"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," directed by and starring Ben Stiller, is about a man (the titular Mitty) who often loses himself in vivid flights of fancy that he constructs, wholly, in his imagination. Oftentimes, he can be in the middle of a conversation and just "zone out," escaping into a word of his own creation.
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All of this is kind of fitting, because when we spoke to Stiller a few weeks ago, a fairly innocuous -- and, it should be noted, brief -- question about the movie's opening title sequence turned into a lengthy monologue, during which time I felt my spirit leave my body and I began to question my career as a journalist.
So, with some creative editing, I have chopped up Stiller's answer a little bit, and made it more of a back and forth, so you, dear reader, aren't just reading annoyingly lengthy block quotes. At the end of the answer, Stiller did apologize for going on for so long. And, as far as I know, I still have a job with Moviefone.
Moviefone: I wanted to start at the beginning of the movie and where those amazing title cards came from.
Ben Stiller: It came about through the process of making the movie. It sort of evolved. It first started from wanting to figure out a way to have texts and things that are happening in the movie... Actually, it didn't start with the text. It started with the LIFE magazine motto. It's not the motto technically, but credo... That's an important part of the story. Originally in the script, when Walter goes out and jumps on the plane, it was a voiceover of Cheryl [Kristen Wiig] reading it. And as we were putting the movie together, it just felt too much to hear her voice. It was too on the nose and too dramatic. So I thought it would be interesting to see those words, on the screen in some way.
We started to explore ways to embed the words, and then from that when the texts were coming up in the movie, we started to think, Oh, it would be great to figure out a way of not having to cut to a phone every time. And part of that was trying to have the movie exist in its own time frame. We weren't very strict with that but throughout the movie there are these retro gestures, kind of putting Walter in this slightly generic world. To me, when you see a phone in a movie from 1990 it's a giant phone. We couldn't avoid that completely but I wanted to avoid having to cut to a phone every time.
How did design work with the titles coincide with the fantasy sequences?
Well, work on the titles evolved at the same time, somehow, with the idea that New York was a very important part of the movie and the idea of this grand vision of New York that Walter has in his fantasies, because almost of the fantasies are New York-centric. Because early on, when you're starting to think about doing something like this and there are so many ways you can go with the fantasies, it was a matter of trying to hone it in and how do we make the fantasies more specific to the character and his relationship with Cheryl. Because, visually you think, Oh, he could go through a door and we're in the Arabian desert. Which you could do, but it began to feel too mish-mash-y. So we decided to try and keep everything connected to New York. His fantasies can happen in New York and he can be a superhero in new York or it can start to happen in Central Park. And I wanted to keep that New York theme.
There were a bunch of fantasies we started to cut, like when Walter would see a blimp, with Walter playing a soccer game. And somehow that went back to: How do we relate this imagery back to New York? I know it's not a specific thing but it was all connecting the city and making it a part of it.
And the big main title card?
As we were doing that and starting to think back to the opening title sequence, Steve Conrad [the movie's screenwriter] had written this thing in the script where Walter is walking down the street and, all of a sudden, his head explodes, and from his head we see all of the ideas that he has been thinking of -- like we see Juan Valdez, the coffee guy and the Beastie Boys and all of these weird things and thoughts in his head. And I was trying to visualize how you would do that. So I was thinking it could be in 3D and you could have a little Beastie Boys. But it was so hard, to have it floating with him as he walks down the street, but there was a phone commercial that did the same thing. So that went away.
Then, and this is over the course of a year, I was thinking that his head could explode and there would be all of these colors, like a paint can exploding. And we did all these 3D tests. And it was good, and we were thinking of how to connect that to the title. As we were doing that, these things with the motto were already happening. So I thought we could do something that's more restrained with the title, so I came back to this more 2D idea, with embedding the title in the subway station and have color flooding into this world. That began this development process with Kyle Cooper, and Kyle and I have worked together on "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder." And it was just iteration to iteration after that. That's the longest answer ever.
There have been countless attempts at remaking "Walter Mitty," with everyone from Steven Spielberg to Ron Howard to Gore Verbinski. How did you crack it?
I don't feel like I cracked it. I think Steve Conrad cracked it. He came at it with a different take, with a script I was handed, and he had made most of those choices and had those big ideas that tonally. Just by Steve doing, it was thinking of it in a different way. It was thinking of it as trying to do a new movie and not just remake it.
In the New Yorker article from last year, you had talked about being very grateful for your success but not wanting to do purely goofy comedies. Was there any pressure to include that stuff in "Walter Mitty?"
No. I don't think so. Just because of the way Steve Conrad laid it out, what the tone was, and that's what got me excited. When I talked to Steve and the studio and talked about directing it, I put a little reel together with music and images that I wanted to use. Everybody was excited about doing a different kind of movie. And I give the studio credit for wanting to do that, although it took them a little while to get on board with actually going forward. But they knew from the beginning what it was going to be, but just sure that there was going to be humor in it.
Recently, you said that you had wasted a lot of time not directing. Is that going to be your focus now? And would you like to try any other genres? I know you produced an adaptation of Scott Smith's "The Ruins" -- would you like to do something scary?
Sure, yeah. I mean... I know Scott because I was one of a few directors who almost directed "A Simple Plan." He's an amazing writer, and we're still working on stuff right now together. He's a guy who will write a 1,000 page novel and show it to one person and scrap it. He's an amazing guy who has a very high bar. But I don't think I wasted time [not] directing. For me, I probably could have gotten more experience and better as a director, directing more movies. I do want to do that more in the future, with different genres and with things I'm not in.
Anything on "Zoolander 2"?
It's always a possibility. There's a script that Justin [Theroux] and I wrote that I feel has potential. It's just a matter of all the elements coming together. It could happen. I just want to make sure it all feels right. Because there's such a high expectation from people who love the movie.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" opens Christmas day.