Ben Stiller is one of the few remaining movie stars–audiences actually turn up to see him. While he does the occasional Noah Baumbach movie, Stiller’s a studio animal. He’s operating in that narrow band that remains for high-budget mainstream commercial movies aimed at a wide swath of audiences. And he’s able to function with relative freedom because of his track record as a comedian (the “Meet the Parents” and “Night at the Museum” series) and producer-writer-director (“Tropic Thunder”). That’s a sweet spot indeed.
With 20th Century Fox’s $100-million tentpole “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a far-flung romantic adventure fantasy starring Stiller, Kristin Wiig and Sean Penn, Stiller is trying to hit the bullseye with a sweet holiday movie with artistic ambitions. While “Mitty” may succeed at pleasing a broad band of moviegoers, critics and the Academy are tougher to please. (The movie’s September New York Film Festival premiere backfired.) (Here’s my review and Richard Corliss in Time.)
Loosely adapted by screenwriter Steve Conrad from James Thurber’s 1939 short story, which was turned into a Hollywood comedy starring Danny Kaye, this Walter Mitty lives in a version of present-day New York City. He works as a Life Magazine photo archivist, and is processing some old-fashioned 35 mm negatives sent in by intrepid photographer/explorer Sean O’Connell (a well-cast Sean Penn). Missing frame 25 is intended to grace the final print cover of Life Magazine, which is finally going online, and boss Adam Scott, in a serious beard, is demanding that he produce the photo.
As Mitty embarks on a quest to find O’Connell, he starts to live the life he had always imagined. “The fantasies in Walter’s head are related to parts of who he could be or wanted to be,” said Stiller at the NYFF press conference, while admitting that indulging in the fantasies without bringing the movie to a halt was his biggest challenge. Basically, the fantasy sequences got shorter. “Is it going to be funny or real?” Stiller asked himself. “Every movie has its own tone. You don’t know what the tone is until you’ve made it.” One thing was real: Stiller was bobbing in the ocean in five-foot ocean swells.
While the romance with co-worker Kristin Wiig occasionally feels contrived (Stiller first met Wiig when he was hosting Saturday Night Live), I went along for this ride. Stiller sets up the rules from the start, as Mitty has a habit of zoning out into fantastical reveries accompanied by a rocking soundtrack. (One hilarious bit is a send-up of David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”) The conceit of this fantasy is that this improbable hero eventually fills in the blanks in his empty travel journal in real life, SPOILER ALERT leaping onto a helicopter (a 50-year-old rig from “Hawaii Five-0”) in Greenland as his fantasy of Wiig eggs him on with her rendition of David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom,” outrunning a volcano in Iceland and climbing to 18,000 feet in Afghanistan. But the resolution of the mystery lies back home with Walter’s mom (Shirley MacLaine, star of one of Stiller’s favorite films, “The Apartment”).
In a competitive awards year, with a crowded field and late entries “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” picking up steam, “Mitty”‘s best Oscar prospects are in tech categories, especially production designer Jeff Mann (who had fun with the Life Magazine images), and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, among others who contributed to this handsome, well-mounted production.
Judging from early reaction, this old-fashioned romantic comedy adventure–which brooks comparison to such Oscar heart-tuggers as “Moonstruck,” “Broadcast News” and “Up in the Air”– will play better to older audiences. In other words, Stiller has delivered a film that his Upper West Sider parents Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller could love. His father was able to attend the NYFF premiere, while his mother, who is dealing with medical issues, had to remain at home.
I interviewed Stiller back in L.A.
Were you nervous showing it so early?
For me it’s never my favorite part of process. The creative part, the making of it, for me is the part I love. To put it out in the world, it’s out of your control how people react to it. As long as I’ve taken the creative process as far as it can go, and had time to live with it and explore it as much as possible, then there’s this feeling: ‘this is what it should be, what I wanted it to be.’ I want everyone to love it, all the time!
It was great to see [Fox chairman] Jim Gianopulos and [ex-Fox chairman] Tom Rothman there, and Emma Watts, they were the three people who said, ‘let’s go ahead and take a chance with this movie.’ Those guys and I talked about taking chances with a mainstream movie doing something different. The studio is involved in the process, asking questions about ‘what is this, what will it be? Is it what we imagined it to be? What does it look like?’ They saw that version of the movie, we had the same idea all the way through.
After years of development by Samuel and John Goldwyn, the movie took close to three years to complete?
At first I got excited by the material. All I was thinking about was how cool the movie could be. That was the first thing. As you engage in the process, ‘ok, this has a lot of challenges if it comes together.’ I was working on developing the script with Steve, the movie hasn’t been greenlit, it was just ideas in my head. All these ideas to get excited about what the movie could be.
Then there’s the reality of it.
It became more reality as I got closer to finishing the film. There’s a lot on the line. Thinking about [what people will think] would shut me down. As I get closer, ‘oh this is really happening.’
