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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.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.