When Matthew Weiner brought Are You Here to the Toronto International Film Festival last year, he’d been carrying the idea in his pocket for years. At least as long as he’d been trying to get his pet TV project Mad Men off the ground and on the air, and as far back as when he was working with David Chase as a writer on The Sopranos. By the time he sat down to talk about the movie, a bromance of sorts about a commitment-phobic TV weatherman (Luke Wilson) struggling to come to terms with his old buddy’s (Zach Galifianakis) freshly diagnosed bipolar disorder, Weiner had learned a lesson or two about why screen size matters.
You conceived of Are You Here before Mad Men, but made it only after the show was several seasons in. Did making it require much creative adjustment?
With a feature – and actually I kind of had to be encouraged to do this – it’s really about capturing the space. Just to be outdoors and be able to turn the camera in four directions, not having to limit the frame, was a big part of it. From a writing standpoint there’s a lot of talk in this movie; that’s definitely what drives it. But like the show, I think the important things that happen are visual. But it tends to become either predominantly visual or predominantly talky, so I hope that I was able to strike a balance.
But you were a different guy when you made this movie than you were when you conceived it.
Yeah. I wrote this right after I wrote the pilot of Mad Men. It took six years to get Mad Men made, so I was still on The Sopranos. But I had not written the rest of Mad Men and I was sitting for a season with David Chase in that room doing The Sopranos. He really alerted me to things like a scene where someone calls someone else, they pick up the phone, have a conversation, and the person who was called hangs up and continues their scene on the other side.
It sounds really dumb but it’s really a new way of thinking about cinema space for someone who has written very traditional television.
Sounds as if Chase was encouraging you to think of TV cinematically in the first place.
Definitely. Or how someone feels when they’re alone. A lot of things I ended up using on the show all the time. But the most important thing was structurally, to tell a story you didn’t know was going to happen. I hope the movie never lapses into genre, for better or for worse. These are real people with real problems and every time someone gets on top of something, something happens. You think it’s going to be this road picture, then you think it’s going to be a courtroom drama, and that to me was a challenge structurally and writing-wise. I wanted to make a movie I wanted to see.
Like Mad Men, it trades in characters who may appear like types on the surface, but who reveal hidden depths and secrets as the story develops.
For me it was all about playing with these expectations. It looks like this kind of story and it becomes that type of story. You’re so psyched that these guys are stoned and on the run and they’re so funny. Steve [Wilson] is so glib and honest and Ben [Galifianakis] is so much fun. Then you start to see wait a minute: Steve might have a drug problem. Or wait a minute: Ben is not well. And it goes all the way down until the end. Characters who are flawed but trying really hard and losing something by growing up or getting better. What I was interested in saying is that it’s such a treasure to have someone in your life, just to be here. Like the title: being on Earth, and being in people’s lives like that, just literally being there is a gift.
It’s a movie about growing up and accepting who, what and where you are. Anything personal in that?
Oh yeah. I’m not used to being the adult.
This interview has been condensed and edited.