NY Film Festival: Ben Still Talks The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

One thing Ben Stiller wanted to make absolutely clear, during this gab session for his latest writing, directing and acting challenge in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. And it’s basically that I, Ben Stiller, am no Danny Kaye. At least Stiller thinks of his reprising of the main attraction in this fantasy biopic, as not in any way attempting to step into the shoes of Danny Kaye as it played out in the incomparable 19747 screen classic. Also on the table for select semi-serious scrutiny, were topics pertaining to the movie like getting cozy with his leading lady Kristen Wiig and making it seem real; Walter Mitty skateboarding doubles; and not exactly jumping out of any fifty year old helicopters.

Where did that all that chemistry between you and Kristen come from in this movie?

BEN STILLER: We had an affair! It was good! It was good – for a while!

Okay, what gets you going to take on such very different movies, this and Tropic Thunder?

BS: The directing thing, I love directing movies. You know, I love movies. Tropic Thunder, every movie has its own story.

And Tropic Thunder was something that Justin Theroux and I had been working on. For about eight years.

I got the idea for the movie when I was working on Empire of The Sun, in 1987. So I was an extra in a war movie.

And Tropic Thunder had been percolating for a while. But for me, I don’t look at it thematically.

I just kind of look at what is exciting. And seems engaging, and somehow connects, you know? Something I would want to see as a movie.

So I think that’s really important. And this movie, is the kind of movie I would love to see.

And then the idea of the process of making it. Because it is a long process. And what is going to keep you engaged.

And what’s going to excite you enough that you are going to see it through. You know, for the number of years you have to.

So that’s how it works. And really, it’s just sort of a very personal thing.

What inspired you to be Walter Mitty, and would you say your Mitty is an reenactment or an homage?

BS: I came on relatively late in the process. But John and his dad really had a long process of bringing the movie to the screen, for many years.

But basically, I think what happened was, they tried for a long time to do the original movie, in some way. Which didn’t really, in any way, necessarily story-wise, connect to the original short story.

And at a certain point, Steve Conrad came in with a totally different take on the story. And when I read that script, for me that was what made me want to do it.

Because it felt so emotionally connected. And relevant. Because it got into the idea of who this guy was. And why he was a daydreamer.

And it tried to re-do what had already been done very well by Danny Kaye. Obviously I couldn’t do that. And nobody would want me to attempt to do that!

So I didn’t want to attempt to do that! Um, anyway! But that was what was really exciting to me. It was that Steve took this idea.

Were you the one doing all those crazy physical stunts?

BS: Yeah…I have an incredible stuntman! But I did a lot of that. Honestly, I did as much as I felt I could actually do.

So we got in the water for real, in Iceland. Um, but I didn’t jump out of the actual helicopter.

But we did get in the real water in Iceland, with the boat there.

And it definitely felt like I was doing…something!

And then we did, we were actually up there doing a lot of those hiking shots. You know, all that stuff up on the glaciers, and stuff.

And the skateboarding. I got on the skateboard. But then we had great skateboard doubles too!

And who did like the big serious stuff. But it was incredibly exciting, to be a part of that. And to have an opportunity to do that stuff.

And at one point, I had to do a shot in the water. Where the boat, the boat was coming at me in the water.

So the camera was in the boat, and the boat had to go away, to shoot the shot. So they dropped me in the water, and the boat went away

And I was just in the water, in the North Sea. Like with nobody around me! And five foot swells.

And I had that moment like, okay this is a movie. But it’s also real life. And there really could be a shark there!

But it was great. It was one of those moments where I like never in a million years, would have a chance to do something like this.

You know, if I didn’t have an opportunity to make this movie. But there were a lot of rickety old doorless helicopter rides!

Yeah the helicopter stuff was all real. They found this fifty year old helicopter. It was actually the original Hawaii Five-0 helicopter. Literally.

And the helicopter pilot kept on saying, man. I wish this thing had more power! Which is not what you want to hear! But it all felt so very real.

And I think that all helps the actors. It helped me as an actor. And it helped everybody feel like it was actually happening.

What was that Instagram stuff all about?

BS: I actually joined Instragram while I was on those adventures there. And then when I got back to New York, I quit!

Because I was like, I don’t have anything interesting here! I mean, New York is great. But I was just, I was inspired to take pictures in Iceland.

Because everywhere you turn when you get up and go to work, it was like oh my god. This an incredible sunrise.

So yeah, it was just incredible, incredible weather conditions there. All the time.

So that was actually really fun. And a couple of my little Instagram pictures are in the end credits.

