At 19, Steve Conrad was a screenwriting wunderkind but a career downturn nearly forced him from the industry. Now a veteran, the Unfinished Business scribe recaps what adversity taught him and how he kept going.
Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
(March 13, 2015)
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Neil Young warbled contemplatively some 35 years ago, distilling the existential angst of every wunderkind who’s ever lived. In 1988, at the age of 19, a Northwestern University dropout from Boca Raton sold his first screenplay, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, which was turned into a feature film starring Richard Harris, Robert Duvall, and Shirley MacLaine, directed by critically acclaimed Randa Haines. When the modestly budgeted film failed to galvanize audiences, its screenwriter, Steve Conrad, found himself suddenly at a crossroads Neil Young could appreciate. “I went from being a ‘player’ at 20 or 21 to not being a player for 10 years,” laughs Conrad, whose latest film, Unfinished Business, is currently in theaters.
“I went very quickly from being just another aspiring writer to being the luckiest writer in the world with that cast and that director and having a rush of success that gave me a few good career options to all of a sudden have no options again and having to claw my way back into a place where I might have some decent options.” It’s a journey or character arc familiar to many artists, and also to audiences who have enjoyed other Conrad-penned films, The Weatherman, The Pursuit of Happyness, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As a writer, Conrad believes there’s always some “unfinished business,” so to speak, that it’s never really a question of burning out or fading away, but of simply keeping on.
What did you learn from the Ernest Hemingway experience?
That really, I had just been incredibly lucky first time around. Randa was at a point in her career where she could push through a small movie that she was passionate about, and we had actors who loved the script who could get a movie of that shape and size produced. If any of those things hadn’t clicked, and there’s never a reason why they do or should, the movie wouldn’t have happened. So what I learned is: it’s never going to be that easy again. The only response to that realization I could come up with was to write even more. You have to write in multiples of three and four if you ever want to see another film produced. You grind out four screenplays, make them the very best they can be, do your best to make them equally strong, and then the rest of it’s never up to you.
Photo: © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film
Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, and Dave Franco in Unfinished Business.
Where did the impetus to write come from in your life?
Films were a part of my everyday life when I was growing up. I lived with a connoisseur of films – my dad. He was a guy with exquisitely broad taste, and an exquisite mind and he was a bit of a professor for me. By the time I was 20 years old, I had seen so many films of so many different shapes and sizes that I had a little bit of a sense of the rhythms of a film and the cadence of a film – the craft work behind a movie. I knew what a scene was supposed to do before I had written a million of them. That’s another case of dumb luck in my life – which is an incredibly undervalued aspect of this industry.
What are some screenplays and films that have inspired you through the years?
There really are so many, obviously, so it really depends on what project I’m writing or wanting to write at any given moment. Every couple of years, it’s a different mindset for me. If you'd asked me two years ago, when I was knee-deep in Walter Mitty, I probably would’ve said Raiders of the Lost Ark, movies that were sweeping, epic, full of emotional and physical action. Growing up, I was a big fan of out-and-out comedies, things like Stripes and The Jerk and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Movies that didn’t straddle genres, but did one thing really, really well.
So of course you go on to write a number of scripts that straddle genres and inspire critics to make up words like “dramedy.”
Yeah, it’s probably commercial suicide, but to me, that combination of funny and sad is what life kind of feels like, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Can you imagine what Charlie Chaplin’s films would be like if they’d told him, “You can only be funny?” That’s an insult to the enormous breadth of his talent as an artist, that he should be reduced to just one thing. Instead, he did his thing, and we’re still watching his films almost a century later because of that. By the way, there are some incredible filmmakers today who blur the genre lines quite brilliantly – guys like Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson and The Coen Brothers. But no one’s accusing them of genre splitting, because they do it so well they’ve become genres unto themselves – the genre of the exceptional film.
With Unfinished Business, you’ve retired the urge to merge genres and written a broad, sharp, pratfalls and zingers comedy. What was the impulse for you?
Here’s the thing about screenwriting, at least for me: writers need to discover a unique setting in a very strict circumstance that hasn’t been mined to death in films before, a setting that allows and encourages a fresh look at familiar tensions. There have been only a few films set during big business trips – maybe Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, though that film is more about the journey home than about closing the deal – and I was in the middle of going back and forth between Iceland and New York on Walter Mitty and I’d watch these guys on the planes spend three or four hours at a time on these spreadsheets and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of what they were actually doing. They were truly applying themselves, undivided attention, a full effort given to what probably amounts to a pretty thankless job – except, at the end of the day, you can say, “I got my job done.” Which is something a lot of writers probably aspire to!
So I began to get a feeling for who those people are, who find value in their lives not from notoriety or celebrity, but from simply getting done what must be done. That’s their whole lives. Comedy felt like the right approach to that, and it was something I really wanted to try. Making people laugh was a clear defining goal on this script. Most peoples’ lives are a high-wire act of chainsaw juggling and you can’t afford to drop a chainsaw or it’s all over. That felt like a very basic cornerstone to comedy for me.
In many dramas, the written word can be considered sacrosanct, but when it comes to making comedies, production can involve a whole new round of writing or improvising, right?
Well, any production might usually be like that. But comics are interesting on a whole other level because you get in there with the performers, and it does become a collaboration, probably more so than in other genres. A joke or a scene is so much more democratically arrived at, which is a very active process for a writer, who’s used to being alone in a room all day with a typewriter. In comedy, everyone’s got ideas and you end up trying a lot of them, and many of them will work, and sometimes the original script changes a little bit.
Tell me more about that.
