Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Interview

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Interview
Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ (Photo by Wilson Webb © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
Of all the clips and trailers played at the 2013 CinemaCon in Las Vegas, it was 20th Century Fox’s presentation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that seemed to have taken the crowd by surprise. The film that wasn’t even on most people’s radar emerged as the one to watch out for, and after seeing the gorgeous footage – some of which was shot in Iceland – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has moved onto my top 10 list of 2013’s most-anticipated movies.

In addition to premiering footage from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Fox brought in director/actor Ben Stiller to discuss the movie which he’s been consumed with working on over the past two years. Joining Stiller at the event was one of his Walter Mitty co-stars, ex-SNL and Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig.

Kristen Wiig and Ben Stiller Interview

Ben, you said this is your most fulfilling film experience. What was so special about working on this?

Ben Stiller: “It’s just been such a full experience – and I wasn’t kidding; we are still working on it. It’s been a very long and complete experience, in terms of the development of the script with Steve and the story. I think it all starts with the material and the script that Steve wrote, and what he was aspiring to in the script. And so, I guess, to be in that territory, for me, it was a little scary because it’s new. Looking at a movie and looking at it as a director not necessarily just as a comedy and having a different criteria in how to connect with an audience and tell the story in a way that serves the story and allowed people to feel what you would hope they would feel. That whole process has been great and exciting, and then just working with the cast and the actors and how everybody, I think, felt working on the movie from the beginning. They all felt connected to what Steve had written and what we were trying to do, so that part of it. It’s had so many aspects to it: working on the visual effects, going to Iceland, doing a scene with a comedic genius person. But, seriously, it’s just a lot of different things and so that’s good.”

The film is very much about following your dreams and the meaning of life. Is there anything in your own lives that is unexplored?

Kristen Wiig: “Yeah, actually it was very inspiring for me to watch Ben directing and acting in this movie because I do hope to someday maybe direct something. And so I feel like that was kind of a free class for me to get to watch how it’s actually done.”

Ben Stiller: “Maybe you should go to a different school.”

Kristen Wiig: “I don’t know how he wore so many hats on this thing. And also it was a challenging movie to shoot with all the…you know, there’s special effects and CGI, and then he’s acting, and age make-up. It was a lot of stuff, and to watch him work and see how you do it while also being cool and nurturing and generous, I feel lucky to have watched that.”

Ben Stiller: “I’d love to travel more. I really look forward to traveling with my kids. I’m just waiting for them to want to travel with me.”

Kristen Wiig: “I want to travel with your kids, too. That’s my second fantasy.”

Ben Stiller: “No, you don’t. Believe me. No, going different places…I’d love to go to Asia. I’ve been to Japan, but I’ve never been to China. I’d love to go to China. I don’t know. I like to go places that are sort of remote, so I think I’d like to do that more, and just sort of also explore not having a structured work-life someday, to have more free time to just see what happens.”

This film does seem tonally completely different from Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. Was that something you really wanted to explore with this project?

Ben Stiller: “Yeah. I think that all came from Steve’s script, really. When Steve and I talked about it, it was trying to find this reality that felt real but also allowed for where the story goes, because I do think it’s a bit hyper-real. But I felt like it was important that there was a tone that people always felt that it could be happening. Honestly, I think any movie, the tone of the movie has to be consistent. That’s the key to the movie. Like in Zoolander it’s a really crazy world or Tropic Thunder, but you have to buy into that, just stay consistent with that. For this movie, I think it was a little bit different because the tone is a little more realistic, but not quite too. It’s intentionally a little bit stylized too.”

Could you talk a little bit about the theme of the original short story and how all of us want to be extraordinary and how everybody has dreams? How interested and inspired were you by the short story and the first film?

