LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Human disconnect, social isolation and the transition to an increasingly digital era come crashing together in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," actor-director Ben Stiller's personal take on a classic story.
"Walter Mitty," out in theaters on Christmas Day, finds Stiller not just reimagining the character made famous from author James Thurber's 1939 short story of the same name in The New Yorker magazine, but redefining what Walter Mitty has come to represent in popular culture.
Walter Mitty is described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape from reality through daydreaming," and is often used to describe people who imagine themselves greater than they are in reality.
Stiller's Walter Mitty is different. A middle-aged man trapped by financial responsibility, Walter is a photo archivist at the dwindling Life magazine, a job that is being replaced by machines. Shy, sheltered and reserved, he is isolated from the environment around him.
"(He's not) some kind of an oddball or loner or nerd, but just a regular guy who has a lot of potential and hadn't figured out a way to unlock it," Stiller told Reuters.
The movie blurs in and out of Walter's imagination as his daydreams take him into new worlds and personas, be it the rugged explorer seducing his crush Cheryl, played by Kristen Wiig, or jumping into a fiery apartment to save trapped residents. But as he breaks out of social isolation and makes real human connections, Walter finds himself living a real life far greater than his imagination could conjure up.
Stiller, 48, who has built up a body of directorial works from 1994's dark comedy "Reality Bites," 2001's goofball modeling parody "Zoolander," and 2008's farcical action-movie send-up, "Tropic Thunder," said "Mitty" marks a new chapter in his catalog of works, and one that resonates closer to home.
"It was more of an experience that I have been feeling in my life, maybe generationally, having grown up and experienced the world pre-computers," Stiller said.
"Seeing the whole (digital) transition, to me what's getting left in the wake of that are the real things, the tangible things that go away when everything becomes digital."
The director added that even the comedic tone of "Walter Mitty" is different from his previous works.
"The film is a lot less cynical than other movies I've made in terms of its comedic tone, and I think that for me was uncharted territory," he said.
Caught up in a society shifting from the analog to the digital age, Walter is tasked with recovering the photograph that will appear on the cover of the final Life magazine as the publication is downsized.
His journey to track down the photo, shot on film by maverick photographer Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn, sees Walter finally letting go of Life magazine and embracing life, a motto echoed by the publication renowned for capturing iconic and arresting photographs, which folded in 2007.
"A real Life magazine from 1945 is a piece of history; you're holding something that actually existed back then. I don't want my kids to grow up in a world that doesn't have any of those things. I feel like there's a meaning to those things," Stiller said.
Made for a budget of $90 million and shot in New York City and against visually captivating natural landscapes in Iceland, Stiller said he faced new challenges as a director to capture real scenes rather than using special effects.
One scene he was particularly proud of was a pivotal moment where Walter dives into the turbulent waters of the North Atlantic, symbolic of leaving his old life behind. It's a scene that Stiller actually acted and filmed in the ocean.
"It's about a guy's imagination, so you're always trying to swing for the fences of how much you can show," he said.
"As the aesthetic of the movie developed, we tried to be specific with how we showed the fantasies and how visually they related to the real world."
Setting "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in a contemporary world helped Stiller wrap cultural touchstones such as eHarmony online dating or Instagram into the comedy, which the director hoped will make the story more real for audiences.
"What I would hope for is that it's more than just a diversion, that it somehow connects to something emotionally with people on some level," the director said.
Editing by Mary Milliken