Interview: Seann William Scott and director Steve Conrad
Wed, 04 Jun 2008 14:21:41
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“The little indie that could” is a familiar filmic phenomenon that usually occurs once a year, bonus points if a smaller feature maintains steady box office momentum during the highly competitive summer movie season. It happened for My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Little Miss Sunshine, and hopefully it will happen for The Promotion, too, writer/director Steve Conrad’s film about two lowly supermarket employees vying for the same managerial position at a new store. Doug (Seann William Scott) desperately wants the job so he can buy a home with his sweet-as-pie wife (Jenna Fischer), but his ambitions are stymied by the appearance of Richard (John C. Reilly), a quirky Canadian who quickly wins over the higher-ups and provides considerable competition. Suddenly Doug isn’t the “shoo in” he professed himself to be, and he takes measures to sabotage his idiosyncratic rival.
ARTISTdirect spoke with star Seann William Scott and director Steve Conrad about the comedy, which is at once relatable and hilarious, and likely one of the funniest movies released this summer. Its humor is evident, but it also contains a stream of blink-and-you’ll-miss them subtleties that punctuate the film’s overall farce. At its heart, it's a charmingly tender story about love, friendship, and the very American ambition to get ahead, no matter what.
Star Seann William Scott
This movie is the antithesis of your typical raucous summer comedy, but it worked on a lot of different levels for me.
Wow, that’s great. You know, I agree. I think I’m a little bit biased toward this film, but I do think it’s really funny. It’s so hard—you look at Indiana Jones, and I get it on a business level; these movies work so well and they’re so big and they’re so exciting and fun, but I think this movie is really funny and I think it has the quality of a Juno or a Little Miss Sunshine. Maybe not on [the same] level, but that feeling, that kind of human quality. It resonates and it has some human components to it so it’s not just some big gimmick.
Its themes are really universal. Almost everyone can relate to wanting to feel a basic sense of success. It’s interesting, because these are [conflicts] you think you might see in the corporate world, but they’re placed into this microcosmic sphere. Did you draw from your own experience in past jobs?
Well, I had so many weird jobs at an age where it didn’t mean as much. There was a point when I was 21 and I was pursuing acting and I was thinking, “My gosh, this may never happen.” I was like, “I can’t be the guy that’s going to say, ‘I’m going to give it five years, or ten years.’” But that feeling of going, “I’ve been trying this for 15 years. Will I have the willpower to say, ‘It’s not going to work.’” I think it’s different, though, when you’re at an age where you’re old enough to go, “Okay, this really means something. This is going to really influence my life and my future and my wife, or my girlfriend, my child, my family.” So I had a lot of odd jobs, but I was lucky enough to win the lottery with American Pie and try to start a career at a young age. But, going back to what you said before—what I appreciate about this film, as funny as it is and as much as I can’t stop watching John C. Reilly in the movie, it has something that’s very simple and sweet and real. It’s different. It’s that nice little movie that I think I would watch a few times if it was on cable. It’s funny, it’s got quotable lines. I really do appreciate things that mean something. As much as I can get lost in a horror film or a thriller, I do like movies that actually deal with human behavior and the struggle in American society and trying to make the best of a mediocre situation.
One of the more tender interactions in the film is between your character and his wife. He struggles a lot with the idea of not being the breadwinner. Can you relate to that?
Well, I think there’s a certain kind of masculine component to it. The guy wants to take care of the girl, you know? I think a lot of guys can relate; you don’t want your girl to struggle. There [are] a lot of jerks out there, and there are a lot of jerks that are girls, but I’d like to believe that most people are good. When you’re in a relationship, you don’t want your mate to struggle and sacrifice. That manly kind of feeling that a guy can have, where it’s like, “I don’t want you to have to do all of those things. I want to take care of you. I want to be the guy that’s the breadwinner here.” I think there’s a bit of ego there in some cases, but I think with this character he wants desperately to provide. I think he loves his wife, and it’s a nice portrayal of [similar] relationships where there’s a lot of love there. They spend so much time struggling and trying to get past a mediocre situation, and I don’t think he ever anticipated desiring a managerial position at a grocery store, but that’s where his life is at. He’s struggling with all of those things, and when he hears that his wife [wants to sacrifice], he thinks, “No, I don’t want that. I don’t want you to do those things. I want to take care of you. I want you to do what you want to do. I want you to be able to take vacations.” Even if he gets this job, it only gets [him] so much. It’s not the end of all [his] problems, you know?