Ben Stiller: “The short story, I remember reading as a kid in school and it stuck with me. I remember there was a lot of things, like the phrases in it, I didn’t quite understand. I think it was the first time I ever read the phrase ‘coals to Newcastle’ and I didn’t know what it meant. It really stuck with me, but as I got older, the idea of the life that you lead being the one that you end up living, as opposed to what you imagine it being, and you get to a certain point in your life where you start going, ‘Oh, wait, I’ve lived a lot of my life, but I keep on thinking this is going to happen, or I dreamed about this happening and it didn’t quite happen yet, maybe.’ So that theme, I think, of being in your life and always thinking about what do I want it to be, and in doing that you sort of lose touch with the moment, was something that I thought in Steve’s script was really there – the ability to be in the present moment. Walter’s always thinking about what he wants to do or what he wants to be, but he’s not there in the moment.”

Kristen Wiig: “I think no matter what kind of life you have, whether it looks one way to people or another way, you always have moments where you imagine a different life.”

Was this one of these projects where everyone responded to the script and wanted to stick to what’s on the page? Could you talk about how the script changed with casting?

Ben Stiller: “When I got the script, first of all, it had a very Conradian tone; I really think he has his own tone. And I’d been, as I said, a fan of his from other movies and we’d actually worked on another movie together that hasn’t gotten made, developing it, so I knew him a little bit. And he’s a really flexible writer, and he likes to rewrite, and he likes to think of actors. I know when Kristen came aboard, he got very excited because it was a chance for him to imagine her voice and get more specific with who Cheryl was. He enjoys that process. For me and Steve, the year and whatever we spent working on the script before we went into the stages of pre-production, a lot of it was really just trying to hone in on that tone we were talking about.

In terms of the voice for Walter, I always felt like he had a very clear sense of what that was, and it was less about tailoring the voice and more about trying to get the story to a place where he has a lot of amazing images and moments that happen, and I think we both worked towards trying to make it a story that you, like I said before, could believe could happen because it goes to these amazing places. So, that was a lot of what the work was too.”

What was the approach with Sean Penn? His character seems realistic.

Ben Stiller: “Realistic, yes. I think it’s impossible for Sean to not be realistic.”

Was it difficult to find an equilibrium between reality and imagination in the movie?

Ben Stiller: “I think it’s really an editorial process more than anything – the balance of the fantasies to reality. In the writing of the script I think it was the idea, like I said before, of the tone and trying to keep it consistent and allowing for this world where you could buy that these things would happen and this guy would go off into the world and jump on a plane and meet these people. And there are movies that I remember, like Local Hero, that I remember having a great tone. It was comedic and kind of quirky, but also real and soulful, and I got inspired by movies like that or Being There. I think with Sean, it was really about making this character a real person, because he’s kind of mythic in the story; and when we do meet him and see him, and finally see him in the story, I wanted him to be a real person.

And Sean actually, himself, I think, really brought a lot of ideas for what Sean would say, Sean O’Connell in the movie would say, that were great and became part of the script. He also brought a lot of humor to it. Again, I think it’s a type of movie where I wanted the audience to be able to enjoy what was happening in the film on a level where they’re not feeling like now it’s serious, now it’s funny, it’s all okay. Sean, I think, brought that to it. You have to remember, Sean is a really funny actor. You know, he is Jeff Spicoli, which is one of the greatest comedic performances, I think, on film.”

The clips are gorgeous. What conversations did you have with your cinematographer and how was that partnership was formed?

Ben Stiller: “We had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted the movie to look like, and that just comes from, I think, talking and looking at pictures together and references and watching movies together. Then, when you get to Iceland, it’s such an incredibly beautiful place and the light is so amazing, that it is hard not to shoot stuff that looks good there.”

Kristen Wiig: “Yes, the movie is breathtaking. Wait until you see the whole, entire thing. There are shots that are really amazing.”

