After 'Mad Men': AMC execs discuss their hits, and what's next
Ever since AMC stunned the TV industry with the launch of Mad Men, the network’s executives have relished the channel’s unofficial brand as “the HBO of basic cable” — high-quality, award-winning, conversation-driving dramas, without viewers having to pay an extra $15 a month. But six years since the world became enamored with Don Draper and workplace smoke breaks, there’s a scary part of HBO’s track record that AMC is eager to avoid: The post-breakout slump. After Sex and the City and The Sopranos, HBO struggled to regain its footing (the misfire that is most often cited is the short-lived John From Cincinnati — which launched the same year as Mad Men). With Breaking Bad concluding with record ratings last year, Mad Men about to enter its final season, and The Walking Dead approaching its fifth year this fall, AMC is ready for a new hit, and has two freshman dramas coming soon — Revolutionary War spy drama Turn and 1980s-set computer industry drama Halt and Catch Fire. And if those don’t work out, there’s an unprecedented 60-plus other projects in various stages of development, such as a 1950s-set thriller Area 51, 18th century barber drama Knifeman and post-technology apocalyptic series Galyntine.
EW sat down with AMC’s top executives for a wide-ranging and lively conversation. President Charlie Collier has led the channel since it first entered the original programming game and is credited with engineering its unlikely makeover from classic movie channel to basic cable drama leader, while Joel Stillerman has headed the AMC’s programming department since 2008. They duo come across as passionate about their work and gamely tackled both business-centric and fan-inspired questions — such as the reason for splitting Mad Men‘s final season, the reaction to The Walking Dead‘s latest creative risks, and all those franchise expansions in the pipeline, such as Better Call Saul and a Walking Dead spin-off.
You’re at a transition point, a pivot that even HBO struggled with, the end of the big-brand establishing dramas and trying to do it all again. Are you nervous about that?
CHARLIE COLLIER: I’ve been saying for awhile, this is a moment not the moment. From the beginning we’ve said, “What’s next?” Mad Men was a program we fell in love with, the critics fell in love with, and even when it was starting to launch we were wanting to make sure we weren’t just a period-drama network. We immediately started looking for something modern-day — “What’s next?” And that was Breaking Bad. Our readers would never say — if they didn’t know the context — that the same network houses Mad Men and Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad and Hell on Wheels. So we’ve always been about being eclectic by design. So I think we have a lot of work today because you don’t replace Mad Men or Breaking Bad, they go to the hall of fame and are part of your DNA forever.
JOEL STILLERMAN: There’s a method to the madness. These simple ideas of being unexpected and unconventional and finding the passionate audience have been our guiding principles for a number of years. Though we try to avoid calling it anything that feels like a formula, those are true north stars for us. If you look at what’s coming down the pike, they all check those boxes, either from a conceptual point of view or how they’re executed. And finding a passionate audience is very important, we’ve talked internally about how “word-of-mouth is the new lead-in.” Being able to activate around passionate audiences, whether tech for Halt and Catch Fire, or history for Turn, those are big ideas for us that we stick to even when it looks like we’re a little all over the map.
You mentioned wanting early on to be known for more than period dramas after Mad Men, but your next two dramas are period dramas, even though that genre is often lower rated than contemporary-set shows.
Collier: I think we’ve had great success not just going for the broadest audience, like with Mad Men and Hell on Wheels. We don’t go for the broadest audience, we go for the most passionate audiences. We have two period pieces coming out but I don’t think we’ll be defined by any one thing. One thing we hear today that we didn’t hear seven years ago from the audience is, “If it’s an AMC show, I’ll give it a shot.” Like: “Oh I wouldn’t normally like a show about zombies, but it’s not just about zombies, it’s about the human condition and survival.” We’re getting a lot of credit for our brand, offering “something more” — which is our tagline.
Stillerman: And there’s something great about period dramas. You can let loose these great designers and crafts people on something that looks beautiful. Television is still supposed to take you someplace you can’t go on the subway.
