Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Constructing New/Old Hero

Screenwriter Steven Conrad was exhilirated by the challenge of taking on James Thurber’s literary hallmark from the POV of a very different generation. He says he wanted “to re-conceptualize the classic idea of Walter Mitty as a guy with all the kaleidoscopic colors of modern life.”

That’s what led him to place Walter Mitty at the crossroads of life–and Life Magazine. Conrad reimagined Mitty as a “Negative Assets Manager” at a modern incarnation of the magazine, a devoted worker who wishes he could live out all the astonishingly brave and bold moments he has seen parade past him in his from the confines of his office. He also envisioned Mitty as a man at the brink — a man who is being left behind as LIFE, once the ultimate visual chronicle of American culture, is being shifted from a magazine that inspired and informed into yet another corporate dot com.

The real LIFE Magazine went through several incarnations since its founding in 1883, reaching its heyday when it was turned into the nation’s preeminent photojournalism weekly by Henry Luce, and finally folding into in 2009. Conrad’s LIFE is fictionalized but very much based upon the breathtaking photographic legacy of the real thing.

“I liked the idea of Walter working at LIFE Magazine in the photo-negative room, because it makes him a sort of human repository for the most significant photographs that have been taken in the last 70 years,” explains Conrad. “He’s surrounded by images of the most essential moments of our times. In a sense, he has seen everything that’s out there, yet nobody really sees him. It seemed like a good place from which you could really root for Walter, because all of our jobs can begin to feel like that. You can feel lost in them, or like they don’t afford you the chance to really live.”

For Stiller, Mitty’s job at LIFE was a beautiful way of tapping into themes that feel very resonant right now. The backdrop is relevant I think to where we’re at in the world,” the director and actor comments. “Steve’s idea that the iconic LIFE Magazine is basically becoming an on-line photo archive is a great metaphor for the transition we’re all making from the analog world into the digital world and how it can make a guy like Walter, who has done his job meticulously for years, obsolete.”

He continues: “It’s really a transformative moment in Walter’s life, and yet he finds the courage to go out into the world rather than retreat.” Indeed, with LIFE under threat, this becomes the moment that Walter Mitty’s reality begins to overtake his fantasies.

In order for that transformation to work, Stiller believed that he would have to find a way to stitch together Mitty’s typical workaday world with his out-there daydreams–in the seamless way that it actually happens deep inside the human mind. As he developed the final screenplay with Conrad, this entwining of daily life and imaginary life became their biggest challenge. Just as James Thurber had spurred Mitty’s fantasies on with a single word or event, Stiller and Conrad architected their narrative around tangible connections between the actual and the fantastical.

“Ben felt it was vital that the movie not feel split between a real world and a daydream world,” Conrad explains. “So that meant we had to create all of Walter’s daydreams right in the stream of his daily life. We don’t go away into a fantasy realm and then come back. We stay right with him so that you get the chance to be part of his fantasies, to see what he gains from them and also what he loses in real life by having checked out. You see what he’s hungry for, what has eluded him and what he has the potential to do but hasn’t yet had the opportunity to do. Ben’s conception was that the daydreams should show you real facets of Mitty’s personality, not imaginary ones.”

In his dreams, Walter is powerful, decisive and follows his instincts wherever they might lead. In real life, however, he is nothing if not cautious, especially since he has felt a responsibility to take care of his family since his father died when he was just a teenager. That’s why Conrad had to find a very strong motivation for Mitty to throw that caution to the wind – by setting him on an obsessive, detective-like quest to uncover a lost negative, the negative that contains his favorite photographer’s chosen shot for the final historic cover of LIFE.
He also incorporated another inspiration for Mitty: LIFE Magazine’s famous motto, which encourages people to “see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to . . . to see and be amazed.”

“It’s a really cool motto because it essentially says it’s our business to go deeply into the world and to really see other people,” muses Conrad. “It’s a great directive to take personally, to say this might be what all we need to do sometimes.”

While Thurber’s Mitty was a henpecked husband whose fantasies carried him away from his marriage, and the first movie Mitty was unenthusiastically engaged to be married, Conrad took another route. His Mitty is a typical modern bachelor who starts out more likely to dream of romance – or play around at it on the internet — than to wholeheartedly go after it. But one thing the screenwriter never saw Mitty as was ineffectual. His dreams reflect not only his hopes, but also the inner strength he has yet to prove.

“It was really important to us that he not be passive or weak,” he says. “This Walter Mitty has a keen mind and constitution. He’s ready to go if events would just unfold and let him out. Our job was to take him to that place where he could release his soul.”

The screenwriter had faith that Stiller was the director who could do exactly that — while keeping audiences highly entertained. “I’ve always loved the way that Ben’s movies are so light on their feet in terms of making you feel good – but they are not at all light in terms of what they’re about,” Conrad comments. “He creates such a unique balance between the two that no one else could make Ben’s movies.”

Later, it was equally exciting for Conrad to see Stiller finally step into the role they worked on so closely for so long. “For two years, we did really rigorous work where Ben was primarily the director,” he notes. “Then suddenly, he was also Mitty. I knew he was going to be funny, but the remarkable scope of what he brought to the character was a real surprise.”