Weatherman’ has NU, Evanston connection

Lindsay Sakraida

If the witty title isn’t evident enough, “The Weather Man,” which is set in the windy city of Chicago, is a comedy. Just don’t call it a dark comedy. Nicolas Cage plays the title role of the weather man, who is divorced, has a bad relationship with his children and is a “vague, unexpressed disappointment to his father.”

“He wakes up one morning and realizes he’s a weather man and that’s all he’s ever going to be,” said the screenwriter, Steve Conrad. “It’s not happy, but it’s like, ‘I’m such an absolute mess that it’s kind of funny.'”

But it’s not dark. “It’s comedy that steers towards the stylistic,” Conrad said, comparing his humor to “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

Conrad developed his writing skills at Northwestern and graduated with an English degree in 1991. While in school, he wrote the screenplay for what would become his first film, “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway,” in 1993. His professional life has continued to be affected by his time at NU, particularly because of encouraging writing professors.

“They felt like it wouldn’t be crazy for me to try and make a living at (screenwriting),” Conrad said. “Looking back I probably would have done this anyway, but that first encouragement is really important when you don’t have a clue what you want to do, and these possibilities seem like fantasies rather than actual versions of your life.”

Conrad was so struck by the Midwest that he made the move from the sunny south of Florida to temperamental Chicago, where he lives today. He had to, of course, since Chicago was the first place to embrace his teenage love — for Elvis Costello.

“No one listened to Elvis Costello where I grew up, and I felt really lonely about that,” Conrad said. “The first morning (at NU), I woke up and there was a Costello song on the radio and I thought, wow, there are enough people here who like that kind of music that they would bother to put it on the radio. I think that’s emblematic of the energy I’ve found here.”

Conrad has come full circle since graduating now that part of “The Weather Man” takes place in Evanston. It’s hard to believe that a film written by an alumnus would only coincidentally be filming near campus, but that happens to be the case. Director Gore Verbinski (“The Ring,” “The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”) chose the house on Lincolnwood, which was transformed to parallel Verbinski’s interpretation of Conrad’s script, from the fake snow on the lawn, to the strategically placed grocery store receipt and pile of mail in the kitchen. An art director even placed children’s artwork on a corkboard, featuring what seemed to be a family consisting of several unhappy children, a possible jab at the film’s subject matter.

It is this creative control that has led Conrad down the path toward directing. His first attempt, “Lawrence Melm”, was cut short because the film’s production ran out of money, but he will be directing “Quebec” later this year. Conrad said his future in directing has allowed him to remain close to the production of “The Weather Man,” an opportunity that writers are often not presented with.

“It just so happens that (Verbinski) knows that I’m going to be filming a movie of my own and he’s been really cool about teaching me stuff and letting me hang around to watch,” Conrad chuckled before adding, “And occasionally asking me what I think.”

Success is hard to come by in the film industry, but Conrad is well on his way to achieving it.

“The thing that has been helpful to me to get these pictures made is that the characters are slightly left field,” Conrad said. “I try hard to make an actor say that this is a role that I would like to do.”

For “The Weather Man”, Conrad seems to have succeeded in this goal. Nicolas Cage’s father (played by Michael Caine) is known the world over for his award-winning writing and his Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in literature. Of course an actor would want to masquerade as a respected author — and perhaps a screenwriter would too.