Imagine all the things you wish you had done, but didn’t.
Now imagine doing them.
That is the plot of Ben Stiller's new movie, 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', a playful comedy-drama that is part-fantasy, part-reality.
‘Walter Mitty’ is out in cinemas in Singapore on 25 December.
In it, Stiller re-imagines the iconic character from James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name in The New Yorker magazine.
Often described as one of literature’s greatest dreamers, ‘Walter Mitty’ is Thurber’s most well-known and beloved stories.
Its famous protagonist holds a place in the cultural lexicon, meriting his own entry in English-language dictionaries as “a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes “Walter Mitty” as a person with self-aggrandising fantasies.
Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig at the Sydney premiere of 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'
A MITTY FOR THE 21st CENTURY
The Walter Mitty-ish thing to do is be faithful to the rather scant 2,086-word source material and hope for the best.
Not for director and actor Stiller, ditches a straight adaptation to fashion a story for the 21st-century audience.
His Walter Mitty is a reserved, middle-aged photo archivist at the dwindling Life magazine, which is transitioning into the digital age. He is not the eccentric henpecked husband of Thurber’s creation.
Stiller told inSing in an interview during the film’s premiere in Sydney: “James Thurber was a great writer and he was able to create a character that ended up being this iconic character that everybody can understand.
“I like the idea of the regular guy that has a lot of potential and trying to connect with himself to become a better version – that is something that I can relate to.”
AN AMBITIOUS VENTURE
Arguably one of the world’s most prolific comedy movie actors, Stiller has tickled our funny bone in movies such as ‘There’s Something About Mary’, ‘DodgeBall’, ‘The Cable Guy’, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, Night at the Museum’ (and its sequel), ‘Madagascar’ (and its sequels), and ‘Meet the Parents’ (and its sequels).
inSing chats with Ben Stiller & Kristen Wiig
From the constant paranoia of Chas Tenenbaum, always watching out for his sons, to the desperation of Greg Fokker, most of Stiller’s onscreen characters have a burdened everyman quality that connects with his audience, the “we’ve been there, too” moments.
And ‘Walter Mitty’ is no different.
The actor said: ‘I guess I could connect with it on a personal level. Walter is a guy who is sort of constrained by the responsibilities of his life, the world that he's living in, and the life that he has lived.
“I feel that anyone would identify with that – we have these great dreams and this potential, but we have to sort of get through life every day. So visually, I kind of wanted to try and tell that story through the sort of rigid nature of the world that he was in.”
In other words, the movie will not be a madcap comedy in the vein of ‘Tropic Thunder’ or ‘ There’s Something About Mary’.
It is an ambitious venture for Stiller, with the studio pumping in US$90 million (S$113 million) to shoot in New York City and against the captivating natural landscapes of Iceland.
It is also perhaps the most emotionally layered of the movies Stiller has directed, much like his 1994 cult classic ‘Reality Bites’.
‘Walter Mitty’ is a mixed bag of genres (comedy, romance, adventure, drama), and it is hard to pigeonhole it.
Walter’s daydreams boldly take him where he hasn’t gone before, mostly involving feats of derring-do.
One moment he is jumping into a blazing apartment to save his crush, fellow Life co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (played by Kristen Wiig), and another moment, he is a craggy adventurer seducing her.
Stiller said: “I like movies that aren’t just one genre. They can have a lot going on, as long as there is some sort ‘line’ that will take you on through the story.”
That “line” is how society is shifting from the analogue to the digital age, of how Walter is about to enter the web-obsessed world of modern journalism.
He has to learn to let go of print media and embrace life, a motto echoed by the magazine renowned for publishing iconic photographs.
Stiller revealed that it was scriptwriter Steve Conrad’s idea to put the story in the context of Life magazine adapting to the digital age and the effects it had on its employees.
Conrad said in an interview: “I liked the idea of Walter working at Life in the photo-negative room, because it makes him a sort of human repository for the most significant photographs that have been taken in the last 70 years.
“It seemed like a good place from which you could really root for Walter, because all of our jobs can begin to feel like that.”
To make the story more realistic and relevant to the digital age, the script worked in eHarmony online dating and even Instagram.
A GREAT ACTRESS
Stiller with co-star, Kristen Wiig
While the female protagonist in Thurber’s story is the book that snaps Walter out of his fantasies, Wiig’s Cheryl Melhoff plays a more nurturing role who inspires Walter to connect with his inner adventurer.
Stiller called Wiig “a great actress” and he “really loved seeing her… where she didn't have to do broad crazy stuff”.
Known for her zany antics in ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Bridesmaids’, Wiig takes a step back from comedy to do what could be her most dramatic role to date.
Her favourite scene though, is one where she is not in it.
“It’s when Walter decides to go off on this adventure and he's buying the plane ticket and you can see the motto of Life throughout the airport, the airplane and everything [“To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to … ”]. Those are words to really live by and that why it’s my favourite sequence,” she said.
As for Stiller, he said: “My favourite is where Kristen was singing ‘Space Oddity’ and the David Bowie sequence... The way she looks at Walter in the bar when she's walking out, it's so beautiful. I really enjoyed shooting that because I get to see that side of her. I thought she did an amazing job with that.”
Their advice for dreamers who have not realised their potential and dreams?
“Be willing to fail and take a chance. Just taking that gamble will take you to the next place,” Stiller said.