The humor in the film is appropriately quiet. People might associate you with films like American Pie, but this is a change of pace where you’re more restrained. Was that a change you anticipated?
It’s nice of you to say that. I’ve wanted to, since I’ve moved out to L.A., to do movies with real substance. I never anticipated doing broad comedies, and then I got that opportunity. I really do love those movies, I love the challenge. I’m a filmophile; I love movies. I’ve wanted to be noticed as an actor, but I’m not that concerned about it. If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be. I’ve just got to do the best that I can. With a movie like this, it was a nice subtle transition. While I still want to do big crazy comedies if I get the chance, I do believe that I can do things that are a little bit darker or a little bit more dramatic better than I’ve done in the past. For me, it is a real challenge since I’ve spent so much time being the goofball clown, dancing monkey, to actually be the guy [where] everything happens to him. From a professional standpoint, being the guy that’s not trying to make everybody else laugh, but everybody else is funny and you’re just the quiet guy, it was really challenging not to laugh all the time. I mean, John C. Reilly is so funny, and I love to laugh. I have laugh lines to show for it. Honestly, John C. Reilly was so funny that my daily struggle was, “Don’t ruin the take! Stay straight, just look at him and get through the scene. This is an Academy Award guy. You’re the American Pie guy, he’s the Academy Award guy. So just suck it up and look at his forehead, don’t look at his eyes, because he’s going to make you laugh.”
Was there a lot of rehearsal between you and John, or did you get thrown into the situation blindly, because the dynamic in the film works well. There’s a level of familiarity there that I could sense as a viewer.
Honestly, I think that’s a testament to Steve and John. John is really extraordinary. I’ve never worked with anybody that is so talented. The guy really created that role, and I did essentially what was written, but John really came up with all of those little nuances. The accent, all of those little subtle kind of quirks. I think because I admire him so much as an actor and as a human being that there’s probably chemistry there because I like the guy. I think it’s also just Steve Conrad. I think he’s really, extremely talented. I think he’s a guy that others are going to be talking about. His next movie is a Jack Black film that I think I’m going to do a small little part in. I think there’s a quality to the film that is really special and interesting. It may not be perfect, or maybe for some people it is, but I think it works. I remember going to South by Southwest, and [the audience was] laughing. If it wasn’t for John and his performance, I don’t think that it would have been as successful. I think what John did was really, really funny and really weird. He’s just a messed up dude in the movie. He’s just a likeable, good guy that’s just trying to make it. I think that connection or any kind of chemistry is a combination of who he is as an actor and his performance, Steve Conrad and his writing, his directing, and me just admiring John so much. My character likes John’s character because I like him. I think it’s probably all of those things.
These characters ultimately like each other. They’re ruthless in a very subtle way, but at the heart of it there’s a friendship there.
Yeah, it’s interesting, and it’s a subtle one. That’s something that Steve Conrad worked on as we were leading up to shooting the movie. I like the fact that they’re not great friends—they’re friendly, they’re kind of friends, but yet they make mistakes and they feel bad about it. I think that definitely happens in life.
Working with Steve and working with material that is a little bit of a departure for you, is this a direction you might want to follow in terms of your comedic oeuvre?
Well, I’ve wanted to do these kinds of films for some time now. Steve’s a good friend of mine now, so I’m a bit biased [toward] his work. If I could do every film with him I’d be happy, to have that kind of relationship where you see an actor and a director working together for a long time. [I admire] guys like David O. Russell or Wes Anderson; Ben Stiller does great things. In terms of things that are funny, yet dramatic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [is great]. I love dramas, I watch foreign films all the time. I’ve been wanting to do these kinds of films for a long time, it was just trying to convince the directors to give me the job. I’ve been lucky to get a movie that works on some level that may help convince some directors to maybe keep an open mind about me, because I carry a lot of comedic baggage with the American Pie movies. For some directors that’s not an issue, for many it is. I’m not worried about it; it doesn’t bother me. But eventually, hopefully I’ll convince them that there’s no baggage. In fact, that I’m a nice addition to their film. But in the meantime, as much as I can do to chisel away at their perception of me and what I bring to a movie, that’s what I like to do. I like to make broad comedies. And truthfully, I think it’s still a business. At the end of the day, you get one Superbad or one Knocked Up or one American Pie, then suddenly the floodgates open and you get whatever you want. Also, if you don’t have that hit but you have some really quality films, it does start to slowly change the perception of you within the film community.
