Exclusive Interview: Theodore Shapiro on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller’s re-imagining of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very musical film. Walter (Stiller) is a photo editor working on the final print issue of Life Magazine. When the cover photo goes missing, he has to travel to Greenland and Iceland to find the photographer, his first real adventure after a life of imagining greater things for himself. The investigation of the photo is accompanied by a specific mystery theme, separate from the overall whimsical themes of the score. At one point Walter imagines his love interest (Kristen Wiig) strumming a guitar and singing about Major Tom to motivate his quest. We got to speak with composer Theodore Shapiro, who has actually worked on a number of Stiller films, not only the ones Stiller directed. He took us through his collaborations with Stiller and the themes of Walter Mitty.
CraveOnline: You’ve been composing for movies Ben Stiller only starred in, as well as the ones he’s directed. Are you his personal composer?
Theodore Shapiro: We have a great relationship going back almost 10 years. It started out with me writing music for Along Came Polly and Starsky & Hutch. He really liked both of those scores, and he asked me to work on Dodgeball which he starred in and produced. So that was really the beginning of our working relationship. Then Dodgeball went really well, so we’ve just continued to work together. I love working with him. He’s really an amazing collaborator so it’s a very fruitful relationship.
Was Dodgeball like composing a regular sports movie, and Starsky & Hutch a regular cop movie?
Absolutely. That’s always the way that I try to approach a comedy is just as though it is a serious version of what it is. Just approach the storytelling the same way that I would if it were a drama. With Dodgeball, I treated it like the most serious sports epic ever. Similarly with Starsky & Hutch, we approached it like a serious gritty ‘70s cop drama and that was a lot of fun too.
What’s the tone of a romantic comedy then?
Every movie is different, first of all. So you can’t make a blanket statement. I think that the main thing is that you want the music in many cases to just feel really grounded so that the audience can really relate to the characters having a relationship with each other. Again, I think that if it’s comedy, then you want a light touch and you want there to be room for an audience to feel like it can laugh if there are laughs in the movie, but the main thing is just having music underline there being a grounded emotional connection to the characters.
With Walter Mitty, what was your decision to use vocals in the score?
So Ben and I from the very beginning of our conversations about the movie, we started talking about incorporating an artist into the score, a vocalist. I think that both of us liked the idea that a voice could be the voice in Walter’s head and it could both be Walter’s voice, it could be the voice that was calling Walter from beyond. It can do so many things within the narrative so that was what we pursued. Also, we liked the idea that there would be a link between the score and the kind of song palette that Ben was thinking about using. Jose Gonzalez really ended up being the perfect person. His voice was tonally just right for the kind of dreamy quality that we wanted as the musical voice of Walter. Of course as an artist he lives in that same world that a lot of the songs come from.
What was the mystery theme you came up with?
The mystery theme is a really simple four-note theme played on these bowls, these metal bowls. That’s a good question. You’re the first person to ask me about that and I always felt like one of the main attractive things about this story is that it is basically a detective story. The more we could get the audience to feel that sense of wanting to solve the mystery, the more engaging the film would be. I really made a concerted effort to give it a slightly detective feel, still within the language of the score but to give it that sense of mystery that would make the audience want to engage and involve with the developing story.
What was the cue for the transition into a fantasy sequence?
One of the things that I started playing with in the film was the idea of using the sound of a pocket watch as really one of the organizing ideas of the score. I liked the idea that you would hear a very literal sound of a ticking watch that would evoke the idea of Walter’s very regimented daily life, and that when he would go into a fantasy, you’d hear that sound start to warp and become a different thing.
In the first fantasy sequence in the film, which is the building rescue, at the beginning of the cue, you hear the ticking of the watch in the background. When he leaps off the subway platform and flies through the air, the sound of that watch then becomes the whole percussive section. I worked with a great sound designer named Mel Wesson who designed all of these pocket watch sounds that would just take that pocket watch sample and warp it and do all sorts of interesting things. In that cue, I said to him, “Here’s the composition. I want you to make the pocket watch be all these different percussion instruments” and he really rendered it beautifully.