The Secret Life of Screenwriting
Steve Conrad on his remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
By Christopher McKittrick.
On the surface, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty might seem like a major departure for screenwriter Steve Conrad. Conrad’s previous films have all been rooted in the inner conflicts of real-life ever since his first produced screenplay, 1993’s Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. His most successful films, The Weather Man and The Pursuit of Happyness, center on characters facing disconnect between their professional successes and personal struggles. Even his more comedic last film, The Promotion (which Conrad also directed), features two executives in conflict over a job promotion they both covet. In contrast, James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and the first film adaptation in 1947 starring Danny Kaye are often held up as preeminent examples of wish fulfillment fantasies. In the original short story, Walter is a married man on a shopping trip with his wife who imagines himself in a variety of exciting daydreams to escape his mundane surroundings, imaging himself as a heroic pilot on a suicide mission, a brilliant surgeon performing a rare operation, a deadly assassin providing key testimony during a trial, and finally facing a firing squad.
Despite his gift for comedic wit, the focus on human drama in Conrad’s previous work might seem ill-suited for such a fantastic narrative, yet in this version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Conrad focuses on the circumstances of the character’s life that made him into such a dreamer of the wildly original fantasies that Walter engages in. Much of that is because of the comedic stoicism brought to the role by Ben Stiller, who not only stars in the film but also directed and developed ideas for the script with Conrad. Though a remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been in the works since the early 1990s by Sam Goldwyn Jr. and John Goldwyn (whose father and grandfather, respectively, Sam Goldwyn, produced the original film), Conrad started on his script without reading any of the previous drafts.
In that sense, Walter Mitty is Conrad’s first produced screenplay that is a “franchise” special effects film, although tonally not one that fits comfortably among what audiences expect of those types of blockbusters. Creative Screenwriting spoke to Conrad about how he approached his first remake in order to update it for current audiences, how he adapts himself for his varied work, and why he is probably one of the few screenwriters who hasn’t seen much change in the way Hollywood has handled his work over his two decade career.
A remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has been in the works for nearly two decades. How did you get involved, and what interested you in the project?
Sam Goldwyn Jr. and John Goldwyn, who were the only producers at the time, sought me out to hear a take on a new way to go with it. It was one of these properties that had been around for a while, and there were several writers before me. I was drawn to it because it presented an opportunity to write about real life, but to have at your disposal anything you might imagine. I read the story when I was a kid and was always a fan of it. It’s a wonderfully concise and powerful short story, and it created a character who has put a name to someone we all recognize from life and a person we all act like from time to time. So it gave me a bit of a head start on being able to write about a set of feelings, mainly to have a lot in life that you didn’t quite imagine when you were a kid and leaves you wanting more. That sounded really familiar to me, and I like to try and at least to start from a place that’s familiar and in my sense of goals and wishes.
This adaptation retains just the thematic spirit of the original short story and the 1947 film. At any time did you feel it was necessary to remain faithful to any of the fantasy scenarios in either of the previous versions?
We started out thinking we should cover them, but pretty quickly into it we realized that a lot of time has passed since the story was published in the 1930s and our set of icons, images and models for that type of wish changed entirely. I don’t think being cool-headed in the middle of surgery is something that my son would call to mind when asked to think about a guy keeping his cool, or even me for that matter. We have a whole new set of heroes, and a whole bunch of different circumstances that have taken the place of what Thurber used. Being true to the story meant getting it right for this day and age. It’s what he did then, and our task was to do it now, which means doing it right means doing it differently than he did.
Where did the idea of making Walter Mitty an employee of Life magazine come from?
Ben designed that setting very carefully to de-time us, to evoke at least a slightly different era so the James Thurber character felt like it was in some of the texture of the movie. We couldn’t do the Danny Kaye version either because it was a musical and it wasn’t something anyone in our group of filmmakers had any real experience at, so we knew we were going to go a different way anyway. But we wanted to make sure that story was in the fabric of the movie, so Life magazine seemed like it added texture to the world in that it felt like it could be any time.
Walter’s relationship with his mother and his deceased father are new elements, with the death of Walter’s father seemingly being the point when Walter’s life became mundane. Can you talk about the development of that idea?
