I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Ben Stiller: The fun of directing for me is I know what my responsibilities are and then I want the actors to then feel like they can really bring whatever it is they’re going to bring and feel like they can have the opportunity to take the chances and to know that they don’t have to worry about any of that other stuff.
That’s Ben Stiller. Ben knows about movie-making as an actor and a director. And as a student of actor/comedians Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller , who were his mother and father. He most recently directed the 7-part series Escape at Dannemora for Showtime – it’s his latest work in a career that’s included more than fifty movies. Ben and I worked together on a couple of those pictures, so I was really happy when he agreed to visit our studio and compare notes with me about the delicate art of communicating director to actor, actor to director, and actor to actors.
Alan Alda: 00:00 Ben, I’m so glad to have you here today.
Ben Stiller: 00:02 Thanks.
Alan Alda: 00:02 We’ve made two movies together and have hardly seen each other outside of the set.
Ben Stiller: 00:08 I know I’m so happy to see you too.
Alan Alda: 00:10 That first movie, Flirting With Disaster wasn’t that fun?
Ben Stiller: 00:13 I am so proud to be a part of that movie.
Alan Alda: 00:15 So am I. I love that movie.
Ben Stiller: 00:17 Yeah. I mean it was quite an experience making it.
Alan Alda: 00:19 But you and I, I remember one scene, I think it was our first scene together we started to amuse each other with the way we were playing the scene and your way of working was to go under. And when you went under I went under you.
Ben Stiller: 00:35 Right. I think I was probably… first of all I was probably kind of in the same way that I remember when I first worked with Robert De Niro on Meet The Parents, it’s like you are working with somebody, for me, somebody who is in my consciousness because I watched you so much that there’s that moment of “Oh okay I’m with this person who I’m used to just watching and now I’m interacting with them.” And it’s a bit of trying to be cool and trying to-
Alan Alda: 01:12 Well, we were both trying to be cool. And the cooler we got themore it amused us.
Ben Stiller: 01:16 Yes.
Alan Alda: 01:17 And then we got in trouble with the director. We started to break each other up and I felt like we were getting in trouble for being funny.
Ben Stiller: 01:24 Yes. Yeah. I mean, that’s the best, I think the best feeling when you feel like your connecting with an actor like that.
Alan Alda: 01:32 That’s the best thing.
Ben Stiller: 01:32 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 01:33 That’s I think one of the things that makes me want to do it until I’m finished as a human.
Ben Stiller: 01:38 Yeah, no, and I think what’s always interesting is that the other actor is going to give you something that you don’t know what it’s going to be and for me when we were doing that I remember thinking, oh wow, he’s just so… your character was so much who you were making that character, like it was just such a clear point of view for the character that it was so interesting to me to kind of see what was going to come back from you.
Alan Alda: 02:08 That thing with the ping pong ball going back and forth.
Ben Stiller: 02:12 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 02:12 If you don’t have that, if you’re playing solo ping pong it’s not so interesting.
Ben Stiller: 02:18 Yeah, and I think sometimes actors will, I mean I’ve worked with actors who are like that, and not so-
Alan Alda: 02:26 They figure it out the night before and come in and do it at you no matter what you give them back.
Ben Stiller: 02:32 Right. And it can be good what they’re doing. It’s just-
Alan Alda: 02:34 Yeah, it can be wonderful. In fact, I’ve worked with people who were big stars and actually people whose performances I regarded as first-class when I saw them on the screen. But in working with them, when I finally worked with them, I didn’t have that back and forth thing and it wasn’t as much fun.
Ben Stiller: 02:53 Right. Right. Yeah because it was just what it was.
Alan Alda: 02:56 Yeah, and if there was any adjusting you were going to do it.
Ben Stiller: 03:00 Right. Yeah, I mean you know that’s the interesting thing with actors and working in different situations you never know. I mean also as a director I’m sure you know that too. You see that an actor auditions for something and you get what you got in the audition maybe and it was great in the audition but then there’s sometimes that’s it.
Alan Alda: 03:18 That’s it. That used to be a problem when I was kid, there were still radio dramas and soap operas and that kind of thing and actors who only worked on radio could pretty much do one performance.
Ben Stiller: 03:34 Really?
Alan Alda: 03:36 They were used to getting the script, maybe running through it once, and then they were on the air. But you put them in a play where you have to rehearse it for six weeks and then do performance after performance, the epithet was they were radio actors because they gave you the surface performance and had highs and lows and the dynamics but didn’t have much under it. They never went deep.
Ben Stiller: 04:01 Right. That’s so interesting because I never experienced that and I wondered what that process was like. And you never ever did that, did you?
Alan Alda: 04:09 I wrote and directed radio shows on my college station, so I had some kind of amateur radio experience, but my father was an actor you know.
Ben Stiller: 04:20 Right. Robert right?
Alan Alda: 04:21 Robert Alda and he was also, aside from the movies and the stage he was in radio. So I was exposed to a lot of that and I heard stories about that. I heard, “Oh he’s a radio actor.”
Ben Stiller: 04:33 Did you ever go and see as a kid? Go see him work?
Alan Alda: 04:35 Oh, all the time. I stood in the wings and watched Guys and Dolls twice a week for two years.
Ben Stiller: 04:40 Wow.
Alan Alda: 04:41 What about you? Your parents were.
Ben Stiller: 04:42 I mean I grew up, yeah, I grew up around it watching my parents do… well they did a lot of different things. They did their night club act so there was a lot of working at places like Reno and Las Vegas and different clubs.
