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Ben Stiller ‘got a lot of help’ directing and starring in ‘Walter Mitty’

3-9-07 Staff mug shot Bill Zwecker. phoby Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

3-9-07 Staff mug shot of Bill Zwecker. photo by Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

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NEW YORK — To call “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” a true passion of Ben Stiller is an understatement. The actor and filmmaker not only stars in the film, based on James Thurber’s VERY short story (a mere 2½ pages), but he also co-produced and directed the picture (opening Christmas Day).

During a recent interview, Stiller talked about why his new “Mitty” is not a remake of the classic musical from 1947 and why he’s happy to boost the importance of daydreaming — showcasing it to a whole new generation of moviegoers.

Q. Though the title is the same, is it safe to say your “Walter Mitty” won’t be confused with the 1947 version with Danny Kaye?

A. It’s a different film. It’s a different world. It’s a different genre. Also, that 1947 version was done so well. It’s a classic musical comedy, and it’s very hard to re-create that, especially in this day and age. What I was excited about was exploring something that was maybe a little more about the tone of the original short story, and telling a story that felt a little more emotionally relevant to me now — and where our society is now. That’s why the themes of corporate downsizing and use of social media were important to include, to focus on how we communicate today.

Q. Some might say, you have made daydreaming sexy! Was it fun to delve into that and explore how daydreaming is connected to creativity?

A. You know, a lot of times in life you’re stuck in tough situations — not sexy situations, real-life situations that are real hard. Daydreaming is almost a way to find a release and escape from that, from the heaviness of reality. And that not always is a bad thing.

That’s true, even for Walter, who daydreams too much. But it ends up being an important part of him, something that he still has to own.

Q. A lot of actors direct films, but usually when they do it, they are only in a few scenes. You are in every scene in this movie. That had to be an enormous challenge.

A. It’s one of those things where you just try to figure out a way through it, and I got a lot of help from many people. Also, to do this, you spend a lot of time preparing for the day of shooting, because on the actual day of shooting you want to focus on your acting and the other actors, too.

Q. You really do a lot of skateboarding in the film. Obviously, that was important to you to include?

A. I love that part of the movie. When I read in the script this idea of going down this mountain in Iceland, I felt however much we could do for real as possible, we should do it.

Q. Speaking of stunts, is it true you actually jumped out of that helicopter directly into the cold North Sea?

A. When we first were trying to figure out how to shoot that, I found out they don’t have any tanks [usually used for water shots in movies] in Iceland, so you’ve got to go into the real ocean! Plus we timed it around the times of year when we’d get the heaviest seas. It was a little chaotic and very exciting.

Q. What was it like having Shirley MacLaine play your mom?

A. It was great working with her. I’m a huge fan for many years. She stars in many of my most favorite films. She just has this spirituality and sense of humor and effervescence that is so unique. I felt for the movie her energy would be really great.

Q. And fair to say, you were probably in one of Shirley’s previous lives?

A. Very possibly. Also, she’s on three Life [magazine] covers. And since my Walter Mitty works as the film negative assets manager of Life as it’s transitioning from print to only digital, we did a lot of research on Life. I thought it would have been fun to put one of Shirley’s Life covers in a background shot where we used blowups of Life covers on the walls of the magazine’s offices. But, unfortunately, that didn’t work out.



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