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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.

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