Alan Alda: 04:59 So you were there with them.
Ben Stiller: 05:00 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 05:01 Did you travel with them as a little boy?
Ben Stiller: 05:03 Yeah. My sister and I would go around with them and then when we got older and it became time to go to school we’d go in the summertime we’d go with them. They used to do a lot of summer stock though. They would go and do-
Alan Alda: 05:12 Oh, so they would do characters.
Ben Stiller: 05:16 Yeah. And they would do Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue and they’d go to do it in Cape Cod at the Cape Cod Melody Tent or they’d go to Dayton, Ohio and do the Kenley Theater. These places where you go and do it for a couple of weeks.
Alan Alda: 05:29 I was an apprentice at the Kenley theater when I was 16.
Ben Stiller: 05:32 Do you remember John Kenley?
Alan Alda: 05:33 I remember John Kenley very well. We would be walking past a parking meter and he’d throw his leg over it like a ballet dancer. He was proud that he could do that. He was about 50 or 60.
Ben Stiller: 05:45 He was a very flamboyant guy.
Alan Alda: 05:46 Very flamboyant.
Ben Stiller: 05:47 And an interesting person.
Alan Alda: 05:48 Did you hear his theory of acting?
Ben Stiller: 05:50 No.
Alan Alda: 05:51 Shout and duck.
Ben Stiller: 05:55 Yeah, I could understand that having experienced him.
Alan Alda: 05:58 Having worked in that theater.
Ben Stiller: 06:00 Yeah. So we’d watch our parents do Prisoner of Second Avenue and my sister and I would memorize it, I’m sure that’s the same way with you watching your dad do Guys and Dolls. So he was doing it on Broadway, right?
Alan Alda: 06:10 He originated the part of Sky Masterson.
Ben Stiller: 06:13 That’s incredible.
Alan Alda: 06:13 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 06:14 That is so crazy.
Alan Alda: 06:15 And one day I got this phone call while I was working part-time as a clown in front of gas stations trying to make a living while I was waiting for acting work and they said, “Is your father Robert Alda?” “Yeah.” “You know the part of Sky Masterson? Because our leading man in this little theater in Illinois just got sick and we open in two days.” And so the question is “Do you know the part?” And I look over at the paper bag with my clown suit in it and I say, “Do I know the part?”
Ben Stiller: 06:50 And you went and you did it?
Alan Alda: 06:51 It was a nightmare.
Ben Stiller: 06:52 Oh my God.
Alan Alda: 06:53 I did, I was so nervous.
Ben Stiller: 06:55 That must have been really interesting because you probably had it by osmosis but you’d never done it.
Alan Alda: 06:59 Right. Exactly. I had to sing and I was having trouble singing in tune in those days.
Ben Stiller: 07:04 You don’t see enough clowns in front of gas stations anymore.
Alan Alda: 07:06 No.
Ben Stiller: 07:08 What was that?
Alan Alda: 07:10 I’d be on Gunn Hill Road in the Bronx.
Ben Stiller: 07:13 Uh-huh (affirmative). Oh my God.
Alan Alda: 07:14 And trucks and cars would be coming by at 60 miles an hour and I’m out there dancing on the hot asphalt.
Ben Stiller: 07:20 That sounds like a punishment for a crime. Like you’re going to dress up like a clown on Gunn Hill road.
Alan Alda: 07:25 Two to 10 on Gunn Hill Road. And I was waiving them into the gas station. I think in six hours of hopping around on the pavement no one ever drove into the… But so, I’m on the way home and the guy was under a car in the mechanic’s room says to me, “You get paid for that? Boy, you got it easy.”
Ben Stiller: 07:51 Its yeah, show business.
Alan Alda: 07:52 What did you have to do? Did you have to work at different things or did you start working right away?
Ben Stiller: 07:58 Well, I wanted to start working right away but I didn’t get a lot of work. I was living at home on the Upper West Side. Since I was like 10 or 11-years-old I knew I wanted to direct movies, I loved movies.
Alan Alda: 08:11 Did you do any directing as a kid?
Ben Stiller: 08:13 I made Super 8 movies.
Alan Alda: 08:15 So did I. Actually with a wind up 16-millimeter camera.
Ben Stiller: 08:18 Okay, yeah. In fact, I just, my parents had a house up in Nantucket, Massachusets that we just sold and they had all these boxes of stuff and I actually just this weekend was going through some of these boxes and it had some of my old Super 8 editing Moviola.
Alan Alda: 08:33 Oh, that’s great you’ve got to keep that on a shelf.
Ben Stiller: 08:35 Yeah, and the Fuji camera that I had, and I had a Kodak Super 8 sound camera too, so I loved it and I would just yeah, I would make these little films with my sister and my friends on the block. And I knew that, that was what I was really interested in. I had a subscription to American Cinematographer and thought for a while I wanted to be a cinematographer.
Alan Alda: 08:57 Did you edit your pictures yourself in those days?
Ben Stiller: 09:00 Yeah, yeah you know you’d splice the film together with glue or tape. And an eight-millimeter film, it’s like half as wide as 16-millimeter film.
Alan Alda: 09:08 It’s minuscule.
Ben Stiller: 09:08 Yeah, so it would be gluing these little pieces of film together. But I tell my kids and stuff, and they look at me sort of blank-faced but that back in the day it was you’d shoot the film, you know it was a three-minute cartridge for Super 8. Take it to wherever the camera store or the drugstore or where ever and send it away to Kodak up in Rochester, New York and they’d process it, it would take three days.
