Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Remaking Goldwyn-Danny Kaye Classic

The meshing of material, director and actor was especially vital to the film’s producers: John Goldwyn and Samuel Goldwyn Jr., respectively the grandson and son of Samuel Goldwyn, who produced the 1947 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty directed by Norman Z. McLeod. Stuart Cornfeld, who has collaborated with Stiller on many of his films including Zoolander and Tropic Thunder, is also behind the scenes.

For the Goldwyns, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has always been a part of their family history. “My grandfather was, in every sense a true pioneer of the motion picture industry, part of a group of people who wanted to tell stories in a different way, to show us a view of life in a way that no painting, no novel, no play could ever do. And since Walter Mitty was a very big success for him, we wanted to be part of something that could live up to that,” John Goldwyn explains. “In 1947, they engineered a movie story that really lifted off from the original source material into something very different and we wanted to follow in those footsteps.”

Adds Samuel Goldwyn, Jr: “We saw a chance to do something new and creative with a story that continues to reverberate in the world, and that was worth fighting for. I’ve always believed that great movies begin with great writing – and Thurber’s story is so rich you could take his character and ideas in many different directions. The 1947 film spoke to that time, and we were determined to find a script and an approach that would speak equally to ours.”

It would take many years and a quixotic quest to wrangle the rights and develop the film through myriad incarnations. Things began to change, however, when John Goldwyn met with screenwriter Steven Conrad, known for such deftly crafted scripts as Will Smith’s The Pursuit Of Happyness and Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man.

Goldwyn recalls: “Steve said, ‘I want to make a movie about a man who to the world is completely undistinguished, yet who constantly dreams of a better life – and who learns that the only way that he will ever become the man that he knows he can be, is to get out of his head and step into life. He realizes a life discovered is better than a life imagined.’ And I said, ‘You have the job. This is exactly what we needed to hear.’”

When Conrad’s first draft came in, Goldwyn sensed right away that it was not going to be your everyday high-concept comedy. “It was very unique. It is not like anything we’d ever had before. It bore no similarity, really, to the first movie other than the idea that it was about a daydreamer. It was so original, there was really nothing compare it to. And everybody was very excited about that.”

That excitement gave way to a long and winding road to finding the right director. Somewhere in that journey, Ben Stiller came in, originally to talk about taking the role of Mitty. Yet it was clear from the get-go that he had a passion for the material that went straight to its very heart.

“Ben had prepared a set of notes that I read before I came into the meeting,” Goldwyn remembers. “And the notes were, without a doubt, the best précis I’d ever seen of what a movie could be. In my life. The specificity, the eloquence, the care with which they were written, the clarity of the thinking about what the script could become – it was an astonishing document. I saw in his notes a movie that would be very, very distinctive.”

Goldwyn, who was President of Paramount Pictures during production of Zoolander, where he first forged a relationship with Stiller, went to bat for him as director, despite the logistical concerns around one man taking on the two enormous jobs of directing and starring in a film of grand ambitions. The one thing no one could deny was Stiller’s obvious and intense passion for the project.

“Ben had a real vision for this movie,” says Stuart Cornfeld. “It’s a story where I think he knew he could have a lot of fun but he also saw a real beauty and a power to it. He wanted the audience to go on a journey with Walter Mitty as he begins to engage with life and realize it is amazing, worthwhile and magical in its own way.”

Stiller was gratified to have the Goldwyns on his side. “They have such a connection with the history of the project, such amazing taste and also a lot of experience with the entire process,” he comments. “This movie didn’t fit into any single genre and we kenw it was going to take a lot faith for the studio to take that chance. I give the Goldwyns full credit for gaining that trust because they really believed in it. They’ve been great partners, gave me a lot of support and they were instrumental in making it all happen.”

Of Cornfeld, Stiller says: “Stuart and I have been working together for many years and we’ve been through the fire together. We’ve done a lot of movies together, so there’s real shorthand there and we just trust each other creatively. I’ve never really met anybody who’s better at working on a script than Stuart – he is always asking questions and pushing it to be better, better and better. And when you’re doing a movie like this, and you are sort of going out there a little bit, that kind of relationship is really invaluable.”

Cornfeld was especially excited to see Stiller have the chance to simultaneously stretch himself as an actor and as a director taking on a world of unbridled visual imagination. “Ben brought a very sophisticated eye to this,” Cornfeld concludes. “In the look of the film and his performance, he has created something strikingly vibrant – an experience that is full of fantasy but is a celebration of real life.”