The centerpiece film in the 2013 New York Film Festival was “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” directed by and starring Ben Stiller. Along with costar Kristen Wiig, screenwriter Steve Conrad, production designer and producer Jeff Mann, and producers John Goldwyn and Stuart Cornfeld, Stiller attended a press conference to talk about the film after a screening.
While response to the movie among the press appeared to be mixed, I loved it and believe it puts Ben Stiller into a new category as a filmmaker who could garner some awards. The film is based on a short story by James Thurber that was published in The New Yorker in 1939. It was turned into a film with Danny Kaye in 1947, but the new movie is a complete revamp of the story.
Stiller plays Walter Mitty, a man who lives a timid life and tends to zone out in adventurous daydreams. He’s interested in a coworker named Cheryl played by Wiig, but he doesn’t have the courage to ask her out. Eventually, circumstances propel him toward stepping out of his daydreams into real life adventure.
His role model is played by Sean Penn (who gives a fun performance as an intrepid photographer), and his nemesis, Ted, is played by a ridiculously bearded and hilarious Adam Scott. Shirley MacLaine takes on the role of Mitty’s mother, and Kathryn Hahn is his kooky sister.
This movie is not a straight comedy, however. It’s a multi-genre film that allows Stiller to show more depth both as an actor and as a director. Much to his credit, he is as likable and endearing on screen as Danny Kaye, and that is a tall order.
Shot in New York and Iceland, the movie is also visually beautiful. Much credit should be given to the design and production team, as well as to writer Steve Conrad who adapted the story beautifully, came up with the idea of placing part of the narrative in Greenland and Iceland, and gave Walter the perfect job of working with negatives at LIFE Magazine.
Here are some highlights from the press conference.
On the attraction of this story:
Ben Stiller: Steve Conrad came in with a totally different take on the story, and when I read that script, for me, that was what made me want to do it because it felt so emotionally connected and relevant. It got into the idea of who this guy was and why he was a daydreamer.
And it didn’t try to redo what had already been done very well by Danny Kaye. Obviously, I couldn’t do that, and nobody would want to see me attempt to do that. I didn’t want to attempt to do that. So, that was really what was exciting to me was that Steve took this idea, and I think it has the spirit of the original story – the character that Thurber created, which is obviously an iconic character.
On the vision for the film:
Steve Conrad: I began asking myself what Thurber might, if he were able to say more, what would he say next. And I started to write with that in mind, to continue rather than to translate or adapt. For me, that meant finding out more of what Walter’s ambitions might have been like before he began daydreaming.
It’s a gift for a writer to find a story that might have the promise of drawing us all together, and our imagination is one of those tools that we all use privately to move our lives forward or to help deal with challenges, pain, and loss. To have the chance to be able to write about one of our most magnificent faculties, I couldn’t let it pass me by.
On working with screenwriter Steve Conrad:
John Goldwyn: I remember my first conversation where Steve said, “Every American male yearns to be on the cover of a Wheaties box….” I was so intrigued, and that began this process, this journey with Steve that really came to complete fruition with Ben.
On integrating the fantasy sequences in the film:
Ben Stiller: The audience naturally wants to see the story unfold, so it’s very challenging to keep the momentum going and to have the fantasies play out. So, originally, we had envisioned these much more elaborate fantasies that went on a lot longer, and as we developed the script, we realized that we had to keep on paring them down….
Originally, there was a fantasy that happened on Sixth Avenue when Walter and Cheryl are sitting by the fountain where he had this Lawrence of Arabia fantasy where all the guys who work for Ted come galloping up on horses looking like Anthony Quinn. And they grab Cheryl, and they ride the horses down into the subway and ride through the subway and come out the other side, and they’re in the desert. Then, they end up singing the end song from “Grease.”
On Walter’s job at LIFE Magazine and making a 1939 story contemporary:
Ben Stiller: One of the great things about what Steve did was that he put it in the context of what’s going on in the world today. Generationally, we’re all living in this world that has really transformed from analog to digital, and what gets left behind with that. I thought that was really a very important part of telling the whole story – the permanence of the pictures and the tactile things. That’s all going away.
Now, we don’t buy CDs or albums, but we download things, and pictures are digital. Walter takes care of the actual visual objects, and he cares about that…. That was something that I think just gave it a context that to me was resonant and worth thinking about today, and that was one of the things that Steve just did. The LIFE Magazine idea was a great way of encapsulating what’s going on in the world in terms of downsizing, print journalism, magazines going away.
On studying the LIFE Magazine photography archives:
Jeff Mann: We had access to the LIFE photo archives which were incredible and deep, so many iconic images from my childhood and seeing them in the flesh and holding contact sheets…. It was pretty remarkable. They had such a library of cover images for us to choose from that it was really a challenge to curate the appropriate images and determine when you were going to see them [in the film]….
Ben Stiller: Shirley MacLaine was on three LIFE covers. At one point, we thought, “Wouldn’t that be fun to put her on the wall?”
Jeff Mann: We considered it for a while there.
Ben Stiller: I have an incredible stunt man.
Kristen Wiig: He did a lot!
Ben Stiller: I did as much as I could do…. We did get in the real water in Iceland with a boat there, and definitely I felt like I was doing “something.” [laughter] Then, we were up there doing a lot of those hiking shots up on the glaciers and stuff, and I got on the skateboard, too. But we had great skateboard doubles, too, who did the serious stuff.
It was incredibly exciting to be a part of that and to have an opportunity to do that stuff…. I thought, “I’d never in a million years have a chance to do something like this if I didn’t have the opportunity to do this movie….”
Jeff found this 50-year-old helicopter that’s actually the original Hawaii Five-O helicopter, and the helicopter pilot kept saying, “God, I wish this thing had more power.” Not what you want to hear. So, it all felt very real, and that all helps the actors.
On how Stiller and Wiig created such great chemistry between them in the film:
Ben Stiller: We had an affair. [laughter]
Kristen Wiig: Eight hours of love. [laughter] Ben hosted SNL when I was there, and I think that’s when we first met and started working together. And I think it was right after that we met about the movie.
On figuring out the movie’s tone:
Ben Stiller: Tone is such a weird thing because I think you can’t really define it … you talk about all this stuff, but honestly, as a filmmaker, you don’t know what the tone is going to be until you make the movie and you see it. Then, you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t work, and you go for your best guess.
But this one, I knew we were going to have comedy and more serious stuff, but finding that becomes part of what the editing is about. I think, ultimately, every movie has its own tone, and if you try to do another movie’s tone, it doesn’t feel original.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” comes out this Christmas, which is perfect timing for such a feel-good movie. Put it on your must-see holiday viewing list.