THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
Fantasy Made Real
In 1939, when James Thurber first published THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY,
he brought a playful, modernist style to the story that lured readers directly
into the experience of Walter Mitty's fantasy life.
In 2013, Ben Stiller hoped to do something similar, using modern cinema to
open the story up visually in a way that couldn't have been imagined in
Thurber's day. He knew there were several ways to approach Mitty's fantasizing.
But there was only way he felt that was right for what he wanted audiences to
feel: using a deftly crafted hyper-reality that merges Mitty's inner stream of
consciousness into the fabric of what's going on in his outer world.
"Everybody can connect with the idea of talking to somebody while actually
having this crazy, imaginary fantasy going on in your head of where you'd rather
be in that moment," he explains. "That's what we wanted to capture."
Stiller thought intensively about how to achieve that. Creating Walter's
fantasies would certainly involve many moving parts, and a sense of spectacle,
but Stiller used his effects judiciously, with an eye towards unbroken
integration into the flow of the action.
"In terms of visual effects, we wanted the overall approach to be very
photo-real," he says. "I've always found that the best results come from doing
as much as you can practically in real-life situations and then just tickling
that with the digital effects."
Ultimately, Stiller would put together a visual design team including
Oscar-nominated director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), production
designer Jeff Mann (Tropic Thunder, Zoolander), editor Greg Hayden (Tropic
Thunder, Zoolander), costume designer Sarah Edwards (Salt, Michael Clayton) and
visual effects supervisor Guillaume Rocheron (Life of Pi.)
Early on, Stiller made the decision to shoot THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
on film, a decision that seemed to echo Walter Mitty's image-laden world and his
search for authenticity. "Film is just such a special thing - it at the heart of
the history of movies and the whole tradition of filmmaking - and it's something
that is going away very quickly, disappearing from the world," Stiller says.
They also chose to have the camera slowly awaken, moving from static to
dynamic, as Walter's life follows a similar trajectory. Stiller explains: "We
create a world that is very graphic and linear in the first part of the movie.
So the camera is quite still and hardly moves at all and then . . . gradually .
. . as Walter starts to connect with life and go out into the world, the camera
loosens up. We loosen up with him and the colors become more saturated and we
enter into this fuller life experience with him."
The constant yin and yang of dreams and reality in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER
MITTY made for an extremely ambitious production - one which would take on the
rigors of shooting in the middle of New York City then jet off to the
other-worldly environs of Iceland, where cast and crew moved from volcanoes to
helicopters to the middle of the frosty ocean.
"Shooting in New York was essential because that was the only way to deliver
the strong sense of place that Ben envisioned," says Cornfeld. "He really wanted
to capture the energy and intensity of the city."
The producer continues: "Iceland is just an amazing place, where the quality
of light is truly different from anywhere on Earth. One of the real benefits of
having shot on film is that we got to take full advantage of that light. There's
not much pollution in Iceland so when you look off into the distance, you can
see forever. It's like going from a 35-millimeter world to a 70-millimeter
world. You get a scope of natural beauty you just don't find many places."
Each location would host scenes that could not have been filmed elsewhere in
the world. In New York, Stiller had the chance to shoot the epic chase between
Walter and Ted in the live-wire dynamics of a typical crowded day in the city.
To simulate Walter and Ted flying and bounding through Manhattan on makeshift
skates and skis, Stiller and co-star Adam Scott were placed in a mobile rig that
suspended them while weaving through New York City's infamous traffic.
"The Ted battle was really fun to shoot," remarks Stiller. "There we were
riding skateboards and rollerblades down Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street
on a Sunday morning and it was just an amazingly surreal experience. We really
tried to do as much of that scene for real as we possibly could - and then we
augmented it with the visual effects."
"Shooting in New York was a big part of the conversation when Ben first got
involved with the movie. He wanted Mitty's fantasies to feel as photo-real as
life - because for Mitty they are that real," adds John Goldwyn. "He didn't want
to use a green screen and then impose the city behind it. The audience had to
feel Mitty's actual experience. But it was a bit of a logistical nightmare.
Flash mobs were showing up all over the place, we had to close down lanes, we
had to reverse lanes because we got very bound up in making sure that the
geography was accurate and we had Ben and Adam Scott on a very complicated rig.
Luckily we had a crack team who helped us to pull that off."
In Iceland, Stiller would shoot a scene that pushed him to new edges both as
director and actor: when Walter jumps into the raging waves of the North
Atlantic, which Stiller simulated with his own plunge into the ocean. "It was
really important for me that we not do that scene in a tank," he recalls. "I
felt we had to shoot in real high seas, with a real boat there, a real
helicopter and real waves," he explains.
"That's when Mitty literally dives into life," muses John Goldwyn. "It's the
big transition moment of the movie, and it looks incredibly real, because most
of it is."
The scene turned out, just as it does for Walter Mitty, to bring a bit more
reality than even Stiller anticipated.
"We were about a mile out at sea with seven-foot swells -- which, when you're
in the water, are really big," admits Stiller. "The boat with the camera in it
went away to come back and do the shot, but there was this two-minute period
where I was just in the North Sea with nobody around. I was in the ocean just by
myself with a briefcase, floating there waiting for the camera to come back and
was thinking, 'I hope they can find me when they come back for the shot,'" he
laughs. "There was a real sense of danger and it was one of those moments when I
thought, 'oh, this is what real filmmaking is all about.'"
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