Screenwriter Will Conroy races through a lunch interview at the Arizona Inn, hardly touching his hamburger.
He's talking about his exploding writing career, his history-making family and the honor of running the storied hotel his great-grandmother started 76 years ago.
Conroy always seems to be writing, even when he's talking — reaching into thin air for inspiration and filtering it into words. He's a human series of hyperlinks, jumping from one tangent to the next with renewed enthusiasm before doubling back to apologize for talking too much.
He speaks with the exuberance you might expect from someone who co-wrote a screenplay that's now a big-screen reality with Ben Kingsley and Woody Harrelson in the cast.
Quick to accept a lunch interview at the inn, Conroy orders a burger, all but ignores it and explains to the nervous waitress that the meal was great — he just wasn't hunggry.
"What I'm sometimes pleased about is that the experience of writing screenplays has felt steadily more intense and creatively rewarding as the years have gone by. I could not have predicted that, actually," Conroy said. "But I feel sure I've been getting better at screenplays over the last 10 years, and the work, while difficult and anxiety-producing at times, especially at deadline, has been increasingly productive in a gratifying way."
With "Trans-Siberian," a thriller with an A-list cast, Conroy has vaulted into the inner circle of filmmaking to which so many writers aspire.
Conroy, 42, has hooked up with Brad Anderson ("Happy Accidents" and "The Machinist"), who directed and, over a year, co-wrote the screenplay for "Trans-Siberian." Conroy has also written two scripts for Vincent D'Onofrio, best known for his starring role on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
In "Trans-Siberian," Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play a couple taking the Trans-Siberian Railway from China to Russia. Funded by Filmax, the thriller should hit theaters next year — especially if it's accepted by either the Sundance or Berlin film festivals.
The buzz around "Trans-Siberian" has already led to more work for Conroy, who has five scripts in various stages of development and has been hired by Filmax to adapt Robert Wilson's book, "The Blind Man of Seville."
"He has a great ear for punchy, witty dialogue," said Anderson, who has become both a friend and a fan. "He builds his characters out of what they say, which is a rare talent for a screenwriter. And his writing is lean and economical, never indulgent."
Conroy is elated with the success, but slow to take credit.
"Hey, when you're dealt a royal flush, does that make you a good poker player when you win?" he said, attributing his success to support from his family and friends.
Conroy lives with his wife, Julia, and children, Liam and Eleri, in a Midtown home that's close to the Arizona Inn and some of his favorite haunts, including Cuvée World Bistro and Xoom Juice. He's also a short drive from his favorite movie theaters, the Loft Cinema and El Con.
The family moved to Tucson in 2003 to take over the Arizona Inn from his mother, Patty Ferguson Doar, who ran it for 20 years and still lives in Tucson.
"The inn to me is one of the loveliest, calmest, most decent places on Earth," Conroy said. "I love the people here most of all, but I love the history and the civility, too. I hope these things never change."
His maternal great-grandmother, Isabella Greenway, founded the Arizona Inn in 1930. She was the first U.S. congresswoman from Arizona and a well-known philanthropist who fought for World War I veterans and American Indian rights.
"I didn't become familiar with the inn, which belonged wholly to (my great-uncle) Jack Greenway, until I was in my 30s. I never suspected I would ever live out here," said Conroy, who grew up in Brooklyn but made occasional visits to Tucson while growing up.
Conroy has been interested in filmmaking since he was a kid.
"I think he's always been attracted to film," said his mother. "I think he had a Kodak 8 mm camera when he was pretty young, 8 or 9 — or 7 or 8 — and he used to make films, detective films in particular, with friends when he grew up."
His parents divorced in 1972, when Conroy was 7. His mother remained in Brooklyn while his father, Frank, moved to Nantucket, where Will and his brother, Dan — now a lawyer in Boston — spent summers.
When Conroy was 18, his mother married John Doar, who had been the lead prosecutor in the civil rights trial depicted in the film "Mississippi Burning." The couple later divorced.
Conroy's dad, the late Frank Conroy, was an acclaimed writer whose five books include "Stop-Time: A Memoir," which was hailed as a masterpiece of modern American autobiography when it was published in 1967. Nominated for the National Book Award and praised by writers such as Norman Mailer, "Stop-Time" is a gritty story that's been compared to "The Catcher in the Rye" and other great coming-of-age tales.
Frank Conroy directed the influential Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa from 1987 until 2005, the year he died. He was also a Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist.
"I considered my father's work to be scripture," said Will Conroy, whose desire to adapt "Stop-Time" into a screenplay ultimately led him to Anderson.
The director, as it turned out, had loved the book and told his producers he wanted to adapt it.
