“A commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming” describes what? Your average video game player?
Actually, that is Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition for Walter Mitty.
Walter Mitty is a James Thurber creation from a short story first published in The New Yorker in 1939. Mitty was played by Danny Kaye in a 1947 musical-comedy movie.
Now Ben Stiller is bringing him into the 21st century in a big-screen adventure-comedy.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which opens Christmas Day, is the fifth movie Stiller – who also stars – has directed, and the first he has directed in five years. So what was it that made the writer-director want to take the plunge – literally, into the Atlantic Ocean off Iceland – to make this film?
“I feel like we all have so many diversions,” says Stiller, 48. “We look at screens a lot of our life, for sure. That has just become part of our daily life. I see it with my kids and in myself.
“Pulling yourself away from a virtual experience to actually do something real I find challenging all the time.”
Stiller took that challenge in “Mitty,” which has been on his radar for about eight years. But it wasn't until screenwriter Steve Conrad wrote a version for him that it connected “in a way that was relevant and different than it was done before.”
In the movie, Stiller's Walter is a photo editor at Life magazine as its print version is dying. He is too shy to talk to his office crush, Cheryl, played by Kristen Wiig, and his co-workers make fun of him when he zones out.
But when a photo negative for Life's final cover shot by a famous photographer, played by Sean Penn, goes missing, Mitty sets out on a worldwide quest to find it. The journey sends him to the rugged places where the photojournalist shoots, and along the way Walter finds the daring person inside him he had long suppressed.
“It could have been a silly comedy, but it never was that,” Stiller says. “I like the idea that this movie wasn't one genre or another. There were a lot of different tones throughout and the cohesion comes through this character.
“What was fun and challenging about it was seeing how far we could go with the humor but still keep it grounded.”
Not completely grounded, however. In one scene, Walter is in Iceland and has to decide whether to get on a helicopter with a slightly inebriated pilot he met in a bar. Stiller says he and Conrad were looking for a way for a daydream to propel Mitty into reality when “We came up with this idea of Walter having this fantasy of Cheryl coming out on a karaoke stage.”
As Walter deliberates the dangers, Cheryl suddenly steps out with an acoustic guitar and sings David Bowie's song “Space Oddity,” about having the courage to go into the unknown, which allows him to literally take a leap of faith. The scene combines humor, which Stiller has always been known for, and the actor-writer's evolution as a director.
“It was important for me to take Walter as much as possible out into the real world and have those real experiences,” says Stiller, the son of the famed comedy duo Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
Stiller's aim was to make the experiences in the movie seem as visceral as possible. That included having Mitty skateboarding down a mountain, and while that isn't Stiller in the wide shots of him hurling down the peak, it was him on the closer shots.
“I had a safety rig on,” he notes.
And that plunge into the ocean?
“It was cold,” he says about being in the Atlantic off Iceland in late September.
“I was wearing a dry suit, which keeps you dry except your hands and your head, and once they get wet you really are cold. That was fun to do because it was sort of crazy, and for me it was the energy that I wanted to get for the movie.”
Even casting Wiig as Cheryl was a way to make the film more genuine.
“She's a very real actor,” Stiller says. “Her sense of humor, to me, is one of the things that makes her really attractive.”
The director felt it was important for audiences to invest in Wiig.
“Right off the bat, you see why Walter would like to get to know her because she seems cool and funny and cute. And I think Kristen is a unique actress who has those qualities.”
The other key role in the film was having Penn as the committed photojournalist who provides a manly inspiration for Walter.
“I've known Sean over the years and I've been with him down in Haiti and seen him in action in those real situations,” Stiller says. “He's a real guy who cares about stuff like that.
“I felt it was important that the integrity he has as a person was something the character had. I wanted an actor who really had those real-life experiences – that he is kind of a maverick and does what he feels is right.”
Stiller, who made Super 8 movies as a kid, would like to do more directing and less acting in the future.
“Still acting, but not directing at the same time,” he says.
Recently, he shot Noah Baumbach's “While We're Young,” with Naomi Watts and Amanda Seyfried, about an uptight documentary filmmaker and his wife who befriend a free-spirited younger couple. Later this year, he'll be filming “Night at the Museum 3.”
That's one of three massively successful franchises Stiller has been part of. The others are “Meet the Parents” and “Madagascar.” (Another sequel for the latter is slated for next year.)
He says as far as directing projects are concerned, “They take time to develop,” but adds, “Hopefully in the future, there will be less time between films and focusing more on directing.”
He's also focusing on his family. When Stiller was recently honored with a hand and footprint ceremony at Hollywood's TCL Chinese Theatre, Stiller – who has been married for 13 years to actress Christine Taylor and has two children, an 11-year-old daughter and an8-year-old son – alluded to how busy he's been directing “Mitty.”
“The last two years, I feel like we figured out a really more successful balance in our lives as a family,” he says. “We do it together as a family, and I feel really good about that.”