Because it is a very, very short story it was going to need a lot of invention under any circumstances even if the goal was to just live inside the characters and settings that the short story suggests. Even if we were going to do that, there’s a whole lot of conceptionalizing to do. Early on I realized that to have become someone who daydreams implies a few things, and not things that are negative exactly. I don’t think movies go a long way when you start to distrust or look down on the main character. In the movies that I love I come to trust the character, there’s some potency to the person you’re asked to spend time with. I think if James Thurber was asked to write more, one of the versions might have been to show what this person was doing instead of imagining, to have a job where you feel like it isn’t quite the one you always imagined and no one’s dazzled by it. The other way to look at that might be that you’re doing decent, good hard work and it keeps you busy to have that other kind of “life” at your disposal. So many people work hard and imagine that their lives could be easier or better-played, but the business of the day that they’re doing is critical. It’s important, it’s taking care of people, it’s taking care of your house – all that stuff adds up at the end of the day to something that’s worthwhile. So I wanted to make sure this character was worthwhile even in the midst of him wishing his life added up to something greater. I didn’t want a proposition that felt like because he imagined a greater life, the life that he’s leading isn’t good. It seems necessary to a longer examination of that character that he’d be worthwhile apart from just having a terrific imagination. All of us daydream, and it doesn’t diminish us. It doesn’t say that you’re lacking, it might say that you’re busy and you’ve been otherwise occupied from being able to play centerfield for the Yankees.
You’ve written numerous comedies or dramas with strong elements of comedy. What draws you to comedy as a writer, and what are your comedic influences?
What draws me to it is it’s a high wire act. It’s a challenge because the proof of your success or failure is right there. You don’t often decide two days later that something is funny, you can feel it in the room. I’m a writer who likes challenges. The influences I had in the early going are the same ones for anybody else my age. I watched Stripes a thousand times and Life of Brian a thousand times. The Jerk I watched a million times. I was a kid in the seventies and that seemed to be a pretty terrific time for new comedy. Then from there I got into Charlie Chaplin, and Ben in this movie, because he filmed it and he had a lot of other cast members besides him who are funny, I think he got pretty close to that Charlie Chaplin kind of tone that I love where’s it’s funny but meanwhile it’s about something.
You’ve written scripts based on real-life people, like The Pursuit of Happyness and the upcoming John Belushi biopic. Can you talk about the different challenges regarding working on a script about a fictional character like Walter Mitty and on a real-life subject?
The skill is the craft of creating drama through recognizable events for movies that traffic in real events by finding the traumatic moments inside might be considered the quirks of a pretty regular day or a set of common events. Challenge yourself to find the critical hour of that day, the critical inner action that’s going to affect your future success or failure. Getting practiced at that is a skill for those real stories. With the Walter Mitty type, there’s just no limit to what you might use to be comic or anything else. Even to create tension you can use anything you can imagine. The reason I took the job is I like the type of movie that defies any realistic set of tools. I’ve been eager to try one where all bets were off in terms of what you might be able to use.
Have you noticed any changes in the business of writing in Hollywood since you began your career?
It hasn’t much for me. I know it has generally; I’m convinced of that. But I’ve always been in this really narrow compartment in our business insofar as the films that I’m able to do, when they actually miraculously happen, they are usually filmed because an actor who has some sway decides to do them and that hasn’t changed for me. Generally when anything gets off the ground for me it’s because some 900 pound gorilla decided that he wanted to do it that year. Without that, none of things I do would be made. It hasn’t really affected me in the sense that I’ve not written inside of genres that are in the moment, like superhero movies, because that’s not the sort of thing I do. But it’s still always been tough, really tough for me to get a movie made. It remains that way, but in that respect nothing has changed.
But has your writing changed at all since you began directing films?
Probably it’s gotten leaner. I very seldom write seven page scenes anymore. I’ve realized it’s just impossible to sustain in an editing room, though there’s a pretty long scene with Ben and Sean Penn in Walter Mitty. I try to eliminate those. It was not so much because of my directing but watching movies get focus grouped and test screened. You sort of want to fast forward to the greatest hits in the movie so you can count on a good scene coming up to try to draw a reaction from the audience. You try to make sure your movie has those moments that audiences can come together over. That has become a new objective for me in the instances that I’ve been responsible for a movie all the way through. It’ll make you wish for more moments that will draw the audience together.
Like the Benjamin Button fantasy in Walter Mitty?
[Laughs] That was longer in the original. There’s more of it than what was in the movie. That’s my favorite part of it.
It’s just so creative and out of left field.
Yeah, but it’s very Ben Stiller. It’s the sort of thing that’s romantic but it’s Ben Stiller romantic, which is a commonality among his films. They wouldn’t have been made without it because only he could have made those movies.