"They said they knew Frank Conroy's son — and that he had beaten me to the punch," Anderson said in a telephone interview.
"I was dying to read his version of 'Stop-Time.' And I thought it was a terrific script. The writing was bold but still emotionally sensitive, funny without being cloying, poignant but not overly earnest — all ways one could describe Will himself, actually. We immediately bonded over our mutual appreciation of his dad's writing, and later we set out to try and get 'Stop-Time' produced with me directing. Haven't gotten it off the ground yet, but we are still hopeful."
Conroy worked with Anderson on the "Trans-Siberian" screenplay last year.
"He came out here and stayed at the Arizona Inn for a week," Conroy said. "He had always wanted to do something in this train sub-genre. Most of the movie is set on a train. It's a thriller. We sat out here for a week around the inn and laid it out scene by scene, which was something I insisted on because so many thrillers lose me when characters do dumb things and get themselves into trouble unnecessarily.
"What we've tried to do with Trans-Siberian is create intelligent — if flawed — characters who do all the right things but nevertheless find themselves in a desperate situation. To accomplish this we had to create a strong plot and establish an authentic and believable landscape in which these extraordinary circumstances could actually occur," Conroy said.
The breakthrough came when the actors got behind it.
"Kingsley was the first one to sign on. He signed on very fast. Brad sent it to him before I was ready, because I'm kind of a control freak and every line has to be right. But Brad said it was ready to go and he sent it to Kingsley, who said yes right away. I have to say it was a jaw dropper for me."
Filming took place in China, Russia and Vilnius, Lithuania, while Conroy remained in Tucson.
"I went to Vilnius in the days immediately before the shoot and did a last minor rewrite with Brad based on the locations he'd actually secured rather than the ones we'd had in our minds when we first wrote the thing," Conroy said. "That took a week and then I had to go to Barcelona to finalize my contract on the next job I'm doing for Filmax."
He returned to Arizona before the shoot started "because of having two small children at home and some responsibilities at the Arizona Inn," Conroy said. "But I returned to Spain recently, at the end of May, at Brad's request, to look at a cut of the film — it's being edited there in Barcelona — and give my notes on it. So I feel like I've been pretty well involved all the way through."
Conroy gushes about seeing his writing brought to life by top actors.
"I've learned that certain lines of my dialogue can go either way as far as how forcefully they will come across in a finished film. Good actors make a writer look a lot better, which sounds obvious, I know, but for the first time I've gotten a real taste of what that means — first with D'Onofrio and now, incredibly, with Emily Mortimer and Sir Ben Kingsley.
"I've discovered that when Ben Kingsley transforms your line into his own, he adds a whole hell of a lot of value. It's a very humbling and gratifying experience and I feel lucky. I'm already convinced, just based on the rough cut, that the cast on 'Trans-Siberian' has helped me reach a higher level than I ever could have attained on my own."
WILL CONROY TIMELINE
Born in New York City.
Graduated Connecticut College.
Worked for Henry Hampton and Blackside Inc., in Boston on the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize 2." Conroy began dabbling in screenwriting and wrote his first script, the baseball comedy "Opposite Field."
Worked in Maine as an editor on the documentary "Making Sense of the '60s."
Living in Boston, began working off and on for Collins Halliday, which did PBS promotional videos.
Took break from Collins Halliday to move to Iowa City, where he wrote and directed the 30-minute short "One Way Glass."
Lived in Iowa City but shuttled among there, Boston, Nantucket, Mass., New York City, Tucson and Los Angeles while working on various films. He meets his future wife, Julia Wainwright, in Nantucket while working as location manager on "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday."
Co-wrote a script called "Echo" with Thom Jones.
Wrote rock and roll comedy "Largest Living Things."
Wrote and directed "Catalina Trust."
Moved to New York City and shuttled among there, Tucson and Julia's previous home, Nantucket.
Adapted his father Frank's novel "Stop-Time" as a screenplay.
Married Julia. Wrote a thriller called "Widow's Walk" for director Brad Anderson.
Wrote a short screenplay, "Five Minutes, Mr. Welles" for Vincent D'Onofrio. Son Liam born in Nantucket. The Conroys moved to Tucson full time, and Will took over the Arizona Inn.
Daughter Eleri born in Tucson. Conroy wrote fictionalized biopic screenplay about Olympic rower Jack Kelly for Ocean Size Pictures.
With Chris Offutt, wrote a Western for D'Onofrio titled "Mac Dog Williams."
Wrote "Trans-Siberian" with Anderson.
Working on "The Blind Man of Seville," based on the Robert Wilson book, for Filmax.