We caught up with Steve Conrad to talk about his directorial debut, The Promotion in theaters now.
AUSTIN DAZE: Where did the idea for this film come from?
STEVE CONRAD: About six years ago I was just writing a lot about men and work and the different dramas and conflicts that happen in the work place. I felt like I had a few more things to say about work but I wanted to write from the perspective of a younger person who had reached a phase of life where they realize there are demands on them to provide for their loved ones. I wanted the character to be in his early 30s and not be exceptional; to not be able to play the violin or be a physician. He was one of those kids that didn’t buckle down in school. I wanted a C student to wake up one day and realize he is in a race to carve out some space in the world. Anyway I watched some weird stuff happen in my neighborhood grocery store with this assistant manager. My neighborhood is strange and tense–it’s a mix of professionals and street gangs. There was this grocery store employee who is like 30 and he was on the far side of the parking lot, the other side of which was occupied by this gang. The gang was messing around and just slinging curses at the customers and I thought: Wow, this kid is going to have to walk over there and ask these guys politely to leave. And I thought: They aren’t going to listen to him. This is going to be good. He walks over and they completely ripped him to pieces. He was demeaned and humiliated. The only thing he had to represent his authority was this little yellow vest that said “Courtesy Patrol” on it. And on the back it said, “Have a nice day.” Part of me thought it was the funniest thing but I was also moved to admire him greatly because he went back to work. He didn’t go jump in front of a bus or take off his uniform and walk home naked. He didn’t quit. I found that, after having laughed at it, I was overcome with total admiration for the strength of will for this kid to just go back to work—because you know tomorrow it’s going to be the exact same. And I thought I could make a movie that demonstrates that you win when you don’t quit like that. I also realized the landscape was great because you can make a smaller movie if you have the grocery store but get a bigger picture because you have the battleground for this. So started messing around with grocery store comedy. That was a really long winded answer to your question.
AD: Tell us how this cast came to be. Did you see Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly as these characters?
SC: I got to Seann first. He caught my eye a long time ago just by being really funny consistently. When you need a funny, C student, he’s at the top of the list. In real life he’s really pretty smart but he plays that underachiever really well. And then I had a dinner with John C. Reilly to talk about other things and I didn’t presume to ask John to play this supporting role that Seann was the lead of because John has been crafting a larger place in movies these days. He asked me what else I had and I told him to check it out and he did and he said he would love to play this other guy. He is such peculiar character to play: he’s a recovering drug addict, a recovering alcoholic, a Born Again Christian ex-motorcycle gang grocer. So he’s a mixed bag of weirdness and some of those things fight with each other inside his mind. I thought, Wow there aren’t that many guys that could carry all that weirdness in one guy. There is also a weird little thing with those guys; a cat and dog thing where Sean is kind of pointy and John is kind of round so it has this Abbott and Costello, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, two-shot frame energy. They are also just really funny guys.
AD: How do you feel about your different roles as writer and director? Do you have a preference?
SC: In some ways they are the same because you are telling a story either way. With directing, it’s just so much more fun—the location, the costumes, the actors, they are all little tools you can use to be interesting. I enjoy and feel a lot more accomplishment from directing than I do with writing. You can be good at other things besides writing that can add up to a good movie. I have people that are particularly good at one thing and not anything else and they have a hard time because they lack social skills or they lack conversation pieces. Writers run the risk of having that kind of life—just sheer loneliness.
AD: Do you think you have both personalities?
SC: I think I do. I like to be alone to write but the minute I’m done I can’t wait to share it with somebody.
AD: Did you always want to be making movies?
SC: I think so, yeah. I just got lost in it. Like every other director, it’s the same story. All of us didn’t carve out any other space when we were little and just liked watching movies a whole lot. I started making them with my brother–he plays the Teddy Grahams customer in the film–we used to make these funny shorts that nobody thought was funny except us.
AD: Can you tell us something you’ve learned from being in the business that we can pass on to our readers?
SC: I’ve had better success partnering up with actors that are good and excellent because I don’t pay much attention to the boxed-in thing where someone says, “It’s a comedy so it can’t be lovely too.” Or it’s a drama so it can’t have any elements that are absurd. I feel like in order to be valuable you have to be yourself. Even in a human relationship you don’t want to be with someone who is pretending to be someone else, you want to be with someone who is their deepest self with you. I tell people to stop caring so much about what they are writing and start asking if they are really writing honestly about the way they see the world. It doesn’t mean you can’t be funny. Try and dig deeper with what moves you and write about that. Don’t write in admiration of things you don’t really admire. Don’t write an action movie with an action hero if you don’t think that stuff is to be admired. If you think it’s silly write about why you think that is silly. That was long-winded too.
AD: Do you think that you have learned that from your own experience?
SC: Yes. Critically it’s easiest to put the demands on the artists; to say, “Oh, there aren’t enough big jokes.” I stopped caring about that and realized some of the littlest jokes are the funniest jokes and the quietest moments are the strongest. I’m not Ingmar Bergman; I don’t make major artistic statements about personal relationships. My stuff is pretty funny and can be pretty simple and I stand behind the ideas in there for sure. When I was a kid I couldn’t say that I did so I’m happy now that I’m writing pretty honestly about my shortcomings. At least the lessons that I have learned.
AD: If you weren’t in the movie business what would you be doing?
SC: Probably just working on houses. I would probably do that and be happy. But I have no skills. I got lucky early so I never had to go and do anything else. It’s a mixed bag because I became a fully grown man who can’t do anything else. I have nothing to fall back on; all I can do is make movies.
AD: Have you ever had the experience where you have written something when you weren’t satisfied personally?
SC: Oh sure. But to this point it’s been something I was part of—I was the writer and there was a director—so if the movie didn’t come out well I would blame the director. Now there are really no excuses. There is a lot of cursing in this movie. We screened in LA at a retired community. And I thought, A 70-year old person is not what a 70-year old person is like when I was 10—they aren’t going to mind. But they did. They thought the movie was naughty. I had to watch these two ladies walk out. That stings no matter what. I had never seen someone walk out of one of my movies before. And then they came back and I thought they were just going to the bathroom or something but one of the ladies took her shawl that she had left on the seat. So I watched them walk out again. It was terrible.
AD: What’s next for you?
SC: I’m going to do a movie called the Expanding Mailman in September in Chicago. It’s a movie about a graduate student of Astro-Physics who one day during his lunch break stares over at a sunflower and something about the geometry of the sunflower faces allows him to understand the mathematical theory of how the world was created and why. Only he can’t find a pen. He goes to find one and then circumstances lead him down a strange path. He goes up to this one professor and starts screaming the theory at him just out of the sheer glee of having figured this out. The professor thinks he is being assaulted and has him sedated by security. When he wakes up, he has been kicked out of school and he can’t remember it. The story starts fifteen years later and he is a mailman. Jack Black is going to play the mailman. It’s weird the whole time. It doesn’t even have a normal ten minutes in it.