On a movie like Unfinished Business, you end up, as the writer, having to move over a little bit and set your ego aside a little bit so you are able to appreciate a good idea when it comes along. You have to prepare yourself for a team sport, which was new for me, and I really like it.
That’s probably a great muscle for writers to exercise.
Definitely! It’s important when you’re writing to get exactly what you want on the page, but in doing that, a lot of writers really atrophy the muscles that allow them to get along with other people and to cooperate and to assuage nine different, powerful personalities and appetites. But those are important skills to have, not just as a writer, but in life. You’ve got to know as a screenwriter, you’ve created a blueprint, not a Bible.
In addition to writing studio films like The Weatherman and Pursuit of Happyness and Walter Mitty, you’ve also written and directed small, independent projects, like Lawrence Melm and The Promotion. How do the two types of work inform each other?
Generally, through the films I’m able to convince people to let me direct myself, I’m able to be, maybe, a little more adventurous, or a little wilder in terms of storytelling. With the John Belushi film I’m doing right now, that’s kind of an example of what I’m saying. In 2015, everyone in the world thinks they know what a biopic should be; we’ve all seen 40 of them. So how do you do that today that isn’t the way they were being done in the 1980s or in 1995? The films I get to direct, I’m really trying to find a new place for film to go. I don’t know if I always get there, but I know that spending three years on them can be, sometimes, a little bit more exciting for me. It’s hard sometimes to write a really great, four-page scene that another director has decided to have an actor play while wearing a shirt that’s incredibly distracting and, maybe, speaks more to who the character is than any words the actor is saying. So every four years or so, I can’t take it anymore and I come up with a script that I can do myself. If you go out three nights in a row, on the fourth night you just want to be alone, right? And then on the fifth night, you’re ready to go back out again.
Hemingway was more than 20 years ago. What are some things you’ve learned as a writer?
I don’t know if I’ve learned anything true or clear enough to completely bank on them, but I do think that movies are still the place for “The Truly Great Role,” the world-class part that world-class actors want to play and make their livings at. I mean, obviously, there are other arenas for an actor to find that kind of part these days with things like cable television and Netflix, but guys like Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix – actors I aspire to one day work with – they’re film guys. I’m always trying to write something that will make an actor say, “I’m going to use my skills and gifts to become that character.”
How do you do that as a writer?
Well, actors are making choices of who they want to be and what they want to say and do on screen, right? Some actors find room to take chances, to be new or slightly unexpected in the work they do. They’re not necessarily encouraged by the industry to do that because it’s so unpredictable, which can be terrifying for people minding the bank. But it’s valuable, especially when you want to attract truly great actors, to begin with the idea of: “I would like to write something an actor would really want to say and do.” Sometimes you’re writing with a specific actor in mind. Sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you’re rewriting someone else’s script for an actor who’s already attached and you’re just trying to make it a better role. It’s worth studying, in any of those cases, what an actor’s strengths are, what strengths he might have that we haven’t seen before, what other characters she’s played, and to write moments that will seem new and exciting to them.
Can you give an example?
I don’t expect anyone to call easily to mind The Weatherman, though I’m very proud of that film, but there’s a scene, a small scene, in that film where the main character, played by Nicolas Cage, a divorced guy trying to come to grips with his wife’s new relationship and that his kids are being raised by another man, is in a bit of a flare-up with this other man. Nic has just come in from the cold, so he’s taken off his jacket, and he’s taking off his gloves, and the argument’s getting more intense, and then, out of the blue, he just spontaneously slaps the guy in the face with his gloves. It’s a moment when the character can no longer keep a lid on his feelings, and he does this really very strange thing. Almost everyone who read the script said I should take that out, that it was just too weird, that it was off-putting, that it made the character unlikeable. But I kept it in. I liked it, and it actually made me like the character more. I felt like it was a moment a great actor would want to play. So I met Nic Cage for the first time, and we’re talking about the script and he was, like, “There’s this scene in here…” And I knew exactly which one he was talking about, but I wasn’t sure what he was going to say about it. And then he said, “I read that scene and I knew right then, I really want to do this movie.” So a light bulb went off for me: you need to write moments that invite an actor to truly sing or shine.
From a craft standpoint, what other advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
You’ve heard the line about some writing, “Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.” Well, Mark Twain had his version of that line, referencing bad or troubled writing: “Once I put it down, I couldn’t pick it back up.” Some scripts are like that. They can start to feel very heavy. What I’ve learned in reading a ton of scripts and writing a lot of them and rewriting other scripts sometimes is that one big reason they get so heavy is they’re weighted down with too many beginnings and middles and ends. Someone walks into a room, says something, and then leaves again. And then you do that another 50 times and call it a movie. It’s what most of us do when we’re starting out as writers. When I first started working in the industry, I turned in a script to Sydney Pollack and he told me that’s exactly what I had written – a series of beginnings and middles and ends. He was incredibly gracious and smart and supportive, and he very casually said, “Why don’t you try it again, but just start from the middle.” Allow your audience room to catch up with what’s happening. Engage them like that. From a nuts and bolts perspective, I think that’s incredibly good advice.
I also think it’s really important to write a lot. I mean a lot. It’s where your confidence comes from as a writer, whether your scripts are being produced or not. Most of our days as writers are six hours of staring and one hour of typing and they end with a trashcan full of stuff we hate. But we do it again the next day, hoping we get another good hour. If you keep doing that, you become more confident that you can do that again and confidence really matters. It comes across in the writing. Why would you hire a writer who isn’t confident on the page? Would you hire a contractor who isn’t confident to build your deck or remodel your kitchen? The confidence comes from the doing.