The story was made into a 1947 Danny Kaye feature, which greatly departed from the very short original work. The Goldwyn family, responsible for that movie, had long been trying to mount a remake. After false starts with many directors and actors, the Goldwyns landed Stiller.
In the film, Walter (Stiller) works for Life magazine during a time of traumatic change. He loses an important negative, which leads to adventures tracking down a wild-man photographer (Sean Penn). An office colleague (Kristen Wiig) serves as a romantic interest.
Q: Did you make the film because of Steve Conrad’s script?
A: About eight years ago, I had gotten a script for a different version of the movie. What I had read before were versions of sort of a remake of the Danny Kaye movie. I felt like there was no way to do that better. Then I read Steve’s script, and he took a totally different approach, tonally, and it connected for me emotionally. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It seemed the kind of movie I would really want to see — one of those movies that didn’t have a specific genre, even though it was a comedy, and I liked that, too.
Q: The fantasy sequences were originally going to be much more elaborate than what ended up in the film. Why was that?
A: The fantasies show what’s going on in Walter’s life and they have to be a part of the movie. But what I really connected with in the script is the journey he goes on, his emotional journey, and the stakes there. The fantasies are really fun, but as we started to work on the script, and all the way through the editing, we realized that the story itself needs to move forward. At a certain point, you really have to keep the momentum going. … It was interesting, Sam (Goldwyn’s) dad, who made the original film, had the same issue when they were editing it. They had more fantasies that they had to cut down or cut out, because of the momentum of the story.
Q: Walter works for an old-line magazine shifting toward digitalization. Why did you use that context?
A: This all gets credited to Steve. He came up with this idea of setting the story in a place where you can see the changeover that’s going on in the world today from analog to digital, and how that’s affecting people. And our economy today, how that’s affecting people, too. The imagery of Life magazine was something that offered a lot in terms of how Walter saw the world. How people sometimes see the world through magazines, or on the Internet, but just images, and not actually going out and experiencing it. But what he hit on there was something resonant, putting Walter in the context that a lot of people can relate to. Also, Walter cares about the images, he cares about the tactile, the film (negatives), the real things, and that’s all going away.
Q: We see many Life cover images, including one of Peter Sellers. Is he a hero?
A: Yes, definitely. We wanted to do two things with those Life covers. One was to serve the story — the images would somehow relate to what we see in the movie later on. The other was the idea of these great iconic figures of the 20th century, and creatively I think (Sellers) was one of those. His films have inspired so many people, especially of my generation. That’s an actual Life cover, by the way. We combed through all the covers, and found ones that resonated with the story. That was an image we wanted to have as an homage to him.
Q: A lot of Thurber’s male characters are henpecked. That’s less true in the film.
A: The idea was to try to make the movie feel more relatable to the world today. I felt like that idea (of the henpecked male) maybe wasn’t necessarily as interesting as the idea of a guy who had not realized his potential. Not due to being in an unhappy marriage, because I think that would be almost a different story. But the Thurber story, and the character he created in this little 21/2-page story, have lasted this long, and inspired many different retellings. That idea of the inner life, that to me was the essence of the story — the inner life, the secret life that goes on in his head. Steve made an interesting choice, to make it much more a story about a guy going off into the world as opposed to a guy trying to get out of a bad marriage.
Q: The movie’s tone differs from the story, which is merciless. In your movie, there’s redemption.
A: That story exists in its own right, and it’s perfect as what it is. I think any time you’re adapting anything … you have to look at it and say, “How do I honor the spirit of what it is and try to make it work for this new thing?” There’s a bittersweet quality to the story, even though there’s cynicism, too, but there’s a sadness in the idea of a guy who can’t be what he imagines being.
Q: What directors have influenced you?
A: Hal Ashby, Steven Spielberg. “Jaws” came out when I was 10. I loved the action-adventure movies of the ’70s. I also loved the comedies, like Preston Sturges’ movies, which I discovered when I was 13 or 14. Television, too. I probably watched way too much television. The idea of directors who have a sense of humor in their work, even the best dramatic directors, like Scorsese or Spielberg, there’s always humor within their serious movies. Ashby movies are something to put up there because they’re the ones that didn’t have a specific genre — they’re real stories with real characters, and there was humor within them, but they’re also really dark. He created his own tone.
Q: Among all of Walter’s fantasies, is there one that resonates with you?
A: There’s a really simple one early in the movie, when he’s in the elevator with his boss, who says something sort of snippy to him — the guy is just meeting him for the first time — and (Walter) thinks of this great comeback, about the boss’ beard. And he’s thinking (Stiller snaps fingers), I’ve got the quick answer. Then all of a sudden we realize that didn’t happen. It’s probably the simplest fantasy, but to me that kind of moment in life is something we all have very often, where you think of a great comeback 20 minutes later.