Warning: Major, major spoilers for the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black follow.
It’s been just over a year since the name Matthew Weiner appeared on screens attached to a new episode of television. The finale of Mad Men — the series he created, for which he is probably best known — aired in May of 2015, and since then, he’s been largely under the radar, save for an interview or two.
That’s why it was such a surprise to see his name pop up in the list of directors for the latest season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black — and as the director for the season’s pivotal 12th episode, "The Animals." In it, a massive peaceful protest against inhumane treatment by prison guards results in the guards trying to break it up and one guard killing inmate Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley).
Wiley complimented Weiner’s work in an interview with Vulture:
The director was Matt Weiner, who's the genius behind Mad Men. He was just so great to work with. I remember him coming up to me before we even started filming the episode and he was just like, "Look, I know this is our first time working together but I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. Let's just shoot this like we're shooting another episode of TV." And I said alright, you got it. That felt so much better than him coming to me and being like, "Alright, you know that this is all on your shoulders. Don't fuck up."
"The Animals" is a complicated, emotionally bruising episode of television, one that has already stirred praise, controversy, and debate. But if there’s one thing that’s evident, it’s that Weiner handles that final scene — which features essentially every major character in the history of the show (all 60 of them) in one room at the same time — in a way that makes everything that happens devastatingly clear.
How did he manage that feat? I wanted to ask him about that, as well as what drew him to Orange in the first place. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Todd VanDerWerff: I really was impressed with this episode. I know that you and Orange creator Jenji Kohan know each other, but how did you come to be involved?
Matthew Weiner: I’m a huge fan of that show. It’s part of why I was even involved in it besides being a colleague and friend of Jenji’s and also an admirer of Jenji’s. She’s been a big part of my creative life for a long time, even before Mad Men.
I had the pleasure of rewatching the show and then seeing the first six [of season four] cut in rough form and then reading the scripts up until 12. Funnily enough, she and Tara [Herrmann] were rewriting [episode] 13 on the set while I was shooting 12. She said, "Do you want to take a look at it?" and I’m such a fan that I waited to watch it.
TV: I want to ask you about something I don’t often see directors get asked about, maybe because it’s too boring: blocking. But it was so important to this episode, that last scene in the cafeteria, in particular. How did you figure out where everybody was going to go and how they were going to move in that last scene?
MW: There’s a bunch of things that go into it. The first thing you have to know is that it was a great script. Lauren [Morelli] wrote the script, and Jenji is experienced enough to know that writing something and shooting it are very much related to each other. So you’re getting a script with a lot of specifics in it that tell you, okay, this is the action. These things are happening at the same time. Where is everybody going to go? They thought about a lot of that and the different areas in the cafeteria.
Having 60 principal players in that scene, which means 60 people who are all used to being the center of attention in any scene, was a challenge on the day of shooting it, but what was really a challenge is that that scene has many, many parts. The first thing I did was storyboard it. I had an artist come in and draw their interpretation of what they thought the situation was.
And as we started to get into it, safety is really important in something like this, especially when you have a scene that’s based on chaos. There’s the safety of having the production designer bolster all the tables so that people can stand on them. There’s the safety of padding the edges of them so that Uzo [Aduba] can feel free to move around in a panicky chaos. There’s the safety of putting Samira in a situation where she can have that weight on her, and she’s not having to pretend, and he’s not having to crouch over her, so they built a brace for her.
There’s the safety of Kate Mulgrew falling onto the ground, and Piscatella dragging her out by her arm. Every time I’ve been on a set where someone’s been injured, it’s usually someone dragging someone by the arm or pulling them abruptly.
So all of that has to be worked out with stunt people, and none of that was done on the day. That was all in advance. Then you get a sense for what the action is once you’re working with the stunt people and saying, "What is possible? How much activity is here? What are the other guards going to be doing so that Bayley can be distracted?" Because he has to physically be attacked while he’s resting on Poussey, or it can’t happen.
And then lastly, where is everybody standing. Every single character on the show, you look through there, and you know almost every face in the show is there, and you want to make sure that you film them, also. You’re going to have to get them in groups and figure it out. So here’s the Dominican girls. Here’s Taystee and Black Cindy. There’s Judy King and Boo. Where is Piper? All of this has to be done.
For me, getting a sense of the structure of the scene, first from the script and then from the storyboard, then through talking it through especially with the cinematographer [Ludovic Littee] and the great [assistant director]. A scene like that is all about the AD. Becky Chin is the person who works with these people every day and can organize every part of it. If the director’s the general, that’s the sergeant.
I wanted to make sure that every single character in there knew where they were starting and where they ended, and then you start planning for the camera after that. There were a bunch of cameras, including a Steadicam and obviously a crane at the very end, for that shot from the ceiling.
You start with how much is going on, and then you go to the meat of it, which is the skirmish and the death. And hopefully if you get it to a smooth enough part, then you get all the emotion. What I really wanted to do was build it to this climax of their solidarity, of their triumph, when Red gets up on the table, and then it all falls apart.
