To celebrate the release of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY on DVD and Blu-ray release on April 21st, we’ve a great insight into the film thanks to the star and director Ben Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad.
The film focuses around the life of Walter Mitty (Stiller), a modern day-dreamer, and an ordinary magazine photo editor who takes a regular mental vacation from his normal existence by disappearing into a world of fantasies electrified by dashing heroism, passionate romance and constant triumphs over danger. But when Mitty and the co-worker he secretly adores (Kristen Wiig) stand in actual peril of losing their jobs, Walter must do the unimaginable: take real action – sparking a global journey more extraordinary than anything he could have ever dreamed up.
Below, Steve Conrad and Ben Stiller talk about adapting the film from the classic short story, why now is the time for this story to be retold and the significance of setting the film at LIFE magazine.
Steven Conrad is the writer of THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS and THE WEATHER MAN. You’ll know Stiller for many of his roles from NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, MEET THE PARENTS and he’s also directed TROPIC THUNDER and ZOOLANDER.
Q: Steve, for you, adapting a classic Danny Kaye movie and story, I’m sure you worked with Ben on this, but can you talk about what changes you thought had to be made?
Steve Conrad: In regard to working off of two very terrific different models; the James Thurber short story, it’s a very short, short story, so the gift it gave us was it gave a name to the sort of person that we all are a lot and that we recognize a lot from life, someone who daydreams at the expense of really living.
It’s a trap a lot of us can fall into, and I thought it was worth writing about which is why I took the job. But I knew that because the story was really so short that it needed to be added to rather than interpreted. Then the movie was its own thing. It was all about Danny Kaye’s energy – he’s a once in a lifetime performer and I certainly didn’t want to ask an actor to try to do that and many of the things we think about now are different. Our ideas about what a spectacular life might be like or grace under pressure – they’ve changed since the 40s – so I was very excited about finding new emblems for that kind of thing. So I knew that the project was going to ask for a lot of invention from all of us.
Ben Stiller: I think the reason I wanted to make the movie, was what I read in Steve’s version was taking the character and the tone of the original short story to me and it felt like it had that energy and that vibe, and he was kind of going in this different direction. It became more about this character and why this guy’s a daydreamer and the daydreams that he has aren’t just about being someone else, they’re 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 being out him connecting with himself and with his potential about what he wanted his life to be which I think took it in a whole other direction from the original movie which I agree is a classic musical comedy and I don’t think you can do that any better than what they did.
Q: Ben, what was it like to bring a story to life that you’ve been connected to for decades, since you’d known the story as a little kid?
Ben: My relationship to the story was that I read it in school and I remembered it because it’s one of those stories where the character is pretty iconic. I think that’s why we all remember it and I think that’s why we’re here today talking about a second movie. It hit on something in human consciousness; the idea of who we want to be as opposed to who we are in the world and what goes on inside our heads that nobody ever sees or hears. 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 with the music and it just didn’t feel to me like it could top what the original movie had done. It was really when I read Steve’s script and the ideas that he had in there – and also I knew Steve as we’d worked on another project together – and he just has a very unique writing style and he’s very interested in finding these small moments, these human moments within those and emotion within those and telling stories in a way that doesn’t fall into any one specific genre. I think that is true with all of his movies that he’s written and I think he brought that to Mitty.
Q: Could you talk about setting the movie around the closing of LIFE magazine and how that works into the theme of the film?
Ben: It was Steve’s idea, but from my point of view it was an amazing idea in terms of the context that it put the movie in for me as a director, to have that world that Walter lives in related back. The first thing it did for me was that it related back to the original short story – to the world of the New Yorker and the history and lineage of New York magazines and the architecture. The environment of all of it spurred so much and then the metaphor, or not so much a metaphor, but the context of the world going from analog to digital that really made it very modern. It’s a great idea.
Steve: Well I felt like it lent two things to us; one, it allowed our character to visually be surrounded by imagery that many of us regard as the greatest feats – the Muhammad Ali knockouts and the summit of Mount Everest – to literally be sitting in a small office surrounded by accomplishments that seem outside your grasp. It seemed like a really nice place to just kick off the story. The second thing was that we knew that Walter was going to have to face the challenges before he was prepared to face them – like all of us do – that something was going to have to mess up his life that was going to push him out and make him have to fight before he was totally prepared to fight the fight. I thought that unsettling his workplace – a thing that is on all of our minds a lot – how steady is the ground under my feet all the time – and if you really think about it, so much less steady than you really think or hope, so it seemed like it was going to give our story a good push in a couple of respects.
Q: Ben, this movie is about going outside your comfort zone and taking risks, since you’ve evolved so much as a director, this movie in itself is a big risk for you. Aside from the visual effects and the stunts, can you talk about the risks in this film that paid off?
Ben: How do you define risk? There’s life risk and there’s creative risk. If something’s risking your life, that’s real risk, but if we’re talking about creative risk, trying things, entering unchartered territory and seeing what happens and I think that’s part of what being creative is about, so I think the risk is kind of inherent in that and if you’re not doing that then you’re going to get stagnant. So for me, it was kind of unchartered territory in terms of the tone of the movie and didn’t fall into a specific genre, but I feel like that’s what audiences appreciate sometimes, seeing things they haven’t seen before or they don’t quite know how to categorize. It’s not something that’s predictable and I wanted this movie to be its own thing and so that risk was part of the fun of making the movie.
You know, when I’m working or shooting the movie, I don’t think about the time when it comes to answering questions about risk (laughs) or even the date the movie’s going to open or whether people will go or how people will receive it – that would be paralyzing to me, you just can’t do it. I just enjoyed making the movie in the moment, because it’s always a new experience and that’s what for me I love doing and if I was thinking about the other part of it, it would take away that enjoyment. Then you have to deal with this part of it when you get to this part of it, but for me I live for that part.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is out on Digital HD on April 20th and Blu-ray and DVD on April 21st from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment - Pick up your copy today!