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Writing for Mad Men

Alum, husband at Cinematheque tonight

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Last Sunday, AMC’s critically acclaimed series Mad Men returned to television after a 17-month hiatus.

The show’s creators were concerned about whether fans would return for season five since the show had been dark for so many months. They needn’t have worried. Critics hailed the season premiere, “A Little Kiss,” and even more important, a record number of fans—3.5 million—watched.

But, a spoiler alert: in the opener, viewers were treated to all kinds of drama. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was struggling in his new marriage to his former secretary, Megan (Jessica Paré), after she threw him a surprise 40th birthday party; Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) became territorial over his accounts with Roger Sterling (John Slattery); Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) had a difficult time balancing life as a working mother (no, we won’t tell you who the father is); and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) was contemplating an affair.

The writing team behind many of these storylines are husband and wife André Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton (COM’85), who are now the show’s executive producers as well. They came to Mad Men through their friendship with creator and show runner Matthew Weiner.

The three met in a Los Angeles writing group years ago when they were all working as assistants, recalls Maria Jacquemetton. “We would pitch to each other, and if one of us was working on a particular script, we would exchange pages, give notes, and just act like a support group,” she says. “Over the years, various members of the group found success. At the time, André and I were writing for Star Trek: Enterprise, and Matt gave us the spec for Mad Men. We said, ‘If you ever get this going—we don’t know where we’re going to be or what we’re going to be doing—we would love to work on this show.’”

Five years later, AMC picked up the show, and Weiner called the Jacquemettons.

Prior to Mad Men, the couple had also written for Baywatch, Relic Hunter, and Billboard Dad, a 1998 movie starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Since Mad Men, the Jacquemettons are two of Hollywood’s most sought-after writers. Their work on the show has earned them four Writers Guild of America Awards as well as three Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series.

The Jacquemettons will screen an episode from season four of Mad Men and discuss their careers tonight on campus as guests of the Cinematheque series, a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.

BU Today spoke to the Jacquemettons (below) recently about their careers, what it’s like working with each other, and their advice for students looking to write for film or television.Mad Men screen writers Maria Jacquemetton and André Jacquemetton

BU Today: What’s the collaborative process like, and what is it like working with your spouse?

André Jacquemetton: Where do we start? Essentially, we can’t be in the same room together. We’re writing for Mad Men so it’s really a question of speed, and for us it’s about dividing the work. Maria will take the A story, for example, I’ll take the B and C story. It’s trying to get a draft together as quickly as possible and chiseling down the statue and trying to get the voices correct, the story right, and then handing it in in a timely manner.

Maria Jacquemetton: And when he says we can’t be in the same room together, he’s talking about when we actually sit down at the computer. We literally, aside from when we’re typing at the desk, spend every other waking moment together, so it’s misleading to start that way.

André Jacquemetton: Well, it is and it isn’t. We’re not the type of couple that can face one another and have desks that face one another. We both go off into our separate corners and write.

Maria Jacquemetton: The point he’s talking about is when we’re ready to write the script. When we’re actually breaking the story, particularly on a TV series, we are physically in the same room with each other and a bunch of other writers, and we come up with story outlines together and then we get sent off to write. And at that point, we sort of go into our separate corners.

In a recent New York Times interview, Matthew Weiner says you two “drive the train” on the show. What does he mean by that?

André Jacquemetton: I guess we’ve been there the longest of anyone, so we know more or less what he’s looking for. He’s being called upon to do different things here and there, and he’s not in the room a lot of times, so then it’s up to Maria and me to sort of take the reins. So you’re in there with a group of writers and Matt will give us a certain direction, and then it’s up to us to pitch stories and break stories. Essentially, Maria and I have been given the task of approving what direction we’re going in.

Maria Jacquemetton: We are basically the deciders on the story when Matt’s not in the room. And that doesn’t mean that we just sit there and all the other writers pitch, and we say yes or no. We’re all pitching, but the shape of the story comes from our direction when Matt is not there. That’s what André means.