Ben Stiller: “I think a lot of that comes from also just the diligence of you’ve got to go out every day and keep on trying to get that moment. We were lucky enough to have this really great, small second unit of three guys. This great cinematographer named Erik Wilson who shot a movie called Submarine, a British movie, that I’d met because our company had executive-produced it a couple of years ago, and he’s incredibly talented. He was our second unit DP and every day him and Phil Neilson who is our second unit director, and Michael Lerman who’s an incredible AD who does big movies, but he was our second unit guy. Every day they would go out and we had a list of things we wanted to try to get. And then some days I would meet up with them for a shot at the end of the day or at the beginning of the day, and we would keep on going back and back until we felt like we had a good version of stuff and when we had this catalogue of a lot of stuff that we could use.

But then, honestly, we just got lucky. We got very lucky, because the weather in Iceland changes so quickly and there are scenes – you saw a couple of those little cuts – there’s a scene where he’s skateboarding down a mountain, and we had two days to shoot it because we could only be there those two days. The day before we were there, the whole mountain was just socked in and you couldn’t see anything, and then, miraculously, it opened up for us for two days. Things like that happened along the shoot.”

Kristen Wiig: “Yeah, it was kind of magical.”

Ben Stiller: “I saw Russell Crowe in Iceland before because they were shooting Noah there, and they were just leaving when we came. And he said to me, ‘You’ve got to dominate the weather.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, I will make sure to dominate the weather. Thanks Russell.’ But he was right, because basically you couldn’t wait around for the cloud to leave. You’ve just got to go and do it, and then it’s going to change and it’s going to be different, and somehow the weather respects you for going forward. So that was an amazing part of the adventure.”

Kristen Wiig: “Yeah, you got through that windstorm.”

Ben Stiller: “Well, the windstorm ended up being great. It helped us because we had to shut down for a couple of days and it was a point in the shoot where we all needed to shut down anyway and just take a second. And it gave us a chance to rehearse more. So all these things seemed to fall in and it was just an amazing experience being there. It was great.”

We saw the scene in which you jumped into the ocean with the shark…

Ben Stiller: [Laughing] “Yeah. That was just luck. What we did is we waited for the seas to come up…”

Kristen Wiig: “We waited for a shark.”

Ben Stiller: “We waited for a shark.”

Kristen Wiig: “We were so lucky. It went right into the cameras.”

Ben Stiller: “Icelandic sharks are incredible.”

Kristen Wiig: “You just put a piece of meat right over the [cameras].”

Ben Stiller: “Yeah. We waited for swells to come up because we needed a storm. Literally, the last two days of shooting the swells came up big enough for us to shoot the scene, so that we could jump in the water and get the trawler out there. And the light condition ended up being what it was, which was just, again, that Icelandic light, and we got lucky enough that it was consistent enough for a couple of days.”

Kristen Wiig: “But Ben was in the water fully doing all of that stuff.”

Ben Stiller: “We had the fake sharks. We’re still working on the fake sharks.”

Kristen, did you enjoy the fact that with this movie you could play different versions of your character?

Kristen Wiig: “Yeah, it was kind of like the best of both worlds because of the different fantasies that Walter goes into. He imagines different versions of me because I’m his love interest in the movie, and yeah, it was a good meeting of those worlds. In movies obviously you’re the same character, same wardrobe, same everything for months, where SNL‘s different every four minutes or something. So yeah, it was fun to do that.”

Ben Stiller: “Can I say something?”

Kristen Wiig: “Yeah.”

Ben Stiller: “I just think Kristen is, I wouldn’t say an underrated actress because I feel like people haven’t had a chance to see you in roles like this where she’s just so realistic and yet so funny. That’s a really not easy thing to do and to be, and I think what’s exciting for me about this movie is people seeing you in that way; and yet she also gets to be really Kristen-funny too. But I think that’s why she’s so successful as an actress, a comedic actress, is that people can feel like she’s a real person too. That’s just a crazy combination of things that not many people have.”

Ben, was there anything from the 1940’s version that you carried over into this film?

