Captivatingly combining both amusement and the nostalgia of the journeys people take as they chase their seemingly unattainable dreams has always fascinated movie audiences. Naturally merging that humor and sentiment was what helped make actor Danny Kaye’s 1947 musical comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a classic. Ben Stiller, who both portrayed the title character in, and directed, the new fantasy drama remake of the movie, used his natural comic ability to show how the common man could face and overcome outrageous circumstances to obtain what he wants.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which is also based on the 1939 short story of the same name by James Thurber, follows the title character (Stiller), a modern-day daydreamer and magazine photo editor who regularly takes a mental vacation from his mundane existence by disappearing into a world of fantasies.
One day Walter, along with his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), discover that their employer, Life Magazine, is about to discontinue publishing its physical issues. Wanting to save his job as the magazine turns to launching exclusively online, Walter must locate a missing negative from Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a famed photographer he has closely worked with for most of his time at the magazine. Walter suddenly finds himself literally in the middle of the action, as he travels around the world to find Sean and figure out where the picture is. In the process, he realizes life can be more extraordinary than he ever imagined.
Stiller, Wiig and screenwriter Steve Conrad generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference at New York City’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel last week. Among other things, the actors and screenwriter discussed how they like to take creative risks when making films, why they adapted the original in the first place and much more.
Check it out below and enjoy!
Steve, why did you want to adapt the classic Danny Kaye film for the 21st century? What was your collaboration with Ben like, and how did you decide what changes had to be made?
Steve Conrad: We often daydream at the expense of really living. It’s a trap a lot of us can fall into. I thought that was something worth writing about, which is why I took the project. But since the story is so short, it needed to be added to. The movie turned out to be its own thing. Danny Kaye is a once-in-a-lifetime performer, so I certainly didn’t want to ask an actor to do that.
Many of the things we think about now are different, such as our ideas about what a spectacular life might be like. So I was very excited about finding new emblems for that sort of thing. I knew the project was going to ask a lot of invention from all of us.
Ben Stiller: The reason why I wanted to make this movie was because Steve was taking the character and the tone of the original short story to make something bigger. It felt like it had that energy and vibe, and he was going in a different direction. It became more about this character and why he became a daydreamer. The daydreams he has aren’t just about somebody else; they were about being a better version of himself.
He took that idea and continued to explore it all the way into his journey out into the world. Walter was connecting with himself and his potential of what he would like his life to be. That took it in a whole new direction from the original movie, which, I agree, is a classic musical comedy. You just can’t do that any better than what they do.
Ben, what was it like making a film based on a story you read as a child?
Ben Stiller: I read it in school and then remembered it because it was one of those stories where the character is pretty iconic; I think we all remember it, and that’s why we are all here today talking about a second movie. It has hit on human consciousness and the idea of what we want to be, as opposed to who we are in the world, and what goes on inside our heads that no one else ever sees or hears.
So, for me, when I read a draft of the script about 8 or 9 years ago, it was a different take on it. It was a little closer to the original movie without music. It didn’t feel like we could top what the original movie had done.
Also, I knew Steve, as we worked on another project together. He just has a very unique writing style. He’s very interested in finding these small human moments, and the humor and emotion in them. He tells stories in a way that doesn’t really fall into one specific genre, which is true in all of the movies that he has written. I think he brought that to Walter Mitty.
Besides those emotional moments, you also have a lot of action scenes in the film. You’ve said scaling a glacier in Iceland was your favorite day. What was your second favorite?
Ben Stiller: I had a lot of favorite days and I really enjoyed the shoot. My second favorite day was probably the day that we shot those scenes in the ocean. There was probably more than one day that we shot on the set when I was in the water with a trawler, jumping in and that was what we focused our whole shoot around. We scheduled our shoot in Iceland to end on those days at the end of September, because we knew that’s when the seas would be high enough. So it all was focused on that. To actually get in the water and do the shots for real was one of the most exciting days I ever had in my life.