Danielle Ownbey Works in a World of ‘Mad Men’

danielle - Danielle Ownbey Works in a World of 'Mad Men'

You don’t win four Emmys in a row, like Mad Men did in its first four seasons, for nothing. It takes the effort of an entire team, down to the interns, to make a successful series. Danielle Ownbey, (Screenwriting – M.F.A. ’15) is one such intern, holding down the fort in the show’s writer’s office, making sure the details that go into each episode are properly researched and explored. On the eve of the new season, Ownbey sat down with Loglines to talk a day in the life of a Mad Men intern.   

Mad Men is well known for being period down to the T. How much research goes into an episode? Even more than you’d imagine. As a huge history buff, the period aspect is originally what attracted me to the show. And the historical research creates the world piece by piece. The little details lend authenticity and complete the Mad Men atmosphere. The show completely immerses you into the period and that’s one of the reasons that it’s so much fun to watch.

What are some of the things specifically you are researching for the show? Most of my day consists of doing historical research to verify details in the episodes. Everything you see in the show has been researched meticulously, from the biggest story arc to the smallest detail. I can’t go into it any more than that.

Were you a fan of the show before you got the internship? Absolutely. When the first episode premiered, I was studying twentieth-century history at UC Berkeley so I was hooked from the moment I heard about it. I watched the first episode when it premiered and haven’t looked back since. 

Why do you think Mad Men has become one of the top shows today? I think people tune in for the world but they stay glued for the characters. Matthew Weiner and his staff have crafted such a fascinating world, but the people who inhabit that world are even more absorbing. The characters are simultaneously heightened and grounded, complex and relatable. I think it comes down to unparalleled writing and a singular vision of how you want that writing to manifest itself. That vision belongs to Matthew Weiner, the writer, creator and show runner, and it’s what makes the show consistently rise to the top of every list.

What are some of the positives of working on a show like this and what are some challenges? I can’t say enough about all of the positive experiences I’ve had at the show, as you can see from all of my other answers. The biggest challenge is the terrifying intimidation of being around such intelligent, successful and creative people all day. I always worry about doing something wrong but in the end I just work really hard and hope that everything goes smoothly. They haven’t kicked me out yet, so hopefully that means they like me!

TV is a fast paced environment. What does a typical workday for you look like? I see myself in the calm eye of a creative tornado. The writers’ room is to my left and Matthew Weiner’s office is to my right. So, for most of the day I am doing my research while everyone hustles in and out making the show happen. It’s very fun to be a part of.

How many internships have you had before this one, and how have they prepared you up until now? I’ve had a few internships throughout my undergraduate and graduate years. When I came to LA to study screenwriting, I got an internship at Evolution Entertainment, a management/production company, in their TV department. I learned so much there, from necessary office skills like rolling calls to the ins and outs of what it takes to develop and sell a TV show. Right now, I actually have two internships—the one at Mad Men and another one at a feature production company on the Universal lot. I really like having one TV and one feature internship, because it gives me a well-rounded perspective on both areas of the business.

My philosophy is to go into every internship with an open mind and absorb everything I possibly can. I’ve learned something from every place I’ve worked. I’m not the most outgoing person so internships have definitely helped me to put myself out there, but they’ve also taught me that hunkering down and turning out good work is just as important as being the most loquacious person in the room.

How has this internship been different from the others? I’ve never interned on a show before and I’ve spent most of my time in development. The magnitude of the production of Mad Men is something I’ve never experienced and I’m still in awe of it every day I go into work. I’m also consistently impressed at how well Mad Men takes care of its interns despite it being such a large-scale and complex operation. Most productions this big would just let the interns slip through the cracks but the staff at Mad Men really go out of their way to make you feel included and help you learn. 

How many interns are currently working on the show and what colleges/universities do they represent? There are three other interns in the writers’ office and a number of others in different departments. Since there is one intern per day in the writers’ office, I don’t have too much contact with the other interns so I can’t speak to their studies.

What are your goals and how is working for the show helping you attain them? My goal is to be a working writer in this town. Whether I write TV or features, I want to keep people glued to the screen. Coming in to work, I get to see the ins and outs of a show that has kept viewers glued for six seasons. I want to get paid to do what I love—to write. And hopefully what I turn out will be even halfway as good as Mad Men.

As someone who does research, you have a lot of access to the show. What have been your favorite plots? From the very first episode, I have always seen a lot of myself in Peggy. She starts a new life in the cutthroat world of advertising and rises through the ranks without losing a sense of who she is despite the rocky road along the way. I had the same wonder and fear in my eyes the first day my dog and I stepped out into the LA smog. Peggy’s is a path I hope to emulate. 

How has LMU prepared you for this role? I’ve gotten all of my internships through the School of Film and Television Entertainment Industry Internship Program. I definitely would not have gotten this opportunity without Matthew Mills, SFTV’s Internship Specialist, because he actually submitted my name for consideration. I’m very grateful for that. We learn a lot in class at LMU, and they also set us up with great opportunities outside of class, where we can learn even more.

Can you give us any hints about what to expect in the new season? Spoiler Alert: It’s going to be amazing.