Ben Stiller on Hollywood’s Long Journey With ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’
“Are you Mitty? Is this wish fulfillment for you?” Roach recalls asking Stiller about the movie’s tale of a middle-aged dreamer who embarks on a life-changing, globe-trotting adventure that finds him skateboarding down a highway in Iceland and swimming with a shark in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
It’s a question the ambitious Stiller gets often, so that when Roach, the man who directed him in the first two “Meet the Parents” films, inquired, he didn’t bat an eyelash. “Yeah, of course,” Stiller replied. “I think that’s what made it relatable.”
It’s not that the multihyphenate, who’s also a producer on the pic, necessarily identifies with the character, but he understands the draw. Mitty wants to be “a better version of himself,” Stiller said on the morning of the pic’s AFI fest premiere. “A different version of himself.”
At 47, Stiller is searching for his own Holy Grail: to be taken more seriously as a director. He envisions a future in which he acts less and directs more. “I love acting, but what I love is the freedom you have as a director to tell all different kinds of stories,” Stiller says, “where as an actor, to a certain extent you’re just limited to who you are and what you get cast in. The process is less vulnerable when you’re directing, because you’re supposedly in control.”
It’s a job description that fits well with Stiller’s controlling nature. He has a reputation as a detailed perfectionist behind the camera. Many who’ve worked with him say he can be onerous and intimidating. Certainly, he can be exacting. “What Ben needs is time to think and make choices,” says John Goldwyn, who produced “Mitty” along with his father, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. “When he doesn’t have that, he gets frustrated, whether it’s casting, locations or the color of a wall in a scene. He would want four different versions of the wall. It never got nasty, but it did get uncomfortable.” Despite that, Goldwyn says he’d work with Stiller again “in a second.”
Stiller the actor vs. Stiller the director have long been two very different, and sometimes conflicting, versions of the same artist. The movies in which he’s starred have grossed $2.6 billion at the domestic box office, thanks in large part to mainstream family comedy franchises — 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” 2005’s “Madagascar” and 2006’s “Night at the Museum.” Combined, they have so far spawned seven sequels.
But as a director, Stiller is drawn to material that’s more subversive. Even his most audience-friendly film, 2008’s “Tropic Thunder,” a satire that took in $188 million globally, came from an old sketch idea about actors who are so serious about their craft that they made a war movie and returned home with pseudo post-traumatic stress syndrome. Two other instances of Stiller’s dark humor as a director — 1996’s “The Cable Guy,” starring Jim Carrey, and 2001’s “Zoolander” — were box office disappointments, though “Zoolander” subsequently found a cult following on DVD and cable.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” — the fifth movie Stiller has helmed, and the first in five years — might just be the vehicle that finally enables him to achieve the kind of status as a filmmaker he enjoys as one of Hollywood’s biggest comedy stars. But it’s also a big gamble. The $90 million special-effects-laden dramedy is a marketing challenge that has made executives at 20th Century Fox jittery.