While splitting the final season worked tremendously for Breaking Bad ratings, it does tend to irk fans. You’re obviously now splitting the final season of Mad Men. What would you say to a fan who is annoyed by that?
Collier: You should start with Walking Dead.
But that’s not splitting a season across two years.
Collier: But we’re putting it into the best place for it to succeed with the most passionate audience. What you’re trying to do is reach that passionate audience in the best way. One of the reasons we split The Walking Dead [over a winter hiatus] is to get it out of the way of the Super Bowl and play-off football. I think we’re doing the best for the pop-culture experience to take it away from those events. You look at each decision we made, Breaking Bad was a slow build [in the ratings]. There are not many series in the history of television, certainly no Emmy winners, that build [their ratings] into year four and five. We split the season because we thought we could take advantage of the way people are consuming the shows now [via streaming and catch-up viewing]. With Mad Men, our job is to tee it up in a way fans will enjoy it.
Stillerman: Anticipation is still a good thing; this idea that TV is still an event and a true water-cooler medium. The way we decided to conclude Breaking Bad, I think, had a direct impact in a positive way in how much of an event that became. It was fun to go for that ride.
Is it fair to say that to a certain extent it’s about making Mad Men eligible for another round of awards in which it will not compete against Breaking Bad?
Stillerman: It didn’t even occur to us.
Collier: That goes back to your first question, the way we evaluate Breaking Bad and Mad Men, are individual, they’re very different shows. One of the reasons we’re well prepared to put ourselves in the way for success today as much as we were before, is we’re taking the time to ask ourselves, “Who are we trying to serve?” Our move of Hell on Wheels to Saturday night was a great example. The first reaction was, “Why are they burying it on Saturday night?” We went the other way. For two decades we had passionate fans of Western [movies] on Saturday night, so why not try to serve that passionate audience with a vehicle? And it grew on Saturday night! That’s the best example of ignoring traditional TV metrics that say, “You can’t do that because of perception.” It was a big gamble that paid off.
I know you cannot give a ton of detail on this, but what can you say to tease up the return of Mad Men? What’s unique about this next batch of episodes?
Collier: You’re right, we’ll give you no details [Laughter].
Stillerman: We left Don in a pretty interesting place…
In terms of the quality or the tone, is there anything that you can say in general?
Collier: Every time we get a Mad Men script, it’s a day at the office that everybody is thrilled to dive in. Certainly every episode I’ve read this year, it’s remarkable the way [creator Matthew Weiner] not only rises to the bar he sets for himself but outdoes it. All these characters, not just Don, are in a very different place from last season. Knowing that it’s coming to a close, knowing he’s writing the final arc, I think the details resonate more profoundly today because you know it’s coming to an end — which is another reason we’re trying to schedule it as an event.
He has so trained you guys not to say anything!
Collier: We buy in. The beauty in the way Matt thinks, he believes fundamentally what he’s creating is worth experiencing as a group. He believes in the TV audience coming together for an event.
Stillerman: He appreciates anticipation. More than anybody I’ve ever met he is devoid of cynicism for the audience. He believes they’re smart, they’re engaged and the ones that love the show will go with him for the ups and downs. There’s upside to people having no expectation.
Collier: This is not his training but my belief: He doesn’t disappoint. It’s another amazing season.
Have you considered a Mad Men post-show talk show?
Collier: Talking Mad?
Or Talking Men! Would Matt hate that idea?
Collier: We’ve talked about it, obviously. There’s no one pattern to the way AMC is going to handle a show. Each show is getting a different treatment. Mad Men is a unique experience that bears analysis in a different way than Walking Dead does, so we decided not to do it. If Matt wanted to do it, we’d be all-in. He doesn’t think it’s best for the show.
How’s the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul looking and what’s something specific that excites you about the creative on that show that perhaps hasn’t been said before?
