Ben Stiller directed and stars in the latest film of James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Credit: Getty Images
Ben Stiller followed in the footsteps of his performer parents, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. But he almost didn’t. Over his career he’s directed five movies, including “Reality Bites,” “The Cable Guy,” “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder.” His latest, the long-in-the-works update of James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” stars him as a shy daydreamer. It’s also a sloppy kiss for analogue formats and print media, with Mitty as a photo archivist at the about-to-be-digitized Life Magazine.
You came onto this project after it had been in production for over a decade. What was your history with the Thurber story?
I knew the story from when I was in school, then I re-read it when I got the script, just to reacquaint myself with it. What struck me was the tone. It’s a very simple story and it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s just a guy running errands with his wife, and then he ends up imagining himself being shot by a firing squad. But it’s so well-written and he just hit on this iconic idea of a daydreamer and that we all have a lot more inside of us than people can see.
This is the fifth movie you directed, but each one is different. This is more serious than the others. What makes you want to direct something rather than just act in it?
I love movies and I love different genres of movies. It all comes down to what you personally connect with and get excited about and want to see. For me, there’s a different connection with each movie. With “The Cable Guy,” we were excited about the genre we were trying to satirize. For “Tropic Thunder,” it felt very personal in a lot of ways because it was relating to a lot of actor issues. It’s about being passionate about something you’re going to spend years of your life working on. Making a movie is like a marathon. The decisions and choices you make two years in are as important as the ones you make in the beginning.
Did you always want to be a director?
Yeah. I never wanted to be a comedian ever. [Laughs] It was never one of the things I thought about. I always wanted to be a director since I was 8 or 9 years old.
The entire movie revolves around a piece of celluloid film. Was it shot on film?
Yes. I had to shoot on film. Karmically, for the movie, it felt right. I love film. I haven’t directed in a few years [ed. since 2008's "Tropic Thunder"], but I have never shot digitally as a director. It seems like every time you sit down to shoot a movie digitally, it’s like, “Well, how can we make it look like film?” Why don’t you just shoot it on film? [Chuckles] The film processing is becoming harder to find. But I love the history of the movies, and I love the quality and the texture of film.
You seem to have started directing soon before film was replaced by digital.
I remember the first movie I directed, “Reality Bites,” we edited on film, because it was right when film editing was gong away. It was right on the cusp. I felt lucky to be able to edit on flatbeds and to go through that process, which was the process up to 20-some years ago. You looked at the film on the flatbed or Moviola, and you worked with a workprint that ends up getting cut up and taped, then marked up. You’d test the movie and you’d put up this dirty workprint, and you knew that you were in process. You felt like it wasn’t finished yet. Now everything right off the bat looks like it’s finished, which might fool people that it’s more finished than it is. The process takes time.
“Walter Mitty” also involves Life Magazine killing its print edition to go purely online. What’s your take on digital versus analogue?
I’m of a generation that lived both ends of it. I remember being a kid before this stuff. I remember getting a TRS-80 Radio Shack computer when I was 14. In terms of the options of social media and having so many different visual distractions and the way people take in information, I’m not against it at all. It’s just sad to me that we’re loosing those tangible reminders of things that happened. When we were researching the movie, we went to Life Magazine and started looking at old issues. When you look at an old Life Magazine, you’re looking at something from that year. You feel like you’re actually holding a piece of history. Because it was actually there. The fact that that’s not going to exist anymore is unfortunate.