"Mad Men" fanatics alert: Some swell tidbits were shared by series creator/exec producer Matthew Weiner and his assistant-turned-staff-writer Robin Veith during Wednesday night's panel sesh with Emmy-nommed writers at the Writers Guild Theater in BevHills.
Most awesome, to my ears, was the anecdote that Veith shared about the unforgettable scene in the seg toward the end of season one where a stressed-out Betty Draper shocks her children by picking up a BB gun to shoot the neighbors pigeons as they fly overhead against a postcard-perfect blue sky. The neighbor had threatened to shoot the Draper's new puppy after the dog got a hold of one of the pigeons.
Veith vividly remembers being a shocked at the age of 7 or 8 while growing up in "farm town Maryland" when her own mother did the very same thing after her dog, Boo, snapped the neck of a pigeon kept by their very unpopular neighbor -- whose birds were the scourge of their cul-de-sac.
"It was the greatest thing I'd ever seen," Veith said, with obvious pride.
"Sally Draper mixing cocktails for her parents -- that was me," Veith said, noting that daiquiris were among her specialties. There was a momentary hush in the aud.
Another funny bit relating to a plot point from the first-season finale, "The Wheel," for which Veith and Weiner (pictured above) are nommed (Weiner's also up for the pilot): Weiner bought an actual "Relaxercizer" machine that he found in a thrift store more than three years ago, before "Mad Men" was even set up at AMC, with the idea that he would use it in the show one day.
"That's how I work," he said.
Veith also searched out a Relaxercizer on eBay in preparation for the episode. Sure enough, she found one. It came in a small black box "that looks like you could do a lot of evil with it," Veith said.
The machine had a lot of tubes and wires, but the plastic panties were a creation of "Mad Men's" prop department, she admitted.
In general, this scribe gabfest hosted by the WGA Foundation and TV acad was very entertaining, thanks to the wit and wisdom shared by Weiner and Veith and their fellow panelists: Bryan Fuller of ABC's "Pushing Daisies"; Kirk Ellis of HBO's "John Adams"; and Danny Strong of HBO's "Recount." The ever-charming Larry Wilmore (pictured left) was an adept moderator.
What did we learn? That Ellis (pictured right) spent five and a half years working on the adaptation of David McCullough's masterful John Adams bio for Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman's Playtone banner.
First it was going to be 13 episodes, then 10 until it finally settled out at seven installments running about nine hours. Ellis got the gig because he'd previously worked with Hanks and Playtone on a drama pilot for ABC that didn't go, but impressed Hanks nonetheless.
Ellis loves the historical drama realm: "I like taking what people think they know about history and turning it on its head a little bit." He and the other partners agreed that they wanted "John Adams" to be "the anti-Merchant/Ivory film." They wanted it shot in a very contemporary style; the rousing scenes of the Continental Congress debates over the Declaration of Independence were envisioned as "colonial C-SPAN," Ellis quipped.
And they knew they really had something in hand when author McCullough complemented the production team for having found "something really gross in every hour," Ellis recalled, pointing to the scene in which a man is, in fact, tarred and feathered. (A messy business.)
Strong (pictured left) told of getting the inspiration to do "Recount" after seeing a stirring performance of the Iraq War play "Stuff Happens" at the Mark Taper Forum. The crowd reaction was so intense, and so polarized that fights nearly broke out in the theater.
Strong, an actor and writer, had been shopping comedy spec scripts until that time. He drove home from the Taper and decided he wanted to write something that would evoke the same kind of passion as the play. ("Recount" sure made me outraged all over again.) It didn't take him long -- "about 30 seconds" -- to settle on the Florida vote-recounting imbroglio that decided the 2000 election.
He pitched the idea around and to his pleasant surprise, more than a few producers wanted it. He made a simpatico connection with Len Amato and Paula Weinstein, and they were off. Of the stellar cast assembled -- Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Bruce McGill, Bob Balaban, among others -- Strong said he was most blown away by watching Laura Dern in action as Katherine Harris, Florida's cosmetics-crazed secretary of state.
Fuller (pictured right) was candid in discussing some of the challenges behind the scenes of his ABC fairy-tale dramedy "Pushing Daisies," which had the extra burden of premiering on the cusp of the first WGA strike in nearly 20 years. Coming to terms with the network on the creative direction of the show in its soph season has been "fairly traumatic," he admitted.
Fuller noted that a show often "has a parental relationship with the network. There's good parenting behavior and there's bad parenting behavior, and there's good child behavior and bad child behavior," Fuller said. "We've run the gamut of that on both sides."
We also learned that Veith was first hired by Weiner eight years ago when he began working on the spec script that became "Mad Men." He was still toiling unhappily on sitcoms at the time during the day; Veith would work with him into the night while he dictated the script. They remained friends after her gig ended.
Veith was working for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus, traveling around the country by train, about two years ago when Weiner called to offer her a job as his assistant once again.
Perhaps the liveliest bit of conversation among the panelists came when the subject turned to the level of non-dialogue touches (she scratches her nose, he spreads out across the bed, the apple falls off the table, etc.) that writers include in their scripts, the ultra-touchy subject of how there are sometimes "translation" issues with directors.
Strong said he had no complaints about "Recount" director Jay Roach, who made him a producer on the pic and allowed him to be on set, attached to his hip. Ellis had kind words for the collaborative process he had with "John Adams" director Tom Hooper, but spoke of his frustration in past projects.
Fuller said he always writes his scripts as visually as possible with an eye toward making them "idiot-proof," but in the same breath he said that "Pushing Daisies" pilot helmer Barry Sonnenfeld was anything but an idiot and had elevated his material.
Weiner, on the other hand, didn't hold back.
"Do you know how hard I had to cut this to get this to what I told you to shoot?" Weiner said he's been known to say, or at least think, in times of strife on the set with helmers. He also doesn't have much patience for actors who don't follow his direction in the script.
"You can't sustain a six-page scene if people don't sip their drinks where I tell them to," he lamented. (Fuller's eyes bugged out when Weiner said "six-page scene.") "I have a lot of non-verbal moments in my scripts that are very meaningful."
As the conversation on writing process continued, Weiner allowed: "I'm exactly what you think. I'm a total control freak."
Veith recalled the vigorous debates among the writers about how the first season of "Mad Men" should end. They shot both endings -- the happy one where Don Draper comes home in time to join the family for their Thanksgiving trip, and the gut-wrencher where Draper comes home to a cold, dark house.
Veith cited those closing scenes as her favorite moment of the first season.
"Every time I seem them it reminds me of how much I love working on this show, and with this guy," she said, pointing her thumb at Weiner.