Movie Interviews
3:53 pm
Fri December 20, 2013

Ben Stiller, Spinning Daydreams In 'Walter Mitty'

Originally published on Sat December 21, 2013 5:46 pm

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — originally a two-page James Thurber story published in The New Yorker in 1939 — is about the reveries of a henpecked husband who became transformed, in his imagination, into an intrepid fighter pilot or a world-famous surgeon.

Made into a Danny Kaye musical in the '40s, it's taken on a modern spin now, in a new film from actor-director Ben Stiller, who plays Walter as a guy whose life is so flat he can't even come up with a profile for a dating site. But in his daydreams, he takes flight: He becomes a grizzled Arctic explorer, a fearless superhero.

Stiller tells NPR's Melissa Block his vision for Walter Mitty began with Thurber's short story. Then, the screenplay expanded his understanding of why Walter does what he does.

"[He's] a guy who's sort of suppressed a lot of his ambition and ... who he wanted to be when he was younger," he explains. "And [he] sort of got diverted by life, and now he's sort of settled in to being kind of a normal guy, a regular guy, and is not even as aware ... what he's pushing down in the daydreams."


Interview Highlights

On relating to Walter

I definitely related to the moments in life where you try to be your best possible self, but you can't quite pull it off. Or you just aren't, in the moment, who you want to be. Or you think of that thing to say to somebody, the comeback for somebody, when you think of it 10 minutes later and they're gone.

On Walter's magazine job and the transition to a digital world

[There's] craftsman-like work that the people do, that is going away as we do transition to a fully digital world. [We're] losing the art of putting together a magazine or working with film.

Me personally, I love film. I grew up making Super 8 movies when I was 10 years old, cutting them together, sending the film out, getting it developed and waiting three days. And when that goes away because it's not necessary anymore, it does seem to me that there's the danger of people not being appreciated, and the work they have done not being appreciated, just because it isn't profitable anymore.

On the difference between editing actual film and doing it digitally

It's just changed, I think, the style of editing in movies. Because there's just much quicker cutting. That wasn't necessarily impossible to do before digital editing, it just was a lot harder to do.

But in the process of editing a movie on film, you mark up the film with a grease pencil [on] the actual frame where you're deciding to cut. So basically I think a lot more thought went into the actual cuts before the cuts were made. Because it would take five or six minutes to cut from a close-up to a wide shot to another close-up. You know, maybe the result is that a movie is finished earlier than it would have in the old days, when you would've taken a little more time with it before you actually put it out there. Because you couldn't do it so quickly.

In the last 20 or 30 years, I just know my own attention span has changed. And when you show your kids a movie from the '70s or even the '80s, I mean, a lot of movies are just a lot slower.

On tacking away from his comedy work

Well, I don't look at it as a different direction. I just think it's sort of, for me, at that point when I was doing a lot of those broader comedies or whatever, that was what I was interested in and excited by. And I'm not less interested in it. I don't have any issue with doing those. It's just you have to go with what you feel connected to and passionate about. It's just where you're at in the moment. And if there was a great comedy that really made me laugh, or a great director to work with, [if] it felt like the right thing, I would do it. But I'm also interested in doing lots of different kinds of things.

On comedy as a family business

I do think it's a part of our personalities. When I was a kid I wanted to be more serious ... just when I was probably like a teenager. But that was because I hadn't figured out my own sort of sensibility, I think, comedically. Or it hadn't hit me really yet.

Because growing up with your parents, they're you're parents. And no matter what — and my parents [Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara] were amazing and very supportive, and they're very, very, really talented funny people. So it was, I think, in a lot of ways, daunting at first. And I think I wanted to — I knew that directing was what I really loved the most, and so I wasn't trying to follow in their footsteps as much.

And then as I got a little older and started to connect to my own comedic touchstones and things that made me laugh and that were my own thing — I think because I just had to find myself in that way — and then I sort of opened up to it more. And then, eventually, [I] was able to let go of any of that feeling of needing to differentiate myself from my parents, and just be able to appreciate what we have in common. Which we definitely do, and I see it in my kids too. But when you're a kid it's just different, you know? 'Cause it's your parents.

On his parents' different styles

They're very different in terms of their senses of humor. My dad always wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He grew up during the Depression, and he saw people like Eddie Cantor, and he wanted to do a stand-up act.

My mom's sense of humor is a lot more cynical and Irish Catholic — dark. She grew up with a lot of death and drama in her family, and they figured out a way to cope with that, with humor. You know? And her sense of humor to me is just incredible.

My dad is just naturally funny as a person. I feel like he just can't help but be funny, because he's so committed to who he is. And I think in some way for me, my mom's sense of humor feels more — I feel more connected to that probably. We laugh at the same things more. But my dad makes me laugh as much as he makes everybody else in the world laugh.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

CORNISH: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was originally a two-page James Thurber story published in The New Yorker in 1939, the reveries of a henpecked husband who became transformed in his imagination into an intrepid fighter pilot or world-famous surgeon. "Walter Mitty" was made into a musical starring Danny Kaye in the '40s, and now it's taken a modern spin. Ben Stiller directs and stars as Walter Mitty, a guy whose life is so flat he can't even come up with a profile for an online dating site.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Character) You left a lot of this stuff - like the been-there-done-that section, you left it blank.

BEN STILLER: (As Walter Mitty) OK. Well, I haven't really been anywhere noteworthy or mentionable.

BLOCK: But in his daydreaming mind, Walter Mitty takes flight. He becomes a grizzled arctic explorer, a fearless superhero. Ben Stiller told me his vision for Walter Mitty began with Thurber's short story. Then the screenplay expanded his understanding of why Mitty does what he does.

