Ben Stiller directs and stars in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (opening in Phils.), James Thurber's classic story of a day-dreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. When his job along with that of his co-worker (Kristen Wiig) are threatened, Walter takes action in the real world embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined.
In 1939, when James Thurber first published “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” he brought a playful, modernist style to the story that lured readers directly into the experience of Walter Mitty’s fantasy life. In Ben Stiller’s latest adaptation, he hoped to do something similar, using modern cinema to open the story up visually in a way that couldn’t have been imagined in Thurber’s day. He knew there were several ways to approach Mitty’s fantasizing. But there was only way he felt that was right for what he wanted audiences to feel: using a deftly crafted hyper-reality that merges Mitty’s inner stream of consciousness into the fabric of what’s going on in his outer world.
“Everybody can connect with the idea of talking to somebody while actually having this crazy, imaginary fantasy going on in your head of where you’d rather be in that moment,” he explains. “That’s what we wanted to capture.” Stiller thought intensively about how to achieve that. Creating Walter’s fantasies would certainly involve many moving parts, and a sense of spectacle, but Stiller used his effects judiciously, with an eye towards unbroken integration into the flow of the action. “In terms of visual effects, we wanted the overall approach to be very photo-real,” he says. “I’ve always found that the best results come from doing as much as you can practically in real-life situations and then just tickling that with the digital effects.”
Ultimately, Stiller would put together a visual design team including Oscar-nominated director of photography Stuart Dryburgh(“The Piano”), production designer Jeff Mann (“Tropic Thunder,” “Zoolander”), editor Greg Hayden (“Tropic Thunder,” “Zoolander”), costume designer Sarah Edwards (“Salt,” “Michael Clayton”) and visual effects supervisor Guillaume Rocheron (“Life of Pi”).
The constant yin and yang of dreams and reality in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” made for an extremely ambitious production – one which would take on the rigors of shooting in the middle of New York City then jet off to the other-worldly environs of Iceland, where cast and crew moved from volcanoes to helicopters to the middle of the frosty ocean.
Each location would host scenes that could not have been filmed elsewhere in the world. In New York, Stiller had the chance to shoot the epic chase between Walter and Ted in the live-wire dynamics of a typical crowded day in the city.
In Iceland, Stiller would shoot a scene that pushed him to new edges both as director and actor: when Walter jumps into the raging waves of the North Atlantic, which Stiller simulated with his own plunge into the ocean. “It was really important for me that we not do that scene in a tank,” he recalls. “I felt we had to shoot in real high seas, with a real boat there, a real helicopter and real waves,” he explains.
“That’s when Mitty literally dives into life,” muses John Goldwyn. “It’s the big transition moment of the movie, and it looks incredibly real, because most of it is.” The scene turned out, just as it does for Walter Mitty, to bring a bit more reality than even Stiller anticipated.
“We were about a mile out at sea with seven-foot swells -- which, when you’re in the water, are really big,” admits Stiller. “The boat with the camera in it went away to come back and do the shot, but there was this two-minute period where I was just in the North Sea with nobody around. I was in the ocean just by myself with a briefcase, floating there waiting for the camera to come back and was thinking, ‘I hope they can find me when they come back for the shot,’” he laughs. “There was a real sense of danger and it was one of those moments when I thought, ‘oh, this is what real filmmaking is all about.’”
Step out and live your dream. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opensin cinemas nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.