A few days ago at CinemaCon, Ben Stiller premiered the first footage from his upcoming movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In the film, Stiller stars as the eponymous LIFE Magazine proofreader who, incapable of standing up for himself in the real world, retreats to a fantasy where he becomes his poised, confident opposite. On his quests, he seeks to find a missing image taken by a photographer played by Sean Penn. The movie stars Kristen Wiig as his love interest, and Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, and Kathryn Hahn. While Stiller is known for his great work behind the camera on Tropic Thunder and Zoolander, Walter Mitty is definitely his most adult work to date and the footage I viewed show heart, humor and restraint. Look for this to be an Awards contender at the end of the year.
Shortly after premiering the footage, I participated in a small press conference with Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig. They talked about balancing fantasy and reality, Steve Conrad‘s script, comparisons to the original, the tone, filming in Iceland, David Bowie (the song Major Tom plays a role in the film), how the script changed when actors signed on, and more. Hit the jump to either listen to or read what they had to say.
Click here to listen to the audio of this interview. Otherwise the full transcript is below.
BEN STILLER: You know, it’s just been such a full experience and I wasn’t kidding, we are still working on it. It’s been a very long and complete experience in terms of the development of the script with Steve and the story. I think it all starts with the material and the script that Steve wrote and what he was aspiring to in the script. So, I guess to be in that territory, for me, it was a little scary because it was new. Looking at a movie not looking at it as a director, not necessarily just as a comedy, and having a different criteria in how to connect with an audience and tell the story in a way that serves the story and allows people to feel what you would hope they would feel. That whole process has been great and exciting, and then just working with the cast and the actors and how everybody I think felt working on the movie from the beginning. They all felt connected to what Steve had written and what we were trying to do, so that part of it. It’s had so many aspects: working on the visual effects, going to Iceland, doing a scene with comedic genius person. But seriously, it’s just a lot of different things and so that’s I think good.
The film is very much about following your dreams and living your own life. Was there anything in your own lives that’s unexplored, some desire that you have, some place that you want to go.
KRISTEN WIIG: Like an actual place? Actually, it was very inspiring for me to watch Ben directing and acting in this movie because I do hope to someday, maybe direct something and so I feel like that was kind of a free class for me, to get to watch how it’s actually done. I don’t know how…
STILLER: Maybe you should go to a different school.
WIIG: I don’t know how he wore so many hats on this thing and also it was a challenging movie to do with all the special effects, CGI, and then he’s acting, age makeup, it was a lot of stuff. And to watch him work and see how you do it while also being cool and nurturing and generous. I feel lucky to have watched that. It’s weird to talk about it when he’s right next to me.
Ben, anything unexplored in your mind?
STILLER: I’d love to travel more. I really look forward to traveling with my kids. I’m just waiting for them to want to travel with me.
STILLER: No you don’t, believe me. You know, going to different places, I’d love to go to Asia. I’ve been to Japan but I’ve never been to China, I’d love to go to China. I don’t know, I like to go to places that are remote. So, I think I’d like to do that more. And just sort of also explore not having a structured work life someday, to have more free time to sort of see what happens.
This film does seem completely divergent from Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. I’m just curious, through tone alone, was that something that you really wanted to explore?
STILLER: Yeah. I think that all came from Steve’s script, really. Steve and I talked about it, it was trying to find this reality that felt real but also allowed for where the story goes. Because, I do think it’s kind of a little bit hyper real but I felt like it was important. It was a tone that people always felt it could be happening. Honestly I think any movie, the tone of the movie has to be consistent. That’s the key to the movie. In Zoolander it’s like a really crazy world or Tropic Thunder. But you have to stay consistent. For this movie I think it was a little bit different because the tone was a little more realistic but not quite too. It was intentionally a little bit stylized too.
Could you talk a little bit about the theme of the original short story, and it looks like the film about ordinary people. How all of us want to be extraordinary and how everybody has dreams. How interested and inspired were you by the wonderful short story, which has become kind of embedded in our culture?