STILLER: This idea of a guy who's sort of suppressed a lot of his ambition and his idea of who he wanted to be when he was younger or, you know, where he was going and sort of got diverted by life. And now he's sort of, you know, settled in to being kind of a normal guy, regular guy and is not even as aware, himself, I think, of what he is not experiencing in his life or, you know, what he's pushing down. And the daydreams or sort of a manifestation of that.

BLOCK: You related to that.

STILLER: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I definitely related to the, you know, the moments in life where you try to be your best possible self but you can't quite pull it off. Or, you know, you just aren't, in the moment, who you want to be, you know, or you think of that thing to say to somebody, you know, the comeback for somebody, when you think of it, you know, 10 minutes later and they're gone.

BLOCK: Right when the elevator door closes.

(LAUGHTER)

STILLER: Exactly.

BLOCK: We should talk a bit just about the job that Walter Mitty has. You play as Walter Mitty, you're a negative asset manager at LIFE magazine. You're in charge of the huge archive of their photo negatives. And the movie is set as LIFE magazine is shutting down as an actual print magazine. It's turning into a website. And there really is a theme running through here about heartless corporate change and really what's lost in this transition to a digital world, the human component of that.

STILLER: Yeah. The, you know, the craftsman-like work that the people do that is going away as we, you know, do transition to a fully digital world, you know, losing the art of putting together a magazine or the, you know, working with film. I mean, just as a filmmaker, for me personally, I love film. I grew up making, you know, Super 8 movies when I was 10 years old and, you know, cutting them together, sending the film out, getting it developed and waiting three days.

And when that goes away because it's not necessary anymore, it does seem to me that there's the danger of people not being appreciated and the work they have done not being appreciated just because it isn't profitable anymore.

BLOCK: What does change, do you think, when you're talking about, you know, the experience of editing something on film and taking more time having it being maybe more physically hands on than it is now, what is lost or what's different about that?

STILLER: Well, it's just changed, I think, the, you know, the style of editing in movies because, you know, there's just much quicker cutting. That - it wasn't necessarily impossible to do before digital editing, it just was a lot harder to do. But in the process of editing a movie on film, you mark up the film with a grease pencil and, you know, the actual frame where you're deciding to cut.

So basically, I think a lot more thought went into the actual cuts before the cuts were made, so that - because it would take five or six minutes to cut from a close-up to a wide shot to another close-up. You know, maybe the result is that a movie is finished earlier than it would have in the old days when, you know, you would've taken a little more time with it before you actually put it out there because you couldn't do it so quickly.

BLOCK: And viewers' expectations have changed along with that.

STILLER: Well, I think that's for sure in the last, you know, 20 or 30 years. I just know my own attention span has changed. And, you know, when you show your kids a movie from the '70s or even the '80s, I mean, a lot of movies that just are a lot slower.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Ben Stiller, the director and star of the movie "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." I wonder, for you, when you think back on, you know, the huge successes you've had with comedies like "There's Something About Mary" and the "Night at the Museum" series, movies like that, if there's something that's uncomfortable about that place where it's not as satisfying maybe as it used to be or as you thought it might be and you really want to go in a different direction.

STILLER: Well, you know, I don't look at it as a different direction. I think it's just sort of, for me, you know, at that point when I was doing a lot those broader comedies or whatever, that was what I was interested in and excited by. And I'm not less interested in it, or I don't have any issue with doing those. It's just - it's - you have to go with what you feel connected to and passionate about. It's just where you're at in the moment.

I mean, if there was a great comedy that really made me laugh, or you know, a great director to work with, it felt like the right thing, then I would do it. But I'm also interested in doing lots of different kinds of things.

BLOCK: Since you are the son of comedians, the team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, does comedy feel to you like the family business, like it's part of the DNA?

STILLER: Well, I mean, I do think it's, you know, part of our personalities. You know, when I was a kid, I know I wanted to be more serious.

BLOCK: Really?

STILLER: Yeah. Well, just when I was, like, you know, when I was probably like a teenager. But that was because I hadn't figured out my own sort of sensibility, I think, comedically. Or didn't - hadn't hit me really yet because, you know, growing up with your parents, they're you're parents. And no matter what -and my parents were amazing and very supportive, and they're very, very, like, really talented funny people.

So it was, you know, I think, in a lot of ways, daunting at first. And I think I wanted to - I knew that directing was what I really loved the most. And so I wasn't trying to follow in their footsteps as much. And then, as I got a little older and started to connect to my own, you know, comedic touchstones and, you know, things that made me laugh and that were my own thing, you know, I think because I just had to find myself in that way, then I sort of opened up to it more.

And then, eventually, was able to, like, let go of any of that feeling of needing to sort of differentiate myself or something from my parents and just be able to appreciate, you know, what we have in common, which we definitely do. And I see it in my kids too. But, you know, it's just - it's - but, you know, that's - when you're a kid it's just different, you know, because it's your parents.

BLOCK: What do you think you absorbed about comedy from them, maybe not explicitly but just by being around them and watching them?

STILLER: Well, you know, they're very different in terms of their senses of humor. My dad always wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He grew up during the Depression and he saw people like Eddie Cantor, and he wanted to do a stand-up act. And I think, you know, my mom's sense of humor is a lot more cynical and, you know, Irish Catholic, dark. You know, she grew up with a lot of death and drama in her family, you know, they figured out a way to cope with that with just - with humor, you know? And her sense of humor to me is just incredible.

My dad is just, you know, naturally funny as a person. I feel like, you know, he just can't help but be funny because he's so committed to who he is. And I think, in some way for me, like, my mom's sense of humor feels more - I feel more connected to that probably. We laugh at the same things more. But my dad makes me laugh as much as he makes everybody else in the world laugh.

BLOCK: Ben Stiller, it's been good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

STILLER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Ben Stiller directed and stars in the new movie "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.