Ben Stiller isn’t your average comedy star. Last year, he was in promotional mode for “Zoolander 2,” which he directed and starred in. These days, he’s in TV mode. Working out of his Red Hour Films studio in New York, Stiller’s currently developing the Showtime miniseries “Escape From Dannemora,” with the intention of directing all eight episodes. And when he takes a break, it’s not for another “Night at the Museum” movie. He’s heading to a film festival.
For over 20 years, the Nantucket Film Festival has benefited from the support of Stiller and his famous family, including his parents Jerry Stiller and late mother Anne Meara, emphasizing two areas that Ben Stiller knows well: Comedy and screenwriting. At Nantucket, he regularly hosts the All-Star Comedy Roundtable — but this year, perhaps signaling his shift in focus, he’s hosting the Screenwriter Tribute, which will honor “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy.
“Tom McCarthy for me epitomizes the kind of smart and emotional character-oriented storyteller that movie industry needs today,” he said in an interview ahead of the festival. “I think it’s important — in this day of huge, effects-driven franchises — to support and celebrate human stories that don’t center on aliens or robots.”
Much of Stiller’s recent work reflects that ethos. In May, he appeared in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected”), a well-received dramedy that marked his first collaboration with the filmmaker since “While We Were Young.” It was a welcome return to one of the best actor-director relationships in Stiller’s filmography, one that taps into his penchant for affable klutzes without devolving into cheap jokes.
“I’m happy someone is making the edgy, character-oriented dramas and comedies that are the kinds of movies I grew up watching,” Stiller said. “I hope the studios will get with that program.”
In the meantime, he has embraced the changing landscape: His next starring role comes with “Brad’s Status,” writer-director Mike White’s new Amazon-produced feature (co-financed and produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment), and “The Meyerowitz Stories” will premiere on Netflix later this year.
Like a lot of people, he’s not thrilled with Netflix’s day-and-date model, which minimizes the theatrical life of its movies in favor of appealing home viewers. “I love movies and want to see those kinds of movies in the theater,” he said, but acknowledged the realities of a marketplace that has increasingly allowed for more sophisticated storytelling with the new digital platforms — and, again, television. “Most of our projects are smaller budget and independent-oriented,” he said, addressing the productions currently being developed at Red Hour. “It’s harder to get those movies made now. Thankfully, television is a place for that now.”
Stiller’s been through career crises — cult hit “The Cable Guy,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and especially “Zoolander 2” weren’t exactly blockbuster successes — but this time, he has a range of work in the pipeline that taps into his penchant for more dramatic fare. “Escape from Dannemora,” which focuses on the real-life prison break by inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat in upstate New York, suggests an underlying desire to exercise his filmmaking chops with serious, engaging material.
As a director, Stiller is more auteur than meets the eye. Starting with “Reality Bites” in 1994, he has continually focused on desperate, self-involved Americans driven to neurotic extremes by the boundaries that society places on them. That theme took on cartoonish extremes in the undervalued “Cable Guy” and an ambitious lyrical depth in “Walter Mitty,” while the first “Zoolander” turned the absurd competitive agendas of the fashion industry inside out. The sequel simply took that joke too far, but it may have been necessary to draw Stiller back to the kind of projects that suit him best. “I think I’m more interested in movies I can relate to on a personal level,” he said.
That has extended to his interest in new talent. Asked to single some of the rising filmmakers he admires, he started by citing young screenwriters — Michael Mitnik, whose Alfonso Gomez-Rejon-directed “The Current War” comes out later this year, and Isaac Adamson, whose Blacklist screenplay “Bubbles” (about Michael Jackson’s famous chimp) is currently being produced by Netflix. He’s also keen on the writing contributions to “Dannemora” by Brett Johnson, whose previous credits are primarily in television.
So where does that leave Stiller’s career in comedy? “Right now, we are in couples therapy,” he said. “But I am optimistic.”
The Nantucket Film Festival runs June 21 – 26.