What a Trip: ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Co-Producer on His Journey-Within-a-Journey

(© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.)

Walter Mitty is a 9-to-5 guy who routinely daydreams about being the star of a movie filled with excitement, heroism, and romance. Then, one day, when his job (and his co-worker’s) is on the line, he embarks on a global journey that’s remarkably similar to his daydreams. For The Secret Life of Walter Mitty co-producer and production designer Jeff Mann, the journey of bringing James Thurber’s classic story to the screen was personal — and unexpectedly intense. Here, he talked to Gilt about working with a text he loved, translating nuances into visuals — and finding a really awesome leather wallet (and lots of other excellent objects) along the way:

What were the joys of working on this movie?
It’s not often that you get a creative challenge like this movie was, working with material I came to love. Often I’ve been tasked on projects to bring visual bells and whistles where there was inherently not much to “ooh” and “aah” over. But here, there was so much thoughtful substance to the job. Summer popcorn movies can be fun to work on, but often just don’t resonate on a human level.

Jeff Mann

And what were the challenges?

Working with such an awesome script. It was literary, imaginative — built on little moments. Though the tonality fluctuates, there’s a core emotional connection within it, and a glorious thread of ennui that links it all together.

Wait, that doesn’t sound like a challenge?!
Well, after I read it, I was like, ‘Jesus, how are we going to make this into a movie?’ As a screenplay it was very unconventional. But my team and I had so much fun with the challenge — trying to build on, yet preserve, that lyrical, nuanced voice and tone…

So, in a sense, the challenges were joys, too? Talk about a win-win…
Yes. As we started to feel more connected to the script, this writing, we gained confidence. It was a feeling of contributing to a whole — something you can’t really explain until you’re sitting in it. It was a high point of my career — as much of a journey as a filmmaker as it was a journey within the story. My team and I were on a voyage of discovery; we were all contributing to giving shape to something that’s a little mysterious. We just had to admit that we weren’t going to know everything right off the bat. It started to inform itself, and we became the instrument of its self-informing. That’s a glorious place to be.

The props were key in giving shape to the movie, too. Tell us about some of your favorites.
There are so many, and Diana Burton, who we call our “prop master,” gets the credit here: The soccer ball, used in the scene where Walter plays soccer with locals in the Himalayas — it’s tied and woven similarly to how the locals would actually do it. Then, the leather wallet: given that it’s something that’s procured “out in the field,” we didn’t want it to look like something you’d just go and buy on Fifth Avenue. So we asked Chris and Kirk Bray of Billykirk to custom-make it with exposed, heavy stitching and embossed lettering that was slightly irregular. For the FLIP downhill skateboard, made by the L.A. company Sector 9, we created the Icelandic-Thor-god-street-art vibe it needed to feel place specific. And the bike — it’s a take on a retro town bike, well-used, as though it’s in heavy rotation in a lending library.

Stiller with FLIP skateboard (© 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Corp. All rights reserved.)

Stiller playing soccer (© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.)

How about the clothes? We love how they’re definitely stylish but don’t upstage things… and it’s hard to place them in time.
This is the handiwork of Sarah Edwards, our costume designer. We wanted the movie to exist in a timeless space, and the clothes contribute to this. As far as Walter’s clothes, he’s a creature of habit, and keeps it simple. It’s like he thought about his wardrobe one time, and created a utilitarian grouping of pieces… a uniform of his own devising that works, in a way, like a cloak of invisibility.

Watch a 6-minute trailer here, and see the movie starting Christmas Day.

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One Response to What a Trip: ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Co-Producer on His Journey-Within-a-Journey

  1. Anonymous says:

    Jeff Mann is, without a doubt, the best Production Designer in the business today. I’ve been in the film industry for 23 years doing Special Effects and he brings a beautiful cool to every project.

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