Steven Conrad spent most of the past nine months in LA and New York editing and mixing sound for his directorial debut, a locally produced comedy called The Promotion, but he can’t stop obsessing. “I thought of something this morning that I want to shoot,” he says. “John C. Reilly’s character putting out a storage room fire with his bare hands. I really want to see John put out a fire. I drew up a little budget. I could do it for 3,000 bucks.” But as a writer-director Conrad doesn’t have the same freedom as when he was just turning out scripts: “Writing, you can just keep making stuff up. Filming, you have finite resources—at some point you have to stop.”

The Promotion, which premieres Sunday at South by Southwest, stars Reilly and Seann William Scott, best known as “the Stiffmeister” from the American Pie movies, as assistant managers at a suburban supermarket run by a character played by Fred Armisen. When the chain opens a new store, the promise of a manager’s job pushes the two into fierce rivalry. Conrad shot the film in Chicago over 30 days in summer 2006. Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films plans a summer release.

Like The Pursuit of Happyness and The Weather Man, whose screenplays Conrad also wrote, The Promotion derives its humor from the connection between work and dignity. “When you’re in middle management,” Conrad says, “you take shit from the guys above you and the guys below you. It’s a hard walk of life.”

Conrad, who’s 39, has known since he was a kid in Fort Lauderdale that he wanted to become a filmmaker. “I remember watching Life of Brian with my father and I could see that it really moved him,” he says. “I realized that you could write about important things in an electric way.” After studying briefly at Florida State University, he transferred to Northwestern, where he majored in English. Outside the classroom, he got involved with Chicago Filmmakers and made some shorts.

In 1990, while he was a senior in college, Conrad adapted into a screenplay a short story he wrote for a creative writing class about an odd couple of lonely older men and sent it out cold to agents in Hollywood. Within the year he landed an agent, who got the script to producer Todd Black (Class Act, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot), who passed it along to Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God). After she signed on to direct, Warner Brothers greenlit the project. Conrad was just 21.

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway was shot in Florida in 1992, with Richard Harris and Robert Duvall in the lead roles and a cast that included Shirley MacLaine, Piper Laurie, and Sandra Bullock. Conrad was allowed on the set as an observer. “Watching all those world-class actors was the first time I’d ever seen anything I’d written performed.” Despite all that star power, the film debuted in 1993 to mixed reviews and dismal box office receipts.

Nevertheless, Conrad started writing in earnest. Over the next six years or so, he knocked out about five scripts a year and sold enough to scrape by, but nothing panned out. “The main character was always my age and looked like me and had friends like I had,” he says. “Like anybody who talks about themselves too much, it just wasn’t that interesting.”

Conrad fell into a slump, both financially and emotionally. “I would get something else cooking before I had to find another way to make a living,” he says. “But just barely. When you’re hired to write The Seven Dwarfs direct to video and then you get fired—that’s just not what I thought would be happening to me when I was kid.”

Things began to change after Conrad got married in 1998. With his wife still in school and the prospect of a family looming, he started writing less “about girls” and more about what it takes to make a living. “Once I was totally broke I realized that’s an element of grown-up life worth writing about: money and not having money, trying to find some dignity in your professional life.”

In 2000 Todd Black introduced Conrad to Chicago producer Steven A. Jones (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things), who helped him put together the short film, Lawrence Melm. “I just wanted to shoot something really badly and try directing on for size. I was just lucky to find people to help me do it.”

But it would be several years before Conrad would have another script developed into a full-length feature. “It got to the point where he was having difficulty getting any of his work read, or getting any attention at all,” Jones recalls. “Throughout that time, he was thinking of directing again, once he got back on his feet. He had a lot of time to think about it.”

Finally, in 2003 Black optioned Conrad’s script for The Weather Man, about a TV meteorologist coming to terms with public derision, the imminent death of his father, a failed marriage, and two troubled teenage children. “It really represents the first thing I wrote when I was convinced no one was going to read it,” Conrad says. “I’d run out of people so I found a way to be interesting to myself.” With Nicolas Cage starring and Gore Verbinski (the Pirates of the Caribbean series) directing, Paramount agreed to bankroll the picture. The Weather Man shot in Chicago and New York in winter 2004, and Conrad was at Verbinski’s side throughout. “We were constantly writing for the set, working inside the scenes to help people find a way to feel it, making the scene stronger,” Conrad says. “I fell in love with that way of working.”

While The Weather Man was shooting, Black introduced Conrad to Chris Gardner, a Chicago brokerage owner whose life story Black optioned after seeing him profiled on 20/20. Though now a success, Gardner had slipped in and out of homelessness at the start of his career as a single parent working an internship at Dean Witter. Black wanted Conrad to rework his story for the big screen. “We talked about being broke,” Conrad recalls of his talks with Gardner. “I remembered the way it makes you feel abjectly alone, like you have no one to count on but yourself, and you have to come through it on your own. That squared with the way Chris remembered it. As long as I got the feelings right, he felt OK with me making some stuff up in order to tell a story.”

Will Smith and Italian director Gabriele Muccino signed on to the project, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Columbia Pictures gave it an estimated $55 million budget. It opened in December 2006 and went on to gross $163 million domestically, $298 million worldwide.

Conrad wrote The Promotion, his lightest script, while The Pursuit of Happyness was still in production. After one expired option, it was taken over by Jones and former Pariah exec Jessika Borsiczky Goyer. Scott was cast in the lead, and the Weinsteins put up the $6.5 million budget. Conrad finally had his first feature-length directorial vehicle. “The budget was small enough that they could trust a first-time director with it,” he explains. “It was either gonna be me or nobody.”

With The Promotion set to hit theaters this summer, Conrad can look ahead. He’s negotiating with producer Scott Rudin on an adaptation of the Chang-Rae Lee novel Aloft and working with Brad Pitt on Chad Schmidt, about a talented amateur with a slight resemblance to Brad Pitt who’s trying to break into the industry in the late 1980s, just as Pitt’s star is rising. “If you dragged Brad Pitt behind a bus for a block, he’d look like Chad Schmidt,” Conrad says.

Conrad expects to be back in the director’s chair this summer when shooting is set to begin in Chicago on The Expanding Mailman, starring Jack Black. “It’s about an advanced student of astrophysics who glimpses a mathematical expression that explains the origins of the universe but he can’t find a pen so he forgets it,” Jones says. “In one way it’s his descent into insanity, but in another way it’s his redemption.”v

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“When you’re hired to write The Seven Dwarfs direct to video and then you get fired—that’s just not what I thought would be happening to me when I was kid.”