Chicago's the secret for Steve Conrad writer

The "Walter Mitty" screenwriter talks about staying in Chicago and his upcoming Belushi film

First published as a 1939 short story in the New Yorker, James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" crawls inside the mind of an unassuming man: Walter Mitty, serious daydreamer.

Well, who isn't? I prefer to think of daydreams as mind movies — the private stories (starring you, of course starring you) that you play and replay inside your head to amuse yourself while stuck in traffic or folding laundry.

The 1947 film adaptation was Danny Kaye's first major role. Thurber consulted on the script, but: "Almost everything I had written, suggested and fought for was dropped," he wrote in a letter to Life magazine. The changes are notable; the intrigue fueling Mitty's fantasies begins to manifest itself in the real world. Movies, after all, need propulsion.

That shift carries over to the new film as well. Ben Stiller stars in and directs the film, and the script comes from Chicago-based screenwriter Steve Conrad, whose credits include "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "The Weather Man."

The "Mitty" job, he said over coffee recently, "was offered to me by the film studio." Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Conrad described the challenge in this way: "The original Thurber story's so short that you have to take the character somewhere else. So it becomes a little bit of a concept movie — a character whose daydreams interface with reality in a way that should make you laugh, but should say something about why we dream about what we dream about."

Stiller came on board not long after Conrad finished his first draft. "I had been working with him on another movie just before" (developing a comedy called "The Parking Ticket"), "so we went off that one and on to this one."

I asked Conrad about Stiller as a filmmaker. "I find his movies to have huge personalities. They're warm and fun but also challenging and cool, and they wouldn't have been made without him, you just know it.

"Like, no one would have made 'Tropic Thunder' without Ben behind it. And I wanted the same to be said about 'Walter Mitty.' That it's something only Ben could have made that way. I mean, there are other versions of it, but I wanted the Ben Stiller version because I increasingly found him to be a guy who's willing to use his talent and ambition to push movies to where we are all tired at the end because we tried everything."

Those pluses and minuses of Stiller's drive — an asset, but apparently off-putting to some of those around him as well — were hinted at in a 2012 New Yorker piece by Tad Friend. Conrad didn't have any complaints. "He's not temperamental or weird. He just works hard."

Originally from Fort Lauderdale, Conrad has remained in Chicago since graduating from Northwestern University more than 20 years ago. "I never left. I just feel good here. Ever since I got off the ("L") train for my interview at college, it felt right to me."

For those who work in films, there is pressure to relocate to Los Angeles, a land of endless meetings and lunches. "You can make a job out of that. Just living in Los Angeles becomes a full-time job." Being based in Chicago means he spends 15 to 20 weeks of the year on the road. "It depends on the year. But that's the nature of the job.

"It's tough on my kids," he said. "But dad not having a job is tough on the kids too. And that can happen in the blink of an eye."

Why stay in Chicago? "It's an easy city to write in; half the year you're inside. My friends are here. I've made working relationships in other places that have proved really vital to me. I don't think you can hide away here and hope that you'll just be served by the quality of your writing."

Conrad has a small office of writers, researchers and creative directors in town. Vince Vaughn is currently shooting a comedy from Conrad (IMDb lists the title as "Business Trip"; Conrad says that's not necessarily set in stone). There's also a script he's working on for "Weather Man" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski. "That's my job for next year," he said. And in the spring he will direct a John Belushi biopic that he also wrote, starring Emile Hirsch.

There are TV projects in various stages of development as well, including a drama at Cinemax and an unusual stop-motion comedy composed entirely of plastic baby dolls wearing the hair and costumes of adults. The pilot, which isn't at a network, is one of the weirder things I've seen all year, and I mean that as a compliment.

"Male-patterned baldness on a baby doll makes you really think about male-pattern baldness," Conrad said with a laugh. "But the fact of the matter is that it may be prohibitively expensive to do. That's why stop-motion is so seldom done anymore. But it's so gorgeous."

In the meantime, the Belushi film awaits.

"We cover it all, but I guess the most amount of pages are really early 'Saturday Night Live.' Those first two or three years when life had a seismic shift for him — yearning for people to notice him, to it being impossible for him to walk down the street without everybody noticing him.

"But we do the whole thing. You have to because his life is such an American ordeal. Who would have expected the noise he made on earth? No one would have expected it. I mean, he's from Wheaton. He's one of those guys who had to make his own way in order to make his way.

"He had to invent a way to be heard. And I love stories like that."

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is in theaters.

Chicago playwright scores TV deal

Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho tells me she is finalizing a development deal with HBO. Saracho's career as a TV writer began only last year on Lifetime's "Devious Maids" before she segued to the upcoming HBO dramedy "Looking" (which premieres Jan. 19).

Now the premium cable channel is buying the rights to her play "Mala Hierba" with an eye toward turning it into a series. The play is set at the Texas-Mexico border and had a reading at the Public Theater in New York two years ago, where it was described thusly: "(The story) focuses on the trophy wife of a border magnate who wavers between her wifely duty and the love of her life as she navigates the dangerous waters between desire and obligation." As with any project in its early stage, there are no guarantees.

Not a sentimental Christmas

The Northwest Chicago Film Society screens 1961's "Blast of Silence" this weekend, a low-budget crime drama about a hit man stalking his prey along the streets of New York, flush with holiday crowds.

The New York Times review all but predicts the rise of independent filmmakers: "Operating on a minute budget with unknown actors, a hand-held camera and a minimum of technicians, this do-it-yourself team obviously wanted to be offbeat and 'arty' while still conforming to Hollywood's tested commercial formulas." 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Siskel Film Center. Go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org or siskelfilmcenter.org/blast-of-silence.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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