Ben Stiller directs The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Photo: Wilson Webb / 20th Century Fox.
A veteran of film and television, actor/director/producer/writer Ben Stiller may have hit a new zeitgeist with his latest, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which will have its World Premiere as the Centerpiece Gala on October 5 at the 51st New York Film Festival. Stiller directs and stars in the adaptation of James Thurber's 1939 classic short story of a daydreamer who escapes his mundane life into a counter-existence chock full of fantastic adventures.
The story, which originally hit the big screen starring Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty in 1947, has been on Stiller's plate for a number of years. Fans first saw a glimpse of the film recently in a newly released trailer, sparking speculation that the actor/filmmaker has made something outside what audiences routinely expect of him, something Stiller seems to confirm in his conversation with FilmLinc Daily shortly before Thursday's NYFF announcement.
In his conversation, Stiller talks about how the seven-decade old story takes on added life today, praising screenwriter Steve Conrad and his fellow cast members Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt and more along the way. He also talks about the challenges that all filmmakers, no matter how established, face in getting a project off the ground. And why coming to Lincoln Center for his premiere is close to coming home.
FilmLinc Daily: You mentioned some months ago, when first talking about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, that you had been asked to star in planned big screen incarnations of the story, but it didn't end up happening. Is that what planted the idea of doing this yourself as director as well as star?
Ben Stiller: There had been some talk about doing a remake of the Danny Kaye film, but I didn't think those [plans lived up] to what it could be. There is so much potential there for a film in terms of a life someone lives in their head. And also the iconic idea of a guy who is just a daydreamer. I found it amazing that there's this two-and-a-half page story that has become such a part of our culture. What Steve [Conrad] did was to look at it in the way he can, looking at stories that operate on different levels, besides just finding the humor and this idea of a guy who is a daydreamer, but is also having these real-life experiences that relate to his dreams and who has to exist in the real world. I think that idea was interesting to him in terms of finding out who that guy is and why he's a daydreamer and what's inside in him.
There's an emotional level to it that I found really refreshing when reading it—and it was different. That's what was really exciting to me. He's a very talented writer. There was a lot there in that original script. We really didn't know each other that well when we started to talk about it. He's a very soulful and lyrical writer, but has a funny, cynical, and dark sense of humor and I think we just connected on that level and had a similar sense of what the movie could be and what that journey would take. We thought about concentrating more on the inner journey [Walter Mitty] is taking rather than the outer one and how his experiences relate to his growth as a person.
FilmLinc: The short story by Thurber, of course, was published in 1939 and we're not too far from the 70th anniversary of the first film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty…
Ben Stiller: Wow. I was watching this documentary on Jaws and I think we're coming up on the 40th anniversary of that… That hit home for me. [Laughs]
FilmLinc: [Laughs] But what do you think makes this story timeless? Do you think the current anxiety that still exists economically post-2008 crash has given this story new resonance?
Ben Stiller: 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. 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 when I read it.
I think there's a transitional time and a period of economic uncertainty and I think both of those, and seeing where our culture is going in terms of media and in this generation I'm in—which is a crossover generation—and someone like Walter is experiencing an analog world going digital. I think that idea combines with his work at Life Magazine, which is going out of business. He's an analog guy and cares about details and history of this business, but that is going away. I think this is very current.
One thing I believe Steve [Conrad] did brilliantly was to not give a specific time to this. It definitely exists in the present and of course there's the reference to Life Magazine, which is itself timeless in a way. There's a hyper-real tone in the movie. People are existing in reality, but it could be metaphoric. I wanted everything that happens in the movie to be able to occur in real life.
Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Photo: Wilson Webb / 20th Century Fox.
FilmLinc: Let's talk about your cast. You star, of course, along with Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, and, of course, more. How was it working with them as director and co-star?