It was also a lot of fun, those Life Magazine covers. Like Shirley MacLaine who plays my mother, was on three of those covers.

And we thought at one point, wouldn’t it be fun to put her on all of them. So we considered that for a while. Yep.

Why did you emphasize the plight of workers in America in the movie, and all the people getting laid off and out of work?

BS: Yeah, to me that’s one of the great things about this story. And that it is put in that context.

And that besides getting into the idea of who the character is, it’s put in the context of what is going on. You know, in the world today.

And generationally, guys of my age. Living in a world, we’re all living in this world where it’s really transformed from analog to digital.

It’s in the process of doing that. And what gets left behind with that, and which is really an important part of the telling of the story.

It’s the idea that the permanence of pictures and tactile things, that’s all going away. You know, now we don’t buy CDs or albums, obviously.

We download things. But Walter’s job is to take care of actual physical objects. And he cares about that.

And he cares about his coworkers, and the process. And all of that. And that was something I think, that just gave it a context.

And to me, that was really resonant, you know? And worth thinking about today now.

And the Life Magazine workplace idea, I think was a great way of encapsulating that. And what’s going on in the world.

You know, in terms of downsizing great journalism, and magazines going away. And the filmmaking process has changed so much too.

It’s all changing. And happening so much quicker. Even the pace of the movie honors that too.

And we wanted to create a world where everything is real. But sort of in its own world a little bit.

And a tone where you felt all this was kinda happening. But even if it’s all a little hyper-real.

And I think it has the spirit of the original story. And the character that James Thurber created. Which is obviously an iconic character. Yep.

Talk about the challenges of fleshing out what is real, and what is only inside Mitty’s head.

BS: Yeah. I mean, I think that was really one of the facets of the script. Right off the bat.

And the idea that the fantasies in Walter’s head related to parts of his self. And who he could be, or who he wanted to be.

As opposed to being a different character. And just what he was under the surface, that he didn’t realize.

And then obviously, to have fun with it. And enjoy the idea of being able to be in different worlds. And then the comedy to come out of that.

But for me, that idea of like understanding how each fantasy leads him to becoming who he is. And ultimately being able to realize his role.

So that was really important. But the challenge is that when you have fantasies outside the story, the audience does want to see the story unfold.

So it’s very challenging to keep the momentum going. And while having the fantasies play out.

So originally, we had envisioned these much more elaborate fantasies. And they went on a lot longer.

But as we developed the script and working on the script, we realized that we had to keep tearing it down. And that process continued until the end of the movie.

But finding that balance, and how you could keep the momentum of the story going. And also having enough of the fantasies in there, to give you a sense of what is going on.

And it looked like Walter was just having a lot of fun. But we spent a lot of time, the whole team, envisioning these crazy fantasies that we ended up having to cut. Like for budgetary reasons.

For instance, originally there was a fantasy that happened on Sixth Ave, sitting by the fountain. And a Lawrence of Arabia fantasy, pretending to come galloping up on horses.

And looking like Anthony Quinn! And then riding the horses down into the subway. Then they go through the subway, and they come up out of the other side.

And, you know, they’re in the desert! And then they end up doing, kind of singing this song from Greece! And I don’t know where they got that! But it was funny, basically.

But we just realized as we went along, that we had to keep tearing it down. And it also became really important to focus the fantasies.

And on Walter and Cheryl, and Walter wanting to connect with Cheryl. So we kept on working on that, all the way through the process of making the movie.

What’s the different spin for you of being a director, and making things work as a director?

BS: It’s all about trust. I need to trust the actors. And they need to trust me.

Because they know I’m acting with them in the scene. So they need to also trust me as a director.

And you know, if I’m mostly watching them in the scene as a director, that I’m not going to be a good actor. And that’s already challenging.

So it’s one of those things where you get into a rhythm. And you figure it all out as you go along,

And the actors were so great, in supporting that process. So you hire great, talented people. Because that is really a huge part of it.

You know, if you hire great actors, they’re going to bring so much to it. And we all got into it, we watched a few movies together.

And talked about what we called the tone of the movie, and what we wanted it to be. So that was important too.

What movies did you watch together?

BS: We watched The Apartment. And Being There. But that bonding experience, of just watching something together and hanging out.

And having a connection before you get on the set. You know, when there’s pressure on.

And then it doesn’t feel like just another job. You are like in it together.

But we watched all those movies that were inspiring. And not necessarily in any specific way. But just watching something good.

And watching movies that get you excited to try to do something good too.

Like what?

BS: Like Zoolander, and The Cable Guy! All the blockbusters!

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.