Lynn Shelton talks about directing "Hands and Knees," the 10th episode in Season 4 of the acclaimed AMC ad-agency drama "Mad Men." The episode aired Sept. 26.
For Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton, the breakthrough 2009 movie “Humpday” opened many doors — including that of the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Shelton directed “Hands and Knees,” the 10th episode in Season 4 of AMC’s acclaimed drama “Mad Men,” which aired Sunday night. It was her first time directing a television series, and it came about because “Mad Men” executive producer Scott Hornbacher “saw ‘Humpday’ and really liked it,” said Shelton, in a phone interview Monday. A meeting with Hornbacher quickly led to sitting face-to-face with series creator Matthew Weiner.
“I was such a super fan of the show, I was beside myself,” remembered Shelton.
That was early this year; by summer Shelton was on the “Mad Men” L.A. set, soaking up the 1960s atmosphere. Because she hadn’t worked in TV before, she spent extra time on the set before beginning work on her episode, shadowing veteran “Mad Men” director Phil Abraham.
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Each episode, she said, has seven days of prep and eight days of shooting. “I don’t think I got my actual script until a day or two into prep, which is normal,” she said of the pace of television work. “They’re writing as they go. It’s exciting, you feel like you’re part of creation while it happens.”
Unlike Shelton’s usual film projects, where the creative blueprint is ultimately hers, working on “Mad Men” meant following someone else’s vision: that of Weiner, who’s intimately involved with every episode. Though Weiner wasn’t often around during shooting, “what I did in the seven days of prep was to try to just glean as much as I possibly could about that vision he had in his head for the episode… you have to try to think like Matt on set.”
She remembered one seven-hour marathon in Weiner’s office before shooting started. “I was next to him with my laptop and typing furiously, writing down everything he said. It was something like 25 pages of single spaced text! I wanted to bend over backward and make sure I was giving him exactly what he wanted.”
“Hands and Knees” is an unusually busy episode, with pivotal scenes for several characters. Don (Jon Hamm), who has a not-entirely-secret second identity, panicked on hearing that he was being investigated by the government. Joan (Christina Hendricks) learned that she was pregnant from her briefly rekindled affair with Roger (John Slattery), and visited a doctor’s office for an illegal abortion. (Did she have the abortion? The episode is ambiguous on this point, and Shelton isn’t telling.)
Roger learned that the company’s biggest client, Lucky Strike, wants to go elsewhere, which would surely mean the death of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Lane (Jared Harris) was bullied by his father into returning to England to see his family. And Sally (Kiernan Shipka) got to attend a Beatles concert with her father. (A “Mad Men” trademark is to tie in real events with the show’s plot lines: The Beatles did indeed play New York’s Shea Stadium on August 15, 1965, as we see from tickets Don holds.)
Shelton said that initially she was nervous about the episode’s challenges, specifically a stunt scene involving Lane and his father and a location shot depicting the Playboy Club “which was a lot of pressure, just trying to make sure we were getting that right.” But she was quickly calmed by the “tremendous” team on set. “Every department is so good, it’s so collaborative.”
And she was “astonished” by how little time the actors had to create their performances. “I’ve never had to be a part of something that was so fast.” She recalled one day of shooting what the crew called the Long Day’s Journey into Night scenes with Hamm, as an out-of-control Don tried to cope with his own panic — “11 hours straight of four scenes in a row when he was in this very, very intense level of performance” in which the actor was nonetheless able to keep the acting subtle and never overwrought. “I felt so privileged to be a part of that process.”
Though she bubbled over with praise for all of the actors, she did admit to one “tiny, tiny little princess complaint”: The character of Peggy, an up-and-coming young copywriter played by Elisabeth Moss, wasn’t in the episode. “I adore Peggy and I didn’t get to work with Peggy!” she laughed. On the other hand, though, Shelton said that working on such a crucial episode for Lane means that she now, as a “Mad Men” fan, has “a whole new relationship” with the character.
Having finished her “Mad Men” stint, Shelton’s going back to the big screen; she’ll next direct a film adaptation of Joshua Ferris’ 2007 workplace novel “Then We Came to the End,” for Focus Features. Whether she’ll return to “Mad Men” is an open question — she was, as she understands it, the season’s guest director (like Barbet Schroeder in Season 3) — but she looks back fondly at the experience.
“It was something I’ve always longed to do. This was really thrilling for me to be a member of the crew, really a cog in the wheel in the whole machine of collaboratively working hard to create and fulfill this vision.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com