Alan Alda: 09:35 None of that is true now.
Ben Stiller: 09:36 Yeah, and you’d wait for the film to come back.
Alan Alda: 09:37 I know it would be a big day when you’d see that cartridge.
Ben Stiller: 09:40 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 09:41 I know and see I didn’t have editing equipment so I had to shoot the movie and cut it in the camera.
Ben Stiller: 09:49 In the camera, right.
Alan Alda: 09:50 I had one take and then I’d go onto the next take.
Ben Stiller: 09:52 And how old were you when you were doing this?
Alan Alda: 09:53 11.
Ben Stiller: 09:54 Really? What was the movie?
Alan Alda: 09:57 Well, the one I remember is we had a housekeeper and her husband so I asked them if they would be in my movie.
Ben Stiller: 10:05 Our housekeeper Hazel was also like our second mother, got drafted into my films too yeah.
Alan Alda: 10:12 So in my movie, they’re driving a car and I pull up on a horse and hold them up with a gun.
Ben Stiller: 10:20 Oh wow. You had a horse?
Alan Alda: 10:23 I had a horse but whatever made me think that a horse would outrun a car.
Ben Stiller: 10:28 That sounds like an action movie though. That sounds pretty involved.
Alan Alda: 10:32 Yeah, I don’t remember much but the hold-up.
Ben Stiller: 10:34 Right. That’s great though.
Alan Alda: 10:36 So what was your story?
Ben Stiller: 10:38 They were murder stories because-
Alan Alda: 10:40 So you went all the way to murder.
Ben Stiller: 10:43 They were sort of death wish type stories because, or revenge stories. Because I was a kid in the 70s on the Upper West Side and we’d get mugged.
Alan Alda: 10:53 You did get mugged?
Ben Stiller: 10:54 Yeah. Yeah, not violently.
Alan Alda: 10:58 What happened?
Ben Stiller: 10:58 You know they try to take your Timex watch or something like that, or kids would sort of shake you down on the way to school. I went to school on 110th and Amsterdam and lived on 84th street. And so you know, take the bus up Amsterdam Avenue or the Broadway bus and I’d walk between 110th and Broadway and 100th and Amsterdam and it wasn’t a great neighborhood. So sometimes kids would just sort of come up and they’d shake you down a little bit. So I made these Super 8 movies where it would be me and my friends getting mugged and they’d hit us or something and then we’d get up and we’d run into the park and find them and then murder them.
Alan Alda: 11:35 Wish fulfillment.
Ben Stiller: 11:36 Yeah, wish fulfillment, yeah. And they had names like “They Called It Murder.” And “Murder in The Park.”
Alan Alda: 11:41 They Called It Murder, I love that.
Ben Stiller: 11:43 That was the theme. But it was so much fun to make those movies and I put my sister in them and I did my version of Airport. I think I called it Airport 70. They actually did Airport 75 because my dad is in Airport 75.
Alan Alda: 12:01 Oh, no kidding.
Ben Stiller: 12:02 But I did Airport 76 where we had a model airplane and I stuck a bunch of matches in the cockpit and lit it on fire and put it up against the sky and shot the plane up against the sky.
Alan Alda: 12:15 That’s great.
Ben Stiller: 12:15 Yeah, I loved special effects and all that stuff.
Alan Alda: 12:18 We had a pool that had no water in it, so I used the steps of the pool as the entrance to the sacred Inca pyramid.
Ben Stiller: 12:30 Ah great. That’s great.
Alan Alda: 12:33 But when I got to the top of the steps I didn’t have a pyramid so that was the end of that movie. It was a very short film.
You’ve directed a lot of movies.
Ben Stiller: 12:43 I’ve directed a number of movies, yeah. Yeah.
Alan Alda: 12:45 The one series Escape at Dannemora is so, so great. I’m so happy for you that you did that.
Ben Stiller: 12:55 Oh, thanks. Yeah, I had a great time working on it and I think it was also for me finally getting a chance to direct. Well first of all not directing a comedy, which I found was so much more enjoyable really.
Alan Alda: 13:09 There’s no pressure.
Ben Stiller: 13:10 No pressure.
Alan Alda: 13:10 Less pressure.
Ben Stiller: 13:11 Less pressure.
Alan Alda: 13:12 In fact, if they laugh you’re in trouble.
Ben Stiller: 13:15 Right. Exactly, well that’s the other side of it, like when you know are they going to take it seriously.
Alan Alda: 13:20 Yeah because you have this reputation. Did you find that was a problem?
Ben Stiller: 13:23 Not at all. It was an interesting thing. I was kind of concerned like, wow are people… how are they going to look at this? Through what lens? But I found out you know if people are into a story they’re into a story and they’re not thinking about who directed it.
Alan Alda: 13:35 And what a story. It was so well written and beautifully directed. I saw a video of the day where you did that traveling shot at Dannemora. That was the only time you were at the prison right?
Ben Stiller: 13:49 We were up there, yeah we were up there a bit. We got to open up, these guys came out of a manhole a few hundred feet outside of the prison, that’s how they escaped. So we got them to open up the manhole for us and we were able to actually-
Alan Alda: 13:59 Did anybody come out?
Ben Stiller: 14:01 Well no, when we went in, after the fact they had put up all these bars and everything. It was like they’d already kind of gotten out. It’s like just in case anybody ever tries this again. But it was pretty exciting to be able to actually be in the real place. So we shot a number of days up there around the prison, then we got into the real prison for a few days and shot on the yard at the prison, which I felt was really important.
