Ben Stiller Talks About “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty”
Walter Mitty: n. An ordinary person given to adventurous daydreams far grander than real life
No one really knows the power of the private dreams inside our heads . . . until they inspire our reality. That’s what happens in Ben Stiller’s contemporary rethink of one of the most influential fantasy stories of all time – indeed the quintessential tale about the irresistible allure of fantasizing: James Thurber’s THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. Stiller has taken that two-and-a-half page 1939 classic and opened it up into a 21st Century comic epic about a man who finds that his real life is about to blow his wildly over-active imagination out of the water.
This Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a modern day-dreamer, an ordinary magazine photo editor who takes a regular mental vacation from his ho-hum existence by disappearing into a world of fantasies electrified by dashing heroism, passionate romance and constant triumphs over danger. But when Mitty and the co-worker he secretly adores (Kristen Wiig) stand in actual peril of losing their jobs, Walter must do the unimaginable: take real action – sparking a global journey more extraordinary than anything he could have ever dreamed up.
For Stiller, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY offered a rare chance to look at a touchstone American tale afresh, from new times. Way back in high school, he first encountered Thurber’s story – a story that almost as soon as it had been published in The New Yorker began making an impact that belied its ultra-brief length. It inspired a beloved 1940s screen comedy, numerous theatre works, and sealed the phrase “he’s a Walter Mitty” into the popular lexicon, referring to anyone who throws more energy into diverting daydreams than into real life.
Now, Stiller saw a chance to take Thurber’s endlessly escapist character into the full-scale complexity of our social networking, down-sizing, re-tooling times – and to push his story further, comedically, dramatically and cinematically, bringing the full visual spectacle of modern filmmaking to the mix.
“What I love about this story is that it can’t be categorized,” Stiller says. “It has comedy, it has drama, it’s an adventure story, it’s real and it’s fantastically hyper-real. Yet at the heart of it all is a character who I think everyone can connect to – someone who appears to be just going through the motions of modern life but is living a whole different life inside his head. To me, he embodies all those things we imagine about ourselves and the world but that we never say.”
A Very Modern Mitty
The exuberant hilarity and bittersweet poignancy of people chasing crazy dreams has always underscored Ben Stiller’s comedic storytelling approach. As an actor, he has become one of the world’s biggest comic stars with a chain of Everyman characters facing outrageous circumstances – whether a man trying to impress his terrifying in-laws in the Meet The Parents series, a lonely museum night watchman who can’t believe his eyes in the Night At The Museum romps, or a guy who gets a second chance with his high school dream date in the boundary-pushing comedy There’s Something About Mary.
As a director, he has garnered critical acclaim for his own brand of sharp yet sweet comedy, including his affectionate send-up of the fashion world in Zoolander and his triumphant satire of action movie madness and camaraderie in Tropic Thunder. But THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY took Stiller to places he has never been before, both in front of and behind the camera. It is at once his most visually adventurous epic and his most stirringly human tale.
The film lovingly winks back at the great American humorist Thurber’s timeless fable about a mild-mannered man’s need to turn his failures into something far more astonishing in his head. But Stiller’s Mitty is very much a man of our times. Like so many of us, he feels hemmed in by an increasingly depersonalized, electronic world that is rapidly changing everything – one that is making his very way of life obsolete. His only out is a madcap barrage of reveries that keep him a constant hero battling for a better, fairer world. It’s his own private realm he shares with no one . . . that is, until his search for a famous photographer’s (Sean Penn) missing negative gives him an unexpected chance to connect with another.
It was the tug-of-war between Mitty’s shaky, uncertain reality and the beautiful impulses behind his eye-popping dreams that first drew Stiller to Steven Conrad’s adaptation of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. He’d seen other attempts at re-visiting the story, but none had hit home.
“Steve’s script wasn’t trying to revisit the 1940s Danny Kaye classic, which was so wonderfully unique to its time. He found a different way of telling the story, one that was smart and compelling but that created a modern context for this character that audiences can relate to,” says Stiller. “I loved that the script honored the idea of an ordinary guy as hero in a way that’s lyrical, soulful and funny. Steve said to me, ‘inside the breast of every American man beats the heart of a hero’ — and I wanted the film to have that kind of respect for all the things ordinary people go through and how challenging life is for all of us whether you’re a guy that nobody pays attention to or you’re the President of the United States. Walter’s journey celebrates the potential that everybody has.”