Director Steve Conrad
One of the things I was curious about was the genesis of the idea. As I mentioned to Seann, some of the interactions seem like they belong to the corporate world, this ruthlessness and wanting to get ahead, and yet they were transported to a smaller realm. Did you draw from personal experience when writing it?
Well, no; I hadn’t worked in a grocery store, and my particular walk of life is very private, like writing. In filmmaking you don’t really compete with someone right next to you. You kind of stand or fall by yourself. I guess as a grown up American you kind of compete everyday with a bunch of other grown up Americans who run at pretty fast paces. The idea of competition can’t be foreign to an American. You’re born with it in your blood. But the actual event that allowed me to find a way into the story was one I saw happen in a grocery store, and it’s an event we have in the movie. Essentially, this poor kid, an assistant manager in a yellow vest, had to tell a street gang to stop hanging out in the lot, and I knew that he couldn’t do it. I watched him walk over there; I was sitting in my car waiting for someone to come out of the grocery. I thought, “He’s going to be completely demoralized in front of his friends.” I expected it to be funny, and it definitely was funny.
It’s something that we pass by everyday. It’s such a familiar scene.
Right, so that started happening and I thought, “It’s going to be funny and I want to start paying attention. I’m just going to listen to all of this.” So he gets over [there] and they just rip him to shreds. He was absolutely humiliated by it all. At the end of the day, they had no authority and they just wouldn’t leave, so he just had to turn around and leave. He turned around and I saw on the back of his vest it said, “Have a Nice Day,” which is humiliating, too. He just won me over so deeply when he walked back to work and not to the street. I guess I would’ve quit if I were him. And I thought, there’s probably a lot of days like this for him,” and here I was thinking it was funny because he was the weak one, but then I noticed he had the strength that maybe I don’t have. I ended up really admiring that act of going back to work, and I thought, “Well, that’s pretty formidable strength. He must have a goal in mind that allows him to face this everyday.” I started thinking about what his goal might be.
Many people can relate to that feeling, no matter what your job is.
I tried to make it somewhat specific to the grocery store, but other people can vibe on this idea that work is hard. It’s funny how many of our waking hours are spent doing it and how little pop art looks into it; we just don’t pay attention to it. It’s the preoccupation of our lives, and I wonder why we don’t try to discover its challenges through our pop art forms and think about what it asks of us to make us stronger and what it takes of us to make us weaker. I wanted to remind people of their own jobs, and I made the decision to make [Doug and Richard] both basically industrious [and] hard working, because I think the other workplace movies that I could call to mind—generally the people who did those jobs delighted in doing them badly and they were ironic about it. It didn’t remind me of the way I work and the way I know my family works. I don’t think most people wake up and do their jobs like that. I think most people wake up and put their head down and they work hard and try to advance, so I wanted the story to be one that felt familiar to everyone who works like that, which I think is most of us.
What you said about pop art not exploring how work affects our lives is really apt because the work environment of the two main characters truly follows them home. It follows them through every waking hour and influences their interactions, especially with their wives. Can you unpack that a little more, specifically the relationship between Seann’s character and his wife?
[Doug, Seann’s character] lives in Chicago where I lived when I was his age in really similar circumstances. My wife was in medical school and wasn’t earning any money. I just happened to have been in a really cold period professionally and wasn’t earning an income. We had no peace; we literally had no peace and quiet in our lives because we were privy to every single noise our neighbors made. They weren’t nice people; it just made our lives peaceless and for long periods of time, never private. I realized that if I wanted peace and quiet, I lived in Chicago, I was going to have to pay for it; I was going to have to get a house. I just couldn’t draw that kind of income, so I looked around and realized how I might and then went out to do it. It was a pretty modest little improvement. It was really a difference of making $15,000 more a year, but hard to come by, right? Not so easy to get once I identified it. For whatever reason, the days of our moms and dads lending us $20,000 to buy our first house, they’re just long gone. Parents can’t do that anymore. Most of the people I know, in one way or another, they’re kind of looking after their moms and dads. I don’t know if it’s newly the case, but it feels like it’s definitely the case now. We’re really alone in trying to stake space out ourselves. So, that came out of my life, the idea of, “Man, I’ve got to start running. Everyone else is running and I’m walking and I’ve got to start running, too.” I thought I knew something about those feelings. And, the point you made about you never being able to leave the demands of that workplace, it’s really true because your economic condition really determines so much of the quality of the rest of your life. Are you going to have to take the bus? Yeah, you are. So you’re going to have to sit outside in February for 20 minutes . He doesn’t want his wife to do that. They want to buy a car; she wants to take a bus to work. [It’s about] a guy who works at a job like that when I worked jobs like that, which [are] basically rewardless, except that they provide you a check that you can then use to take care of your loved ones where the reward comes from. The victory is how you take care of the people in your life. That’s where self-respect comes from.
