Secret Life of Walter Mitty–by Ben Stiller

No one really knows the power of the private dreams inside our heads–until they inspire our reality. That’s what happens in Ben Stiller’s contemporary rethink of one of the most influential fantasy stories of all time – indeed the quintessential tale about the irresistible allure of fantasizing: James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Stiller has taken that two-and-a-half page 1939 classic and opened it up into a 21th Century comic epic about a man who finds that his real life is about to blow his wildly over-active imagination out of the water.

This Walter Mitty (Stiller) is a modern day-dreamer, an ordinary magazine photo editor who takes a regular mental vacation from his ho-hum 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.

For Stiller, the story offered a rare chance to look at a touchstone American tale afresh, from new times. Way back in high school, he first encountered Thurber’s story – a story that almost as soon as it had been published in The New Yorker began making an impact that belied its ultra-brief length. It inspired a beloved 1940s screen comedy, numerous theatre works, and sealed the phrase “he’s a Walter Mitty” into the popular lexicon, referring to anyone who throws more energy into diverting daydreams than into real life.

Stiller saw a chance to take Thurber’s endlessly escapist character into the full-scale complexity of our social networking, down-sizing, re-tooling times – and to push his story further, comically, dramatically and cinematically, bringing the full visual spectacle of modern filmmaking to the mix.

“What I love about this story is that it can’t be categorized,” Stiller says. “It has comedy, it has drama, it’s an adventure story, it’s real and it’s fantastically hyper-real. Yet at the heart of it all is a character who I think everyone can connect to – someone who appears to be just going through the motions of modern life but is living a whole different life inside his head. To me, he embodies all those things we imagine about ourselves and the world but that we never say.”

Very Modern Mitty

The exuberant hilarity and bittersweet poignancy of people chasing crazy dreams has always underscored Ben Stiller’s comedic storytelling approach. As an actor, he has become one of the world’s biggest comic stars with a chain of Everyman characters facing outrageous circumstances – whether a man trying to impress his terrifying in-laws in the Meet The Parents series, a lonely museum night watchman who can’t believe his eyes in the Night At The Museum romps, or a guy who gets a second chance with his high school dream date in the boundary-pushing comedy There’s Something About Mary.

As a director, he has garnered critical acclaimed for his own brand of sharp yet sweet comedy, including his affectionate send-up of the fashion world in Zoolander and his triumphant satire of action movie madness and camaraderie in Tropic Thunder. But The Secret Threat of Walter Mitty took Stiller to places he has never been before, both in front of and behind the camera. It is at once his most visually adventurous epic and his most stirringly human tale.
The film winks back at the great American humorist Thurber’s timeless fable about a mild-mannered man’s need to turn his failures into something far more astonishing in his head. But Stiller’s Mitty is very much a man of our times. Like so many of us, he feels hemmed in by an increasingly depersonalized, electronic world that is rapidly changing everything – one that is making his very way of life obsolete. His only out is a madcap barrage of reveries that keep him a constant hero battling for a better, fairer world. It’s his own private realm he shares with no one . . . that is, until his search for a famous photographer’s (Sean Penn) missing negative gives him an unexpected chance to connect with another.

It was the tug-of-war between Mitty’s shaky, uncertain reality and the beautiful impulses behind his eye-popping dreams that first drew Stiller to Steven Conrad’s adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He’d seen other attempts at re-visiting the story, but none had hit home.
“Steve’s script wasn’t trying to revisit the 1940s Danny Kaye classic, which was so wonderfully unique to its time. He found a different way of telling the story, one that was smart and compelling but that created a modern context for this character that audiences can relate to,” says Stiller. “I loved that the script honored the idea of an ordinary guy as hero in a way that’s lyrical, soulful and funny. Steve said to me, ‘inside the breast of every American man beats the heart of a hero’ — and I wanted the film to have that kind of respect for all the things ordinary people go through and how challenging life is for all of us whether you’re a guy that nobody pays attention to or you’re the President of the United States. Walter’s journey celebrates the potential that everybody has.”