As head writers and executive producers on Mad Men, do you still have your work rewritten or cut altogether?

André Jacquemetton: Absolutely. You know, when you become the show runner of a series, it’s your voice and it’s your show. Mad Men is very much Matt’s show, so it’s his prerogative to change stories, change dialogue, change whatever he wants of your script. You have to remember that you’re there to support him and that’s part of the job. Essentially, you’re there to pitch stories, to write scripts, but ultimately, every decision lies with the show runner, so he can change whatever he wants. The buck stops at the top.

Maria Jacquemetton: I can’t even think of a writing medium where you don’t get edited. There are 20 writers on a script before it makes it to the screen. And I would say that even the top-level feature writers have their work changed, sometimes by the director when the director comes in. So being rewritten is part of the game, and we’ve all had it happen. It’s unpleasant but sometimes the script gets better, and then it’s not unpleasant.

André Jacquemetton: It’s not about you, particularly if you’re not the show runner. You have to set your ego aside—that’s the big thing about coming to Hollywood and being in a television room; you have to know sometimes when to put some tools back in the toolbox, so to speak. Your job is to support the show runner, so that’s that.

Was it difficult to get back into the swing of writing for the show after such a long break? What did you do during the hiatus?

Maria Jacquemetton: We never stopped writing. We have several other projects going at any given time. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to be on Mad Men for five seasons now, but there are always months off. We have our own passion projects and shows that we want to run, and that’s what we work on when we’re not on the show.

André Jacquemetton: Hiatus is an opportunity to revisit your own voice and push the projects that you really love, that are really you. You have to exercise that voice and find that balance, or else you’re not going to be able to go back to Mad Men.

Maria Jacquemetton: Or any show and write someone else’s voice. It’s a different skill set. When you’re on a show, your job is to write the show in that voice. When you’re on hiatus, then it’s your turn to develop your own voice, and to grow as a writer in your own creative realm, where you’re the god of it all.

André Jacquemetton: And you have to be productive, because your agent is always trying to sell you. You have to constantly meet deadlines and write new scripts, so that they can have something that’s really you.

Maria, can you talk a little bit about how your time as a student at BU prepared you for your career?

Maria Jacquemetton: I was a grad student and majored in film production. I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I concentrated primarily in screenwriting and film theory classes. I had some very wonderful teachers—George Bluestone and the late Roger Manville. They were my mentors as far as screenwriting went, and they introduced me through our classes and through our one-on-one talks to some of the amazing screenwriters throughout cinematic history. They instilled a love for story and an interest in how story worked into my little head.

When I got out, I got an internship in Boston with a company that did a lot of dramas, and they knew I wanted to be a screen and television writer. They optioned a book for me and I wrote the screenplay for a miniseries based on that.

I moved back to Los Angeles and started working at CAA (Creative Artists Agency), and nothing I learned at BU could I use practically in the business, because I was an assistant. It was a whole other education: of who’s who and how do projects get pushed through the system and how do you tailor your writing to fit the Hollywood mold of what was selling in the ’80s. What I learned at BU was a really deep-seated education in story theory and construction.

At COM, you plan to screen an episode from season four—“Blowing Smoke”—which earned you both an Emmy nomination. Why did you select this episode?

Maria Jacquemetton: We can’t show anything from season five, so we looked back at the four years. We felt like that episode is such a culmination of everything in Don Draper’s life that’s been building up in this sort of pressure keg of his psyche, and also with the launch of his business and characters that recurred from previous seasons. And considering that that’s one of the episodes we have gotten notoriety for, that was the one to choose.

Speaking of season five, you obviously can’t give any spoilers, but any clues about what viewers can expect or look forward to?

Maria Jacquemetton: We can’t say anything!