STILLER: The short story, I remember reading it as a kid in school and it stuck with me. I remember there was a lot of things like the phrases in it, I didn’t quite understand. I think the first time I ever read the phrase “Coals to Newcastle,” I didn’t know what it meant. It really stuck with me but as I got older, I guess the idea of the life that you lead being the one that you end up living as opposed to what you imagined it being and you get to a certain point in your life where you start going, “Wait, I’ve lived a lot of my life. I keep on thinking this is going to happen or I dream about this happening, and it didn’t quite happen. Yet, maybe.” So that theme of being in your life and kind of always think what do I want it to be and doing that, you sort of lose touch with the moment, was something that I thought, in Steve’s script, was really there; the ability to sort of be in the present moment. Walter is always thinking about what he wants to do or what he wants to be but he’s not there in the moment.
WIIG: I think no matter what kind of life you have, whether it looks one way to people or another way, you always have moments when you imagine a different life.
You guys keep talking about the quality of Steve’s scripts. Often, when a lot of actors sign on, you tailor certain people. Was this one of these projects where everyone really responded to the script. Were they just like, “We’re going to do what’s on the page?” Could you talk about how the script changed with the casting?
STILLER: First off all I think it had a very Conradian tone, I really think he has his own tone. As I’ve said, I’ve been a fan of his from other movies and we actually worked on another movie together that hasn’t gotten made. I knew him a little bit and he’s a really flexible writer and he likes to rewrite and he likes to think of actors. I know when Kristen came aboard, he got really excited because it was a chance for him to imagine her voice and get more specific with who Cheryl was. He enjoys that process and I think that for me and Steve, the year we spent working on the script before we went to the stages of pre-productions, a lot of it was trying to hone in on the tone we were talking about. In terms of the voice for Walter, I always felt like he had a clear sense of what that was. It was less about tailoring the voice and more about trying to get the story to a place where, he has a lot of very amazing images and moments that happen, and I think we both worked towards trying to make it a story you could believe could happen, because it goes to these sort of amazing places. That was a lot of what the work was.
His character seems pretty realistic.
STILLER: Realistic, yes. I think it’s impossible for Sean to not be realistic.
It was difficult to find an equilibrium between reality and imagination in all the movie. Sometimes it’s difficult in life. So I wanted to know, how did you approach this balance?
STILLER: I think it’s really an editorial process more than anything, the balance of the fantasies to reality. In the writing of the script, I think it was the idea, like I said before, the tone and trying to keep it consistent and allowing for this world where you could buy that these things would happen and a guy would go off into the world and jump on a plane and meet these people. There are movies I remember like Local Hero, that I remember having a really great tone, it was comedic and kind of quirky but also real and soulful. I got inspired by movies like that or being there. I think with Sean, it was really about making this character a real person because he’s kind of mythic in the story. When we do meet him and finally see him in the story, I want him to be a real person. And Sean actually, himself, really brought a lot of ideas for what Sean O’Connel in the movie would say, that were great and became part of the script. He also brought a lot of humor to it. Again, it’s the type of movie where I wanted the audience to be able to enjoy what was happening in the film on a level where they’re not sort of feeling like “now it’s serious, now it’s funny,” it’s all kind of okay, and Sean brought that to it. You have to remember, Sean is a really funny actor. You know, he’s Jeff Spicoli, which is one of the greatest comedic performances on film.
I think we were all surprised at how beautiful it was. I’m curious about the conversations you had with your cinematographer and how that partnership was formed.
STILLER: Yeah. Well we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted the movie to look like and I think that just comes from talking and looking at pictures together and references and watching movies together. Then, when you get to Iceland, it’s such an incredibly beautiful place and the light is so amazing, that it’s hard not to shoot stuff that looks good there (laughs).
WIIG: Yeah, the movie is breathtaking to see the whole thing. There are shots that are really amazing.
