Matthew Weiner on ‘Mad Men’ and male friendships

As the creator of “Mad Men,” AMC Networks' period TV drama and its brooding, dysfunctional ad man Don Draper, Matthew Weiner has had some experience in exploring the male psyche.

In his directorial feature film debut “Are You Here,” in theaters on Friday, Weiner wanted to tackle the reality of a male friendship through actors Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, showing two grown men in a state of arrested development.

Weiner, 49, spoke to Reuters in his Los Angeles office, decked out with props from “Mad Men,” about concluding Don's journey, the Emmy awards and his future plans.

Reuters: What did you want to explore about the “bromance” through two childhood friends in “Are You Here”?

Matthew Weiner: They think they're in a stoner comedy together, and then all of a sudden you realize Owen's character has a substance abuse problem and Zach's character is mentally ill. As the reality starts to sink in, it's not like there's no jokes throughout it, but you get stripped away to what I hope is a more poignant and slightly emotional examination of what holds us together.

R: Why choose comedy staples Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler for this much darker take on life?

MW: You can't teach people to be funny, they either are or they aren't. And these are three deeply funny people to the bone, and the fact that they could use that and change the tone, you feel the poignancy because you feel them losing something.

R: With “Mad Men” wrapping up, are you looking at more movie projects?

MW: I'm not withdrawing from show business, but I am using this period, at least until the show goes off the air, to replenish and find out what's on my mind. I know I'm allowed that, but there's also the thing where you're like, 'Will everybody forget you? Will you be scrambling when you get back to work?' … You don't want to disappear.

R: How do you feel about “Mad Men” nominated for four Emmys next week, including best drama again?

MW: I am thrilled that we are included in this again. The fact that none of the actors on our show (have won), I have all of the chauvinism I can possibly have about the fact that these are, and I think will remain recognized, as some of the great performances of their era and this era in television.

They are nominated, it's not like they're being ignored and the show has been recognized, but every year there's a story about why Jon Hamm was beaten by someone else, or about Elisabeth Moss and why she wasn't nominated. You just don't want the lack of recognition to be a reflection on the quality.

R: Fans are already discussing how Don's journey will end next year. Does that put pressure on you?

MW: I am constantly interested in the audience, I want them to work a little bit because they get pleasure out of putting things together … but when it comes to the ending of the show, the audience has so many voices and it changes over time. I keep my solicitation of opinions to my wife, my incredible writing staff, the people I work with and the actors. They are the audience that I am interested in pleasing, and none of them have ever withheld honesty from me.

R: You showcased New York in “Mad Men,” but you grew up in Los Angeles. Would you explore L.A.'s history in future projects?

MW: I don't even know if I know yet what Los Angeles is necessarily. Los Angeles to me, the best version of it is “Chinatown.” I'm a little bit intimidated by the concept of it, it's hard, it doesn't reveal itself immediately, it has to be looked for, and maybe that's something to think about. Maybe you gave me an idea!

Editing by Eric Kelsey and G Crosse

Filmmaker marries Hollywood to tikkun olam

What was Elisabeth Moss, star of the AMC hit series “Mad Men” and an avowed Scientologist, doing hanging out with a Lubavitcher Jew?

They were making a movie together to promote “tikkun olam,” the Jewish value of repairing the world.

The product of their work, “A Buddy Story”—a romantic drama about a singer-songwriter who finds love on a weeklong trip with his neighbor—is expected to make it to the silver screen next year.

It’s just one of several films that Mark Erlbaum, an Orthodox “ba’al teshuvah,” or returnee to the faith, is making with Hollywood stars to promote positive messages to movie audiences.

“I am a religious person,” Erlbaum told JTA. “I very much believe in tikkun olam and the core Jewish values of hope, self-sacrifice and mutual helpfulness.”

Aside from Moss, actors Jennifer Love Hewitt, Will Ferrell and Jamie Kennedy are involved in film projects at Erlbaum’s production company, Nationlight Productions.

“I adore Marc; he is such a wonderful and funny man,” Moss told JTA in an interview. “He was the first interaction I had with the Orthodox community. Although I was exposed to so many different people growing up in New York, I didn’t know what to expect, but he is so cool and funny. It was a terrific experience.”

The journey that brought Erlbaum, 40, from the real estate business to independent filmmaking also had something to do with the journey that transformed him from a casual Jew to an Orthodox one.

Erlbaum discovered Orthodoxy during his college years, when his father began bringing a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi to their Philadelphia home to talk religion. Erlbaum hadn’t thought much about his Judaism, but he quickly became captivated. The rabbi soon had a transformative effect on him and his two brothers.

“We were all stimulated and realized we actually knew nothing about Judaism,” Erlbaum said.

In time he became strictly observant. Erlbaum, along with his wife and family, embraced Orthodoxy.

Erlbaum had worked at his family’s bridal chain and founded a Philadelphia real estate agency before turning to writing. By 2005 he already had written, directed and co-produced a short film.

It wasn’t enough. Erlbaum said he needed to do more to spread the positive messages about human values he had found in Judaism.

So in 2009, Erlbaum said, he decided to launch a film production company “focused on creating inspiring, meaningful content for mainstream audiences of all backgrounds and affiliations.” He sees his work as promoting Jewish values.

“There is no better way than film to reach people, and I have the power to be that ‘or lagoyim,’ or ’nation light,’ like the production company’s title,” he said. Or lagoyim is Hebrew for “light unto the nations.”

Erlbaum’s latest drama, “Cafe,” starring Hewitt and Kennedy, is about a Philadelphia coffee shop where the stories of workers and customers dealing with life challenges intersect to weave a web of spirituality. The film, though not yet in wide release, was shown at the 2010 Philadelphia Film Festival.

“Although there is no explicit Jewish content in the film, the values certainly guide the characters in their development,” Erlbaum said.

In addition to Moss, “A Buddy Story” features Orthodox Jewish hip-hop star Matisyahu. The film was shot more than three years ago and is now in post-production.

Moss said it was the storyline that drew her into the project.

“I just loved the plot—it’s such a simple love story and it really has uplifting moments to it,” she said.

Erlbaum laments the fact that Hollywood makes so few such films, and he recently started a Facebook campaign to encourage studios to make more positive, family-oriented films with uplifting messages. He also is starting a campaign he calls “Filmanthropy” to encourage donors to support the production of films that promote the value of tikkun olam.

“There is definitely a cynical edge to media, and we as a society act accordingly, and that is too bad,” he said.

By producing uplifting films, Erlbaum said, he hopes to increase the positivity that will make people act more respectfully and kindly toward each other.

“I believe that everyone should be more thoughtful and giving,” he said. “We are not here to push for Judaism. I believe that everybody can do something significant for others, and I’m glad I have a medium like film to express that.”