Stillerman: It’s very early stages. Writers room literally just opening. [Executive producer Vince Gilligan] is fully engaged, remarkably engaged. I believe he wants to keep this world alive. The thing they talk most passionately about is changing the tone of what a one-hour can be. Better Call Saul is a great example of a drama re-imagined as something much funnier than it normally it is. He genuinely wants this to be funny and dramatic, and there’s very few people who could say that to us without eliciting massive skepticism. Obviously Vince gets that vote of confidence. Have you seen Nebraska?
Stillerman: It’s remarkable to see [Bob Odenkirk] in a straight-up dramatic role. It gives you a little insight into what he’s capable of as holding down a drama as a central character.
I’m on record as impressed with Walking Dead‘s latest showrunner Scott Gimple. Obviously you’ve had a few showrunners on Walking Dead, you’ve re-signed Gimple for next season. In your mind, what’s he bringing to the table that’s working?
Collier: What’s remarkable about Scott, among other things, is he’s a fan first. He’s done a great job as a showrunner, he’s broken [ratings] records, but we geek out first — and that’s remarkably refreshing. He understands the material in a very personal way. He services moments right out of the comic so beautifully and he works well with [comic creator] Robert Kirkman and also is a terrific writer of character. I think he has brought you as close to these characters as you’ve ever been.
Stillerman: I also think he wanted to up the ante in terms of the serialized character storytelling. What he really wanted to do is embrace some of the techniques you’d see in Mad Men, where a little piece of character storytelling gets laid in an early episode and then 10 episodes later — you’ll see a lot of that in the back eight — where things set up character-wise percolate and then explode. One of my favorite things that he says about The Walking Dead is the show is at its best when the action and emotion climax simultaneously. And that’s what he’s really great at — making sure the action beats don’t feel gratuitous, it has to happen in a moment where it has maximum emotional connection.
I actually loved The Governor two-parter. It felt like a stand-alone post-apocalyptic Western. But that had to give you guys some pause, like, “Wait a minute — we’re going to spend two episodes on this one character? And a character that not everybody liked from last season?”
Collier: Of course. You get those scripts and go, “What are people going to think?” And are we going to see the Norman Reedus fans saying, “Where is he?” But what a payoff!
Stillerman: The back eight [episodes], we’ve scattered [the characters] in all different directions — you’ll see more of that. My biggest fear is that [Governor actor David Morrissey] was such an engaging character — so much so we put him in another pilot immediately — my fear was how’s it going to feel for Andrew Lincoln and the rest of the cast. But they were so generous and so excited. They want that show to succeed and continue to expand and not rely on the same storytelling success it’s had.
Killing characters is a hallmark of The Walking Dead. Do you ever have concern that there’s only so far you can cut into the core cast? Or do you think it’s a format that can pretty much survive anything?
Stillerman: We do think it’s a format. Our plan is to keep that show going for a very long time. We think it’s cut from the kind of cloth that it could go for quite a lot of years.
Seven seasons? Eight? Nine?
Stillerman: I wouldn’t begin to guess. But we feel we have a lot of story left to tell. If you read the comics, Kirkman is in this zone that is almost indescribable in terms of the quality of the storytelling. He’s put out a couple of issues recently that have become some of the biggest selling comics of all time. I do think we feel like this is the kind of show where people die and everybody who is on it has come to accept that and understand it’s part of the DNA.
Was there any character they proposed killing you pushed back on?
Stillerman: Those decisions have always been made or presented to us after a really deliberate process. The behind-the-scenes dynamic of the show is one of camaraderie, it’s almost a personal thing when it happens. We always ask questions, we make sure there’s a good version of where it all goes afterward, and that it’s not just for a little spike. I don’t want to give you any details, but we went back and did a lot of work on the death of Andrea. Those things have to be emotional and be in the service of the story. It was a rare moment where we felt like we could do it better.
