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“I’m not gonna be playing Lincoln in Lincoln 2,” the actor-director Ben Stiller told me self-deprecatingly during a Q&A that followed a screening of his latest film, the $90 million dramedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a few days ago at the inaugural AARP Movies for Grownups Film Festival in Los Angeles. “But as a director I feel much more freedom,” he continued, adding, “There are just so many different kinds of movies that I can make that aren’t limited by who I am as an actor.”
VIDEO: Ben Stiller Mulls Giving Up Acting for Full-Time Directing After ‘Walter Mitty’
After three years of work on Walter Mitty, which he describes as “an incredible experience” and “a gift,” Stiller now contemplates a different future for himself in the film industry. “I definitely could see myself just directing, for sure,” he said. “In fact, I feel like that’s sort of what will end up happening as the roles dry up,” he added with a laugh. “That’s where I’d love to end up.”
Stiller’s directorial skills have evolved over the past 20 years through five very different films — Reality Bites (1994), The Cable Guy (1996), Zoolander (2001), Tropic Thunder (2008) and now Walter Mitty — all of which the Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen from Dec. 6-8 as part of “Ben Stiller Directs,” a retrospective of his work as a director. That high honor follows the famously elitist group’s decision to host the world premiere of Walter Mitty as the centerpiece film at October’s New York Film Festival. It’s quite a pair of compliments for a man whom most members of the general public know as an actor in comedy blockbusters like There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Meet the Parents (2000).
In Walter Mitty, Stiller portrays a good-hearted but sad-sack loner who has known sadness, sacrificed for others and toiled all but invisibly for 16 years in the photo processing department at waning Life magazine. A perpetual daydreamer prone to awkwardness, he develops a crush on a co-worker (Kristen Wiig), but before he can muster the courage to do anything about it, he loses a photo from a famous photographer (Sean Penn), prompting his new boss (a heavily bearded Adam Scott) to announce that he will lose his job if he doesn’t find it. In order to track it down, Walter Mitty must finally go out and experience the world.
The same general story, under the same exact title, has previously been told in several incarnations. It first popped up in 1939 as a James Thurber short story in The New Yorker, which was then adapted into a 1947 musical-comedy film starring Danny Kaye. Stiller was already familiar with both when he first read the script of a proposed non-singing film version that was penned by Steve Conrad, a friend with whom he had once tried to get another project off the ground. “It moved me,” Stiller told me of Conrad’s take on the story — especially the way he ended it. “I felt something,” Stiller said.
STORY: Roundtable: 6 Top Directors on Fighting With Studios, Firing Actors and Quitting Film School
After nine months of finessing the script with Conrad and trying to convince 20th Century Fox to finance the project — which would not be inexpensive, thanks to several big CGI sequences and location shooting in Iceland and other far-flung locations — Stiller finally got his greenlight and began assembling his dream cast. Wiig, Penn, Scott and Shirley MacLaine, who cameos as Mitty’s mother, were all his first choices for their respective parts. Patton Oswalt, whose voice plays a key part in the film, has been a pal for 20 years. Others who were cast from as far as Iceland became dear friends, as well.
The key to Walter Mitty, Stiller realized, was to keep a film that required big, fantastical moments of action-adventure in order to illustrate Mitty’s vivid imagination grounded in a character study. The extent to which he accomplished that goal will be judged by critics and viewers. But the experience that Stiller had while trying to make that happen, both as a director and actor, is his alone, and is one that he says he will always treasure.
Going forward, though, he is categorically less interested in remaining a multi-hyphenate. “On Mitty, there weren’t a lot of days when I wasn’t acting and directing,” he says. “But on Tropic Thunder the days when I wasn’t acting were my favorite days, because I got to just be there and stand behind the monitor and work with the actors.” If audiences turn out for Walter Mitty, as he hopes they will, he will get many more opportunities to do so in the future.
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