Ben Stiller: “There was not much because I really feel like that movie is wonderful on its own and Danny Kaye was so talented in such specific ways that I am not, that I didn’t want to really attempt that. And the thing I did learn, because John Goldwyn, our producer, his grandfather did that movie and we’ve had the same sort of experience of putting the film together where, as you try to figure out the balance of fantasy and reality, how that works and the fantasies that you shoot but then you end up not using, and how to tell the story and allow the story to move forward while still having enough time going to the fantasies but not going to the fantasies for too long so that the story doesn’t move forward, because the audience really wants the story to move forward, but yet, the movie is about the fantasy. Apparently they had those same issues when they were making their movie and we learned that’s been a constant thing with the Mitty story.”

Kristen, I wanted to ask if “Major Tom” was a favorite for you growing up. Are you a Bowie fan?

Kristen Wiig: “Yeah, a big David Bowie fan. It was a little intimidating to know that I had to sing that song. Ben described that scene to me very early on. We had that imagined a while ago and I was so excited. I took guitar lessons and recorded the song in New York. It was kind of a dream. I got to pretend I was a recording artist for a couple of days.”

Ben Stiller: “Yeah, that was exciting going to hear her record it in the studio because she’s a really good singer. Where was it, Electric Lady Studios?”

Kristen Wiig: “Yeah, we recorded at Electric Lady.”

Ben Stiller: “Yeah, so it’s a pretty famous studio.”

Ben, could you say what that Bowie song means for you?

Ben Stiller: “The Bowie song is just an amazing song and it has that emotion and it’s always had that. It was exciting to be able to use it in this context. I felt like it really just, you know the way it works in the story, the way Steve imagined that, we got to this point of figuring out this scene which was how the fantasy and reality sort of come together for Walter, and that was what that came out of. That song and it being mentioned and in his head, and then what he imagines and what he does, it all just seemed to come together well for that song. I loved that era, that Bowie era. ‘Changes’ has always been another favorite Bowie song of mine.”

Was seeing the Northern Lights as inspiring as we all imagine?

Kristen Wiig: “It’s beautiful, yes.”

Ben Stiller: “Incredible.”

Kristen Wiig: “We were at a restaurant and you couldn’t really see them, so then we all hiked up this crazy mountain to watch them.”

Ben Stiller: “It’s actually in that scene – you can see it in the scene with the pilot in the pub. There’s like a bluff outside behind the helicopter in one shot, and it’s that bluff. We all went out to that bluff in the middle of the night and it was incredible.”

You said you’re still working on the film. What’s still going on?

Ben Stiller: “Just the visual effects and editing, and like where you’re at in a movie at this point when it’s coming out at Christmas time. That’s actually been a great thing to have the time on a film like this to really figure out the best balance in the story.”

Kristen, could you talk about Ben as a director?

Kristen Wiig: “I had worked with Ben just a little bit when he had hosted SNL and we got along really well, and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. Seeing him be the director and then he’s in his costume, and then two seconds later he’s in front of the camera and totally and completely Walter and there for you as an actor. And again, I know I’m repeating myself, but just watching him do all of those different jobs so well, and so calmly and patiently, as an actor you never want to see the director freaking out about anything, so you felt very safe and taken care of. And also, he’s very organized and knows exactly what he wants, which is so great as an actor. Like you were saying, this has been a passion project – that term’s going to get thrown out there – for years and it’s so exciting to be part of a movie with someone who’s been…he’s had this movie in his brain and in his heart for years and years and years. So to be a part of that, you feel really lucky because he brought you into his little club.”

How difficult is it handling both acting and directing?

Ben Stiller: “It’s a lot of prep time and I was lucky enough on this movie to have a lot of prep time. We had time to work on all the stuff beforehand and then lucky enough to have great people who came on board, both in the crew and the production designer, cinematographer, costume designer, everybody; and then with the actors who came on and really got it and were really excited to be a part of it. Like Kristen will say like we’ll do a little rehearsal, but then she’ll go, ‘What if I said this? What if I said that?’ And it’s incredible and great and adds so much. So that process, all of it, when everybody’s there on the same page, that’s all you can ask for. And then it goes from there and it is what it is.”