André Jacquemetton: How can we answer this? Every time we get together, there’s so much pressure on the show because of all the accolades and because we’ve been doing it for what, 65 shows now? You just wonder whether or not you can actually top yourself again. And for me personally, I think this season is the best season of all. I think we are approaching the characters in a fresh, unique way, there’s going to be a lot of surprises, and also, I think we’re moving on in the 1960s, which is really interesting. So there’s an evolution in this season in particular, which I think that our viewers will be very happy with—or hopefully, they will be.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers trying to get into the business?

Maria Jacquemetton: Write. We get asked advice all the time by students and people who say they want to be writers. They come to us with one spec or one screenplay. Don’t come to us with one script—come to us when you’ve got five scripts and they’re the best you can do on every one, because the competition is super-fierce. The more material you have and the more you write, the better you’re going to get and the more chances you have of actually landing your foot in the door.

I think that is one thing that we see all too often: writers get their first job on the show and they’re so happy to have that job that they just work there, and on their hiatus go traveling, backpacking around Mexico. Then they come back to the show the next season and they’ve written nothing. Well, there’s someone who’s sitting at home writing three specs in that time period, someone whose work is going to have personally come along farther and will have three original samples they can send out and possibly sell, someone able to cast a wider net. With the economy the way it is, you’ve got to be able to cast a wide net if you want to land work.

André Jacquemetton: I would add to that, build a thick skin. This is a business that’s ruled by a lot of naysayers, so you’ve got to be able to deal with rejection. Get back on your feet right away and keep writing and keep pushing, keep calling people and keep thinking of ideas. And even though the odds are against you and people keep rejecting you, you’ve just got to keep going and persevere.

Maria Jacquemetton: You’re not going to get better unless you practice. It’s just like anything else. Every script you write isn’t going to be fantastic, but you learn something from everything you do, even the ones that don’t end up so great.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Maria Jacquemetton: Watch the show, you won’t be disappointed. We’re not overnight sensations. As André said, we’re people who persevered. I think that all too often you hear about the student who makes the press, who comes out of film school and sells a script and suddenly is getting six figures to do rewrites. Well, those stories are few and far between. There are more stories like ours, people who really just had a passion and weren’t afraid to work hard and wouldn’t take no for an answer. You know, the days when you got discouraged, you picked yourself up by your bootstraps and kept going, because really, you don’t have any choice. If this is what you’re meant to do, then you can’t not do it.

There’s a lot of dream crushing, but don’t let your dreams be crushed; learn to take no and just put it on a list of 100 before you get to that yes.

André Jacquemetton: And also, I have to say this really is the greatest job in the world. You know, Maria and I just got back from Paris, where we were working on a project. The week before, we were on the big island of Hawaii working on a big project and we get to meet the most amazing people; we’ve spoken to astronauts, we’ve spoken to generals, we’ve spoken to ordinary people who have invited us into their lives, into their homes, and told us about their experiences—we really feel blessed.

We’re working on an incredible show; it’s humbling. Even though the business is a huge struggle and it’s been difficult for us—there have been times when we’ve been unemployed—this is what we were meant to do, this is what we love to do. It really is the greatest job in the world.

The Mad Men episode “Blowing Smoke” will be screened tonight, Friday, March 30, at 7 p.m., followed by a talk by Marie and André Jacquemetton, in COM 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.

Episode two of the fifth season of Mad Men will air on Sunday, April 1, at 10 p.m. on AMC.

3 Comments
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Writing for Mad Men

  • Caleb D. on 03.30.2012 at 9:37 am

    Real nice interview, Amy. You pulled out some excellent bits of writing wisdom and entertainment-world insights.

    • Robin B. on 03.30.2012 at 4:05 pm

      I agree, I thought it was interesting how they divide story lines for scripts.

  • Fahy Bygate on 04.23.2012 at 11:03 pm

    Could the writers of the show learn the difference between “lay” and “lie”. Please
    Don’t you have editors?

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