Last week, Mark wrote about flying to LA for a surprise audition for the Emmy-winning AMC series Mad Men. In the second essay: the eight-day shoot; making stiff a style; toning down the funny ha-ha .
Mark Metcalf makes this look good. Well, just as good as this already looks.
By Monday at noon I knew I had the part. The network had successfully vetted me, finding nothing to upset them lurking in my closet. I had a job. I’d done what I came to LA to do.
The table read for the show was on Tuesday. I’d been in California for six days, and I came out there with enough underwear for five days (although they do have laundry in California). I was also staying at a friend’s house. I hate to push the limits of my friends’ hospitality, but they’re very good friends.
The shoot for an hour-long episode is usually eight days. The first day is the table read, where you sit around a table (duh) and read the script with the producers and the designers and the key people. It gives them a chance to see if they have made any casting mistakes or need to make any last-minute re-writes. On Mad Men, you never get a full script. When you enter the room for the table read they hand one to you and you sign your name. Before you are allowed to leave the room, even to go to the bathroom, you must return the script and sign yourself out. When you audition, you are not allowed to take your sections of the script (called “sides”) out of the room. You actually take an oath that you will not tell anyone, friends or family, about the episode that you are shooting. This is meant to prevent internet plot leaks, although it is also true that the producer and much of the crew worked on The Sopranos, so they may still be carrying some of that Jersey paranoia around.
I flew back to LA on Tuesday evening to be ready for the shoot on Wednesday. I found out at the airport before I left that my call the next day would be 10 PM. That meant I would be shooting until possibly 6 in the morning Thursday.
Night shoots are nuts. You try to sleep during the day so you can stay awake all night, and getting started is always a mess, because when your body is used to being awake, it just doesn’t understand that it needs to take a nap. After you have been shooting nights for several days, your body gets used to it but your brain still doesn’t understand why you are sleeping when everyone else is out doing things, and why you are up working when every one else is asleep. And it’s hard to get anything done when you are sleeping while banks, post offices, grocery stores, dentists, accountants and almost everything else is closed. After a few days it gets psychotic. And everyone on Mad Men had been shooting nights all week.
So I slept on a different floor, saw some different friends, watched a movie, tried unsuccessfully to take a nap, had dinner and finally got a ride downtown to the studio at 9:30 at night. I’d my hair cut to the ‘60s style and been fitted for a very nice three piece suit the week before, so all I needed was a little trim, make-up and to slip into that perfectly tailored costume.
The production design is probably the best thing about Mad Men. The writing is good. The acting is good. But the directors really let the camera linger and love those hard-to-find period props. The parking garage is full of classic cars. Every detail is cared for and thought about. Sometimes when you watch the show it is almost as if mannequins are wearing the clothes because everything is so perfect and a little stiff. But they make stiff a style. I have done three ultra low budget films in the past year and I imagine the wardrobe budget on each episode of Mad Men is bigger than the entire budget of any one of those films. As I always say when someone asks me about working on Seinfeld, “It’s nice to work with millionaires.” Well, these people aren’t all millionaires yet, but they are well on their way, and the show spends money where it counts.
Much of the crew, as I mentioned, is from The Sopranos – Matt Weiner, the Producer and creator, is from The Sopranos, and the director of my Mad Men episode was the Sopranos’ Director of Photography – so they know their way around a set and around each other. It is great to be around a highly skilled group of people who work well together, whether they are peeling potatoes or making a movie. People who know what they are doing and know the rhythms of the people they are doing it with, so that language becomes unnecessary, are great to watch, and it is good to be part of the machine that they become – once you have figured out your place in the machine. That took me a while.
I got a lot of laughs during rehearsal. There was a kind of country-versus-city element to the scene, and I pictured my character as out of a Gogol play, with a self-inflated self-importance that gets slightly pin-pricked in the course of the scene. I think they saw it the same way, but maybe not in the vivid colors that I saw it. After rehearsal, on the way back to the trailer, January Jones, who plays Betty Draper, the wife of the leading man, said, “You were hilarious in there.” I thanked her and said something about how I thought the scene was pretty funny. She repeated the word funny as though she was unfamiliar with the word and went into make-up. When we got back and started doing takes the director slowly weaned me from the bright colors – and the laughs. After a while I was in the mold, part of the machine, at one with the style of Mad Men. And the machine had me out the door at 3:30 a.m. in time to make my 6:20 a.m. flight back to Milwaukee.
I can’t tell you anymore about the scene or the episode. Remember, I took that oath. But I can tell you this: it’s called “Souvenir” and it’s the eighth episode of the third season, the one that starts airing this fall.