Ben Stiller: It was very exciting. Having Kristen in the movie was very important because the woman Walter really wants to be with needed to be someone people could really connect with and understand why he wants to be with her, even though he didn't really know her. I think she really emanates that feeling and she's a very natural actress. And I think it's fun to see actors do something you really haven't seen them do before. You know, comedic actors get put into a certain type of role…
I said to Kristen: We can be in this and do something we haven't been seen in a lot before. We've both done some of this, of course, but in this framework, people may expect it to be a bit broader and allow it to be what it is. People have embraced this in doing some pre-screenings of the film. Kristen is a really great actress. And whether it's Sean Penn, who is in the movie, or someone like a Robert DeNiro, for instance, they're always very funny in their serious roles.
They accept that humor is a part of reality. I just love that, which is why I wanted to have Sean in the movie. Not only is he a great dramatic actor, but people sometimes forget he's also Spicoli in [Fast Times at Ridgemont High]. With him and Shirley MacLaine, there's a grounding so people can feel connected and believe in all the things that are happening. Shirley, for me, is one of those people who's been in so many amazing films that have pushed the barriers like Being There and The Apartment. She's just iconic and to have her in the movie and her spirit, playing Walter's mom, is tremendous. I think she's also doing something that she hasn't done in a long time in terms of her character. There's an innocence she has in this role and she has such a sharp sense of humor.
Adam Scott is a great actor who is both serious and funny and I have been wanting to work with for a very long time. And Patton Oswalt has been a friend for a long time and has a great spirit. It was nice to connect with him.
Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Photo: Wilson Webb / 20th Century Fox.
FilmLinc: I want to tap your producer hat for a moment since you are also a producer on this film… I've been around the independent film world for a long time and consistently I've heard "indie" producers say, no matter how long they've been around or even how many Oscar nominations they have under their belt, that when it comes time to take on their next project, it's like starting from square one—they find it a real challenge. So what I'm curious about it what is it like for you? Obviously you're a veteran in the movie business, so what kind of challenges do you face?
Ben Stiller: Yeah, look, I think that's very true. Anybody who makes movies understands that it's very difficult to get one made—and that's on any level. Every movie has its own set of challenges. I think the challenge for this movie was simply that it's not a typical studio film. It started with Steve's script and his willingness to reinterpret the story and not simply remake the original, but to come up with something different. I think that [trumped] everything. It was a long road to get the movie to the point where it was green-lit because every step of the way the studio had to take a leap of faith on a non-traditional movie like this in what could be a genre that people might expect to be something else. We had to talk about the tone of the movie and how the comedy and emotion would balance out. So I do give the studio a lot of credit for taking a leap of faith with this movie. When you see the movie, it has a very non-traditional third act. There's not a lot of giant robots. [Laughs]
But I do give a lot of credit to the people at the studio. And like every movie, no matter how much money it is —$6 million or $600 million—it seems like there's never enough money. Not that I've ever worked on a $600 million movie. But it really is always challenging. It think 65 or 70 percent of the movie is outside. We went to Iceland for part of the movie and we had a tight shooting schedule and we were lucky with the weather. The weather can change quite quickly. We did get shut down a couple of days because of wind storms, but I think everyone was ready to take a little time to regroup. We were inspired about what the movie could be and that was a great moment that we could all be united as a cast and crew that were all going for the same thing.
FilmLinc: And how does it feel world premiering The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as the Centerpiece at the New York Film Festival? I'd imagine it's a bit of a coming home for you, not to mention that you grew up nearby here at Lincoln Center.
Ben Stiller: It's pretty amazing, really. I can't tell you how excited I am about it, especially because I think of it as a very New York movie. Everything was basically shot here and in Iceland. I grew up on the Upper West Side and the festival is only a few years older than I am and it's always something I've been aware of. As a director, to be have a film playing with others by directors you really admire, is a real honor. So yes, I'm very excited. I couldn't have hoped for more for the premiere of this movie in particular.
FilmLinc: How do you hope people will approach the film Centerpiece night and when general audiences finally get to see it when it comes out Christmas?
Ben Stiller: I hope people will really enjoy it and go along for the ride. For me, I'd say it's a very uncynical movie. On that level, I think it's great to downplay expectations [laughs]. But I hope people enjoy it and connect with it. At this point you have done everything you can, and just put it out there and hope everyone not only enjoys it but takes away their own personal experience with it.
Read more about Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in our announcement of it as the Centerpiece Gala presentation of the 51st New York Film Festival.