Toronto: Matthew Weiner talks about 'You Are Here'
“I’m going to miss f—ing you. I used to think there was more… but there’s not.”
On paper, this line of dialog reads like some crude kiss-off from Don Draper. But in You Are Here, Matthew Weiner’s feature-film directorial debut, it’s a wry kiss-off from Owen Wilson that elicits chuckles instead of gasps. Wilson plays Steve Dallas, a charming TV weatherman who’s getting by in the world with as little effort as possible. When his less successful childhood friend, Ben (Zach Galifianakis), turns to him for support after his estranged father dies, the two return to their rural Pennsylvania town for the funeral and to pick up the pieces with Ben’s sister, played by Amy Poehler.
Fans of Mad Men may or may not be surprised by the film’s more whimsical comic spin — after all, Weiner is the same guy whose idea of funny is driving a John Deere tractor over an executive’s foot at an office party. But long before Mad Men and writing for The Sopranos, Weiner worked on TV shows like Becker, with Ted Danson, and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. He penned the script for You Are Here when he was still writing for The Sopranos, and now that he’s a big powerful genius, things finally fell into place — if not immediately. “I wrote the movie for Owen Wilson and it took me eight years to even get the script to him,” Weiner said at Sunday’s screening of his film at the Toronto Film Festival, “which will tell you something about whether or not a hit TV show will help you.”
Jon Hamm read an early version of Weiner’s script and suggested Galifianakis — before his breakout role in The Hangover. When everyone’s schedules coincided in between seasons of Mad Men, Weiner grabbed the opportunity to direct his first Hollywood movie. He sat down with Entertainment Weekly to discuss You Are Here — which is in Toronto looking for a distributor — the helpful on-screen baggage of movie stars, and whether there are any clues in the movie that might indicate Don Draper’s fate. For the record, Wilson’s sly womanizer does not fall out of the window of a skyscraper or down an elevator shaft.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I love that you wrote this with Owen specifically in mind, because his unique voice and charm keeps the character of Dallas from being too dark and brooding.
MATTHEW WEINER: The word charming is there, and also the other word that was in the description was guileless. It’s a non-malicious sort of glibness. This character speaks the truth all the time. He’s literally saying the most awkward, awful things 90 percent of the time and getting away with it. That’s something that you get when you get a movie star; they’re bringing that baggage in with them and you get to use it as part of the irony of the story. It always goes back to me, believe it or not, to a movie I admire a lot, which is Jerry Maguire. Being in the theater and seeing the moment where Tom Cruise falls down when he’s getting fired. He falls down — and the audience gasped. Because that’s not Jerry Maguire. That’s Tom Cruise! And that baggage — actually that positive star-quality of what that man had played — was playing against things in the audience’s mind. So I always try and capitalize on that when I can. You’re getting backstory, honestly.
Your movie has a strong theme of male adult friendship, and it reminded me of a magazine story I once read that claimed that most men, when they reach a certain age, stop — or forget — how to make new friends. They simply settle for co-workers and their kids’ friends parents and whoever else is most convenient.
That’s very interesting. That’s part of what I was interested in: these two guys are still in each other’s lives and it’s almost an excuse for both of them to not get on with their lives. They’re kind of stuck in it. They’re too old to be behaving that way. What is holding these two people together? Is it just this disaster that they’re sharing? And the message I wanted to say is that it’s a miracle to have somebody in your life, no matter who it is. Just being there is a big deal.
There’s maybe one line in the movie about Dallas’ relationship with his own family, but I like that you don’t dwell on his childhood looking for explanations for his behavior. He just is.
As a writer, I was trying to create some curiosity about what those two were doing together. There’s a line in All the King’s Men where Robert Penn Warren says, “The only person who truly knows you is the friend of your youth because he does not even see you.” And you just know that these two know each other — they’re just sort of existing together. I think there’s all kinds of backstory implied there: like, I definitely feel that Owen’s character and Amy Poehler’s character slept together in high school — and he blew her off. There’s a history there from that.
