like I don’t think I want to hear that song ever again. So I was totally surprised. I didn’t know if the show was going to premiere and then disappear this time — because we had been off the air for so long, I didn’t know if we were going to be punished for that. Or forgotten. So the fact that people enjoyed it so much and were downloading the song, and it became a cultural reference, I was totally surprised. We didn’t know that was going to happen, and it made me very excited to see people were engaging in it because the show had moved on to a different place. I never want to repeat myself, so having a new dynamic accepted by the viewing audience, that’s kind of your dream come true.
PARE: I did a couple of dates with the Jesus and the Mary Chain last summer because of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which was amazing because they’ve been one of my favorite bands for forever, but I’ve let [the song] rest. I don’t know if I’ll get in trouble for telling you this, but, my mom loves it so much that she’s actually performed it at parties. It’s so sweet. She really loves it, and I did tell her that I really took a lot of inspiration from her, so I think that kind of inspired her to try it out.
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama