Could Logan Square be the next Hollywood?
While the neighborhood boasts a lot of creative businesses, not many know it’s also home base for Elephant Pictures, the production company behind movies like “The Weatherman,” “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
The company is the primary vehicle for writer and director Steve Conrad, who is also responsible for several successful (and currently streamable) shows like “Perpetual Grace, “LTD” and “Patriot,” which follows the exploits of an intelligence officer who deals with the necessary violence of his job by writing folk songs.
Earlier this year, when live-action TV and film productions came to a screeching halt due to the pandemic, Conrad suddenly had time available for a quirky project he’d been noodling on more than five years — a stop-motion animation series using repurposed baby dolls.
The new show, a half-hour series called “Mega City Smiths,” is scheduled to debut on AMC this coming spring.
LoganSquarist recently caught up with Mr. Conrad to talk about his latest work, his decision to remain rooted in Chicago, and how the pandemic is affecting the storytelling of today and tomorrow. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What more can you share about Mega City Smiths?
It’s a half-hour stop motion thriller with essentially just puppets. We take baby dolls and repurpose them as adults. We put male pattern baldness hair on them, mullets, different physiques. It’s actually a pretty traditional story told through this kind of strange medium.
How did you come up with the concept?
I have a friend and partner, Jeff Deiter, who has worked in the art department on films here forever, and a second partner Tom Glynn. They conceived of this really beautiful little aesthetic of turning dolls into grown-ups. They were making these shorts and I asked if we couldn’t figure out a way to bring that into a TV environment.
The three of us have been working on this idea for six years, but I haven’t been free to make it. So, it was just good timing that when the live action stuff went down, Mega City Smiths was sitting right there ready to go.
How has the pandemic affected production?
We’re lucky that we are making animation, because the live action series are frozen. Stop motion we can make in this kind of environment without risk. It’s much smaller. There aren’t departments [like] hair and makeup, costumes. The animators can stay six feet apart, and the camera people can work in individual crews and can also stay separate. So, no one is going to bridge that safe distance.
Will you be shooting in Chicago?
I’m kind of crazy to bring a new show here, but the stages are just at capacity. I’ve been squeezed out by the Dick Wolf shows. It’s a shame, because there ought to be alternatives to storytelling that concerns Chicago besides Dick Wolf. I don’t wish them to go away. I’m glad my friends have work. But I want our team to be able to say something about this place where we live, too.
You’ve managed to have a successful career in film without leaving Chicago. What is about the city that is important to you creatively?
I write generally about people and the tension that exists between their working life and the things they need and want. And this is a town where people work very, very hard. I like that kind of work versus the kind of work you do to get famous, which you often bump into in Los Angeles. I try to write what I consider to be the stories that are happening on the street, in our bars and restaurants. That’s where my ideas come from. So, Chicago really lends itself to that.
Is there anything about Logan Square in particular that drew you here?
Logan Square an ideal neighborhood for the way we work. We watch a lot of movies together, and spend a lot of time in bars trying to come up with ideas. Logan Theatre [is] right around the corner…we go all over the neighborhood. We’re usually working on a few things at a time, and sitting in an office for twelve hours just doesn’t get it done.
People have been looking for new TV shows and movies in quarantine to take their mind off the current state of the world. Is there anything you’ve found inspiration from or enjoyed?
I found a great English TV show called “Outnumbered.” It’s a family comedy and the show writes children’s dialogue about as well I’ve ever encountered it. It’s one of those beautiful things where you didn’t know it existed, and then you find it and there are seven seasons.
With the pandemic dominating just about every aspect of life right now, do you think we’re going to see a spate of “Contagion”-type movies in the near future?
I’ve already been pitched a couple. I think that it’s dicey — it’s hard to be right on time with a phenomenon. When you’re making a film, it takes 18 months [so] you end up being behind it if you try to catch it like that. I think what is more likely to happen, is that this will change us in many small ways, and those are going to be worth writing about.
Featured image: Elephant Pictures