Alan Alda: 14:27 I shot at the Utah State Prison for three weeks.
Ben Stiller: 14:30 Really?
Alan Alda: 14:31 And even as a little going away gift they made me a hostage.
Ben Stiller: 14:35 What?
Alan Alda: 14:35 Yeah, they claimed it was a joke.
Ben Stiller: 14:37 Oh and I bet it wasn’t funny at all.
Alan Alda: 14:40 I didn’t laugh much. I kind of just was quiet and they had me against the wall with a box cutter to my throat.
Ben Stiller: 14:47 That was when you played Chessmen right?
Alan Alda: 14:49 That wasn’t the movie, it was a movie called The Glass House.
Ben Stiller: 14:53 Okay right.
Alan Alda: 14:53 It was a Truman Capote story.
Ben Stiller: 14:55 Right. Yeah well prisons, they’re very heavy places.
Alan Alda: 14:59 They are. It’s no joke. Did you meet a lot of inmates?
Ben Stiller: 15:04 Not a lot because when they let us in they kind of kept us sort of away from the inmate population because I think they were so concerned about security when we were shooting but when I went to visit a couple of times before, we went through the cell blocks and it was interesting. One inmate as I was walking through the cell block said to me, “Just make sure that you tell the truth.” And I thought that was really interesting because-
Alan Alda: 15:35 Tell the truth about prison?
Ben Stiller: 15:36 I think about prison, yeah about that experience is.
Alan Alda: 15:36 What about that story.
Ben Stiller: 15:37 Yeah, I think it was the experience of being in prison and you know it’s a very complicated situation because there are very dangerous people inside but then also these corrections officers can be abusive too and there’s both sides to all these stories. So it’s not a place you want to really… I mean it’s a place you want to leave at the end of the day.
Alan Alda: 16:00 Did it change your mind about the prison system or did it confirm feelings you had? What was your reaction after having been actually there?
Ben Stiller: 16:10 It’s so affecting to be in one of those places. I think the first thing that I got was that what I just said, that’s somewhere you don’t want to be, right? And then to think, okay, even when we were shooting on our set because we built a cell block set because we had so many scenes in it, but it was a very self-contained set where it felt like we were sort of in our own. You know, it actually felt like a real cell block.
At the end of the day, I was so happy to be able to leave. You just never get away from it, so there’s this constant oppression happening and close-quarters interactions with people. You know, violent or not, it’s just human beings who you have to interact with every day for years and years and years. So my feeling was coming out of it, it didn’t feel like a place where people are going to be rehabilitated.
Alan Alda: 16:54 Yeah, I never got that impression at all.
Ben Stiller: 16:57 Yeah, yeah. It’s almost like a place your sort of starved of these human… Sort of the things that make life livable and they’re sort of pulled away from people so they have to find ways to satisfy human needs and that’s why these rules get broken and it’s happening all the time in prisons all over the place.
Alan Alda: 17:19 I found a surprising bizarre sense of order, which was kept in a bizarre way. We mixed with the inmates every day for three weeks. Over 1,000 of them. Some of them were our extras, one guy was our advisor on how to knife a guy. He saw the scene and he said, “You don’t do it that way, let me show you how to do it. You don’t stab them once, you do it repeatedly to make sure you got it.” And there was order in the place enforced by violent behavior. One guy said, “If somebody bumps you accidentally in the hallway you immediately apologize and sincerely apologize otherwise the next day you’ll have a tray from the cafeteria in your face.”
Ben Stiller: 18:10 Right. Yeah, because little things end up meaning a lot because of that.
Alan Alda: 18:14 The pressure.
Ben Stiller: 18:15 Yeah, the pressure and everybody’s living together. So, respect and respect for people’s personal space and obviously the rules that kind of get instituted, the unspoken rules in a place like that.
Alan Alda: 18:30 And you had in Escape at Dannemora, you had a character who was sort of the ringmaster among the inmates, which is probably not uncommon.
Ben Stiller: 18:39 Yeah, I mean I think that was one of the aspects of the story that was really interesting to me was that Richard Matt, who Benicio Del Toro played was sort of within the prison. He really operated as someone who could tell people what to do. He’s respected, he was feared, but when he got released from prison and when he escaped, then his world sort of turned upside down because he didn’t really understand how to survive without that structure around him.
And I think that’s part of because he was institutionalized his whole life this character. You know he’d really, from the time that he was 10 or 11 years old had been sent to juvenile facilities and had never really, you know, and then when he was out in the world his criminal instincts came out so when he got out, when these two guys escaped they were on the run for about 30 days and he couldn’t really figure out how to make it work.
Alan Alda: 19:39 How do you get back in there?
Ben Stiller: 19:43 In a way, yeah. Yeah. I think, you know and that’s something we played around within the story, the feeling of when he was out, like maybe actually wanting to go right back in.
Alan Alda: 19:54 That’s the kind of insight and human interest that the story had that I was so glad to see you develop. Sorry. The performance that Patricia Arquette gave was just amazing.
Ben Stiller: 20:10 Yeah, she’s a pretty amazing person.
Alan Alda: 20:14 We worked together in that first movie.
