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Dream On

Ben Stiller, Matthias Vriens-McGrath

In his latest movie, Ben Stiller takes a fresh look at the world through the lens of a chronic daydreamer. Because sometimes reality bites.

Photos by Matthias Vriens-McGrath.

Ben Stiller has a new movie coming out, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and this one’s a real Ben Stiller Movie, meaning one he directed. And because there have been only four of those previously—Reality Bites (1994), The Cable Guy (1996), Zoolander (2001) and Tropic Thunder (2008)—it’s kind of a big deal. Sure, they’re a little spread out—he’s too busy being an international box-office superstar to be a full time auteur—but it’s a strong filmography. All four of them were either instant classics or The Cable Guy.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is adapted from James Thurber’s famous 1939 New Yorker short story and the 1947 Danny Kaye movie, both about a henpecked schmuck who spends every chance he can daydreaming. Stiller updates the original premise: His Mitty (played by Stiller) is a lonely guy with an eHarmony account who isn’t daydreaming to escape a domineering wife or fiancée, but the ignominy and anxiety of obsolescence that comes with a bureaucratic photo department position at a magazine in the dot-com era.

There’s a burdened everyman quality to Stiller’s version of the character, and this is a “coming-of-age story for a guy in his mid-40s,” as he puts it. It’s a theme he’s also flexed to huge moneymaking effect in gigantic blockbusters such as Night at the Museum and Meet the Parents—movies that have made him a hardworking star. But Mitty is of a piece with his other directorial efforts, and this is definitely a Ben Stiller joint.

If you’re anything like this writer—a mid-30s dude who grew up in the suburbs and wasn’t cool or old enough to recognize himself in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, but who was all too ready for his college reality to be preshaped by Reality Bites’ prefab hipsters—you get it. And if you were a Stiller fan even before that, since Stiller’s MTV days or 1992’s The Ben Stiller Show [the rebel sketch-parody show that Stiller coproduced with co-comic genius Judd Apatow, with a cast that included Andy Dick, Janeane Garafolo and Bob Odenkirk—a show that was so ahead of its postnarrative time that it was truly not ready for prime time, famously winning an Emmy nine months after its first season was cancelled], you really get it. Because my generation knows that when Ben Stiller is in the chair, he’s one of the most important directors of our time, a Terrence Malick in clown makeup. Wes Anderson has nothing on this dude.


Stiller, at least in the movies he directs, has always seemed obsessed with reality—specifically with how reality is shaped (or warped) by the stuff we watch when we’re on the couch. From Winona Ryder’s manipulated documentary filmmaker in Reality Bites to Jim Carrey’s twisted, cable-obsessed perceptions in The Cable Guy to the evil mind-control mechanisms delivered via fashion show in Zoolander, Stiller’s silver-screen worldview is fundamentally manic: it’s filled with an anxiety that we’re all being sold something too good to be true—when he’s not trying to sell you that very thing himself. In Tropic Thunder, each of the delusional actors filming the fictional Vietnam epic unrepentantly march into the heart of doofusness. And now there’s Stiller’s Mitty, his take on the famous story about a guy in danger of daydreaming his life away.

“So why are you so interested in this notion of reality? It seems like your entire career has been obsessed with this idea.”

“Wow,” Stiller says. “I never really analyzed it. That’s interesting you say that, because I’ve never thought about it that way.” He pauses.

Before talking to Stiller, I talked to members of his crew. Both of them mentioned movies that he screened for the cast—Being There, starring Peter Sellers, and some classic Albert Brooks movies. I ask Stiller if he screened Real Life, Brooks’ seminal 1979 satire of the first reality TV show, 1973’s An American Family. Real Life is famously prophetic, not only for making the point that being filmed all the time inspires pathology in normal people, but it messes with so-called professional entertainers, too.

“Wow, yeah, I didn’t screen Real Life this time, but for years that movie served as my comedy test for people,” he says “I usually screen it at least once a year. I screened it for the cast of Reality Bites back in 1994. I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever made. And it’s funny, because I’m actually working on a movie now with Noah Baumbach, where I’m playing a documentary filmmaker, and he had just screened it for the cast of that movie and we were laughing about some of the best moments. Like when Charles Grodin kills the horse. And Charles Grodin! I was literally just working with Charles Grodin yesterday with Noah. Charles is so great in that movie.”

        Tune in to our Stiller-inspired playlist, featuring the best tracks from his films.

It’s almost like I’ve got him on the couch now—maybe I’ve passed his test. “I think growing up around show business has a lot to do with this,” he says. Ben was raised by the comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, and in some ways he grew up on the sets of talk shows such as The Mike Douglas Show. He admits that this was weird at times, but he really loved it. “I was really very fortunate to have a really comfortable childhood growing up on the Upper West Side, yet I still loved watching television and going to the movies and going into those worlds,” he says. “Just loved it.”

In fact, appearing on talk shows and being that close to it didn’t dampen what he calls the “intoxicating effect” of fantasy—instead, he says, it was probably intensified: “[by] seeing actors who sometimes do disappear into that world, or enjoy that world more, or somehow live for that moment when they’re working or they’re onstage and everything else in life can revolve around that.” It wasn’t like the family lived in a bubble—“this was New York in the ’70s, which was a very real place”—but it was a “showbiz world,” and as a kid, he didn’t understand some of the drawbacks at first. “The high-pressure situations and successes and failures and all that stuff,” he says. “But you don’t get that reality until you live it yourself.” He understands now. “Tropic Thunder was weirdly personal for me,” he says, “because that world of acting and actors is something I’ve lived with my whole life.”