I just finished reading Brett Martin’s book about golden age of TV showrunners, Difficult Men—
Yeah, I didn’t participate and haven’t read it. Yet. But I’ve been hearing about it.
Well, Martin begins his book with an anecdote about when James Gandolfini went MIA on The Sopranos and just how difficult that role was for him personally. And I was reminded of that during your movie when Owen’s character basically has a meltdown, completely blows off his job — yet gets promoted — and says something like, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” Since you wrote the script for You Are Here during your time on The Sopranos, was there any creative confluence going on?
I was not there for that. That was right before I got there. And certainly that role was hard for Jim, as I think on some level, being Don Draper is hard for Jon Hamm. There’s a physical commitment that they make to it that is emotional. They’re athletic in their ability to call on these emotions, and the darker it is, they live with that. But I love the irony of the fact that when they want you, it doesn’t matter how badly you behave. [Laughs]
Why do we have such contempt for weatherman? In Hollywood, there’s Phil Connors from Groundhog Day …
I don’t know if we have contempt for them. For me, it was a metaphor because I like the idea that he’s not a meteorologist. He’s one of the last of those guys who’s just handsome and reads the weather. For me, it was a great thing that he really didn’t understand what he was doing. A lot of the movie is about the country and the city, and our relationship with nature. We are slowly being removed from it. What I loved was, here’s this guy who realizes by the end of the movie that you don’t need a weatherman — as Bob Dylan said — to know which way the wind blows.
A rudimentary difference between television and movies is just the way you perceive the audience experiencing it. For the most part you, the creator, don’t watch people watching Mad Men, like you did during this screening of You Are Here today. How does that feel?
We show the premiere and the finale that way, but for the most part, I don’t experience [Mad Men] with the audience. People are watching it by themselves. [The movie is] more of a performance, that’s for sure. You have to win people over and I was very conscious of doing that, of letting people in to it early in their new characters, new people. But as a physical experience, it’s very exciting. Like Jim Brooks said, “When people laugh, that’s the truth.” It’s indisputable, so that’s a great feeling.
The other difference you touched upon after the screening was your relationship with the actors. In Mad Men, as the show’s creator, you have a significant amount of credibility and influence with actors you helped establish, whereas in this movie, you’re working with two box-office stars. What was the feeling-out process for the latter, and did you have to adjust?
Absolutely. They were attracted to the material because of me and because of the writing so I had that going for me. But on a daily basis, you’re dealing with people who work in a very different way. Movie actors don’t start as close to the material as TV actors and there’s more investigation. I did have rehearsals, which did help us out with the feeling-out process. But honestly, about two weeks into it, I showed them a scene that was cut together — the time lapse that’s at the beginning. I mean, [Owen and Zach] were super-respectable. Everything was fine. It wasn’t like we were fighting or anything like that, but there was a complete change of behavior [after that]. You have to earn your trust — especially when they’re sort of out of their comfort zone and the movie’s complex.
Are you prepared for everyone to parse this script for clues to how you might conclude the last season of Mad Men?
I don’t know… I love that people are going to pay close attention to [the movie] on any level. The script is very layered. It stands up to multiple viewings. All of those issues that Dallas has changed — from the chicken, from the tree and the naked girl — that’s the kind of stuff that I hope people are looking at for meaning. I don’t mind the scrutiny for that. Its relationship to Mad Men…?
You know it’s going to happen, even if it’s just the tone.
I don’t know what to tell you. I mean, I’m interested in certain things. I think the things that the movie has the most in common with Mad Men is that there’s not a lot of judgment of the people, and that they are deeply flawed, and you should see something of yourself in them. In terms of the ending of the show, I don’t know what to tell you.
Have you been watching what Vince Gilligan is doing with the final chapter of Breaking Bad?
Of course. I can’t wait to see what he does with it.
Are you already into your own final season?
I’m working on the first episode’s script now. I went through this before with The Sopranos, and I can tell you that the audience is certainly more in your mind than it ever was.
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama