Designing the “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was a new experience for Jeff Mann, known for working on such “blunt instruments” as “Tropic Thunder” with Ben Stiller and “Transformers” with Michael Bay. But Stiller definitely had a different mind set for the daydreaming Everyman, full of whimsy and wistfulness, and Mann visualized that world in a graphic and poetic way that’s certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.
From Mitty’s orderly New York apartment to the iconic Time-Life Building to the exotic landscapes of Iceland and Afghanistan, Mann had plenty of opportunity to juxtapose Mitty’s inner and outer worlds. The trick was tying them together and so the production designer found ways of providing signals or clues in Mitty’s daydreams or yearnings while also planting visual cues that define his linear personality.
“It was quite the variety of environments where we got to build and contradict and have similarities to his fancies and reality,” Mann explains. “We wanted a commonality that carried through, but all the imagery had to be resonant and have graphic and compositional beauty, even if it was something mundane or routine.”
It was hard enough for the Southern California native to find fresh locations in New York City, but he managed to surprise the local crew with an apartment complex exterior in the Bronx around 168th Street that was new to them. The interior of Mitty’s apartment is full of hard lines and his shelves are lined books and LPs indicative of his analog preferences.
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While the Time-Life Building lobby retains its landmark familiarity, Mann needed the offices to function like a “West Wing” follow-cam idea. “Ideally, we wanted to tell the story of Life Magazine through these images [and mock iconic cover shots],” he adds. “It was big and daunting and costly and the environment wanted to earn its keep in this movie. So that took a lot of thought to block that and we built models and agonized over what would be our cover images.” Some of them fuel Mitty’s daydreams (the Arctic) or foreshadow his real-life adventures (the volcano erupting).
But the most challenging part was the Negative Assets Office where Mitty works. The real one turned out to be cinematically unsuitable (too dark, low ceilings, and flat files), so trying to create this environment where you conveyed the breadth and depth of photography was up to Mann. It’s a treasure room that’s part inspiration (the Harvard Library) and imagination (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” meets “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).
By contrast, the real world landscapes of Iceland/Greenland/Afghanistan that are a part of Mitty’s true-life adventures are epic and gorgeous. But they were full of surprises.”When I was in Iceland, I would look off into the distance and realize that none of the mountains are 14,000 foot but they’re all scaled. Because it’s volcanic, it has a huge ridge line quality so it lives under the cloud layer and is proportioned differently. Maybe that’s why it has this magical postcard quality to it.”
Stiller and Sean Penn connected during their brief moment in Iceland. Yet it was tumultuous getting there. There was a windstorm that shut production down for two days with clouds on top of the glaciers.”It was like some power was forcing us to stop and it was this glorious respite in the eye of the storm. We got a snow day or two where we were powerless. And listening to the best version of wind howling that you’ve ever heard just cleansing it all way. And so on top of this glacier we found this little moment where it all worked out between Ben and Sean. I had to fabricate all these rocks and build this perch and have all of this stuff tie in. But it reset everybody in this fascinating way and it was nature on display.”