Pretty much every profile of Matthew Weiner has his professional history down pat. A writer for TV’s “Becker,” he penned a spec script about a 1960s ad agency that caught the eye of David Chase.
Chase hired him first as a writer and then as a producer of “The Sopranos.” Several years later, Weiner shopped the script around again, ultimately selling it to AMC. The script was the pilot episode of “Mad Men,” the series Weiner has shepherded for seven seasons.
Much has been written about Weiner’s work, but less about him as a person. So I ask Weiner, currently promoting his first feature film, “Are You Here,” how he would describe himself.
“I’m pretty moody,” he says. “I have a pretty high threshold for the absurd. I’m amused by people’s contradictions. I’ve faced a lot of rejection. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t judge people. I wouldn’t say I’m forgiving, but I take people as they are. Also I think I’m a little bit of an idealist.”
Weiner’s self-assessment segues nicely to a discussion of “Are You Here,” which touches on themes of growing into adulthood, acceptance and idealism. Steve (Owen Wilson) and Ben (Zach Galifianakis) are codependent buddies. Steve uses drugs and women to avoid feelings. Ben is bi-polar and an outspoken evangelist for ecology and veganism. When Ben’s father leaves him the bulk of his estate, sister Terry (Amy Poehler) pressures her brother to take mood stabilizing medications.
But the more he loses his crazy, the more he loses his idealism. While Terry is happy with the change, Steve is less so. He wants to hold firm to his grip on the needy Ben, raising the question of the meaning of true friendship.
“I was thinking about friendship,” Weiner says. “I started wondering what holds it all together as our lives changed. On a societal level, I was interested in our relationship with medicines and recreational drugs.”
But another inspiration for the film came from one of his four sons, then just 7, who attended a function with him.
“I bit into a chicken leg, and saw that it was raw, so I threw it away. My son just looked at me and said, ‘That’s a chicken’s whole leg.’”
It was a defining moment for Weiner to see his son — now a vegan — watch his father throw away a chicken’s whole leg as though it was a dust ball.
He talks about walking past a homeless person with a child and the impulse is to give him money. “Then you’re driving down the street and you see another homeless person and the kid says, ‘Can we stop?’ And you do. But maybe the third time you say, ‘We can’t do it all the time. We can’t give money to them all.’ But that’s also a part of becoming an adult and it’s shameful and strange.”
Still, “Are You Here” has what approaches a happy ending. I ask if Weiner believes in them. “I do,” he says, then adds that he has “a low standard for what is happy and that may be an ethnic thing.” He describes a secular upbringing in a “traditional mid-century Jewish family” that involved Hebrew school and a bar mitzvah.
“I think I have good training in biblical argument,” he says. “I wasn’t a great student but I was really good in Torah. And I think that has affected my work and it affected my work to be a white minority.”
“I’m very proud of my Jewishness,” he says. “I don’t like to make claims of the historic importance of TV shows, but Rachel Menkin [a character played by Maggie Siff on ‘Mad Men’] is the first Jewish woman in American culture to come out and say she is Jewish. Having Jewish characters in a popular, mass culture television show is in itself an expression of how Judaism has affected my work.”
Finally, then a question for the English teachers of the world. Doesn’t his film’s title demand a question mark?
“I actually don’t like movie titles with question marks, except for ‘What About Bob?’ I want people to think the movie is bigger than just an actual question.”
Curt Schleier writes about the entertainment industry for the Forward.