NEXT: The Walking Dead spin-off, and could Mad Men get one too?
Fans tend to get a certain degree of Walking Dead cabin fever when it comes to locations — the farm, the prison–
Collier: Have you seen the new campaign? “Don’t Look Back.”
Yeah, with the Hell on Wheels train tracks.
Collier: Wow, there’s a spoiler — wait until Anson Mount comes in and saves them! [Laughter]
Obviously they’re going out on the road for the back half of the season. To some degree relying on one location is a budgetary decision and given the show’s success I wonder: Does Walking Dead need a bigger budget to be as epic and location-jumping as some fans want it to be?
Stillerman: By every imaginable standard we put our money where our mouth is. If we ever found ourselves in a situation where we had to spend into a story that was worth it, we would have that discussion in earnest. Sure, you want to make sure you get your money’s worth out of the prison. We’re not only purveyors of quality content, we also have to be responsible for the bottom line. Thankfully we have a really cooperative relationship with the producers on that show and they’re great about it. We are applying some bottom-line thinking to that show and it has to work within the pattern that it has, but it’s a very generous pattern.
Actor and producer salaries aside, is there any budgetary difference between this season and next season?
Stillerman: Well, anytime you ditch a big set and are on the road, those are expensive episodes because you’re not getting the economies of scale as when you have standing sets. But we have a pretty long-term game plan for where we’re going. We know where this seasons ends, which is not unlike when we got to the prison — it’s a glimpse of what season 5 will be.
For any network, it’s important to have a reputation within the community of being a writer-friendly shop and being a great place to bring ideas. So with that preamble: What was your reaction personally when you saw former Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont’s comments about his time at AMC?
Collier: One and two on the board are being a premium network on basic cable and being a place where people bring their passion projects … There’s always some noise out there. But Matt Weiner brought us Mad Men and he’s going to see it to conclusion. Vince Gilligan did the same. Now Vince is back with [Better Call Saul executive producer] Peter Gould again. Look at the level of talent of people walking in the door. It’s not often the best [media] story, but more often than not we’re doing great things with some of the best talent in the business. The noise is the noise and it’s better ink, but we’re very focused on being a place where you want to bring your passion projects.
The Walking Dead spin-off. What’s the creative pitch?
Collier: It’s uh … it’s a musical. [Laughter] The best way to look at this is that when Robert Kirkman says he’s all-in for telling a story about what else is going on in the zombie apocalypse, we have a conversation [about] how do you make it different. How do you make sure it doesn’t damage the mothership? How do you make it creatively excellent? It’s early days.
It’s a prequel, though, right?
Stillerman: It’s in the ether. But Robert had to finish season 4. The creative is not baked yet. But one thing we talked about is there was a clear vision for Walking Dead, there was a clear reason to do it. We want there to be as clear of an idea for doing a sequel as there was for doing the original. So we’re working through that and almost thinking about it philosophically first.
You’re doing some spin-offs now. Eddie Van Halen famously fought with a producer who he said believed that if the band simply re-vamped a successful song, you’re already halfway to a hit — is that the draw?
Collier: Our development hasn’t changed to be unexpected and unconventional. Yet when you sit in our chair, if you have Breaking Bad and Vince and Peter say we have a way to engage around this character and create a different type of drama, you don’t let [that show] go anywhere else. If you’re Robert Kirkman and you have his brilliance around Walking Dead and he wants to explore what’s next, you do that. But our strategy is not to spin-off or be derivative. We’ve in a very fortunate position to have some iconic storytelling and better-still talent that wants to extend those franchises. We’re not bringing in Sammy Hagar and there’s no Diver Down II. Does that make sense?
Totally. Although it makes me wonder if you can definitively say Mad Men will be a stand-alone series without expansion.
