Interview: Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
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It was a very wary Ben Stiller who stepped into Danny Kaye’s shoes to play Walter Mitty as he told film critic Tony Earnshaw.

IT was George Clooney who said remaking a past classic is a bad idea. It’s better to tackle a lousy film and improve on it.

Thus Clooney made a success of Ocean’s 11. He then went on to make two sequels of limited appeal and quality so maybe he didn’t heed his own advice.

Ben Stiller chose to introduce modern audiences to a 21st Century version of Danny Kaye’s brilliant 40s comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film that has so entered the collective consciousness that the mere mention of the title character evokes thoughts of arch fantasists everywhere.

Today’s cinemagoers may not be familiar with Kaye and his often frenetic style but they know Stiller. If anyone could make a go of this film, it’s the 48-year-old “frat pack” member and star of Zoolander, Dodgeball and Tropic Thunder.

So why does star/director Stiller sound nervous? Is he wary of stepping into Kaye’s shoes? Has he made a mistake?

Stiller confesses he joined the project “relatively late in the process” after producers John Goldwyn and his father, Sam Goldwyn Jr, tried and failed to get the film moving.

“They tried for a long time to remake the original movie [but it] didn’t connect to the original short story [by James Thurber]. And at a certain point [scriptwriter] Steve Conrad came in with a totally different take.

“That script was what made me want to do it. It felt so emotionally connected and relevant because it got into the idea of who this guy was and why he was a daydreamer. It didn’t try and redo what had already been done very well by Danny Kaye. Obviously I couldn’t do that. Nobody would want to see me attempt to do that.”

Which begs the question why remake it in the first place? The issue for audiences who recall the original is whether Stiller can effectively compete with Kaye. And, if not, why give the film a twist?

Stiller is ready for that question. The new movie sees Walter struggling with his changing job and floundering around in a world he no longer recognises. Embarking on a world tour he becomes mired in whimsy. It’s a road trip-cum-search for enlightenment in a decidedly Hollywoody fashion. But it hooked in Stiller.

Writer Steven (The Pursuit of Happyness) Conrad, says Stiller, put it all into context. He made Walter a picture archivist at Life magazine – a man fighting a losing battle against changes both technical and personal.

“Generationally for guys our age [it’s about] living in a world that’s severely transformed from analogue to digital and what gets left behind with that. That was a really important part of the whole story: the permanence of the pictures and the tactile nature of things that are all going away.

“Now we don’t buy CDs or albums, we download things. Pictures are digital. Walter’s a guy who takes care of the actual physical objects. He cares about that and he cares about his co-workers and the process.

“The Life magazine idea was a great way of encapsulating what’s going on in the world in terms of downsizing, print journalism, magazines going away. It’s all changing.

“I felt that the pace of the movie wanted to honour that, too. We wanted to try and create a place that was real but in its own world a little bit. You had to believe everything that happens in the movie even if it’s a little hyper-real.”

Hyper-real hints at a move away from the innocence and fantasy of Danny Kaye’s 1947 original. But maybe contemporary multiplex audiences are too soured by real life to accept flights of fancy. The world of 2013 is a harder place than that of post-war America.

One of the facets of Conrad’s script was that the fantasies in Walter’s head related to parts of himself – who he could or wanted to be – as opposed to being different characters a la Danny Kaye.

“Obviously we wanted to have fun with it and enjoy the idea of being in different worlds and for the comedy to come out of it,” says Stiller. “But for me that idea of understanding how each fantasy leads him to becoming who he is was really important.”

In Kaye’s film the scale of Walter’s fantasies slowed the plot down, claims Stiller. Audiences want to see how the fantasies play out. Thus in Stiller’s version some elaborate sequences were eschewed on that basis.

“We spent a long time envisioning these crazy fantasies that we ended up having to cut. There was a fantasy that happened on 6th Avenue. Walter is sitting by the fountain where he had this Lawrence of Arabia fantasy where these guys come galloping up on horses looking like Anthony Quinn.

“They grab Cheryl (Walter’s love interest played by Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig) and they ride the horses down into the subway. They go through and come out the other side and they’re in the desert. Then they end up singing the end song from Grease. I don’t know why we cut that…”

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG) is on nationwide release.

Actor, director and Frat Packer

The son of comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Ben Stiller made his directorial debut in 1994 with Reality Bites. 

In addition to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty he has also directed The Cable Guy, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. 

He is considered one of the so-called “Frat Pack” that also includes Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. 

Stiller enjoys his own personal franchise with the Focker trilogy which focuses on hapless Greg Focker and his run-ins with ex-CIA father-in-law Jack (Robert De Niro).