“I remember my first conversation [with writer Steve Conrad] where he said, 'Every American male yearns to be on the cover of a Wheaties box,' ” says John Goldwyn, the producer of “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.” Speaking with the New York Film Festival crowd, he helped present the film’s world premiere over the weekend (our review), though it was a long time coming. The fantasy film, based on the 1939 short story by James Thurber, runs in the family: it was Goldwyn’s grandfather Samuel Goldwyn who produced the original 1947 Danny Kaye adaptation, and had worked to bring a newer incarnation to the big screen.
After a raft of comedians (Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson) came and went from the long developing project, Ben Stiller came aboard, not only to star, but to direct the film as well. However, he had to contend with a wildly different series of approaches abandoned by the studio over the years. He told the audience that he was no stranger to long incubation periods, claiming he came up with the idea of “Tropic Thunder” as an extra on the set of 1987’s “Empire Of The Sun.” Speaking of the new 'Mitty,' Stiller says, “I think what happened was that they tried to remake the original movie in some way, which didn’t really, story-wise, connect to the original story.” He credits writer Conrad with re-envisioning the narrative, saying, “When I read that script, it made me want to do it, because it felt so emotionally connected and relevant. It got into the idea of who this guy was, and why he was a daydreamer.”
Conrad took a unique perspective with his approach, using the original two-and-a-half page story as an inspiration, not a blueprint. Of Thurber, he says, “If he were able to say more, what would he say next? I started to write with that mind, to continue rather than translate or adapt. Primarily that meant finding out more about before Walter began daydreaming.”
For Stiller, it wasn’t about the fantasies at all, but about where Mitty is coming from, and why he feels the need to disappear into another world. “One of the great things about what Steve did was that he put it in this context of what’s going on in this world today,” Stiller says, referring to Mitty’s profession as a Life Magazine photo editor who finds himself the victim of a corporate turnover and an online transition that will render him obsolete. “Generationally, I think guys our age we’re living in this world in the process of going from analog and digital…I felt that was a really important part of telling the story, the permanence of pictures, the actual tactile things, it’s all going away.”
Stiller ran a crash course with his cast on getting not just the mood of the film across, but also the general themes by watching “The Apartment,” “Being There,” and “Local Hero,” grounding the special effects sequences. Though many of those sequences were accomplished with actual risks taken by a filmmaker starring and directing in the film, while completing a number of elaborate stunts. “At one point I had to do a shot in the water where there’s a POV of the boat coming at me,” Stiller explains. “So the boat had to go away to shoot the shot. And the boat went away, and I’m just in the water in the North Sea, with no one around me and five foot swells. And I had that moment where I thought, this is a movie, but it’s also real life. There really could be a shark there!”
Like Mitty, Stiller ultimately had to conquer his own fears during a wild shoot, one that had him planning out shots on all-terrain environments. Sometimes it involved working conditions that seemed less than ideal, in spite of the glamour of show business. “That helicopter [production designer] Jeff [Mann] found was a fifty year old helicopter that’s actually the original ‘Hawaii Five-0’ helicopter that Danno rode,” Stiller beams. “And the helicopter pilot kept saying, ‘Man, I wish this thing had more power!’ Which is not what you wanna hear!”
"The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" opens on Christmas Day. Watch the full New York Film Festival press conference for the film below.