Over the weekend, tied to the upcoming release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented “Ben Stiller Directs,” a survey of the actor/filmmaker’s work behind the camera. After appearing at Saturday night’s Mitty screening, Stiller stuck around to introduce what is possibly his most beloved film, the male-model cult comedy classic, Zoolander.
Zoolander came about, Stiller explained, when his friend Drake Strather proposed casting Stiller as a male model in a satirical short he was making for the VH1 Fashion Awards. “I said, ‘That’s ridiculous,’” Stiller recalled, “and Drake said, ‘Yeah, that’s why I want you to do it.’” The short was well received, so they did another the following year, and the movie grew from that. Because of those shorts, the films’ tone was already established; the important thing to him, Stiller said, was to get the picture’s attitude toward its characters right.
“It’s very important that we take the characters seriously,” he explained, “because the characters in this world take themselves very seriously. And we have to take the characters seriously; all the decisions and the things that they do are very important to them. And as long as we’re consistent with that, as long as we treat them like real people even though they’re ridiculous people, that’s gonna be the consistent tone of the movie — and hopefully make them relatable.”
When Zoolander was originally released, back in 2001, box office was middling and critical reception was mixed. It took a little while for it to become the fan favorite it is now — a familiar feeling for Stiller, as Lincoln Center Director of Cinematheque Programming Dennis Lim pointed out, since his dark, edgy, ahead-of-its-time Cable Guy was received with similar indifference a few years earlier. Lim asked Stiller why he thinks his films take a while to catch on, and benefit so from repeat viewings.
“You put everything into a movie when you’re making it,” Stiller said. “That’s the joy of making the movie, is that you can sort of obsess on it and try to make something you hope will have enough in it that people will want to see it — and then want to see it again. Why people are baffled at first by the films, I can’t tell you! With Zoolander, we did come out about ten days after 9/11, and that was a strange time to release a movie. I don’t know if that affected it in any way, but at the time there was some discussion about whether we should release the movie, and I could never think of a reason that we shouldn’t release the movie at that time — other than it might not do that well, which to me wasn’t the right reason to not release it.”
But Stiller doesn’t mind the delay: “Even if it’s eventually, it’s nice when it connects with an audience.” And hopefully, fans don’t mind the wait for the Zoolander sequel, which has been in development for years now. “Justin Theroux [Stiller’s co-writer on Tropic Thunder] and I wrote a script about two and a half years ago. And we like the script, and at first, we were like, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’ And we talked to the studio, and the studio was kind of into it, but they were trying to figure out the casting and the budget and all those things, and it just didn’t happen right away. But I still like the script, and I could see doing it. I think it would just have to be everything coming together and us doing it.”
So until that time comes, we’ll just have to make do with this glimpse of Magnum (“Blue Steel is the original, but I think Magnum is a little more powerful”), which closed out the Q&A at a fan’s request: