When Ben Stiller ran into Russell Crowe on the Tarmac at Reykjavik airport, the Gladiator star had five words for him: “You gotta dominate the weather.”
Stiller was the latest in a succession of big names to have descended on Iceland — Tom Cruise had recently been in town with Oblivion and Crowe was just leaving, with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah in the can. In fact, those previous projects had seen Stiller’s initial shooting slot postponed by a few months, the country’s limited crews already stretched to breaking point by this A-list invasion.
But if the schedule was tight and the weather borderline suicidal, Stiller remained unfazed. “People talk about location issues, but I’ve shot movies in New York,” laughs the 47-year-old. “You’ll be trying to do a quiet, intimate scene on Sixth Avenue and all you’ll get is people driving by, shouting, ‘Hey, Focker!’”
That may sound funny, but perception is a serious business. Try, for instance, making an important point on Twitter when you’re the only star in Hollywood with three billion-dollar franchises (the Night At The Museums, Madagascars and Fockers of above) and you will find yourself getting short shrift. “I’ll try to alert people to some genuine injustice in the world that I think they should be aware of,” says Stiller with a wry shrug, “and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, yeah… just be funny!’”
The comedy label is one that Ben Stiller never particularly set out to court. But, given his movies in the genre have grossed $5 billion, it’s not one the studios are particularly keen he sheds, either. Ever since There’s Something About Mary sent him stratospheric, though, he has had a plan in motion, a dream of making movies of every size and every genre, and not necessarily any more where he jizzes in someone’s hair. “I’ve always wanted to direct different kinds of movies,” he says. “I just haven’t really done it.”
With The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, it is fair to say that Stiller has achieved his dream and then some. Mitty is his adaptation of the short story by James Thurber, famously turned into the 1947 musical starring Danny Kaye. For the uninitiated, our hero is a downtrodden magazine worker (no comment), who escapes the pain of his daily grind (no comment) with vivid fantasies (hello, Kelly Brook!) but not of that kind (with sincere apologies to Kelly Brook).
In Stiller’s incarnation, these fantasies posit him as everything from a Bourne-like action hero to a sexy mountaineer to a Benjamin Button-style Mini-Me. It is, in essence, around ten movies in one. “What I learned as I was editing the movie is that people love the fantasy sequences but they also get invested in the real-life aspects of the movie too. They want to enjoy the fantasies, and for them to be fun and funny, but there’s also this natural desire for the story to go forward. A little goes a long way.”
Stiller was actually asked to star in a new adaptation of Mitty back in 2005. He was right to wait. His new iteration makes smart changes to the source. Where Kaye’s saw Mitty fantasising about escaping a henpecking wife, this script, by Steve Conrad, sees him do so in pursuit of the object of his affection, played by Kristen Wiig. “This version is more different than similar to the original,” says Stiller. “That’s what appealed. The 2005 version was just an updated version that wasn’t a musical. All it was ever going to be was ‘not as good as the original’. We were aiming for something indefinable, a movie that left you with a feeling at the end. I’ve never made a movie like that, and it’s a really hard target to hit. It’s hard to put into words.”
Hard to put into words? Here are two for you right now: fucking magical.
Last month we were lucky enough to see 13 minutes at a cinema exhibitors’ presentation in Barcelona. The footage was an extended sequence involving a fantasy Wiig singing a stunning a cappella version of David Bowie’s Major Tom, inspiring Stiller’s Mitty to jump in a helicopter and then back out of it and into the ocean, for a close encounter with a great white shark. The shark was stunningly realised, but it was the marriage of movie and music that really moved.
Fox chief Jim Gianopulos has drawn parallels between Stiller’s movie and Life Of Pi. Stiller claims he pitched it to Gianopulos more as a “sort of” Forrest Gump. From what we saw, we’d also put forward a touch of The Apartment (for its bittersweet tone as much as for having Shirley MacLaine in it) and It’s A Wonderful Life. It really does look that good.
For all his success as a director — Zoolander and Tropic Thunder especially — Stiller has battled a reputation for drifting over budget (the latter’s “You’re three weeks behind and you’ve been shooting for five days” is an in-joke at his own expense) and an industry that likes to keep people in their boxes. But, on this evidence, this could be the movie that will put all of that behind him for good. His fantasy may be close to becoming a reality.
“It’s not like I’m trying to prove anything, or force something down people’s throats,” he says. “I’m just trying to do different things, to make the kind of movie I’m interested in making. The kind of movie I’d like to go and see.”
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty is out on December 26.