For me, always, like when it comes to acting, doing a take, I intentionally am telling myself, ‘this one take is not in the movie,’ to have the freedom to try something and not get it right. It’s just another take in my head. Who knows what ends up in the movie? It’s the freedom to try things. It’s self-delusional.
And the reality of acting and directing too.
It’s a process. If you are going to go into it, ultimately the frustrations that involve directing and acting come down to the reality that you can’t be two places at once. The director part wants to watch what you’re doing. I know myself, the day I get on set I have a clear sense of what I am doing and what the plan is down to what the shots are and the order of the day, so I can feel the freedom to be there as a director for other actors. It’s important as an actor to give myself leeway to try things and hopefully not be too hard on myself as a director. The most important thing, is the performances. If that works, having enough to press through and get to the end of the day of shooting.
So you use storyboards?
Definitely for most scenes. It’s ones that require blocking of actors. But I won’t dictate, I’ll wait until I get the actors together. I like to try to do that a couple of weeks before we start shooting on set. If I’m acting also, I get in there with the actors and the DP and get a little video camera and lenses to clock our scenes, and figure out a plan, take still pictures and then storyboard. On VFX sequences, months in advance, I do storyboarding and go into a lot of previs stuff.
Certain sequences need that sense of seeing it, looking at it, being able to follow it, via animatics and storyboards, the sound and music, so you feel the timing.”
Did you see yourself as a Mitty character fulfilling a fantasy of breaking out of the comedy box and being taken more seriously?
I never thought about that when making the movie. I recognized in the material that the story took a tonally different approach from what I had directed before. I was excited by that in my head, because I had never done it. It’s a little bit Mittyesque in that I lived it in my head, not having done it in terms of making a movie. It was important to me to try and make a movie like this. I felt connected personally, I want to make movies that are different. I don’t think I approached it differently from other movies I directed.
Did you find a different movie from the one you envisioned in the editing room?
In the editing and screening process, what I learned early on, because of the nature of the material, the criteria was different for how to judge audience reaction. With comedies, you can tell if someone in the audience laughs, with critics, they will laugh or they won’t. I can’t respond to that. It’s there when shaping a comedy. With this film it was clear that story and character were the most important — laughs were secondary. We let the audience follow the character, it was important to hint that this was a new experience.
Why did you cut the opening?
We saw him getting ready to go to work in a little opening sequence which we cut out near the end of editing process, before the first shot, it was a montage of Walter getting ready for the day, riding his exercise bike. In that version, there was a red LED fake mountain bike, it will be on the DVD. It said, ‘this guy takes care of himself, he’s ready for something, he’s on the bench ready to go, he hasn’t figured out a way to unlock that. He’s a quiet guy who can’t express himself. It doesn’t mean he’s a loser. That was important in the editing. I felt people should connect and not categorize him as that, as not relatable.
This is the fantasy of the guy who gets to one-up his boss.
The scene I think about is the comeback in the elevator. He can’t do it. To me I really relate to in life and admire people who have no problem speaking their mind in public, who don’t care and can do that, have that comfortability with themselves. I’m always working at that, that’s me.
The bottom line is this is not a low budget movie. That’s the reality you work within. When you make a movie like this it forces you to be responsible as a filmmaker. What it makes you do is you have to listen to the audience on a certain level as you’re crafting the movie. You don’t listen literally, to notes they give you specifically, you look at a vibe, a feeling, are they accepting the movie the way you want them to? It’s different with a low-budget indie film, then you’re able to let the audience find it. But with a bigger budget comes the agreement that you have to be able to make the film you want within those perameters.
Do you think about critics?
I’ve never thought about critics. Sometimes it’s been good, sometimes it hasn’t. It’s never been the world I lived in. I stopped reading reviews when ‘Zoolander’ came out. You always know, you hear what’s good, what’s bad. I found it didn’t help my creative process. I admire people who can. But I am able to listen to myself and I know it doesn’t open up my process. I need the freedom of making a movie for me and for the audience.
They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. You want movies to get great reviews, but at the end of day, I know the connection with audiences. I can feel that. With directing a movie that takes a chance in a mainstream way you want critics to get on board. It’s not necessarily the easiest movie to get the message out, people respond to ‘I hear it’s a good movie,’ whether it’s word of mouth, or reviews. You hope it’s about getting it to the audience, to get to the point where they’ll sample it. In this world there are so many different options from TV to computer that it’s hard to get audiences to come to the theater. I want them to come to the theater to see it on a big screen in the best way.
This doesn’t fit into a traditional genre.
It was definitely foreign territory for me. I never questioned it in making the movie. Really more as the movie came together, seeing what it was for the audience and seeing how they responded to it, I’d step back and say, ‘that’s what this movie is, I never looked at this way when making it.’ Organically I was inserting material with a tone to it. It’s where I’m at in my life. I wanted to make this kind of movie. It’s a different feeling, I’m more vulnerable. For me it’s a process of making it worth that.