TV: This is the first time you’ve just come in on somebody else’s show as a director for hire. What was the process like of collaborating with Jenji and Lauren and the other folks?
MW: I had a goal, having been in Jenji’s job and having so many directors come in over the years. I had an advantage in the sense that I think other directors who come in, more than a lot of them, I could just call Jenji and say, "What do I do?"
On the other hand, you’re going into someone’s machine, and you have to learn the language. You’re not part of the inside jokes. The actors have been doing their job for four years. You’re not going to know it better than them.
So the collaboration was very simple. Lauren was there the entire time during prep, the same way I did with the writers on my show. You ask them if they’re smart, "Where did you see everybody sitting when you wrote this?" So when we have the actors in front of us, I have an idea. They may want to do something else, but I want to know what the writer thought would work. Because when a writer writes a scene of a bunch of people sitting at a table, talking to each other, they kind of know where they are. And the scene usually works better if they’re sitting where the writer saw them sitting.
Lauren was great at keeping me from getting caught not knowing the history of the characters. One of my first scenes up was that scene with Taylor [Schilling] and Laura [Prepon] were up on the bed there, where so much past business was discussed and there’s a lot of forgiveness in there and a lot of talk about the future.
Their whole history of their relationship is in that scene. I’m not going to be able to do that just being a fan. That’s them and that’s the writer. The time machine, the romance of Poussey and Soso, to me, it just goes a little bit deeper. And all of that is about the actors having the position from the script and the writers and Jenji harvesting all the conflict in the season to do something they’ve never done before, which is to say, "What happens when we get out of here?" People don’t have those conversations very much on the show.
Alan Aisenberg, who plays Bayley, he’d never had a storyline with this much focus on him. And they did a great job in the writing and the casting, and Lauren was a big part of this, in making these kids feel like they’ve known each other for a long time.
TV: This is an episode that deals with police violence, a major, major topic of discussion in America right now. What kind of research did you do to prepare?
MW: Like Jenji, this is an emotional topic for me and a cultural injustice that keeps me from sleeping a lot of times. Especially if you have kids, you find yourself in a constant state of embarrassment about the state of the world.
The brilliance of what Jenji did with this season was, without any instruction, completely mirrored the process that creates a situation like this. Whether it’s Caputo being compromised by the corporate structure or Bayley working there because they broke the union, someone unqualified is in that job.
And Piscatella is your classic fascist. He’s someone where power is the most important thing to him, and he’s filled with an ideology that has to do with not believing that the people he’s there to guard — I mean, what does that word mean! — that they are not even human.
Then you throw racism on top of all that, which is Humps [another guard] and the institution itself. There’s nothing to mimic. You don’t have to do anything. It’s in the story. And even though Bayley is an accidental murderer, all of the machinery is in place so that innocent people will be the victims of this.
There’s no preaching to be had. We saw the story, and we know the players. My preparation was telling the story that was already there. The fact that it mirrors and dissects and is so intelligently drawn from reality, that’s great writing.
The very first rehearsal with the stunt performers, the minute that Bayley’s knee was on top of Poussey, everybody gasped. Everybody recognized it. I don’t think it’s visually been represented exactly like that, but we all know that image.
It was horrible. I don’t want to sound insensitive to reality. I compliment Jenji on creating a reality that was exactly like what there is, without doing it. It is an echo of the real thing. It’s a reproduction of it, and I think that if you just make tableaux and things like that, it’s very different from knowing the characters. It makes it a more effective statement to me that we’ve known Poussey for four years.
TV: Finally, I know from having spoken to you before that in addition to creating TV, you’re a big TV fan. Just watching Orange as a fan of television, what did you like about it?
MW: I didn’t get a chance to watch that much while I was making [Mad Men], but this was a show that I watched. First of all, Jenji has an amazing sense of humor. I was a huge Weeds fan, and I know that there’s always going to be something that’s ironic and true and a little bit dark in it.
I love the casting. She’s got such an eye. From Taylor down, everybody in there was such a discovery to me. I’d never seen [these actors] before! And they are those people.
And it’s contemporary. It’s a world I don’t know anything about. One of the things that drew me into the show right away is I think, like a lot of people, I’m fascinated by prison. It’s the worst thing in the world to think that you could end up there.
I thought the show was really smart and funny and socially conscious. And the flashback thing to me was just fantastic. It doesn’t feel like a formula. It’s not like everybody’s origin story, but you’re going to find out about these characters and who they were. The first time you see them in the outside world, you’re getting an insight on life in general, not just on prison.
Jenji knows how to create characters, and the show right away to me didn’t have any false notes. On the one hand, it’s great when you admire somebody, and they do it again. On the other hand, I was always interested in the show. You never know what’s going to happen. Never.
The complete fourth season of Orange Is the New Black is streaming on Netflix.