One of the striking things about Mitty is its retro style—it seems to gesture toward the Ed Sullivan-influenced milieu in which Stiller grew up. Mitty works at Life magazine, or a version of Life in which its offices are still fully functional within the Time Life Building in midtown Manhattan [Life decamped to the Internet as Life.com in 2009 and went out of business in 2012]. And Mitty is partial to the nerdy astronaut look of the late ’50s/early ’60s—he rocks crisp white, short-sleeved, collared shirts and always totes a briefcase. But somehow he’s not pulling some kind of horn-rimmed Mad Men peacock stunt—the whole movie seems to be a visual homage to a time when we all actually daydreamed. At one point, Mitty runs through a hall of heroes on his way to his first real adventure, past gigantic floor-to-ceiling Life covers of Buzz Aldrin, John Lennon, JFK and Marilyn Monroe. “I wanted his daydreaming to be part of who he is,” Stiller says. “And to see that it actually helps him get to the place where he needs to go.”

In a way, Stiller’s entire career has been Mitty-like in this way: His instinct is to mimic, to satire, sometimes at the expense of his own visual style. Maybe this is what keeps him from getting auteur cred (that and the fact that he made millions and millions of dollars on the wrong end of a zipper gag). But Stiller’s movies all seem to ask if the imagery we’re subjected to has been degraded, either intentionally or as a careless byproduct of technology.


Stiller is a bona fide photography aficionado with a huge private collection—his movies are peppered with allusions to the greatest examples of the art form. Life was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism, of course, and for Mitty, Stiller had access to a large portion of the Time Life archives. Mitty has an Elliot Erwitt photograph of a just-married couple and a third wheel above the couch in his apartment, and a photograph of a Southern family eating watermelon by Life superstar and pioneering female photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White on the wall behind his desk.

It’s hard to know if an audience is meant to catch all this stuff on its own or if it’s meant to work on us subliminally—or if we’re supposed to be aware that Stiller is attempting to work on us subliminally. Half of the movie is about daydreaming, and half of the movie is about a realistic pursuit of a famous photographer halfway around the world—Sean O’Connell, portrayed by Sean Penn as the most soulful selfie-taker of all time. Is the movie asking what type of self-realization is healthy?

I ask Stiller about his decision to shoot Mitty on 35mm film, and to avoid using digital magic whenever possible. Was this an attempt to cram as much reality into each frame? And I ask about the pacing of the story, if he’s challenging a contemporary audience’s attention span.

“Yes. The entire process of filmmaking used to be more involved and take a lot more time,” Stiller says. “I remember when I was a kid I would make super-8 films. You would shoot the film and then you had to send it to Kodak in Rochester and wait like three days for the film to come back. And that was part of the fun, too, waiting for your developed film to come back.” He says there used to be built-in time to think about things, not only on the set, but at each step in the entire process. Today, it seems to be so easy to edit and erase, to qualify or dismiss. Instantly. “We cut Reality Bites on film,” he recalls. “And it was probably one of the last times that people were cutting movies on film, and now cameras have gone pretty much all digital very quickly. And that does affect the process. Stephen Spielberg talks about cutting on film because he liked the idea of having the time to think about the cut that he was going to make, you know, before he actually made the cut.”

Now anybody can make a film and put it up on YouTube. And Stiller isn’t sure that’s necessarily a good thing.

I ask him if he ever daydreams. “No, not really,” he says. “When you’re making a movie like this, or any movie really, you’re so in the moment, you’re not really daydreaming. But I do try to take time to appreciate the experience of doing things you wouldn’t normally get to do.”

He remembers one moment on the set of Mitty: “This wasn’t really a daydream, but it was just kind of a moment of realization. I was in the water and we had to do a shot where the Zodiac boat is approaching me to pull me out of the water, and the only way we could get the shot was to put the camera in the boat, because it’s like a POV of the boat coming at me. We were a mile or half a mile out to sea in the ocean off Iceland, and the swells were pretty big, so they dropped me in the water and just drove away. It was just a funny, surreal moment. Cause I’m really in the ocean here by myself. I couldn’t see anything; the boat went far enough away that it was gone, the swells were at four feet. And I was like, This is crazy, this is actually . . . this is happening. I’m really in the ocean. If that boat doesn’t come back . . . I mean, I know they know I’m here but . . . . It’s like the funny crossover of reality and movies, where you do real things but somehow you think because you’re doing it for a movie that everything is OK. And, actually, the weird thing that you’re doing is as dangerous or weird as it would be if there was no camera there; you’re still really doing it.”

I think about what that moment must have meant to him—how rare it is nowadays to actually be in the moment. Do you need to direct and star in a $90 million movie to put your iPhone down for five minutes? Maybe it would work just being part of the audience. Isn’t that the point of entertainment in the first place, to hold still?

“It’s interesting, the world when you’re making a movie,” he says. “You know it’s ultimately all real—everything is real, the experience is real. Even if you’re pretending to be somebody, you’re still doing something in reality, and that is fascinating. I guess the irony of it is you’re looking for some sort of truth of reality in this nonreal situation. Good acting or good storytelling is finding the reality in something that’s been totally created.” //

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Frank Perno
This website is bad! Hard to navigate. How do I find anything in the current Nov. issue????? And this website extremely slow to respond!
11/27/2013 3:55:35 PM

Is the author interviewing Ben or bragging about the insightful nature of the author himself? The most arrogant article I have ever read.
12/14/2013 6:34:38 PM

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