Internships: a Mad Woman’s experience

Danielle Lauren, producer and director of the 11/11/11Project, recently spent six weeks in Los Angeles working as an intern in the production office of the acclaimed drama series Mad Men. She can now tell you a) the name of the most popular cigarettes in mid-July 1965, and b) how an internship can change your career.

I guess you know you’ve grown when you can look back at yourself when you were younger and see with great clarity how naive you once were. For me, my retrospective evolution took place over six weeks, when I had the educational privilege of interning on one of the most popular TV series in the world, Mad Men.

I first met Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and executive producer at the SPAA Conference in 2009. It was through a meeting of fate that Matthew and I had a chance to connect on the stairs – he was on a cigarette break and I was walking to another seminar. Our worlds collided and without a doubt my life changed because of this fortuitous encounter. Matthew and I spoke about the possibility of interning on the show and, after months and months of back and forth emailing, I finally received my confirmation letter from UROK Productions.
With this one page letter and a detailed proposal, I approached Screen Australia for support – they agreed to endorse my project and put together the paperwork.
Development manager Christopher Sharp was particularly helpful in making the process easier and more fluid – including early morning phone calls to LA to help complete the grant process in time. It’s unlikely that I would have been able to attend without the support of the agency.
My first day driving downtown to the UCLA studios was nerve-wracking. It had been a dream of mine since I was a little girl to work in LA. American flags, plastic Oscars and Hollywood sign postcards had always been a part of my bedroom décor, but to actually be in  the “real” professional world of entertainment was a dream come true. I recall turning into the studio, being cleared by security and as the boom pole lifted I thought ‘Wow this is it – this is what you’ve been working for’.
I arrived at the Mad Men offices where I was greeted by Matthew’s assistant, whom I reported to. During my first few weeks I was positioned in the writers’ room, with my desk directly outside Weiner’s office. Walking into that room was like walking onto the set of Mad Men. The production offices were decked out with retro desks, chairs, lamps and posters and you were reminded instantly that you had entered a new world – the world of Weiner’s imagination.
My day-to-day role in the writer’s room was research. There were three main research assistants – one paid, and two interns. The role of the researchers is to provide total historical accuracy to the show. The writers provide research briefs in the form of questions  such as “On January 8, 1966, what plays were showing on Broadway and what were their session times?”.

With access to an array of databases, our role was simple: find the answer. All information had to be cited and the importance of attention to detail was stressed. Everything that you see in Mad Men is a true representation of that period. Nothing is coincidental or fictitious – besides the characters and the advertising agency.

If Don Draper is eating a meal at the restaurant, not only will the restaurant have existed, but the actual menu he would be ordering from would be an exact replica of the original. The context is real – it’s the characters that are not.  My next rotation was to the production office. With a well-organised scheduling system, the office is open for around 18 hours a day.

Mad Men’s shooting schedule has a seven-day turnaround and therefore there is much to do in a very short period of time. This intense work schedule is made easier by the noteworthy catering that is provided to all production staff. Elaborate meals were supplied  everyday and the internal kitchens were stocked with every snack imaginable. No one goes hungry on Mad Men.
The last two stops on my internship rotation were the visually creative art and costume departments. The superb imaginations of the artistic teams, have been recognised and rewarded – and rightfully so. These dedicated creatives put much love into their work;  they’re given very strong briefs and research from Weiner and are under time and budgetary pressure to deliver the highest possible quality props and costumes. Most of the team members come from feature film backgrounds and their big picture thinking is reflected in their work.
Returning back to Australia was bittersweet. Los Angeles offers creative opportunities, endless amounts of projects to work on and chances to pitch your ideas, but the culture and hierarchy within the system is uninviting.

The ruthless competitiveness is felt everyday, whether that be by witnessing lines of people turning up for auditions or staff on a project jeopardising one another for hope of  selfadvancement.
The cut-throat nature is a turn-off and has made me hesitant about pursuing a career in Los Angeles. It’s not that I can’t handle the aggression, I just don’t want my work environment to feel like a war zone.
So where to now? Whilst there are a few work opportunities for me in Los Angeles, I am inclined to stay in Australia longer. I find the genuine support network of Australians a wonderful gift that seems lacking in the US. I know ultimately I want an international career and that will be a challenge living here in Sydney. My current solution involves me bringing global partners into my new project 11/11/11. I have found this a temporary fix, where I can benefit from international experience but still enjoy my local environment. For now it’s working, but I’m not sure for how much longer.
There is much more I would love to share with you;  anecdotes of interns, behind the scenes secrets and my adoration of [lead actor] Jon Hamm, but like all Hollywood stories, the most interesting ones are the ones never told. LA is a very different world; people here work hard, play hard and compete in a very serious way. But what Australia lacks in prospects can be made up for positive work environments and egalitarian structures.
It’s not for the faint hearted, but if you have a dream and a desire to step into the surreal world of Los Angeles then you too may have a chance to spend time with some of those mad men.
Mad Men season four is currently airing on Movie Extra.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.