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Life at the Office
As Ben Stiller first began contemplating the scope of creating Walter Mitty's real and fantasy lives on screen, he knew without a doubt he would require a production designer with an unalloyed sense of creative experimentation. Fortunately, he knew just the person: Jeff Mann, with whom he worked on Tropic Thunder.

"Jeff and I were really in synch creatively and visually," says Stiller. "He was integral in designing the fantasy sequences, the whole Ted battle, the LIFE Magazine offices and how the magazine covers relate back to Walter's fantasies. It was a great collaboration."

Adds John Goldwyn: "Jeff was really Ben's creative partner on this film in every sense of the phrase."

Mann was exhilarated by the unusual task Stiller laid before him. "We had the opportunity to create a tone in this movie that is very original. We have these fun, outrageous fantasies but we also wanted to walk a fine line to create an integrity for Mitty's overall reality," he says. "The whole idea was that Walter starts out only really living in his head, and he ends up on a journey living as a human being in the world."

The challenge was to make that inner transformation outwardly thrilling. "I've had the chance to do some outrageous visual things in my career, but to do something like that resonates on so many different fronts, was really the pinnacle for me," says Mann.

Mann especially had fun creating the LIFE Magazine offices, which, much like the film, mix reality, history and fantasy elements. He and Stiller were gratified to have the support of the Time-Life Corporation.

"The cooperation of Time-Life was always going to be crucial to the look of the movie," says the designer. "But it wasn't a slam dunk. Once we sent them the script, we were put in contact with a gentleman named Bill Shapiro who, as luck would have it, was basically as close to the Walter Mitty character in his job description as you could get. He became a very big proponent of the script because there were a lot of parallels to his experience. Then, once we had access to all these iconic images, we came up with all kinds of opportunities to incorporate them into the sets. There's something for everyone in the audience to key into - from celebrity shots to sports figures to environmental elements that come into play in the movie."

Stiller and Mann also did a lot of research into the history of the Time-Life building, which opened in 1959, garnering fame for its design by the architectural firm of Harris & Abramowitz & Harris, and for its outsized modernist murals by the artist Fritz Glarner - which made the lobby a one-of-a-kind artistic experience.

"The architecture is just quintessential Mid-Century," marvels Stiller. "The building is so beautiful to photograph, especially when seen from above where you can see the terrazzo patterns in the plaza outside. It really helped contribute to the slightly retro, fading feeling of the world that Walter works in. And then we were inspired by photographs of the interior in the 50s and 60s, where you see photojournalists and editors with their sleeves rolled up and their horn-rimmed glasses and we wanted to echo that vibe."

While Stiller was able to access the exterior and lobby of the Time-Life Building, it fell to Mann to recreate the interior of the defunct magazine's offices from scratch on soundstages at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. There, he worked out a unique floor plan that would allow Stiller to play with his frame compositions.

Mann especially enjoyed creating Walter's photo editing area as both a lonely oasis (where only his co-worker Hernando, played by Adrian Martinez, keeps him company) and an entrée to all that goes on inside his brain. "The concept was that you can see the digital era has already reduced the employees at the magazine, so you see empty workstations near Walter, yet you also see this treasure trove of imagery behind him that is pushing him forward," Mann comments.

With such a vast tangle of logistics and design elements to juggle, Mann says he was amazed by how Stiller kept it all part of one harmonized vision in his head. "Ben's capacity on this movie really impressed me," he says. "He brought an enormous energy level to the production and at the same time, he was basically acting in almost every scene. We had this juggernaut of information and complex visual effects we were working with - things that he couldn't know what they were going to look like specifically for months, if not a year, from the time we were doing it. It took a lot of planning to make the right decisions."

As much as they explored each and every visual decision, Mann notes all that fell away when Stiller was in front of the camera as Mitty. "He took all the information he had about this world and delivered something right on the mark," says the designer. "I've never experienced anything like the energy he brought to this, and then he added to that an extremely special performance."

The finishing touches of the film came together in post-production, as Stiller convened with his frequent editor Greg Hayden to weave the footage into its final form. Music became another essential strand as Stiller worked with composer Theodore Shapiro, with whom he also collaborated on Tropic Thunder, to write the score. He also brought in Swedish indie singer-songwriter Jose González to contribute songs, and recording artist Ryan Adams to pen the end title song that González sings, which all became part of a soundtrack anchored by David Bowie's ode to a man floating in outer space, "Space Oddity."

For Stiller, the music was one more chance to add multi-chromatic shadings to Walter Mitty's journey. "I was looking for a way to express the idea of the hero inside this ordinary guy musically," summarizes Stiller. "I felt that Walter's incredible imagination deserved a very noble and epic score. Teddy Shapiro wrote such a beautiful theme for Walter, and then he built it throughout the movie in an amazing way. It's a theme that has a bit of melancholy to it, but over the course of the film it becomes something uplifting."

That melding of a sweet and funny melancholy with an expansive view of inspiration seems to be what hooked everyone involved in the THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY.

"To make a movie that honors the audience's intelligence, and then takes them somewhere where they have never been before in a way that's both entertaining and emotionally satisfying - that's something unbelievably rewarding," concludes John Goldwyn.


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