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Going Inside the Production Design Secrets of 'Walter Mitty'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 8, 2014 at 2:05PM

Designing the "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was a new experience for Jeff Mann, known for working on such "blunt instruments" as "Tropic Thunder" with Ben Stiller and "Transformers" with Michael Bay. But Stiller definitely had a different mind set for the daydreaming Everyman, full of whimsy and wistfulness, and Mann visualized that world in a graphic and poetic way that's certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

While the Time-Life Building lobby retains its landmark familiarity, Mann needed the offices to function like a "West Wing" follow-cam idea. "Ideally, we wanted to tell the story of Life Magazine through these images [and mock iconic cover shots]," he adds. "It was big and daunting and costly and the environment wanted to earn its keep in this movie. So that took a lot of thought to block that and we built models and agonized over what would be our cover images." Some of them fuel Mitty's daydreams (the Arctic) or foreshadow his real-life adventures (the volcano erupting).

But the most challenging part was the Negative Assets Office where Mitty works. The real one turned out to be cinematically unsuitable (too dark, low ceilings, and flat files), so trying to create this environment where you conveyed the breadth and depth of photography was up to Mann. It's a treasure room that's part inspiration (the Harvard Library) and imagination ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" meets "Raiders of the Lost Ark").

Ben Stiller in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
Ben Stiller in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

By contrast, the real world landscapes of Iceland/Greenland/Afghanistan that are a part of Mitty's true-life adventures are epic and gorgeous. But they were full of surprises."When I was in Iceland, I would look off into the distance and realize that none of the mountains are 14,000 foot but they're all scaled. Because it's volcanic, it has a huge ridge line quality so it lives under the cloud layer and is proportioned differently. Maybe that's why it has this magical postcard quality to it."

Stiller and Sean Penn connected during their brief moment in Iceland. Yet it was tumultuous getting there. There was a windstorm that shut production down for two days with clouds on top of the glaciers."It was like some power was forcing us to stop and it was this glorious respite in the eye of the storm. We got a snow day or two where we were powerless. And listening to the best version of wind howling that you've ever heard just cleansing it all way. And so on top of this glacier we found this little moment where it all worked out between Ben and Sean. I had to fabricate all these rocks and build this perch and have all of this stuff tie in. But it reset everybody in this fascinating way and it was nature on display." 

This article is related to: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Immersed In Movies, Ben Stiller, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards Season Roundup, Interviews

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.