Interview: Ben Stiller on His Directing Choices & Making 'Walter Mitty'
by Alex Billington
December 24, 2013
"The whole creative experience is much more fulfilling as a director." He's a world famous actor, a beloved comedian, a director, a writer, a producer. The latest movie from Ben Stiller is a contemporary take on James Thurber's short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Stiller as a humble photo editor who dreams of an exciting life with his crush. Joey Magidson fell in love with the film at the New York Film Festival; I wasn't the biggest fan myself, but it is enjoyable. Fox invited me to sit down for a 10 minute chat with Ben Stiller, and I chose to focus on asking him about being a filmmaker more than an actor/comedian.
Ben Stiller's directorial debut was the 1994 romantic comedy Reality Bites, which he also appeared in with Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. He later went on to direct the cult comedy The Cable Guy with Jim Carrey as well as Zoolander in 2001, one of his most beloved comedies. It was another 7 years before he directed another movie, 2008's action-comedy hit Tropic Thunder, and now he's back again directing/starring in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a project that had already been in development for over 10 years with numerous directors/writers/actors attached. Was Stiller worried at all about pulling it off this time? Find out below.
On the filmmaking side of your career, was there a point in your life where you really first thought, "I want to be a filmmaker" aside from performing and comedy?
Ben Stiller: For me, it was actually before, when I was like 10 years old [laughs]. For me, that was always the first thing. For a while I wanted to be a cinematographer when I was about 13 or 14. But I always knew I wanted to direct. And then when I was a teenager I started to explore acting, too. And then I started to get a little work in acting, but then didn't get work acting for a while. And I wanted to go to film school before that, didn't get into USC, went to UCLA. But you couldn't start film school till junior year there, so I quit before I got to my junior year. And I came back to New York and was trying to figure out how to go forward.
This was a time… I don't know if it was just me or also where the technology was, but it was obviously pre-YouTube and pre- really kind of high def, go make your own movie. If you wanted to make a little movie, you had to figure out a way to get a 16mm camera and do it. So in that time period, I was trying to get work as an actor, study, and going to acting class, but also then started making my own little short films, but also that I was in and doing sort of audition tapes for Saturday Night Live and things like that. But I was always making my own stuff. Even then, when I was sort of doing… I quit Saturday Night Live because I wanted to be, really, directing little shorts like Albert Brooks did on Saturday Night Live. That was kind of always the way I was looking at it.
So what happened was I was doing kind of both, and then I started this focus on The Ben Stiller Show, developing that for Fox, which took about two years after I did the version on MTV. But I was directing those, too. So I was always looking at myself as directing these things but happen to be in them also. And then Reality Bites came after The Ben Stiller Show, and I was directing and acting. But then, you know, some acting roles came up. So it just always balanced, but in my mind… I was always actually doing both.
Do you find it easier? Do you like having the ability to control the whole picture, in a sense? As opposed to just your performance?
Stiller: For me, the whole creative experience is much more fulfilling as a director. But it's not like I connected always to acting. It's not like I'm doing it so that I can control my performance or something like that. Usually, it happened to be a project that I was somehow involved in either writing, or developing, or that then comes up… Like Zoolander; or Reality Bites is a good example where Helen Childress had written the script. I had met her as a director on it. I wasn't asked to be an actor in it, and then we started to work on the script together and started to improvise scenes for this character, Michael, that I ended up playing. And it just happened that way. But I would have been happy just directing that movie.
And I always look at movies that way that I do both in. I always look at them as, would I be interested to just direct this movie, and would I be interested to just act in this movie, if I wasn't doing either?
Is it important to have both of those…?
Stiller: Yes. I feel like I have to be equally excited and passionate about it on both sides to do both. Because a lot of the time, even on Zoolander, I tried to find a different director first because I wasn't dying to do both at that time. On Tropic Thunder I tried to find somebody else to be the actor in it before, and then just ended up going, "Okay, I'll go for doing both."
