The pace of his life would probably never be mistaken for slow, but mid-to-late October seems relatively calm for Ben Stiller.
Sure, his Red Hour production banner has a burgeoning number of film and TV projects in the oven, the continuing fate of his blockbuster “Night at the Museum” franchise hangs in the editing room, and there’s the always-immersive prospect of a wife and young kids at home.
But October is no August. And chatting on the phone from his L.A. office, the multihyphenate — often called intense by respectful colleagues — is in the mood to make some jokes when a reporter brings up the fact that he’s this year’s Museum of the Moving Image honoree.
“It was one of those things where they asked and I said, ‘Are you sure you want me?'” he quips when informed that the kudos have also gone to Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Dustin Hoffman and several other notables in recent years. “I think the Rock must have been unavailable this year.”
Perhaps the levity is coming a little easier than it did just 70 days prior, when the prototypical comic everyman was on location with Fox’s “Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian,” trying to juggle his lead role in a sequel to a 2006 pic that grossed nearly $575 million worldwide with the promotional demands of one of the more important openings of his career, “Tropic Thunder,” a DreamWorks comedy he co-wrote, helmed and starred in.
He concedes that being largely focused on a pic like “Museum 2” helped keep his nerves from being too wracked by a theatrical bow that was, at that point, out of his control.
With box office assets worth more than $3.5 billion going in, Stiller’s portfolio is certainly too diversified to be bankrupted by the plight of a single opening. But Stiller had a lot on the line.
A star-studded, Hollywood-skewering comic homage to Vietnam-themed action pics, “Tropic Thunder” was personally important to him — Stiller and co-scribes Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen had spent years trying to get it made.
It’s not like Stiller had never put his unique vision at risk before. He wrote, helmed and starred in 2001’s male-model-goofing “Zoolander.” It was as out there as anything he’s done, and it was a modest success. But this latest film was pretty expensive as comedies go, with a budget reportedly coming in at around $100 million.
In fact, Stiller himself had gotten into the red zone several years ago with another bigtime Red Hour comedy project, “Used Guys,” only to have the studios get cold feet once they looked at the pricetag. He knew as well as anyone — maybe better — that laffers of this scale aren’t easy to get made.
Meanwhile, the soggy Kauai shoot was arduous by all accounts, with the filmmaker himself — a well-known perfectionist — passing out “I Survived Ben Stiller’s Comedy Death Camp” T-shirts at the end of it.
And the film itself was bold as hell, featuring a lead character (Robert Downey Jr.) in blackface as well as Stiller’s own role that had him intrepidly venturing onscreen into the comedic gray area of the mentally disadvantaged — a journey that drew the ire of no less than 20 disability groups.
The movie opened Aug. 13. Stiller was — to put it mildly — accountable.
“It was just really hard to find the time to do all the press and everything else that was expected of you when you’re trying to shoot a movie at the same time,” says Stiller, referencing the challenge posed by his multitasking while downplaying any sense of real nail-biting pressure. “I don’t know that I’d want to do that again.”
Not that his career didn’t come out of the jungle better than ever. The pic raced out of the gate and grossed nearly $160 million worldwide, with critical buzz muting controversy that never moved beyond the tepid. And these days, rather than being characterized as a stern, workaholic taskmaster, Stiller’s caricature is more that of a comic visionary whose grasp of nuance and knack for hard work allows him to take risks that other funnymen can’t.
“You feel the pressure with every movie,” notes Stuart Cornfeld, who serves as Stiller’s Red Hour partner along with Jeremy Kramer. “But with ‘Tropic Thunder,’ the end product is something we’re very proud of. It’s not like all the other comedies that are out there. It has a unique and specific vision, and that’s due to Ben being the writer and director.”
Not that Stiller has to write and direct to put his stamp on a movie.
“You don’t phone it in on a Ben Stiller movie,” concedes “Night at the Museum” franchise helmer Shawn Levy. “You actually work as hard as you’ve ever worked. But Ben provides an exceptional level of creative energy. ‘Night at the Museum’ was nowhere near what it became without him in the lead.”
But going forward for Stiller it might be good to be the auteur more often.
“I love directing,” he says. “I think that’s what I love doing the most.”
In fact, Stiller seems emboldened with a new sense of creative mandate.
“It’s a good lesson,” says the son of comedy legends Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. “It’s inspired me to get other (personal projects) made.”
Those include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a comic satire adapted from a George Saunders novella. “That’s something that I really want to direct,” he notes.
While Stiller might be branching out into some different things, don’t look for him to abandon his work ethic anytime soon.
“It’s great to really believe in something after you’ve had it for so long and people have said, ‘No, we’re not interested,'” Stiller says. “Projects like ‘Tropic Thunder’ get made by consistently working at them, and I think the thing I’ve learned by having my own production company is that it is work. You have to create your own momentum a lot of the time.”
What: Museum of the Moving Image Salute to Ben Stiller
When: Wednesday night at 7
Where: Cipriani 42nd Street