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Ben Stiller on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Bringing Reality Bites to Television

Ben Stiller attends 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' Madrid Photocall at Villamagna Hotel on December 16, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.
Ben Stiller. Photo: Gabriel Solera/Getty Images

When Ben Stiller’s latest film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, premiered at the New York Film Festival there two months ago, he quipped, “I would like to thank the Film Society at Lincoln Center for having the courage to include a Ben Stiller movie in the festival.” So the Film Society took their courage one step further and last weekend presented five of his films in a series called “Ben Stiller Directs” — to Ben Stiller’s delight and surprise. “When they asked, I was of course like, ‘Yeah, sure,’” he laughed. “It’s kind of nice to have that, and kind of weird. In terms of a retrospective, I’m not ready to retrospect yet!” Well, maybe a little bit. Stiller chatted with Vulture about directing Walter Mitty, his beard battle with Adam Scott, and bringing Reality Bites to the small screen.

What was your trickiest shot to execute, either from one of Walter’s fantasies or a real-life moment?
So there’s a shot in the water, where Walter is in the water, and the ship is behind him, and I had to really jump in the water. It was crazy! Six-, eight-foot seas, and the camera was in the boat, and the boat had to go away from me, to get the shot, and so I was alone in the water, nobody around me, just bobbing in the water, in the middle of the North Sea. I was like, “This is real! Wait a minute, this is actually happening! I hope they come back. I hope they can find me. I hope there aren’t any sharks!” [Laughs.] That would have been hard, to wrangle the sharks.

Among the fantasy sequences that didn’t work out was something related to Grease? Since Kathryn Hahn’s character is playing Rizzo in a small production?
It was actually an idea that we had for a long time, and we were really into. And we talked about doing it as an end, as a button to the movie, because of the Grease connection in the story, having all the characters in the movie doing Grease.

So Walter would be Danny Zuko?    
Yeah, and Kathryn Hahn would be Rizzo, because she got the part in the play. It would have been fun to figure out all that. Patton Oswalt would have been one of those T-Birds.

Or he could be Eugene.
Right, right! The funny, nerdy guy. But Patton’s always got this other level to him, which I find so interesting. I would love to see him play a bad guy sometime, because he’s just got this dark intensity underneath, where you could just shift his gaze, and all of a sudden he’s like another guy. He’s really wonderful in that movie Big Fan, where he got to play that dark side.

Remember in The Informant!, when Steven Soderbergh cast a lot of comedians, including Patton, in non-comedic roles? That would be the kind of thing you would do.
Yeah, yeah, definitely! I feel like, even in this movie, I like being able to cast people who you don’t necessarily think of as doing straighter roles. Even though the tone of the movie obviously has humor in it, but Patton’s not doing anything other than just being a nice guy, really. And I think Kristen is able to play these scenes in a very real way, but the way she can modulate her performance in very incremental ways, you know, that sense of humor is pretty amazing, how she can just tweak a scene a little bit and make it a lot funnier, because it’s so subtle, but not go over-the-top. She can also do huge over-the-top stuff, too.

Apparently to cast Sean Penn, you had to stalk him a little? What’s involved in stalking Sean Penn?
[Laughs] Sean wrote that, and that’s hilarious to me. No, I didn’t stalk Sean. I sent him the script. And we know each other from over the years, and I might have hung out in front of his house a few times. But he was so perfect for the role, I felt like he would respond to it. It was important for me to have someone who had that creative integrity, and just sort of what he represents as a person. So it wasn’t the actor playing at a role, but really just him, and the audience brings everything they feel about him. And he’s a very honest guy and kind of a maverick and does what he feels is right.

I have to ask about Adam Scott’s very sinister beard.
Yes. [Laughs.]

I tried asking him about it at the premiere, and he made it seem like there was something top secret about it, like there was some mystery behind how he got the beard. What’s the deal?
[Laughs.] Well, it’s a real beard, his real beard that had some … additions put into it. It just was in the script; Steve [Conrad] had written the description of Ted having a Grecian-formula business beard. Which, for our generation, Grecian-formula was the guys who would color their beard and make it darker. And to me, that description, I was like, “What’s a business beard?” It made me think of someone who’s really well-groomed. And then Adam was doing another movie before we started shooting, so he didn’t have time to grow his entire, his full beard, in like ten days. So when he showed up on set, we had to sort of augment his beard, or supplement it, with real hair, laid-on hair. And that’s how we ended up with this design, and it got a lot bigger than I originally had thought, but then I sort of liked the idea of it being a big thing. And sometimes there’s a little work done, to fill in holes and stuff, but that was on him. I think it really guided his performance, for sure.

Well, it’s a nice contrast to the beard that you grow, that Walter grows. The authentic beard.
Right, right. That sort of developed. It was in the script, but then as we were figuring out the continuity of the movie, and then when Walter comes back from the Himalayas, I was trying to figure out when he would shave the beard. And it just didn’t make sense to shave the beard until later, and then I thought it was interesting, the battle of the beards.

Beard wars! Do you think there’s any sort of commonality — even though tonally, they’re very different films — between Reality Bites, Tropic Thunder, and Walter Mitty, in terms of the commentary they make on the creative process?
Hmmm. Interesting. I definitely didn’t intend it, but [laughs] it’s an interesting observation. For me, it’s interesting that I haven’t made a movie closer in tone to Reality Bites in the last twenty years, so in some ways, this sort of connects to that.

Reality Bites is becoming a television show. How do you feel about revisiting and transforming your past works, because there’s the Zoolander sequel that’s been percolating, and the Tropic Thunder spinoff still in the works?
Everybody keeps asking me about those! I have sort of conflicted feelings about it, because I’m interested in exploring them, but all those things, even the Reality Bites thing, we’re just exploring it. I want to make sure it feels right before we actually go through with it. But the reason I thought it was worth exploring was I feel like there’s sort of a parallel situation happening now, in terms of the economic climate that young people are coming out to, but it’s also changed so much in terms of how people communicate and technology and social media, so it really is like looking back into a little bit of a time capsule, even though it’s only been twenty years. There’s something there, possibly, in terms of being able to observe and comment on how much we’ve changed as a society, just in terms of that.

Those of us who grew up with that movie, when we watch it now, our allegiances shift. Troy seemed so cool back then, but when you’re older, Michael makes much more sense.
It was always an interesting thing: who went for Troy, and who went for Michael. [Laughs.] Michael’s in the real world.

Ben Stiller on Walter Mitty and Reality Bites