Learning from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Wilson Webb/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Ben Stiller’s paean to the golden age of magazines.

Like many great film adventures, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty sends its hero on a globe-hopping quest in search of extraordinary treasure. But where Indiana Jones scours the Holy Land for lost relics and James Bond hunts femmes fatales with stolen MI6 secrets, Walter Mitty’s after something that may soon be far rarer: a single frame of Kodak 400TX negative. As other movies this holiday season bludgeon us with budget-busting CGI, Ben Stiller’s update of the classic James Thurber story banks on simple reality to stir a deeper sense of wonder in us. To that end, Stiller and his team drew inspiration from a midcentury giant of iconic photojournalism—Life magazine—for their tale of a hapless dreamer whose most elaborate fantasies pale in comparison to the real-world journey he undertakes.

“I always looked at Walter as an analog guy in a digital world,” says Stiller, who directed, starred in and produced the film along with John Goldwyn and several others. “And he exists in a time when that analog world is going away.” Reimagined by Steven Conrad’s script, Walter Mitty is no longer the typical Thurber milquetoast. Instead, he serves as quiet steward of Life’s storied photographic archives, just as the vaunted magazine finds itself overtaken by the digital age. Sean Penn costars as Sean O’Connell, a quasi-mythic photojournalist (modeled on real-life legend James Nachtwey) who sends Mitty a shot for the final cover that he claims represents the “quintessence of Life.” When said negative goes missing, Mitty must defer his daydreaming and hunt down O’Connell. Along the way, he rides in vintage helicopters, climbs an Afghan mountain and longboards across the lunar Icelandic landscape.

Stiller gave his crew the requisite movie references—The Graduate, The Apartment and the films of Hal Ashby and Jacques Tati—but equally important was evoking Life and the golden age of magazine photography it represented. “We met with a man named Bill Shapiro, [who] has overseen Life and its images ever since the magazine ended,” Stiller says. “Now Life is basically an online photo archive, and its transition is what is going on in our story.” The crew even filmed in the landmark Time & Life lobby in Manhattan, and production designer Jeff Mann lovingly reimagined its midcentury modern offices, down to chairs custom-designed by Charles and Ray Eames. “We wanted to sell the import of Life as an entity,” Mann notes as he recalls digging through its famous photo archives for both set dressing and inspiration. “We looked at these incredible photojournalists from the ’40s and on—people like Stephen Shore, Elliott Erwitt, Margaret Bourke-White. The whole premise of the daydreams was that Walter was influenced by all this amazing imagery he sits in the midst of every day.” The film is laced with photos that evoke the world’s farthest corners and the 20th century’s great achievements. The culmination is a tracking shot down a Life hallway plastered with covers, real and imagined, whose iconic faces (e.g., Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon) watch over Mitty as he sets off on his journey.

Like the Life photographers before them, Stiller and company strove to present the real world with a sense of exhilaration that surpasses Mitty’s vivid daydreams. “When he goes out in search of the mythical-heroic photojournalist, he is finally realizing inner fantasies that have been created from the Life archive,” says cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. “[Ben] would often reference famous journalistic photos when talking about how we were going to light and shoot [a scene].” Stiller also shot on film, which is increasingly difficult and rare as digital becomes the norm. According to Dryburgh, the trick to capturing magic on film is often to forgo trickery altogether: “Keep it real but make it fabulous. It’s enhanced reality.” Thus Mitty’s dive into a rough sea was filmed with little more than a camera, a boat and a threatening storm. For another National Geographic–worthy shot, in which Mitty plays soccer with Afghan children, the key was an alarm clock: Everyone got up and running before sunrise and let Mother Nature take over. “That was a kind of minor miracle. One of the hardest things to achieve in motion-picture production is a true dawn shot,” Dryburgh says. “That’s just reality at its best.” Of course, capturing reality at its best might mean trekking up a glacier, shipping a vintage Bell helicopter used on the original Hawaii Five-O to Iceland and sending your star/director shooting down a mountain on a skateboard at 40 miles per hour. “I had a rig on,” says Stiller, “but it wasn’t really battle-tested. The whole thing felt a little dicey.”

But those risks and real-life adventures paid off. The result is a touching paean to a vanishing age that echoes Life’s famous motto: “To see life; to see the world....”

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is in theaters on Christmas Day.