Walter Mitty has been through a lot of hands in terms of development over the years. Was there a point you felt like you could really bring it together and not let it fall apart again? Or were you ever concerned? Were you more confident than the previous iterations?
Stiller: You know, I didn't feel really a connection with that… I was aware, I guess, that it had been around for a long time because I had been sent a script as an actor about eight or nine years ago, a different script. So when Steve Conrad's draft came to me, it was a very new thing. It felt like a totally different thing. I never really thought about the history of the people who had been connected with it, maybe just because I didn't want to think about it.
Stiller: But it wasn't like something was looming there, because I thought, you know: "This is its own thing." I didn't feel any responsibility in that way to the history of the project because 20th Century Fox seemed very excited about the prospect of making the movie. And it was really more about, like any movie that is not a low budget movie, is the process that you go through to get the movie to the point where you are making it. And I guess it could have fallen apart a lot of times. But I don't think I ever felt there was any more pressure or weight on it because of the history of it. The only real tangible thing I felt from that was the actual money attached to the budget from all of the previous money they had spent on scripts over the years, that had nothing to do with Steve Conrad's script. That was the only sort of burden that it had on it, that thing that was attached to it that was like a number. But that was it, really.
What was the hook that had you most excited about this version? What aspect did you want to make sure strayed true during the process and in the end shined through in the film?
Stiller: To me, it all comes back to Steve's draft.
What specifically about it…?
Stiller: He basically reinvented the story. He was willing to not think about… When I say the story, I say the story that they had been developing over the years. [James Thurber's] short story is its own thing. And I think he connected with the tone of the original short story. He didn't worry about the musical comedy that had been made with Danny Kaye because I think he very rightly so thought you can't really remake that. It's its own thing. I can't do that for me as an actor. But what he wrote was I just thought a really very real, emotional sort of exploration of a guy who's a daydreamer that went to a place where he actually got in touch with why he was daydreaming. That's, to me, felt interesting and relatable and modern.
And tonally, I felt like it didn't fall into one genre or another, which is, I think, sort of indicative of Steve [Conrad]'s writing. He'll write very real stuff. He has a really dark, cynical sense of humor, but he also can be really openhearted. He's interested in sort of the ordinary guy. A lot of his movies I think have that thread through them. You look at Pursuit of Happiness and The Weatherman, or even The Promotion, which he directed. He's just got this sensibility and finds the humor in and also, I think, the emotion in that sort of regular guy who doesn't really get any attention, that nobody really sees.
That was what I wanted to… that was my goal in making the movie, is to try to take that feeling that I felt reading a script and try to communicate that in the movie.
Of course. To wrap, first I need to say that I'm a big fan of Richard Ayoade's Submarine and I'm glad you produced that and helped bring that film to life.
Stiller: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I was happy to be a part of that in any way. Erik Wilson, who shot that movie, did all of our second unit photography on this one.
This film looks beautiful.
Stiller: Yea, he did great work.
Finally: what are the greatest challenges that you run into nowadays, whether it's producing an indie or whether it's making a movie like Walter Mitty, that you wish would work out easier? What are the big struggles with Hollywood nowadays?
Stiller: I think one of the biggest challenges is making films that don't fall into a specific genre. I think it's kinda gotten, in a way, movies have gotten sort of stratified or something where you're either this super small indie or you're this giant franchise. That's been happening over the years… I think the collapse of the DVD market definitely affected the economics of the choices that studios make. So it's always been hard to make movies. And I think it's probably as hard as its ever been in terms of making things that are not necessarily easily definable, and on all different size budgets.
Well, I hope we see more of those, so that success will allow for more films on both sides…
Stiller: No, exactly. It opens it up for different kinds of movies.
Stop Dreaming. Start Living. Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty arrives in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day, December 25th. Read Joey's glowing review and catch it in theaters with friends or family.