Ben Stiller: 20:16 Yeah. And that’s the last time that Patricia and I had worked together, in Flirting With Disaster, so it was nice to reconnect with her. And I feel like when you know somebody for a long time, even if you’re not that close with them, there’s sort of… You know if you’ve worked with them and you’ve had a good experience working together, there’s sort of a trust that develops and it felt like, just kind of even though we hadn’t spent time together over the last 20 years or so, we kind of just fell back in to that sort of relationship.
Alan Alda: 20:46 That trust really is important. In a way we were talking a few minutes ago about the trust that two actors gain by tossing the ball back and forth but when you’re working with a director or the other way around if your working as a director with an actor, if you don’t have that trust you’re missing a kind of important element don’t you think?
Ben Stiller: 21:10 I do. I mean I know there are directors who are sort of famous for not working that way or manipulating actors.
Alan Alda: 21:18 The famous Hitchcock thing, actors are cattle.
Ben Stiller: 21:21 The cattle, yeah.
Alan Alda: 21:22 Somebody said he didn’t really say it but maybe he didn’t say it but he kind of acted on it.
Ben Stiller: 21:28 Well, I think there are directors that have a bigger vision and see the entire movie in their head and they see the design and the cinematography and the actors kind of all as equal parts of it. And then there are directors that really don’t care at all about the visual aesthetic or they feel the visual aesthetic for them is just letting the actors shine and I think as an audience I can enjoy all types of movies because if it’s a great filmmaker who does that, who creates this world may be the experience of working with them as an actor isn’t as satisfying for the actor. And probably ultimately maybe they don’t get as much out of the actor as they could but it serves a purpose within. You know that’s what the director does and directing is so subjective, so you know there’s all different ways it can happen.
Alan Alda: 22:25 I’m interested in how you approached the problem or the question of how you relate in different ways. In Escape at Dannemora, you’re telling a human story and the objective at least in part is for them to behave like people and get insight into the characters. Then when you’re working with a story that’s more like sketch comedy where it’s very important to get a laugh every few seconds you have a different but similar problem of communicating to somebody that’s good but it could be funnier and that’s hard.
Ben Stiller: 23:06 Right. Yeah, it’s a different perspective I think it’s a different sort of lens that you’re looking at it through. You know, look, most of my career up until doing Dannemora I had been directing comedies, usually movies that I was in myself also, which is a whole other aspect to it.
Alan Alda: 23:26 It’s better not to isn’t it?
Ben Stiller: 23:27 It felt so freeing not to. And there are people who do it really well. It’s funny I just saw Jason Bateman recently who’s really great at acting and directing himself and you know, he’s really embraced that and he said to me, “Isn’t it great because it just takes out, it sort of takes the middle man out.” I thought well that’s a great way of looking at it. I said to him, “I’m kind of like in the other place of I don’t want the responsibility anymore.”
Alan Alda: 23:59 Yeah, the older I get the less attention I deal with.
Ben Stiller: 24:01 And that’s what you’ve done in your career also right? All the films you directed you starred in too and wrote right?
Alan Alda: 24:08 Right. And that’s three ways to fail.
Ben Stiller: 24:11 That’s a lot of responsibility.
Alan Alda: 24:12 And all the three ways interfere with one another. Now when I’m in a movie where somebody else is the director I feel so good that he or she’s going to worry about where the camera goes, where the cut goes.
Ben Stiller: 24:25 Yeah. And for me, I agree, that’s the fun of directing for me is I know what my responsibilities are and then I want the actors to then feel like they can really bring whatever it is they’re going to bring and feel like they can have the opportunity to take the chances and to know that they don’t have to worry about any of that other stuff.
Alan Alda: 24:50 What do you do when they change the dialogue completely without asking if it’s okay?
Ben Stiller: 24:57 You know, I am not… For me, because usually, it’s not something that I’ve necessarily written myself or by myself or obsessed on, but I do feel like sometimes there’s a line of dialogue that if it’s better, I’m okay with it. If it feels like, oh that actually makes sense. But you know sometimes there’s a way a line is written, there’s a rhythm there that the writer wrote for a specific reason. Example, Noah Baumbach who’s new movie you’re so great in.
Alan Alda: 25:28 Thank you.
Ben Stiller: 25:29 He writes a very specific cadence with his dialogue and I think kind of… I don’t know if he did this with you but he made me say every line exactly as he wrote it. Like down to the…
Alan Alda: 25:41 Yeah, I don’t remember that.
Ben Stiller: 25:42 Yeah, okay well I unfortunately, do remember and I count Noah as one of my best friends and I feel lucky to be anywhere near one of his movies.
Alan Alda: 25:54 He’s really terrific.
Ben Stiller: 25:56 But he is very exacting and I think that’s because he hears it in his head and then you have to… I think it makes sense because that’s become what the… You know, that’s what the movie is. It’s like your speaking this language that everybody is speaking and each character has their own voice but it’s still part of a whole. So for me, I’m okay with it and also I feel like it’s just a take and I always look at that as an actor too that it’s just one take. Sort of taking the pressure off myself.
Alan Alda: 26:24 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 26:24 You know?
Alan Alda: 26:25 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 26:25 Like I’m going to try this, this is probably not going to be in the movie, it’s not the take you’re going to use, so let’s go that way once and it sort of them frees it up to be kind of almost like a rehearsal or something. But it happens to be being filmed.
Actual rehearsals, though, can be tricky. Ben and I get into that right after this short break.
This is C+V, and now back to my conversation with Ben Stiller, and the role of rehearsals in movie making
Alan Alda: 26:40 Do you get to rehearse? Did you rehearse Dannemora much?
