Entertainment & Life

He runs ‘Patriot’ and doesn’t much stop

Series creator and oftentimes director Steve Conrad, left, consults with actor Michael Dorman on the set of the new Amazon series “Patriot.”
Series creator and oftentimes director Steve Conrad, left, consults with actor Michael Dorman on the set of the new Amazon series “Patriot.” Chicago Tribune

It is 6 a.m. and still dark when I arrive at the Chicago home of Steve Conrad, the creator of Amazon’s forthcoming series “Patriot,” which filmed in and around the Chicago over the summer and into the early fall.

Conrad opens the door with a friendly hello and the slightly disoriented look of someone who just woke up. Or never bothered going to bed. On the kitchen counter are remnants from the night before: an opened wine bottle and not-quite-empty glass.

Set to premiere early next year, “Patriot” follows American intelligence officer John Tavner (Michael Dorman) working undercover as a mid-level nobody at a Midwestern industrial piping firm. He’s called into service by his boss, who is also his father (“Lost’s” Terry O’Quinn), to travel to Europe and deliver a bag of money to unnamed agents. Complications ensue and there is a psychological toll, as Tavner struggles with the demands of a double life filled with bursts of violence. As a way to decompress during his down time, he brings his acoustic guitar into coffee shops where he sings folk songs about the terrible, terrible things he’s done on the job. The series is ambitious in look and tone and filled with darkly, absurdist gambits like this.

Though much of the stateside action in “Patriot” takes place in Milwaukee, the series filmed in Chicago. This is where Conrad lives. It’s where his two teenage children live as well. Shooting close to home was a priority. Nine episodes, each an hour long. (The pilot, which you can watch on Amazon, brings the episode total to 10.) It’s mid-September and we’re headed to suburban Joliet, where the ornate marble interior of the Rialto Square Theatre is standing in for a hotel lobby in Luxembourg.

Known primarily as a screenwriter of films including “The Weatherman” starring Nicolas Cage, “The Pursuit of Happyness” with Will Smith and Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Conrad now joins a venerable group of writers-turned-showrunners, many of whom are seeing new opportunities as streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu ramp up their slate of original programming. There are already a number of broadcast network shows that film in Chicago. Showtime’s “Shameless” and the Netflix series “Sense8” also film here for short periods. But “Patriot” – along with Joe Swanberg’s “Easy” on Netflix – is among the first high-end series from a streaming service to shoot here this extensively.

As we’ve seen with the NBC “Chicago” franchise, success begets success. That Conrad has chosen to remain in Chicago over the course of his career is significant. If “Patriot” does well and is renewed for more seasons, it will up his profile considerably and could open the door for other prestige cable and streaming series in town.

The aims for “Patriot” are cinematic, and the series delves into both the dangerous nature of Tavner’s existence as well as all the conflicted emotions that come with this kind of life. That has meant long hours on set (which isn’t unusual for TV and film), working six days a week. Conrad told me that before they started filming in June, he talked to veteran showrunners and others (including “Breaking Bad” co-executive producer Melissa Bernstein) for insight: Where do you run into trouble? Where are the fault lines? “They help let me know what to expect,” he says, “where the battles are going to be.”

One of those battles might be fatigue. On this day, principal photography for the series has been completed. Each episode was shot in order, and now they’re shooting multiple scenes that all take place in the same location, a hotel lobby. Cast and crew have been at this for four months. “We’re way past the diminishing returns place,” Conrad tells me. “Nobody’s thinking straight, or fresh anyway.” The demands of television vs. film are unique: “We have pre-production and production and post-production all in the same day and you just don’t have that in films.” A grind, but: “It is a lot of fun on set because a lot of us are friends.”

I shadowed Conrad for one 14-hour period. Here’s an idea of what his day looked like.

6:05 a.m.: Conrad is dressed for comfort. Running shoes. Long-sleeve T-shirt. He grabs a windbreaker and we climb into his SUV along with Bruce Terris, a longtime friend and collaborator who is a writer on the show, and Conrad’s assistant Steve Hoey, who has the kind of low-key personality that almost masks the stress of the job; he and his wife are expecting their first child in a matter of weeks and there is some debate about whether he will get any time off for that.

With the sun rising and Conrad behind the wheel, he and his team go over details for that day, as well as plans for the upcoming trip to Prague, where they will film more. At one point, the show’s production designer is on speakerphone from Prague with location ideas. The entire drive is spent working and Conrad will sustain this pace until we get back into the car at midnight. On average, he tells me, they have been pulling 14- or 15-hour days.

7:10 a.m.: Several trailers are parked on the side street next to the Rialto. Conrad walks into the theater lobby and with the show’s cinematographer Jim Whitaker (who is from suburban Winnetka originally) discusses ideas for the first scene. Conrad hastily sketches shots on a piece of paper using stick figures. Then it’s off to the costume truck, where a black pug on a leash sits tied up by the door, breathing heavily. “That’s Lucky,” says costumer designer Molly Maginnis. “She’s our ancient mascot.” The truck is lined with bins and cabinets that have labels like “stunt pads” and “hat foam.”

