'Difficult Men' author Brett Martin on the era that gave us 'The Sopranos,' 'Mad Men' & more
What was it like to watch James Gandolfini act? Which creators were easier to get along with?
So let's talk about you both as a relative layperson to this subject and you as a non-critic. People are going to be asking, "What's the difference between these two books?" You've read one and wrote the other; what do you see as the fundamental differences?
Brett Martin: I think yours is broader; it encompasses more shows. My number one intent, that I was most concerned with and proud of, was to describe what the writers room is like, what the process is like in executive boardrooms but especially the writers room. It was a breakthrough to me when I had this epiphany that I wasn't writing about television shows; I was writing about writers. Or "creators" is probably a better term, because I think it encompasses executives and actors and directors and all that stuff. But the artist in the commercial world is the main theme of my book. And I approached it as such. There is, of course, plenty of analysis of the shows, and some of my judgments and preferences. But on the whole I think of it as a work of journalism. Michiko (New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani) summarized it as a work of criticism, which I don't think it is. I think it's a piece of narrative journalism — trying to deconstruct the excitement and confusion and conflict that led to this stuff.
You go much more into the interpersonal relationships: Chase's falling-out with some of the writers on his show, some of Weiner's misbehavior.
Brett Martin: It's meant to be a narrative portrait. Though I think I expand a little bit beyond the showrunners than you do, talking to the other writers, because I was trying to nail that dynamic. I think those are fascinating stories, those are interesting people. It brought out incredibly bizarre and telling behavior between these guys — mostly guys. It's funny: I don't know to what extent anybody cares. This debate came up: why don't we talk all the time about everybody who participates in working on an episode (rather than just the showrunner)? And the answer is, I think, generally speaking, I don't know how interested people would be, and the story isn't as good. I try to give a full portrait of the other writers in the room and the ways in which they interacted with this figure of the showrunner. I think my analysis of "The Wire" is, essentially, (co-creator) Ed Burns is the secret sauce — that it was much more of a two-man show than we generally believe it to be. As titanic a character Simon is, my conclusion is it was them working together that made that show what it was.
So I wouldn't say we're 180 degrees away from each other. I think we're a question of emphasis away from each other. And I would say it was freeing to me to be less concerned with the content of the show, except as it related to these guys' personalities. I think yours is much better at writing about the inner world of the fictional show and mine is more about the external world of how it got made — even though we both overlap somewhat. My biggest problem with you is that you're a Yankees fan. That's where we are at terrible, terrible odds, and must fight to the death.
I know you only interviewed Gandolfini once, for the original "Sopranos" book. What was that interaction like, and what were your observations of him through the filming of that final season?
Brett Martin: He only met me once, and it was literally on the very last day in which he possibly could — the last 45 minutes or hour of the last day before Christmas break, and my book deadline was looming the next week. He was always very polite about declining, but he just clearly didn't like doing it. And I understood that. I was around a lot, and he refused to acknowledge me for a long time. We sat down in a room at Silvercup (Studios), but when we were together, he engaged extremely politely, and intelligently. He's an intimidating guy to be around, especially before you talk to him. For all the reasons in which he was indivisible from Tony on the street, with people running after him yelling, it's hard for even us enlightened people to recognize (that he's not). He was big, he was pissy often on set, because it was hard, and he was really tired of it at that point. So he was an intimidating guy. And that all went away very very quickly as we sat down. We had a very good talk, in which he assiduously denied any authorship of Tony, and claimed not to have thought about it very much, and then revealed how much insight he really had into the character. Watching him act, just from behind the scenes was one of the great experiences of my professional life. We're talking about incredibly mundane scenes of dinner. I've never seen an actor play each take so completely differently, but so entirely convincingly, time after time. Each take was just a slight shade different from the last. It was not intentional — he wasn't trying something out — but he was just so a part of that character, that he couldn't help something new coming out, because he was living the scene. It was totally improvised to me. So that was a privilege. When we would run into each other after that, he was always polite, and moved on quickly. I talked to a lot of people around him, and what became this big diagnosis last week about his shyness and discomfort in that visibility, I think that that came through really strongly in meeting him. But my primary relationship with him was watching him work, and it was amazing.
Let's talk about the "Men" part of "Difficult Men." It's such a male era, both in terms of the characters and especially in terms of the people making these shows. Is it just because "The Sopranos" was this big, long shadow that everyone was trying to imitate it, that this happened? Or is there something endemic in the business for this sort of behavior and these sorts of characters to be presented from a male perspective?
Brett Martin: Unquestionably, we still live in an era where it's easier for men to do everything than it is for women. So that's a given. In the book, (former FX president) Peter Liguori says he looked at the leads on the shows on his network and realized he was just putting himself on screen over and over again: "I realized, ‘Oh, my God, Vic Mackey: forty-year-old guy, flawed. Screwed up. The two guys from Nip/Tuck, same descriptor. Rescue Me, same thing. Dr. House, same thing.’ It was like I was looking at Sybil.” I think that's a pretty good distillation of one of the reasons: the business is controlled by middle-aged men. But I do think The Sopranos was ahead of its time and prescient in capturing something bigger in the cultural zeitgeist about masculinity and conflicted feelings about masculinity run amok, and I think strongly came out once the Bush administration was rolling along and there was so much conflicted feeling about American masculine power in the world. I think to some extent, the generation that was making this television — Baby Boomers who had lived through upheavals in what it means to be a man and what it means to feel guilty about being a man, and have wishes to act a certain way and know better — a lot of that came out in that stuff. The degree to which Tony was in some ways this incredible wish fulfillment at the same time he was repellent is the key dynamic of this era. And early Don Draper is the same way. I think all those things were happening. And I also think there's something in Americans that will tolerate something more from male characters than female characters — we're repelled by certain behavior in women on some level, where we're just not there yet. I think that for all those reasons, it started with the men.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org