Ben Stiller: 26:43 Well you know, first of all when there’s so much to shoot on one of those limited series it was basically almost an eight-hour story. So you can rehearse a scene or read a scene.
Alan Alda: 26:57 You can’t rehearse an eight hour play.
Ben Stiller: 26:59 Right. So there’s a scene that we’re going to shoot in three months but let’s read it through now and we probably won’t even remember what we did three months later. For me, there was a couple of weeks we had for rehearsal and what it became more about was sort of maybe reading a scene through once, discussing what was going on, talking about the characters and really a discussion with the actors to talk about what they felt was going on with their character.
Where they were coming from, questions they had about the script and kind of knowing that hey we’re going to be going into this thing where there’s so much there to shoot we’re going to be… Because I usually will storyboard and plan out shots and videotape rehearsals and then figure out the angles before shooting but again with this thing there was so much that it was kind of having to let go of a lot of that and just go okay we’re going to get there on the day and I know these two guys are in a cell so that’s going to limit our possibilities for blocking, which was kind of also a little bit comforting too. It’s like I know that they’re not necessarily going to move around a lot but then we’d go into the… Oh sorry.
Alan Alda: 28:17 Did you pull your plug out?
Ben Stiller: 28:18 Yeah. So we’d go into the cell with the actors and the actors had very specific ideas. You know Benicio, Paul Dano both really, you know they were very invested in their characters, which is great because they’re coming from a point of view of their character and I’m really looking at it from some other perspective, which is the whole in my mind as I see it.
Alan Alda: 28:42 So Benicio would say, “I’m standing over here you have a problem with that?” Invested in his character.
Ben Stiller: 28:48 Yeah sometimes so that does lead you to the strategy sometimes of saying, “Hey you know I think you should stand over here.” When you know that you really want them to stand over there. So then they go “Well I think I’m going to stand over there.” I’m like, “All right if you got to.”
Alan Alda: 29:08 That’s what my uncle used to call reverse psychology.
Ben Stiller: 29:10 Exactly. But I think honestly in reality what it is more is I think an actor wants to feel like they have a chance to… Like I don’t like it when I come on to the set and the director says, “Okay you’re here and then you’re going to go here because I got this great shot where I’m going to see him in the background and I worked out this really cool angle.” To me I immediately bristle at that because I think oh wait, I don’t want to just be a part of his cool shot. I have motivation and I know what I’m doing.
Alan Alda: 29:43 Well there’s the challenge of different impulses and different visions and the director has the overall vision but if he doesn’t share it with you and take what you have to offer he’s shortchanging the picture I think.
Ben Stiller: 29:59 Yeah. And I think the best directors that I’ve worked with allow the actors to feel like they have a say in what they’re doing and figuring it out for themselves even if they have an idea in their head of what they think it should be and maybe they are doing the reverse psychology trick on me and I don’t even know it, you know? Or some version of it, but that’s fine because I just want to feel like I’m coming to it in a way that makes it feel organic for me. Like I find blocking to be the most important aspect of working on a scene because as an actor it can really throw you off if you’re told to go somewhere or do something that doesn’t feel organic.
Alan Alda: 30:41 That throws me off. Sorry, that throws me off and the other thing that throws me off is to go where I feel an impulse to go in the first rehearsal and after I do it a few times I realize that’s totally wrong and now I’m stuck with it.
Ben Stiller: 30:57 You’re stuck with it, yeah. Well you know there’s some directors, these guys the Safdie brothers.
Alan Alda: 31:03 No.
Ben Stiller: 31:04 Josh and Ben Safdie?
Alan Alda: 31:05 No.
Ben Stiller: 31:06 Who did a movie, they have this new movie coming out with Adam Sandler called Uncut Gems that is really, really good and they did a movie called Good Time with Robert Pattinson and I haven’t worked with them, I know them a little bit, and the way that they work is very loose and no marks and kind of letting the actors do their thing, and they’re capturing in a style that’s very on the fly that works for their style of their movie. But that’s got to be really, really freeing for an actor too when all of a sudden it’s like oh wait a minute I don’t have to go there.
Alan Alda: 31:37 Then it’s really an improve.
Ben Stiller: 31:38 Yeah. And I think your right, sometimes the second or third or fourth time you go wait a minute, this is the way it should be. And that for me, is when the director should see that and then be able to roll with that and go, “Yeah you know what, your right. If we did the other angle maybe we got to do that other angle again to fix that.” Or whatever but it’s more important to just get it right and to get it feeling right.
Alan Alda: 32:03 Yeah, I have the feeling Brando felt that way completely because I’ve seen several of his movies where he doesn’t match from one shot to the other. You know there was a wide shot and they come in for a tighter shot and his hand is in a different part of his body.
Ben Stiller: 32:16 Right, right. Yeah, and he probably was, I know he was doing that at a time when probably nobody was doing that.
Alan Alda: 32:23 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 32:24 You know and it’s still always going against the grain when you’re making movies too because I think there’s all these people there that have been making movies for their whole career, like if it’s a sound guy or the first AD and they’re used to the accepted structure of how you make a movie. And really there are no rules. There are no rules, you can do it any way you want but we’re used to this thing-
Alan Alda: 32:50 Yeah. I watch all the time now when I see a movie, I’m always watching a movie imagining what’s happening off-camera.
Ben Stiller: 32:57 Right.
Alan Alda: 32:59 I’m watching with Arlene and I say, “Oh it must be a drone shot.”
