NYFF51: Ben Stiller Talks the High Octane Fantasies of “Walter Mitty”

Posted by Brian Brooks on 10.6.2013


Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig at the New York Film Festival Saturday. Photo by Brian Brooks

Ben Stiller as an everyday man with extraordinary fantasies received a glittering premiere as the Centerpiece Gala at the New York Film Festival Saturday night. Based on the 1939 short story by James Thurber, the director of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder both starred in and directed the updated version of The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. Stiller's Walter, however, contains some updated references that the 1947 version which starred Danny Kaye could not.

[Related: Ben Stiller Discusses the Challenges and Poignancy of "Walter Mitty"]

In the opening scenes, Walter has a conversation with dating website eHarmony.com representative who is trying to encourage Walter to complete his profile. "I haven't really done anything notable," he said and then plunges into what will be the first of a series of fantasies that carry throughout the movie. In this instance, he bursts into a burning building while Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) - his co-worker and the object of his affection - looks on glowingly.


A scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Photo: Wilson Webb / 20th Century Fox.

"The fantasies in Walter's head related to himself," said Stiller Saturday afternoon in a conversation with journalists in a pre-Gala screening. "They are elements of Walter under the surface rather than a fantasy about being someone else…  When we were developing the script, we realized that we had to pair down the fantasies. Initially the fantasies were very elaborate. Finding that balance to keep the momentum of the story and still allow the fantasies to happen was a challenge."

Walter lives an analog existence in a rapidly digitalized world. He works at Life Magazine, which is set to close its print operation, which instantly jeopardizes his job. Adam Scott plays the corporate bigwig who is on his case. Walter's mundane life is interrupted by his continuing elaborate fantasies, which take him to Iceland and Greenland. Elaborate scenes set against the dramatic scenery in the North Atlantic indulge intensify the visual experience of the film, though Stiller said that while filming, they decided to tone down some of their early fantasy ideas.

"Originally there was a fantasy that happened on 6th Avenue when Walter and Charlie are sitting by a fountain and all [these guys] come galloping up on horses looking like Lawrence of Arabia and they gallop down into the subway and come out the other side in the desert and they end up singing the end song to Grease…."

While galloping horses in the subway didn't make the cut, there are plenty of stunts that made it into the movie. Stiller joked that he did perform some himself, though he gave a plug for his stunt double who he has worked with for a decade.


A scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Photo: Wilson Webb / 20th Century Fox.

"I have an incredible stunt man. Greg and I have been working together for ten years. I did some," he said. "I went into the water in Iceland and that definitely made me feel like I was doing something [laughs]. We hiked up on the glaciers and I did the skateboard, though we had some skateboarding doubles too. In the water I was floating around and the boat left me there with five foot swells. And I thought, well this is for a movie, but there really could be a shark here…"

Visually and thematically contemporary, the short story is already over seven decades old, but the economic fallout from the Great Recession, a shuttered government and rapidly changing technology have given the story new resonance.

"In terms of the story, I think it's the idea that he hit on, which is that this guy is living in his head and unable to express himself and it's his imagination that is manifesting his feelings inside that are repressed," Stiller told FilmLinc in August after it was announced that Walter Mitty would be NYFF's Centerpiece Gala. "And I think that's a visceral idea people can relate to in many aspects of their lives. When I got the script originally, about eight years ago, I was in a certain stage of my life, but I think you get to a certain point where you realize your life is happening and going by. For a long time, when I was younger, everything existed so much more into the future. Noah Baumbach hit on it in Greenberg in a much darker way—this idea of realizing where you are in your life, or having ideas of where your life could be. And I think that's something people could relate to and it was very interesting to me…"

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