'Secret Life' began trek to production in 1996

Even timid Walter Mitty wouldn’t have dreamed it would take more than a decade to remake “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

With Paramount closing in last week on Owen Wilson to star for “Mean Girls” director Mark Waters, the news made a reality out of what was beginning to seem like a pipe dream.

Credit several fortuitous developments and a ticking clock for making it happen.

Rights holder Samuel Goldwyn Jr. started the process when he made a deal for Jim Carrey to star in the film at New Line, in 1996. He then watched a swarm of A-list writers do additional drafts, and directors from Steven Spielberg to Ron Howard and Chuck Russell come and go.

Goldwyn got back the rights in a very contentious turnaround process from New Line. The deal gave him only until December to get the picture made elsewhere. He finally found some traction at Paramount, where he suddenly had the dream pairing of Spielberg and Carrey.

Goldwyn’s son John Goldwyn, who is producing the film but at the time was a senior Par exec, says it was a dream meeting:

“We’re sitting there with Steven, getting ready to close Jim and Brad Silberling into ‘Lemony Snicket,’ when Jim asks, ‘What ever happened to that Walter Mitty project?’

“Steven says, ‘You mean the old Danny Kaye movie? I’d direct that if you starred in it.’

“Jim says, ‘I’d star in it if you directed it.’ And Sherry Lansing says, ‘I’d finance it if you directed it and you starred in it.’

“She turns to me and says, ‘John, get the rights.’ And I was able to say, ‘I already have them.’ ”

Sam Goldwyn characterizes the Spielberg flirtation as a “disaster,” but the busy director had the grace to step aside because he knew he could not make the turnaround deadline facing Paramount.

The project then took a momentous turn when Sam drafted scribe Richard LaGravenese.

“I’d always felt that unless we got a great script, the movie disintegrates into a series of wonderful gags,” says Sam. “Writers always fixated on that. … (Richard) worked for 10 months on umpteen drafts, and he solved it.

“We went back to the original classic Thurber short story, and Richard added the element of a very strong love story with a full-blown character.”

John Goldwyn had worked as an exec with Waters on “Mean Girls,” and the helmer sparked to LaGravenese’s script. But then Carrey was unable to schedule the film before Par’s deadline elapsed and bowed out.

Up stepped Wilson, a fan of the Thurber story.

Before it had a final budget, Par slotted the film for a Dec. 12 start date, one week before its deadline.

“All you can do with timeless but difficult material is to stay with it, keep slogging through until you figure it out,” says Sam, who’s working on a remake of tuner “Guys and Dolls” and has begun trying to rework the early Danny Kaye hypochondriac comedy “Up in Arms.”

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