The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Thurber’s 1939 sliver of a short story about a daydreamer trapped in a humdrum existence, had been adapted into film once before in 1947 as a musical, starring Danny Kaye as the eponymous hero who fantasized about all sorts of wild adventures.
But that film left plenty of room for re-interpretation, and a remake had been kicking around Hollywood since 1994, with everyone from Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mike Myers, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg circling the project over the years.
The problems were endless: Legal issues over copyrights, how to bring the story into a contemporary setting, what the tone and feel of the film should be. Several big-name screenwriters took a pass at the project, but no one could come up with a script that would satisfy filmmakers and studios.
Then Fort Lauderdale native Steve Conrad took a shot at the material — and cracked it. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which opens Christmas Day, doesn’t feel like one of those movies that’s been rendered flat and disjointed after countless rewrites and permutations. Instead, the film, which was directed by its star Ben Stiller, has a pure vision, a precise focus and a surprising, unconventional structure that’s unusual for big-budget Hollywood pictures.
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In the movie, Mitty works at the photo lab at Life magazine, which has just been bought by a corporation that plans to kill the print edition and go online only. But after he misplaces the negative the staff’s star photographer (Sean Penn) wants to use for the cover of the final issue, the milquetoast Mitty embarks on a globe-hopping adventure to find the elusive shutterbug, hoping he has another copy.
Although the first half-hour of Mitty is filled with phenomenal fantasy sequences depicting the protagonist’s daydreams as a hero (including a throwdown with smug corporate raider Adam Scott that is worthy of The Avengers), the movie gradually grows slower and more contemplative as Mitty gets back in touch with his inner, naturally adventurous self.
“That was one of the boldest things [screenwriter] Steve did in structuring the screenplay,” Stiller says. “During the course of prepping the movie, we talked a lot about how Walter becomes the version of himself he always imagined he is. In Hollywood movies these days, third acts have gotten insane. It’s impossible to top what’s being done. So we went in a different direction. It is a definitely a non-traditional third act for this kind of movie. Ultimately the movie is not about that stuff anyway. This a story about a guy who is trying to get up the nerve to ask a girl out. But first he has to go through a lot in terms of his personal development. I felt it was really important to make sure that was where the movie was always headed.”
In most other movies, “the girl” would be played by a pretty, quirky actress who exists only as an object of desire. But in Walter Mitty, Stiller cast Kristen Wiig as Cheryl, the secret object of his affection. With her in the film, the romantic interest becomes a fully-formed woman, a single mom who initially doesn’t even notice Mitty: He’s as invisible to her as he is to the rest of the world.
“Ben first brought it up to me when he was hosting Saturday Night Live, which is when we first met,” Wiig says. “I loved the script and met with Ben and talked about the tone of the movie and my character. I liked Cheryl because she was funny but complex and real. But I didn’t do the movie because she wasn’t a character I hadn’t played before. I did it because of how great the project was and because Ben is an incredible director. He’s also an actor, so he knows what we need to do our job on the set. He’s committed to making you feel comfortable and safe and free, but he also pays attention to all the small details.”
Conrad, who spent nine months collaborating with Stiller on the script before pre-production began, says he made a point of not watching the 1947 version because he wanted to approach the story from a fresh perspective. Like many of the other films he has written or directed ( The Weather Man, The Promotion, The Pursuit of Happyness), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty focuses on a major aspect of people’s lives many movies render to the background: Our jobs.
“I went through a period in my life when I was faced with the consequences of not being able to make a living,” Conrad says. “It was just a year for me — many people have much longer hard periods than I did — but during that time I was able to reflect on what real tension and conflict are like. You’re just trying to survive. The whole process made the act of storytelling personal for me, because I realized I didn’t always have to write about characters who were trying to win and achieve great triumphs. I felt like I didn’t have to reach too far for stories. That runs the risk of creating something so far divorced from people’s real lives, there’s nothing to relate to.”
Although The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a much broader, funnier picture, Stiller’s character bears a strong connection to the role he played in Noah Baumbach’s underrated 2010 drama Greenberg, about a man in his 40s trying to figure out what to do with his life.
“I totally agree with that,” Stiller says. “Obviously we’re working on a different tone, but I felt that Baumbach wrote this guy who was really just trying to get through life. That’s something you don’t see in movies a lot — a protagonist struggling simply to get through everyday ups and downs, how your ego accidentally gets hurt by something someone might say, how you’re trying to find your place in the world. These little mountains we all need to climb but you don’t see dramatized in movies.
“Walter is the same kind of guy. He’s not facing a life-or-death situation — he just likes to imagine them — but he’s trying to find his own sense of self and dignity. I always told Noah I thought of Greenberg as this warrior who was trying his best to make it through. Walter is like that too. Steve [Conrad] was very specific saying Walter is not a loser. He’s just never had the courage to take that leap and seize the opportunity to be who he is. But he’s not a dweeb. I think everyone can identify with that feeling of always wanting to be a slightly better version of yourself.”