My 2015 TIFF began not with a film exactly, but with a live discussion. Through the years, TIFF has taken to producing more and more entries for their “In Conversation” series, having long, moderated sit-downs with people like Jon Stewart, Spike Jonze, Julianne Moore, and John Waters. The bonus, if you’re a local, is that they do the series is part of TIFF’s Lightbox programming year-round.
This year, with a new emphasis on television thanks to TIFF’s Primetime programme and its attention to television, the festival brought in Mad Men creator, writer, and director Matthew Weiner to discuss his work on the show, and even provide a live director’s commentary on one of the series’ most iconic episodes – the season one finale titled “The Wheel”.
There was a lot of technique up for discussion. For instance, everything about The Draper Residence is specifically chosen and designed for one reason only; to flatter Betty Draper, and by extension January Jones. This is because it’s what Betty would have done, which the designers of the show understood when they did their research and discovered it was what many of the housewives from the era of Betty’s class did, in fact, do.
Likewise, Weiner discussed the origins of Mad Men being shot so very locked off. While there are pans, pushes and sweeps from time to time, the show was captured in a very static nature. The reason for this was a direct response to the handheld trend that was sweeping through film and television when the show hit the air. Weiner’s wife was often made physically ill by that technique, and Weiner wanted to ensure that he created something that others like her could watch and enjoy.
There was also a lot of discussion of philosophy and ideas – like how nostalgia is bad, and how what we see as a golden age really wasn’t and never was. Likewise, Weiner underlined how few stories there are that get told about divorced men, since what so many divorced men do is get remarried as fast as they possibly can.
However, in the midst of this love-in for one of the best storytellers in modern television, there was a strange moment.
When referring to one of the more unseemly plot points of Mad Men, Weiner held fast to his decision to keep it in considering how appropriate it was to the era. He then went one step further and rhetorically asked if the unseemly elements of GONE WITH THE WIND should have been omitted as well.
There was an audible air of discomfort in the room…a murmur, a slight hiss. Weiner caught it.
Looking back at the audience, he was surprised that anyone could not like GONE WITH THE WIND. He believed that just because an era of history was starting to be seen in a different light, that didn’t mean we should throw out the art that came from the era. He specifically used the example of The Sistine Chapel and the politics that went into the creation of its ceiling. What was strange in this moment wasn’t that Weiner hadn’t reconsidered the shift in audience perspective that is happening around GONE WITH THE WIND considering recent events (though that is strange for someone as in-tune as Weiner is), but the discontent to his words.
He was aghast, he was somewhat self-righteous. I’ve seen a lot of curious questions and situations happen with live conversations TIFF curates…but I’ve never seen someone come back at the audience gathered en masse with this sort of annoyance and vigour.
TIFF recorded the whole event on video, and I dearly hope for that video to be online in the near future so people can see for themselves.
At the end of the day it was a curious blip in an otherwise fascinating evening. There is so much that goes into a single episode of Mad Men, let alone what went into its entire glorious run. Being in the room when someone like Weiner breaks down the philosophy, themes, and technique that go into even one iconic episode is a rare treat, and one that adds perspective on the wonderful overlap between film and television as storytelling art forms.