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Steven Conrad re-imagines 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

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NEW YORK — When screenwriter Steven Conrad was hired to write a draft of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" three years ago, he knew the degree of difficulty would be high. After all, over a development period of more than 15 years, about a half-dozen writers had unsuccessfully given it a shot, some with logical pedigrees (Peter Tolan, "Analyze This"), some less likely (Richard LaGravanese, "The Fisher King").

"I didn't think of it as Kurtz — six writers had tried and never been heard from again," said Conrad, tossing in an ominous "Apocalypse Now" reference. "But I did want to start fresh and create something that was totally my own," said the writer with such mainstream dramas to his credit as "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "The Weather Man."

Conrad returned to the source material — James Thurber's brief but pointed 1939 New Yorker story of the same name — and, as he describes it, "tried to imagine what Thurber's Mitty would be doing if he was alive today."

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What he's created with the new film, which Ben Stiller both directed and stars in, and which 20th Century Fox will release on Christmas Day, is a delicate tale filled with both whimsy and pathos. It's less the gag-heavy version some may recall from Danny Kaye's 1947 movie and more of a drama with comedic touches (and, of course, the property's trademark fantasy sequences).

In the short story, Mitty is a nebbishy man who ferries his wife to shopping excursions in their Connecticut suburb every weekend. While waiting for her, he imagines a life far grander than his own — as a fighter pilot or as a world-famous surgeon.

Conrad's Mitty, a photo staffer at a faltering Life magazine, is prone to similar daydreams. But he isn't married. In fact, he's pining for the attractive co-worker down the hall whom he can barely talk to (Kristen Wiig), though he imagines romancing her (in some of the movie's fantasy cutaways) with Spanish poetry and tales of mountain-climbing adventure. The film also features Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn in supporting roles.

Instead of the retiring man with dreams of WWII-era glory, Conrad's creation is actually a rich personality who once showed promise as a skateboarder — he just was derailed a little as a teenager after his father's death, settling into a workaday stasis. He now "zones out," as his family calls it, imagining he's doing things like rescuing dogs from burning buildings, superhero-style — before an unexpected event involving a missing photo prompts him to try to bring some of those adventures to life.

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"Thurber's inspiration for me was to examine how we measure ourselves against our daydreams," Conrad said. "And then it's a matter of 'what are the cost of those daydreams?'"

The screenwriter, 44, is a serious man, prone to thoughtful if slightly earnest responses. His influences, he said, are diverse. For this film, he wanted to channel the spirit of 1970s human dramas such as Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" (with a dose of 21st century effects). His goal was to tell a story using a quiet, slowed-down tone and doling out the adventures in careful amounts.

The writer sipped a drink at a hotel overlooking the city, the Time-Life building where key scenes in the film were set and shot is just a few blocks away. Conrad was intent on placing the story at the landmark magazine because it offered a kind of dramatic juxtaposition. Here was a man surrounded by some of the greatest achievements of the previous century but who had never been anywhere interesting besides Nashville, and even then, as the script quips, only on a layover.

The character, Conrad noted, reflects a kind of "haunting incompletion" we all feel, about the novel we haven't written or the band we never played in.

But most of all, he said, what "Mitty" actually boils down to is a love story. "It's really about a guy who wants to get the courage to ask a girl out on a date," Conrad said. "He just has to go around the world to do it."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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