Ben Stiller: 33:02 Right, right. Well, that drone piece of equipment has changed movies, hasn’t it? Because now you see so many more of these crazy overhead shots. Shots that you used to only be able to get with a helicopter.
Alan Alda: 33:15 And the helicopter would blow the crap out of what’s on the ground but the drone doesn’t.
Ben Stiller: 33:21 Though I still think they haven’t perfected it because the drones can’t carry the big telephoto lenses and so they just don’t have the-
Alan Alda: 33:31 So what you get is a big wide shot.
Ben Stiller: 33:33 Wide shots, yeah. But to me, I love a great long-lens helicopter shot. There’s nothing like that and you can feel that.
Alan Alda: 33:43 I’m trying to remember seeing that, I don’t remember seeing that. But you know, it sounds to me like you’ve been experimental all your life. Like your great album Roadkill. That was pretty experimental.
Ben Stiller: 34:00 Oh wow. I can’t take credit for that. We had a bandleader, Chris Robling who was my high school bandmate who really was the guy leading us into experimental land with that.
Alan Alda: 34:10 So how old were you when you made that?
Ben Stiller: 34:13 15. 15, 16, yeah.
Alan Alda: 34:17 And the story I heard was your parents paid for the making of the album.
Ben Stiller: 34:23 I think Chris’s parents and my parents paid for the studio time and were supporting our creative impulses and we had no reason to be in a studio. We did not know what we were doing.
Alan Alda: 34:36 You sound like a real drummer on that to me.
Ben Stiller: 34:38 I’ve gotten better since then.
Alan Alda: 34:41 Do you drum all the time for fun?
Ben Stiller: 34:43 In the last, I’d say seven or eight years I picked it up again, started taking lessons again and I really enjoy it. I love it, yeah.
Alan Alda: 34:51 I had a friend in high school who was a drummer and I got him to teach me a little bit so I got as far as the paradiddle.
Ben Stiller: 34:58 Yeah, the paradiddle. And then there’s the double paradiddle.
Alan Alda: 35:02 I think I do a double paradiddle by accident.
Ben Stiller: 35:06 Those are all the rudiments and the rudiments are what you learn if you take lessons and they’re the hardest to get. Like five-stroke roll, seven stroke roll and you know that’s the kind of boring stuff that you have to do if you’re a kid you have to practice and you want to just be playing rock and roll beats. So basically I didn’t really spend much time on the rudiments and learned how to play a rock beat.
Alan Alda: 35:30 Did you compose any songs at that time?
Ben Stiller: 35:32 No. I’ve never been musical that way. I took some piano lessons when I was… Probably before I started playing the drums. I took violin lessons before that and nothing ever took. I just don’t have that. I mean you know Ginger Baker? He just passed away, he was a great drummer. He was the drummer for Cream, the band Cream and there’s a great documentary about him and he talks about whether or not somebody has time. He says if you have time you have time if you don’t you don’t. And I definitely don’t. But true musicians have that within them you know.
Alan Alda: 36:07 Yeah, Arlene and I had a friend who was I think an oboe player and after playing some chamber music somebody complimented him on his rhythm and he said, “Yes I have perfect tick.”
Ben Stiller: 36:23 Oh yeah, I love that, yeah.
Alan Alda: 36:27 Was it the same group that made the album that played at your bar mitzvah with you?
Ben Stiller: 36:33 No, that was a different group. You’ve been doing a lot of research.
Alan Alda: 36:39 Well, the thing I love about that-
Ben Stiller: 36:43 I don’t want Alan Alda digging into my life.
Alan Alda: 36:46 We have ways of making you talk.
Ben Stiller: 36:47 Where are we going with this?
Alan Alda: 36:49 No, it just killed me that I heard you say once that your father didn’t like the Beatles because he thought they were saying, Hey Jew.
Ben Stiller: 36:58 That’s right. He thought the song Hey Jude was Hey Jew. And even when he was corrected I think he still sort of took it that they really meant that.
Alan Alda: 37:07 It’s too close.
Ben Stiller: 37:09 Exactly. It’s like well why even get close. But yeah, no, that was just me and my friend Jonathan who lived in my building playing bass and we played that at my bar mitzvah.
Alan Alda: 37:26 You played at your bar mitzvah.
Ben Stiller: 37:30 We played Hey Jude, yeah.
Alan Alda: 37:31 You played Hey Jew.
Ben Stiller: 37:37 We played Hey Jude. And it wasn’t that great. But yeah, so I just sort of like would play around, then got into Capital Punishment was the name of the band.
Alan Alda: 37:45 How did you arrive at that title?
Ben Stiller: 37:48 We were trying to be anarchic and kind of you know, be edgy and we thought I mean a bunch of kids from the Upper West Side going to a private school.
Alan Alda: 37:57 But you were a bunch of smart kids. I mean the most amazing part of this story is you now already got together to make more music.
Ben Stiller: 38:07 Well yeah, so then about two or three years ago Chris who lives in the city and was sort of the band leader, we’ve stayed in touch and stayed friends over the years and then the other members of the band, Peter Zeusy is a professor of Eastern European literature at London College in England and Peter Swan who played bass is chief justice on the Arizona State Court of Appeals.
Alan Alda: 38:41 And together with them, you made Roadkill.
Ben Stiller: 38:43 Yeah, so we got back together again. Well, we made Roadkill back when we were 15, 16. And then Chris got everybody back together again and said, “Hey why don’t we just record a few more songs?” And so we went in the studio, this little studio in Brooklyn and it was just fun because it had been so long but I did feel I’d actually gotten a little bit better as a drummer because I really was not good back then.