The sound truck has broken down so there’s a delay before the first shot. We go to Conrad’s trailer, where he opens his laptop to rewrite some dialogue. Breakfast is delivered: yogurt, coffee, fruit. He shovels it into his mouth.

9 a.m.: On set, there are two clusters of portable monitors and Conrad toggles between the two but never sits. The first scene has been rehearsed and finally begins shooting: Dorman’s intelligence officer stands in the lobby, attempting to look inconspicuous but listening intensely as an Egyptian woman in a headscarf (Sadieh Rifai) checks into the hotel.

Hours later, a background extra tasked with crossing through the hotel lobby is asked to remove her shoes and walk barefoot. The clacking of her heels on the marble is gumming up the sound.

Conrad’s pace isn’t hurried so much as focused. There are numerous breaks between scenes as cameras and lights are repositioned and Conrad uses those moments, often lasting only 10 or 15 minutes, to go back to his trailer and work. No time is wasted. He is either editing an episode or picking up his acoustic guitar and focusing on the show’s music.

The folk songs (Conrad is writing all of them) are such an amusingly weird quirk of the lead character – and Conrad knows it’s a stylistic gamble. “It’s a big swing, stopping the show and singing a folk song,” he tells me. “You hope audiences aren’t turned off by that.”

1:30 p.m.: Lunch. And then back to the lobby, where a machine pumps fog to soften the light. The shoot hasn’t changed locations all day, and it feels like we are trapped in a purgatory of this lobby’s making.

I ask Conrad about casting a lead who is unknown. “We have recognizable actors. Just not celebrities,” he says. Was that intentional? “Yeah, I’m sure that was a strong impulse. We did go through that period with Amazon where they suggested celebrities. It’s not all actors, but it’s a phenomenon that really tips the scales when everyone on set is subject to the whims of a celebrity. It’s a little bit like having a drunk dad. But we don’t really have that in the air. The only thing that we contend with is just trying to make it through the day, just trying to make the schedule.”

More details about the upcoming shoot in Prague are discussed. The city will stand in for locations in Luxembourg and Amsterdam, and Whitaker turns to me and with an ironic smile says that when he worked on a film over there a few years ago, “we had to find the armpit of Prague to make it look like New Jersey.”

7:40 p.m.: There is no dinner, but someone has made a Wendy’s run. At one point, work stops as everyone sings happy birthday to a camera operator. Conrad approves a prop and then, more waiting as the next set-up is tinkered with. Conrad is directing most of the episodes, but not all. Is that a welcome break? “When another person is directing,” he says, “it actually doesn’t give me time to step back and work on everything else because I need to stay on top of things.”

That kind of close-managing is not unusual on TV shows that have a defining personality at the top. It is a huge opportunity for someone who has primarily made his name as a screenwriter. I ask how he feels about working as a screenwriter-for-hire after the experience of running his own show. “It would be really hard right now just to write and turn it over it somebody else to direct. I honestly don’t think I could do that. I mean, it could happen again. But it’s so rewarding to see this through. It’s fun. And it’s less fun to watch somebody else do it,” he laughs, “especially when it doesn’t come out the way you had in mind.”

Energy on set is flagging, so Whitaker starts blasting the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” in order to “wake everyone up.”

10:10 p.m.: Back in Conrad’s trailer, he’s noodling on his acoustic guitar and working on a song. He’s very disciplined. There is no procrastinating online. No naps. No staring into space.

11:10 p.m.: Back inside the lobby, they are laying track for the camera. It’s the final shot of the day and taking longer than Conrad would like. He walks over: “I have to stand over here to make it go faster.” I haven’t heard him raise his voice all day – this seems to be the extent of his public expression of frustration. “We keep learning the hard way that the tricky shots are hard to do at the end of the night because everyone is tired.”

Midnight: Shooting has wrapped and we pile into the car. I ask Conrad, in the passenger seat this time, if he has ever fallen asleep on the ride home. “All the time.” Finally, he seems to disengage from work. We chat a little but the mood is quiet. Later I’ll email Conrad and ask about sustaining creative stamina under this kind of schedule. Maybe, I wondered, it’s the opportunity itself – to be able make a series for Amazon and all the excitement and anxieties that go with it?

“This is probably the thing,” he replied. “The opportunity is fleeting.” And then, “Trying not to coast creatively is the thing that gets into all the corners and all the down time.”

12:30 a.m.: We arrive back at Conrad’s house. As he leaves the car, he wonders if he has to do a load of laundry before bed.

I stop myself from reminding him about the bottle of wine waiting for him on the kitchen counter.

“Patriot” will premiere on Amazon in early 2017.

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