Dealing with the quotidian of life, there’s something inherent in the humor of the film that’s necessarily sort of quiet, but hilarious and ridiculous at the same time. This is definitely a change for Seann in the films we’re used to seeing him in.
That’s great. I knew that he could do it, I didn’t have a doubt. I hope that he’ll have choices later because he’s very talented and he’s really hard working. There are very few guys his age that are working in the movie business who apparently effortlessly make you laugh. He has that knack; he was born like that, and it’s valuable.
Did you have Seann and John in mind when you were writing?
Not when I was writing, but really early in the casting it came together quickly. I never start [writing] a movie with actors in mind, like sometimes happens. I knew that I wanted to work with actors and not movie stars. Although each of those guys is both, but I have come to think of them each as actors.
Seann mentioned that he pretty much stuck to what was scripted, but was there a bit of improvisation that you allowed for as a director?
You know it’s funny, if you did a word count between Seann and John’s characters, Doug doesn’t do much talking dramatically. A lot of his talking is in the voiceover. Seann does a lot of his communication physically in the movie, like his reaction to Richard continuing to demonstrate this compounding weirdness, his confusion over whether he’s decent or indecent, and being privy to motivational tapes. Seann had to do a lot of silent performing in the movie that he doesn’t even consider. Because it’s not in the script Seann doesn’t think he did it, but he did it. There’s that speech he makes in the community center where I didn’t direct Seann at all when he started to do it, except the night before I told him I’d like it to be like [he] was a “C” student and it was the best thing and [Doug had] practiced it. So, he came up with all of these little body language turns that got behind the stupidity of the speech and the common nature of that speech. He would enhance it all with his body. I’d love to ask [audiences] to pay attention to how Seann physically commands attention to the “C”-student nature of that speech in a way that’s very subtle. Seann did that all without direction.
And then there’s that long-standing joke in the film, introducing John’s character as Canadian.
I thought it was a good idea to step outside of the America idea a little bit, to see it now and again through someone else’s eyes just to make it clear how weird it is. The Canadian-ness helps it to be more American.
This is a smaller film that’s being released among other big budget goliaths. What type of audience do you think will discover it?
I don’t know who it’s for exactly. I guess I try to write things that would make my brothers laugh. It’s what I did with The Weather Man; it’s what I did with The Pursuit of Happyness, too. I just tried to figure out a way to get my brothers interested in it. Sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it means that other people will be, sometimes it means that they won’t be. I can tell if I’ve [made my brothers laugh], and then I know it’s time to quit.
How did you come to cast Jenna [Fischer] in the movie?
I had really specific needs for that actor. You raised a point that I had to address in casting: Seann’s character is relentlessly preoccupied by needing this job. He does not have off hours. When he’s home his head is down the same way it is at work. He cannot be hopeful about his future, he can’t be light about it or optimistic about it. His only concern is with the here and now and making the steps to get this job. I knew in that home I would need a person who could buoy the future, that could be hopeful about what the next two years might look like, so I knew I needed somebody that could hold up two people by just being joyful, by being a person who works but also has a lightness in their step.
Coming from The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness, is comedy something that you have an affinity toward now?
Comedy, in my estimation, is harder to pull off than drama because the proof is really right there. Did that joke make you laugh or did it not? And in drama, your finish line really tells you where you’ve wound up. At the end of the day [with a drama] you can have a reel that doesn’t work, but in a comedy if you have a reel of jokes that just don’t fly every time, you’ve failed. I just like that bar; I like the challenge of a comedy more than the challenge of a drama.