Collier: When Vince says: “How does Saul Goodman become the best/worst lawyer in the world?” And he starts talking about who made this guy who he is, why he ended up in Albuquerque, how he ended up so caring yet so devious and you’re talking to Vince Gilligan — a man you’d bet on to do anything — that’s a go. But it’s much more about those shows specifically being so unique.
So there haven’t been any conversations about expanding the Mad Men world?
Collier: You know, nothing worth sharing with you. There’s nothing to say. We constantly look at everything on our slate and go how do we maximize it. And I notice Mad Men. Any expansion has to be creator driven.
Halt and Catch Fire. I love that title. And I was just talking to my editor and she hates that title.
Collier: Isn’t that great?
Was there much debate about that one?
Collier: There’s a cartoon with two cavemen. One guy is working on creating fire. The other says, “The focus groups say you should call it ‘water.'” Names are very difficult.
Stillerman: There’s a special place in hell for people who have to figure out titles. We love Halt and Catch Fire. We had a robust discussion about it. And we stuck with it because it really is germane to the concept. Nobody will know what it means, but that’s part of the fun of it. Because when people find out there’s a reason for it — do you know what it is?
Yes, though I had to look it up. I thought it had a cryptic rock-album sound to it. Then I found it refers to a failing start-up tech company and I liked it more.
Collier: That’s what we hoped you would do. Mad Men — I remember the discussion with Matt about what it meant. He said, “People will get it.” Breaking Bad — Vince put that in the vernacular. I remember the first time I heard SportsCenter anchors talking about somebody going into the penalty box as “breaking bad”– all right, that worked! I hope we can define the “halt and catch fire” moment. If years from now it means that moment of decision where you push against all odds, or have that moment of innovation when everybody says you’ll fail, that would be terrific.
And then there’s Turn, can you lend some insight on that one?
Stillerman: The show explores a phenomenon around the Revolutionary War that I’d never seen in any history book. You learn in history class, “There’s a king, he taxes people, they threw some tea in the harbor, and everybody picked up a gun.” What’s fascinating in Turn, and this is what I think will make it a great piece of television for people who might not even love spy stories, is that it’s as much a story about what it took for these kids to defy their families, and in some cases their spouses, even their best friends. You had to risk everything to go fight in that war. That’s another part of the story that we’ll explore deeply.
Two other higher-profile projects in development are the 18th Century London surgeon drama Knifeman and the post-technology apocalyptic fantasy Galyntine…
Stillerman: Knifeman is a hugely original take on what could be considered the familiar medical genre, but it’s hardly like anything I’ve seen before in that space. We have Greg Nicotero and Galyntine. We’re betting on him to create a world that is really as ambitious as anything I think we’ve done in the recent past. Conceptually, they’re both way out of left field and also very large-scale pilots. We’ve all seen the brutal dark version of the post-apocalypse; we have a show on our air that explores that. The great thing about Galyntine is that it actually goes one step further and imagines not only the end of civilization, but also the beginning of the next civilization. We thought that was a really original choice on looking at the future.
In terms of shows that haven’t worked, is there any sort of universal takeaway that you’ve learned in terms of what works for AMC?
Collier: I fundamentally believe if you’re in our business you have to expect to have things that don’t connect. You used the word “learn,” and our job is to absolutely learn from each of them. Something Joel said earlier, we’ve been at our best when we’re truly original. There are things we liked in each of the misses and you can see where we pushed and didn’t connect. I went skiing with my kids over the holiday and I said If you’re skiing and not falling, you might not be pushing yourself hard enough — because they’re learning to do it. Certainly if you look at the history of television, it’s a history of swings and misses. And when you connect it’s magical.
Stillerman: We learn stuff from every show including the ones that worked. One of my favorite teaching moments was season one of Breaking Bad, which just by coincident was truncated by the writers strike. Jesse Pinkman was slated to go. It just reminds you that though you have to push for clarity of vision, you have to keep your eyes open for the magic to stay nimble.
And that splitting seasons is always good.
Stillerman: Let’s just say it’s been good for us.