The most coveted screenwriter in Hollywood stands outside a coffeehouse some 2,000 miles from Los Angeles.
Steve Conrad grew up in south Florida, and did every screenwriter's professionally mandatory sojourn to Los Angeles after graduating from Northwestern University in 1991. But his time there proved temporary, and he stayed only about a year. He’s the contemporary Bellovian who instinctively returns to the comfort and matter-of-fact nature of his adopted city. Chicago.
“I was just happier here,” he says, on a beautiful September morning in the city’s bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood. “I could walk around, get my work done, and it just fit my life a little better.”
This is the second time our professional lives have intersected. About six years earlier, a Chicago company I was working with to make a period script about a 1922 college football team brought Conrad in to do a rewrite. We went our separate ways and hadn’t seen each other since, until a chance encounter at a Wicker Park record store about a week and a half before this interview.
Sitting in his office, a few blocks from the coffeehouse, Conrad is as I remembered him — a handsome, intelligent, if somewhat mysterious, guy. Even now, just 36 years old, he has experienced a complete and thoroughly peculiar Hollywood trajectory of breakthrough, disappearance and career rejuvenation. So it is no doubt with excitement and a sliver of trepidation that he awaits the release of director Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man, starring Nicolas Cage and based on Conrad’s original script.
More emotionally detached, somber and melancholy than Verbinski’s trademark work (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring), The Weather Man (which opens on October 28) marks only Conrad’s second produced screenplay, and his first in nearly 12 years. But the movie augurs a remarkable burst of creative energy that Conrad hopes will finally put to rest the questions that have dogged him professionally over the last decade.
A former wunderkind who wrote his first produced screenplay at the absurd age of 20, Conrad is again a conquering hero. He just returned from a location trip to San Francisco, where the Italian director Gabriele Muccino (The Last Kiss) is shooting another of his scripts, Pursuit of Happyness. Conrad is also readying the scheduled spring production of Quebec, which he wrote and will also direct.
The scripts make up a loose trilogy, a subtle critique of the American success ethic in which the protagonists must weigh the personal and emotional consequences of their career and corporate ambition. “They’re about the costs of [success],” Conrad says, “about looking behind it a little bit, or more deeply. You can park across the street from a house, size it up, and say the people that live there must be happy, and look more closely and see that nobody’s happy.”
In The Weather Man, Cage plays the eponymous figure, a slick, facile local Chicago television personality named David Spritz, whose ease and professional success mask a profound inner torment and deeper sense of failure. Constantly seeking the approval of his father, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author (Michael Caine), Spritz is powerless to reverse the downward slide precipitated by his failed marriage and inability to connect emotionally with his confused, socially awkward young children. On the verge of his greatest professional accomplishment — a gig on a morning network news program — he tries to come to terms with his inchoate rage and discontent.
Conrad wrote the script four years ago, though it sprang from a surreal childhood incident. “In Florida, we had a weatherman named Al Sunshine,” he recalls. “We were driving home from school one day — I must have been 11 — and I was in the back seat of a car filled with older kids. We were driving along the beach, and we saw him doing a remote broadcast. We had just gone to Arby’s, and we had these milk shakes. Somebody in the front seat said, ‘Look, there’s Al Sunshine.’
“I turned around and saw somebody throw a milk shake at him. It missed, but I wondered why somebody would do that. I wondered if they would have done that if it had been the anchorman or sports guy. I thought there might be something about this weird personality with a fake last name that provoked such strong feelings. To get ahead, we have to make choices that change us a little bit. I thought I’d like to tell a story, about a guy who has to accept that this is a choice he’s made for which there’s no going back.”
The Weather Man unfolds over a dreary, gray Chicago winter and is studded with moments of violent comedy that arise from the movie’s running joke — the crush of objects hurled at Spritz by his upset viewers. In the course of his research, Conrad discovered that real meteorologists also harbor a healthy contempt for those untrained performers who merely read the weather from a scientifically prepared script.
“This character is not a scientist,” he says. “He’s a face on television, and essentially his job is to be happy to be there. He’s on this edge of being stable and becoming unglued. We live in a world where, for the most part, people aren’t going to support you. It’s up to you to become content or fall to pieces. It gets desperate, and I think desperation leads to violence.”
In constructing his scripts, Conrad typically begins writing directly on his computer. In conceiving of his characters and their interior lives, he imagines different scenarios and conversations, until he hits upon the particular way a given character will talk.
“Dialogue in that respect is really important to me, because I think in large part it really is action. The way somebody talks tells you, like action does, an awful lot about their character — whether they talk in starts and stops, whether they talk with confidence, whether they leave things hanging. I spend a lot of time imagining characters talking to me just to get a bead on how they speak. When I figure that out, I start to figure out what they’re about.”
Conrad’s own comeback, if you will, has been predicated on his ability to think outside his own immediate experience. He’s unlikely to take his new privileged position for granted, if only because he has the stinging memories of how his career fell out the last time around. The first movie he wrote, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, directed by Randa Haines, examined the wary, sweet friendship that passed between two avuncular men (played by Richard Harris and Robert Duvall) and the women (Shirley MacLaine, Piper Laurie and Sandra Bullock) who hovered around them. The movie opened and closed very quickly during Christmas 1993, but the guarded, passable reviews and Conrad’s youth marked him as someone worth watching.
“I was lucky that [the script] didn’t suck,” Conrad says. “Everything I wrote after it did. I think young writing is like that. It’s just superpersonal. It’s so personal that it fails to get anybody interested.
“I wrote a few things that nobody liked. You finish something, and you think, ‘No one’s ever thought of this before. It’s great.’ You’re so eager for people to see it. Then a week goes by, and you think, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’ When I thought I got a handle on my work, it took a little stretch to get people excited again.”
Rather than sulk, he did some sensible, emotionally grounded things like get married and having two kids. He also got serious about movies, watching them and thinking about form, idiom, subtlety and indirection. His script for The Weather Mangot people interested in his work again, including producer Todd Black, who produced both Hemingway and The Weather Man.
Currently, Conrad is completing Chad Schmidt, a meta-piece about fame and identity that will star Brad Pitt as a struggling actor whose resemblance to Brad Pitt causes considerable havoc. He’s also adapting J. Robert Lennon’s horror novel Mailman for Sam Mendes, and two projects — one original, one adaptation — for powerhouse producer Scott Rudin.
“There’s no telling what tomorrow’s going to bring, and usually it’s bad,” he says, laughing. “Mostly, what I learned from all of this is that it’s all on you. At some point, I was writing stuff that just wasn’t engaging, and then I had to double back and learn more about writing. I had to work on my craft.
“Professionally, I’ve learned your primary goal as a filmmaker is to be interesting. You can be interesting like David Lynch is interesting, or like Martin Scorsese is, or how the Farrelly brothers are. But you must be interesting.”