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Ben Stiller in New York in early December.Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, doesn't have much to do with the James Thurber short story, a rather dated henpecked-husband fable first published in The New Yorker in 1939. What it's more about is Walter Mitty the name, a byword for an insignificant man who lives a rich fantasy life. Comically aggrieved underdogs, of course, are Stiller's stock-in-trade, but his new movie is also a work from a director, paying tribute to the power of film.

Stiller plays a dedicated photo archivist and humble drudge working for the Manhattan offices of the soon-to-close Life magazine. When the negative for the magazine's farewell cover image gets lost, Walter goes on a worldwide jaunt (with Iceland locations serving as itself, Greenland as the Himalayas) to recover a missing image from a globe-hopping photojournalist played by Sean Penn.

The imagery in the film's second half, shot by Jane Campion's cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, evokes the great American photo-magazines of the last century, with their sense of adventure and escape. Partly, the film's a tribute to a fading art.

"I shot the movie on film," says Stiller on the phone from New York. "I don't really like digital. What always strikes me, when you go to the postproduction process in the labs, is that what they're trying to do with digital is simulate film anyway. I get it, why people want to shoot digital in terms of costs, but I'm old-fashioned."

Stiller, 47, the son of the comedy team of Jerry Stiller (George's dad on Seinfeld) and Anne Meara, has almost always been in show business – at five, he played violin on The Mike Douglas Show. In his 20s, he established himself as a writer-performer on television, on two different incarnations of The Ben Stiller Show on MTV (1990-1991) and Fox (1992-1993) and had planned a dual career, as director and actor. That balance altered after his breakthrough star turn in the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary (1998). In the past 15 years, Stiller has, arguably, been Hollywood's top comic star, heading three family-friendly franchises, Night at the Museum, Meet the Parents and Madagascar; his films in that period have collectively grossed more than $2.6-billion (U.S.) in domestic box office.

While Stiller, the actor, is a family-friendly everyman, Stiller the director has a separate track: A real filmmaker with a subversive edge, an heir to the deadpan satires of Albert Brooks. His five films over the past 20 years include the Gen-X feature Reality Bites (1994), The Cable Guy (1996), Zoolander (2001) and Tropic Thunder (2008). Ultimately, he has said, he wants to direct more and act less. Or find films like Walter Mitty, which offer a chance to use his star talent to get the kinds of films he likes made.

That said, Walter Mitty was no safe choice. The film has one of the most troubled histories of any major production in recent Hollywood memory. An earlier Walter Mitty film, starring Danny Kaye, was made in 1947 by producer Samuel Goldwyn. His son, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., first attempted to make a remake in 1994, starring Jim Carrey. Since then the project has gone through a lawsuit, innumerable rewrites and been associated with such directors as Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg and Gore Verbinski. The list of stars attached to it over the past two decades has included Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Johnny Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Stiller read the script in 2011 as an actor, at a point when there was no director in place. He immediately saw it as a directing opportunity: "No one had come up with a script that everyone felt could work up to that point," says Stiller. "I just felt it could be a really good, interesting movie."

He also sent extensive script notes to screenwriter Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness).

Stiller had worked with Goldwyn's son, John Goldwyn, a studio producer, on Zoolander, and put his name forward as Walter Mitty's director, along with a five-minute reel showing his vision for the film. Though Fox executives considered it a gamble, they approved Stiller to make the $90-million special-effects-heavy feature, both as star and director.

The real Life magazine closed down in 2000, followed by various monthly and other iterations, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was never intended to be a period piece.

"It's not specific that way," says Stiller. "I mean, we shot 57th Street on the real 57th Street [in New York], and we tried to create an impression of the Life magazine offices, but it's not documentary realism. We didn't want to be locked in that way. I felt it was important to give those early scenes a slightly heightened look to set us up for the film's second half without too much of a surprise."

Film buffs may sense echoes of Billy Wilder's 1960 office-drone comedy The Apartment, which he acknowledges. "Of course, The Apartment has influenced so many films. But, yeah, the scene in the office, before we're transported to the Arctic, owes something to The Apartment," says Stiller.

There's also a suggestion of the visually rich comedy of French director Jacques Tati in the sleek production design that sometimes dwarfs the characters. Stiller says Tati's 1967 film Playtime is a favourite, "especially for its amazing production design."

In the film's second half, the visual style shifts. When Walter Mitty heads out to Greenland, Iceland and the Himalyas, Stiller tried to use "real settings as much as possible, occasionally enhanced with CGI."

He mentions a specific scene when Walter encounters the photographer played by Sean Penn: "I'm still kind of frustrated by that scene. We were on top of this amazing glacier but I needed a close-up for the actors so I couldn't really show the whole landscape."

Throughout, of course, there was the issue of being in front of the camera in almost every shot, as well as directing: "It's not just one challenge," he says. "It depends on the demands of the scene. But I rehearse extensively with my cast, and I plan the shots with my crew, so we're well-prepared and can deal with what happens on the day."

And, finally, there was the issue of inhabiting the character, whose name is a byword for an ineffectual fantasist, and making him into a sympathetic human being who learns to take charge of his life.

"For Walter, it was important not to portray him as a weirdo or oddball," says Stiller. "He has these feelings he's suppressed so long he doesn't know he's suppressing them, and when he begins to act out his fantasies, he no longer needs to daydream. You try to show what he doesn't say, which is your job as an actor."