STILLER: I think a lot of that comes from the diligence of, you gotta go out and keep trying to get that moment. We were lucky enough to have this really great small second unit of like 3 guys. This great cinematographer named Eric Wilson, who shot a movie called Submarine, a British movie, that I had met because our company had executive produced it a couple years ago, and he’s incredibly talented. He was our second unit DP, and every day him and Phil Nielsen who is our second unit director and Michael Luhrmann who’s an incredible AD, who does big movies, but he was our second unit guy. Every day they would go out, and we had a list of things we would try to get. And then some days I would meet up with them for a shot at the end of the day or at the beginning of the day, and we would keep on going back and back until we felt like we had a good version of stuff. Then we started a catalogue of a lot of stuff that we could use. But then honestly we just got lucky. We got very lucky, because the weather in Iceland changes so quickly. There are scenes, you saw a couple of cuts, like, there’s a scene where he’s skateboarding down a mountain and we had two days to shoot it because we’d only be there those two days. The day before we were there, the whole mountain was just socked in and you couldn’t see anything. And then it miraculously opened up for us for two days. Things like that happened along the shoot, it was special.
WIIG: Yeah. It was kind of magical.
STILLER: And, I saw Russell Crowe in Iceland before because they were shooting Noah there, and they were just leaving when we came and he said, “You gotta dominate the weather.” (laughs) And I was like, “Okay, I will make sure to dominate the weather. Thanks Russell.” But he was right (laughs). He was right because you couldn’t wait around for a cloud to leave. You just had to go and do it and it’s going to change, it’s going to be different. And somehow, the weather respects you for going forward. So it was an amazing time.
WIIG: Yeah, you got through that windstorm.
STILLER: Yeah. Well the windstorm ended up being great. It helped us because we had to shut down for a couple days and it was a point in the shoot where we all needed to shut down anyway and just take a second. It gave us a chance to rehearse more. So all of these things seemed to fall in place and it was just an amazing experience being there. It was great.
STILLER: Right. Yeah. That was just luck. What we did is we waited for the seas to-
WIIG: (laughs) We waited for a shark and-
STILLER: We waited for a shark-
WIIG: And we were so lucky he went right into the camera (laughs). We just put a piece of meat right over the-
STILLER: We waited for swells to come up because we needed a storm, which, literally in the last two days that we were there the swells came up big enough so that we could shoot the scene, so that we could jump in the water and get the trawler out there. And the light condition was just ended up being what it was which was like this Icelandic light and again we got lucky enough that it was consistent enough for a couple of days.
WIIG: But Ben was like in the water fully doing all of that stuff.
Were you using real sharks or…
STILLER: Oh yeah. No, no. We had fake sharks (laughing). Still working on the fake sharks.
Kristen, we’ve seen you as a variety of characters on SNL. Did you enjoy the fact that with this movie, you could play different versions of your character?
WIIG: Yeah, it was kind of like the best of both worlds because of the different fantasies that Walter goes into. He imagines different versions of me because I’m his love interest in the movie and yeah, it was kind of like a good meeting of those two worlds. In movies you’re obviously the same character, same wardrobe, same everything for months, where SNL is different every four minutes or something. Yeah, it was fun to do that.
STILLER: Can I say something?
STILLER: I just think Kristen is, I wouldn’t say an underrated actress, because I feel like people haven’t had the chance to see you in roles like this, where she’s just so realistic and so funny. That’s a really not an easy thing to do and to be and I think what’s exciting for me in this movie is people seeing you in that and yet she also gets to be really Kristen funny too. But, I think that’s why she’s so successful as an actress and a comedic actress is that, people can feel she’s a real person too and that’s just a crazy combination of things that not many people have.
Ben, was there anything from the 1940s version that carried over?