A MITTY IN THE FAMILY
The meshing of material, director and actor was especially vital to the film’s producers: John Goldwyn and Samuel Goldwyn Jr., respectively the grandson and son of Samuel Goldwyn, who produced the 1947 version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY directed by Norman Z. McLeod; and Stuart Cornfeld, who has collaborated with Stiller on many of his films including Zoolander and Tropic Thunder.
For the Goldwyns, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY has always been a part of their family history. “My grandfather was, in every sense a true pioneer of the motion picture industry, part of a group of people who wanted to tell stories in a different way, to show us a view of life in a way that no painting, no novel, no play could ever do. And since WALTER MITTY was a very big success for him, we wanted to be part of something that could live up to that,” John Goldwyn explains. “In 1947, they engineered a movie story that really lifted off from the original source material into something very different and we wanted to follow in those footsteps.”
Adds Samuel Goldwyn, Jr: “We saw a chance to do something new and creative with a story that continues to reverberate in the world, and that was worth fighting for. I’ve always believed that great movies begin with great writing – and Thurber’s story is so rich you could take his character and ideas in many different directions. The 1947 film spoke to that time, and we were determined to find a script and an approach that would speak equally to ours.”
It would take many years and a quixotic quest to wrangle the rights and develop the film through myriad incarnations. Things began to change, however, when John Goldwyn met with screenwriter Steven Conrad, known for such deftly crafted scripts as Will Smith’s The Pursuit Of Happyness and Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man.
Goldwyn recalls: “Steve said, ‘I want to make a movie about a man who to the world is completely undistinguished, yet who constantly dreams of a better life – and who learns that the only way that he will ever become the man that he knows he can be, is to get out of his head and step into life. He realizes a life discovered is better than a life imagined.’ And I said, ‘You have the job. This is exactly what we needed to hear.’”
When Conrad’s first draft came in, Goldwyn sensed right away that it was not going to be your everyday high-concept comedy. “It was very unique. It is not like anything we’d ever had before. It bore no similarity, really, to the first movie other than the idea that it was about a daydreamer. It was so original, there was really nothing to compare it to. And everybody was very excited about that.”
That excitement gave way to a long and winding road to finding the right director. Somewhere in that journey, Ben Stiller came in, originally to talk about taking the role of Mitty. Yet it was clear from the get-go that he had a passion for the material that went straight to its very heart.
“Ben had prepared a set of notes that I read before I came into the meeting,” Goldwyn remembers. “And the notes were, without a doubt, the best précis I’d ever seen of what a movie could be. In my life. The specificity, the eloquence, the care with which they were written, the clarity of the thinking about what the script could become – it was an astonishing document. I saw in his notes a movie that would be very, very distinctive.”
Goldwyn – who was President of Paramount Pictures during production of Zoolander, where he first forged a relationship with Stiller — went to bat for him as director, despite the logistical concerns around one man taking on the two enormous jobs of directing and starring in a film of grand ambitions. The one thing no one could deny was Stiller’s obvious and intense passion for the project.
“Ben had a real vision for this movie,” says Stuart Cornfeld. “It’s a story where I think he knew he could have a lot of fun but he also saw a real beauty and a power to it. He wanted the audience to go on a journey with Walter Mitty as he begins to engage with life and realize it is amazing, worthwhile and magical in its own way.”
Stiller was gratified to have the Goldwyns on his side. “They have such a connection with the history of the project, such amazing taste and also a lot of experience with the entire process,” he comments. “This movie didn’t fit into any single genre and we knew it was going to take a lot faith for the studio to take that chance. I give the Goldwyns full credit for gaining that trust because they really believed in it. They’ve been great partners, gave me a lot of support and they were instrumental in making it all happen.”
Of Cornfeld, Stiller says: “Stuart and I have been working together for many years and we’ve been through the fire together. We’ve done a lot of movies together, so there’s real shorthand there and we just trust each other creatively. I’ve never really met anybody who’s better at working on a script than Stuart – he is always asking questions and pushing it to be better, better and better. And when you’re doing a movie like this, and you are sort of going out there a little bit, that kind of relationship is really invaluable.”
Cornfeld was especially excited to see Stiller have the chance to simultaneously stretch himself as an actor and as a director taking on a world of unbridled visual imagination. “Ben brought a very sophisticated eye to this,” Cornfeld concludes. “In the look of the film and his performance, he has created something strikingly vibrant – an experience that is full of fantasy but is a celebration of