Prep is often the most stressful period in a production, the moment when the fantasy of what the movie could be meets the limitations of budget, time, and talent—and Stiller is tenacious in his defense of the most sumptuous version of a film.Jeff Mann said, “Ben’s always going to say, ‘Let’s find the best, most expensive examples that anyone has ever done, and use them as a template.’ It’s like, dude, this is a moment, in a comedy—it doesn’t have to be the stormiest storm ever.” But Stiller wanted “Mitty” to be much more than a standard studio comedy; he hoped to make a film so original that it would transform his image.Brown, who has worked on some thirty films, later told me, “This is probably the hardest one, because the fantasies are all distinctive, and because Ben is so determined that each one feel real.” Brown asked about Alpine Walter, the daydreamed mountain-climber persona who beguiles Cheryl with his derring-do.The snowy peak that would appear in the middle of offices would itself require a separate set, and Brown, eying the budget, wondered how Stiller planned to achieve the look of the “taller, chiselled” version of himself described in the screenplay.“Alpine Walter is an idealized version of Walter,” Stiller said. Something you guys can do, by tweaking me digitally, to make it look Though five feet seven, Stiller is as much a leading man as Viggo Mortensen—from the right side.“With ‘The Ben Stiller Show,’ he created the way modern sketch shows are shot, by employing the visual style of the thing he was parodying. People talk about improv in my movies, but it all comes from me watching Ben work.”At forty-six, Stiller is arguably the world’s biggest comedic movie star, an audience magnet in both R-rated scabrousness and PG-rated family fun.He has sold more than five billion dollars’ worth of tickets to such comedies as “There’s Something About Mary,” “Dodge Ball,” “Night at the Museum” (and its sequel), “Madagascar” (and its sequels), and “Meet the Parents” (and its sequels). of Dream Works Animation, who worked with Stiller on the three animated “Madagascar” films, cheerfully explains how their partnership operates: “Ben beats on me unmercifully with chains, sabres, and two-by-fours, delivering his anxieties, frustrations, and ambitions at full velocity.”Stiller’s prodigious input can stun his collaborators; new arrivals to the “Tropic Thunder” set were told, “Welcome to Ben Stiller’s comedy death camp.” When Stiller asked John Hamburg to do a last-minute rewrite of the 2006 film “Night at the Museum,” the writer says, he found himself on “an eight-hour conference call, on my cell phone, with Ben in Hawaii, where he was supposedly on vacation.To me, it’s always been against the grain to do this in a tank in New York”—where much of the film would be shot, from April through July, before a final month in Iceland. He often peers down at his own obsessiveness and finds it absurd.
This vibe: sunset, storm, God-rays of light from the sky?Stiller was starring in a comedy, “The Watch,” that was filming nearby, and, when you’re a director who also happens to be a movie star, everyone comes to you.Stiller cued up an episode of “The Deadliest Catch” on a flat-screen TV and paused the action on some hellacious waves from an Arctic storm.That’s the side that amplifies the jittery nods and frustrated winces and wide-eyed outcries—his eyebrows fleeing the lies his mouth is about to tell—that make him a straight man nonpareil.If you ask the average person to name some movie stars, Brad Pitt and George Clooney and Will Smith will spring to mind, and Stiller will be an afterthought.If realized on film, the moment would be signature Stiller: the put-upon Everyman striving for dignity as the mayhem escalates.