STILLER: There was not much because I really feel like that movie is wonderful on its own and Danny Kaye was so talented in such specific ways that I am not (laughs) that I did not want to attempt that. The thing I did learn, because John Goldwyn, our producer, his grandfather did that movie, and we’ve had the same sort of experience of putting the film together where, as you try to figure out the balance of fantasy and reality, how that works, and fantasies that you shoot but you don’t end up using, how to tell the story and moving the story forward while still having time. Going to the fantasies but not going to the fantasies for too long so the story can move forward, because the audience really wants the story to move forward, but yet, the movie’s about the fantasies. Apparently, they had those same issues when they were making their movie and so we learned that that’s been a constant thing with the Mitty story.
Kristen, I wanted to ask if Major Tom was a big thing for you growing up. Were you a big David Bowie fan?
WIIG: I am a big David Bowie fan. That was a little bit intimidating to know that I had to sing that song (laughs) but Ben described that scene to me. Very early on he kind of had that imagined a while ago, and I was so excited. I took guitar lessons and recorded the song in New York. It was kind of a dream. I got to pretend I was a recording artist for a couple days.
STILLER: Yeah. That was exciting to hear her record it in the studio, because she’s a really good singer, and, what was it like, Electric Lady Studios?
I was gonna ask about seeing the Northern Lights. Was it as inspiring as we all imagine?
WIIG: It’s beautiful. Yes, we-
WIIG: We were at a restaurant and you couldn’t really see them so we all hiked up this crazy mountain and watched them.
STILLER: Yeah, well it’s like actually-
WIIG: It was one of those, like where are we moments-
STILLER: It’s actually in that scene – the scene with the pilot in the pub. There’s like a bluff outside the helicopter in one shot and we all went out to that bluff in the middle of the night and it was incredible.
You said you’re still working on the film. What’s still going on?
STILLER: Just the visual effects and editing, and basically where you’re at in a movie at this point when it’s coming out at Christmas time. So, yeah. That’s actually been a great thing to have the time on a film like this to really figure out the best balance in the story.
Ben, could you first tell us what that Bowie song means to you? Then my other question is about Ben directing. What was it like doing all of those things: directing, producing, starring?
WIIG: I’m gonna talk about you first.
STILLER: Okay, okay.
WIIG: (laughs) I had worked with Ben just a little bit when he hosted SNL and we got along really well and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. Seeing him be the director and you know, he’s in his costume and then two seconds later he’s behind the camera and totally and completely Walter and there for you as an actor. Again, I know I’m repeating myself, but just watching him do all of those different jobs so well and so calmly and so patiently was, you know as an actor you never wanna see the director freaking out about anything (laughs). So, you felt very safe and taken care of. And also, he’s very organized and knows exactly what he wants which is so great as an actor. We would rehearse and he just, like you were saying, this has been a passion project, that term’s gonna get thrown out there a lot, for years, and it’s so exciting to be a part of a movie with someone who’s had this movie in his brain and his heart for years and years and years. To be a part of that, you feel really lucky that he’s brought you into to his little club.
STILLER: Yeah. First of all the Bowie song is just an amazing song. It has that emotion and it’s always had that and, it was exciting to be able to use it in this context. I felt like the way it fits into the story, and the way that Steve used it, we got to this point and this scene which was sort of how the fantasy and reality come together for Walter, and that was what that came out of. That song, and what he mentioned in his head, and what he imagines and what he does, it all just seemed to come together over that song. I love that song and that era, that Bowie era. Changes has always been another favorite Bowie song of mine. In terms of the acting and directing thing, it’s just a lot of prep time. And I was lucky enough on this movie to have a lot of prep time, so we had time to work on all this stuff before hand, and then we were lucky enough to have great people who came on board, both in the crew and the production designer and cinematographer, costume designer, everybody. Then, with the actors who came on and really got it and were excited to be a part of it, you know Kristen would say something and then she’d do a rehearsal and say “what if I said this?” or “what if I said that?” And it’s incredible and great. It adds so much, so that process, when everybody’s there and sort of on the same page, that’s all you can ask for, and then it kind of goes from there and it is what it is.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens December 25th.