THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY directed by Ben Stiller, written by Steve Conrad from the story by James Thurber, with Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn. A 20th Century Fox release. 114 minutes. Opens Wednesday (December 25). For venues and times, see Movies.
Ben Stiller movies do well at the holidays.
All three Meet The Parents movies and the first Night At The Museum opened at Christmas - and did really, really well. Audiences love watching Stiller suffer the indignities of awkward family situations, especially when he's being humiliated by Robert De Niro or being tied up by a wee legion of Roman soldiers.
This year, 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the Night At The Museum series, is releasing another sort of Stiller film: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. And Stiller, who directs as well as stars, is trying something a little new.
"I felt like I was going into an area, just in terms of the tone of the movie, that was different than I had done before," he says over the phone from New York City, peppering his speech with "you knows" and "sort ofs" in much the same way Greg Focker does.
"It had some familiar elements, but really at the end of the day, I felt like the criteria with which I was judging this story - by an audience's interest - was not just gonna be the laughs."
Over the last two decades, Stiller has established three different career tracks for himself.
There's Ben Stiller the movie star, who makes smashes like those Focker films and There's Something About Mary, monster hits that pay the bills but don't necessarily allow him to stretch his muscles. He's also done fairly well for himself as Alex the lion in the Madagascar movies.
There's Ben Stiller the ambitious actor who takes real dramatic risks, the guy Steven Spielberg cast in a small role in Empire Of The Sun, who starred in David O. Russell's farce Flirting With Disaster and did great character turns in Zero Effect and Permanent Midnight and The Royal Tenenbaums. Most recently, that guy played the title role in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, in which he shared a stunningly uncomfortable - and painfully honest - love scene with Greta Gerwig.
And then there's Ben Stiller the filmmaker, who produces an eclectic slate of movies under his Red Hour Films shingle - everything from the horror movie The Ruins to Richard Ayoade's directorial debut, Submarine - and directs the occasional project like Reality Bites and Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, often casting himself in the goofiest role.
I first met Stiller in 1994, before the personae splintered.
He was developing an adaptation of Scott Smith's thriller A Simple Plan starring Nicolas Cage. I was a big fan of the book, and of Stiller's brilliant, short-lived sketch series The Ben Stiller Show, so when we ended up in the same Manhattan hotel lobby, I just went over and talked to him for a few minutes.
Stiller never made A Simple Plan. The project went into turnaround and was eventually brought to the screen by Sam Raimi in 1999, with Bill Paxton in the role Cage would have played.
"Yeah, I really wanted to make that movie," Stiller says. "It would have been a great experience. I don't know if the movie would have been great," he laughs, "but it would have been a great experience."
I think the movie would have been pretty good. Stiller's always been a thoughtful filmmaker. Reality Bites is much more complex than you remember, The Cable Guy is a remarkably pointed media satire, and Tropic Thunder even more so: the conversation between Stiller's and Robert Downey Jr.'s characters about "going full retard" is one of the sharpest indictments of Hollywood's two-faced handling of the disabled ever put on film.
Walter Mitty is the first movie in which Stiller has used all three aspects of himself. He gets to be a movie star, a serious-minded actor and a technically savvy director all at once - and not in a comedy.
"Following that story of Walter getting to where he gets to was maybe a little more open and less cynical than I [expected], as I made the film," he says. "And as a filmmaker, I definitely want to make different kinds of movies, and not necessarily comedies. I've talked about that for years, but this might be a kind of first step toward doing that, in terms of just... I'm ready to take some chances in worlds that are pretty much foreign to me."
Walter Mitty is definitely new territory.
Sure, it has a few scenes in Stiller's comfort zone. In addition to a deft riff on the inherent ickiness of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Walter's flights of fantasy take the form of action movie sequences shot with an intensity that rivals the climax of The Matrix. But mostly it's a movie about human beings, loneliness and the search for connection in a world that's moving forward too quickly.
James Thurber's 1939 short story is a charming study of a henpecked man who escapes his mundane life in fantasies where he casts himself as a charismatic, confident hero. The story was adapted into a Danny Kaye vehicle in 1947, and Hollywood has been trying to remake it since the 1990s. Among the actors attached to play the lead were Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Sacha Baron Cohen - and Stiller, who was first approached after Carrey dropped out.
"I got a script, a different draft, about eight years ago," he says. "To me, it was trying to be a remake of the original movie without music in it. I just didn't connect with it, and I didn't feel I could really improve on the musical comedy that Danny Kaye did. There's just no way to compare to that."
About five years later, a draft by Steve Conrad reached Stiller, a fan of Conrad's The Weather Man, an underrated drama starring Nicolas Cage as a Chicago media personality living in the shadow of his author father. Conrad had added new elements to the story that resonated with him.
"Steve and I sat down for about nine months together and did lots of different drafts," he says. "We talked about a lot of different ideas and tried many different things."
One new wrinkle gives Mitty a job as a photo technician and archivist at Life Magazine. When we meet him, he's working with physical film at a print publication, making him seem even more like a man out of time.
"I think that's something Steve was interested in, and to me it felt very relevant and modern," Stiller says. "There's something in this sort of changeover from analog to digital.... It's a lack of respect for, you know, for the history of things. And whether it's people's [personal] history - doing something, doing a job - or even just the history of the magazine and all that, it's almost like a side effect of the changeover that's going on."
Energized by the challenge of Walter Mitty, Stiller signed on for another project with Noah Baumbach: While We're Young, which comes out next year.
"Yeah, I just finished that with Noah," he says. "You know, that's actually more of a comedy for Noah than he's done in a while. I guess Frances Ha has a lightness about it, too, but this one is as light as anything he's done."
The premise follows the friendship between two couples - one in their 40s, and the other in their 20s. Having just turned 48 last month, and working in an industry that feeds on youth, Stiller could certainly relate.
"He's sort of exploring where that puts people our age at this point, and how they respond to where everything's going, and how you hang on to that. I'm really looking forward to seeing it. Naomi Watts is my wife, and Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried are the younger couple. It was very fun to do."
While We're Young will maintain his indie cred, but bills have to be paid, so....
"I am doing a third Night At The Museum, starting at the end of January. The end of the innocence," he says, laughing. "That's not what it's called, but for me it'll be the final one."