Interview: Steve Conrad on “The Promotion”

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06042008_thepromotion1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

When Steve Conrad’s directorial debut went into production, it was originally called “Quebec,” a reference to the hometown of the character played by John C. Reilly, a middle manager who competes with another middle manager (Seann William Scott) for the top job at their supermarket. It was a small detail, but more so than most, Conrad’s films are about the accumulation of small details. Maybe that’s the reason why in the few months since the oddball comedy, which is now called “The Promotion,” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March, it’s been hailed as “a comedy that balances broad farce and actual humanity with wit, warmth, and weirdness” (Cinematical) and dismissed as something that should be “added to the Geneva Conventions’ list of humanitarian abuses” (The Hollywood Reporter).

What’s particularly odd about the extreme reactions to Conrad’s film is that he explores a subject that’s both universal and too often ignored by filmmakers — the experience of working life. In some ways, he could be considered the American version of recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner Laurent Cantet, whose “Human Resources” and “Time Out” dramatically dealt with how employment and identity are intertwined. With a lighter touch, Conrad has made his own trilogy of films about how jobs define our lives, first with his screenplays for “The Weather Man” and “The Pursuit of Happyness” and now with “The Promotion.” It’s a subject Conrad knows well as a screenwriter who sold his first script at 21, only to see his status as a phenom fade by his early thirties. Now, at age 39 and once again sought after, Conrad has found success by writing about those grappling to achieve it.

Why did this story become your directorial debut?

I just felt it so personally — I know being desperate to improve the quality of your life at the last minute. We stay comic in the movie, enough that some people may not even notice that idea of buying a house you can’t afford. It’s very much in the news, but two years ago, it wasn’t. It happened to me and it made for so many sleepless nights and so much awareness that I was virtually all by myself in the world. When I was a kid, I remember my older cousins and aunts and uncles, they had lives where when they got married, their moms and dads had saved $15,000 and helped them buy a house. Those days are long gone. I think guys my age are generally taking care of their parents now. I realized that when I was 30 and totally broke and out of the movie business that I was going to have to solve this problem personally.

06042008_thepromotion2.jpgSomeone pointed out to me yesterday that the people in my movies don’t have friends. They don’t have an exposition buddy they tell the story to. “Weather Man” guy didn’t have a friend. “Pursuit of Happyness” guy didn’t have a friend. Doug [Seann William Scott] doesn’t have any friends. It has something to do with feeling these challenges that I set against my characters are challenges they have to solve by themselves. They’re not movies where a ragtag bunch of guys get their act together and then team up and solve a problem. The way Doug solves his problem is the way I solved my problem, just by lasting, by endurance, not giving up.

You partially answered this before, but seeing as your films about how success is defined have been your most successful, why are they connecting now?

We spend so many of our waking hours inside of these questions and so few of our art forms address it. Our movies ignore it, and it’s funny because they haven’t always. Charlie Chaplin movies, they live so deeply inside those moments of not having something you need or something you want, so that the moment was sad and funny. I’ve somehow latched onto our working experience as a way to help me create stories. When you see a working comedy, they involve people having a good time doing their jobs really poorly or sluffing off or slacking, but I don’t think that’s the way most people approach their working lives. I think most people do their jobs pretty well. Like airline mechanics, the plane gets there most of the time — I don’t picture Bill Murray and a bunch of guys fucking around down there, making themselves laugh. I own up to that idea that we spend hour upon hour upon hour working, and I like to think about the challenges it presents to us, the strength that it calls on, the weaknesses that it divulges. I think it says a lot about us today and Americans have a different relationship to it than anybody else.

You’ve said in previous interviews that you were inspired to write the screenplay from an experience you had at a supermarket seeing a middle manager being taunted by a group of teens (a scene which is in the film), but how did it grow from that scene into a movie?

I was so moved by that very hard experience I watched that guy go through and then return to work, which meant to me him choosing to face many more of these days. I thought— in order for him to continue to do this, he must have a goal, and then I thought, well, if he has a goal, what would it be and how can I help him reach it. So a story laid out for me by attaching a goal to a person and then going from there to what might impede him, how he might be successful at it and what that will mean to him. I connected that event to just wanting to give the guy a break.

06042008_thepromotion3.jpgFor whatever reason, grocery stores want to familiarize you with their management staff by this pyramidal photograph thing and it’s bizarre. I walked in [to the grocery store] and I saw the kid next to another kid [on the chart] and then a rung above them, I thought wow, he wants to go right up, but then there were two of those guys. The image was so strong to me that we repeat it in the movie. They’re right next to each other, [but] there’s only one guy on top, so only one guy goes up. I thought— why should this other guy be a bad guy? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if they were both deserving of the job?

And you seemed to have made a point of making them both equally qualified, even though Seann William Scott would be considered the lead of the film. How did you strike that balance with John C. Reilly’s character?

I wanted to create a guy that has so many weaknesses that he’s strong. And I thought of Reilly being the drug addict and alcoholic and born again Christian and motorcycle gang member and grocer and tap dancer. You know, we’ve got some deleted scenes — one day, I’m standing out on the corner in Chicago and I watched15 kids on bikes in a single file line, they all had [baseball] bats and it [was scary], like a scene from “Clockwork Orange.” I repeated that scene in “Quebec,” John standing there and 15 kids on bikes go by and he goes, “Good luck, guys!” But no one got it. [laughs]

You just called the film “Quebec,” which was the film’s working title. Are you happy with “The Promotion” as a title?

I very much like the idea that in the history of filmmaking, there’s never been a movie called “The Promotion.” Not to say ours is the definitive version, but there hasn’t been a movie that I can call to mind that deals with that really important part of the American fabric, so I like that. “The Graduate” put a name on that weird period right after you get out of school, where you’re not a grownup, but you’re not a student anymore — you’re a graduate — and I like that it emblemized a period of time. I like that “The Promotion” puts a name on a desire. So it works for me okay, but it’s still “Quebec” in my imagination.

[Photo: “The Promotion,” Third Rail Releasing, 2008]

“The Promotion” opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 6th.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.