And now I actually felt I could play decent. Kind of keep time and kind of you know play a basic rock beat pretty okay. So we went in and we did it again and then we decided to do a little mini-concert and we put out the message for Calhoun, which is the high school I went to, all the kids we went to school with, and it became like a reunion.
Alan Alda: 39:33 Oh, that’s great.
Ben Stiller: 39:33 Yeah, so it’s like kids I hadn’t seen in 30, 35 years.
Alan Alda: 39:36 So is this coming out as an album?
Ben Stiller: 39:38 No, it’s not. Well, I guess there’s a recording I think you can get. I think you can get it on Spotify actually.
Alan Alda: 39:46 Really?
Ben Stiller: 39:47 You can. Yes. And there is a little mini-documentary.
Alan Alda: 39:50 Of the making of it?
Ben Stiller: 39:51 Yeah, that Pitchfork made, the music site. So that’s actually a really cool little 45 minute documentary about us getting back together.
Alan Alda: 40:02 I’ve got to look at that.
Ben Stiller: 40:03 Yeah. So that was really fun because I think to have a chance to reconnect and you know when you get to this point in your life when you have that much time between an event and to think about how long ago that was and have that connection today I really appreciated that.
Alan Alda: 40:22 So I think it might be fun for people listening to hear a little bit of the first album and a little bit of the group getting together decades later.
Ben Stiller: 40:33 Yes.
Alan Alda: 40:33 Like what number should we play for the first album?
Ben Stiller: 40:36 Oh wow. Well, the song Confusion is probably…
Alan Alda: 40:43 Probably a good description? What about the latest one?
Ben Stiller: 40:51 The latest one, I’m trying to think what the best track would be. I mean hang on a second, let me see. I can get it up on my Spotify. There’s… It’s actually interesting because I think the older stuff is much more experimental and weirder and then the new stuff felt… Oh, I can just play it, want me to play it?
Alan Alda: 41:20 Yeah, yeah, good.
Ben Stiller: 41:20 Okay.
Alan Alda: 41:25 The magic of podcasts.
Ben Stiller: 41:26 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 41:27 So we’re running out of time but at the end of our shows we ask seven quick questions and they’re not embarrassing questions, don’t worry about it. You’re okay with this right?
Ben Stiller: 41:39 Bring it on.
Alan Alda: 41:41 First question, what do you wish you really understood?
Ben Stiller: 41:48 How the economy works. Because I’m really not good with that and I try to understand it and I never had any training in economics at all and math, I’m math-challenged. I’m just not a math person. So I’m really, you know when people talk about the economy and what moves the economy and what changes the value of money. You know I kind of understand it but I don’t understand what really makes it happen.
Alan Alda: 42:17 Yeah. Sometimes I need for them to say “And that’s a bad thing.” Before I really know if it is or not.
Ben Stiller: 42:24 Right. And you know really that idea of what the base of having a gold standard or what that means. I get it, there’s a precious metal but to me, the greater question of money is really interesting because we put such a value on it in our society but what is it really?
Alan Alda: 42:41 That’s why the song has the guy selling his soul.
Ben Stiller: 42:45 Right, there you go.
Alan Alda: 42:49 Yeah. Next question. How do you tell someone that they have their facts wrong?
Ben Stiller: 42:55 It depends on who the person is. If they’re coming at you with something that’s not true and telling you something that’s not true…
Alan Alda: 43:09 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 43:11 I think it just depends on the person. You know it’s hard sometimes because you don’t want to embarrass somebody if they’re interviewing you.
Alan Alda: 43:20 Oh right.
Ben Stiller: 43:20 Right? If they’re saying “So there’s a story about you.” And they’re telling you some story that never happened. So you don’t want to go, “Well I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” And then you can also sound sometimes like defensive like “Well no that didn’t happen.”
Alan Alda: 43:37 Right. It’s hard either way.
Ben Stiller: 43:39 Yeah. That’s something, you know, being direct with someone, that’s a bigger question, like being able to be direct with people, which I think is an important thing that sometimes could be hard.
Alan Alda: 43:48 What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Ben Stiller: 43:56 Gosh. That’s a good one.
Alan Alda: 44:07 We got to have music in here.
Ben Stiller: 44:08 Oh my God. I mean.
Alan Alda: 44:11 What’s that Jeopardy music.
Ben Stiller: 44:11 Can I send it back to you?
Alan Alda: 44:14 Do I know what the strangest question anybody ever asked you is?
Ben Stiller: 44:14 What’s a weird question someone…
Alan Alda: 44:20 I think the strangest question anybody ever asked you is the one I’m asking right now.
Ben Stiller: 44:21 Okay, then I’ll take that one. I mean, no, no, that’s a great question.
Alan Alda: 44:24 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 44:25 I mean I’m sure I’ve been asked strange things. You know, I don’t know, people sometimes will… I’ve had strange requests. I always find it strange people will come up and say, “Can you do something for me?” If they recognize you, you know?
Alan Alda: 44:43 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 44:45 That’s always weird.
Alan Alda: 44:47 You asked me, the strangest question I ever got was from a six-year-old in a hotel restaurant and he looked up at me for a long time and he said, “How did you get out of the TV?”
Ben Stiller: 44:59 Wow.
Alan Alda: 45:00 I think he was six. Or maybe younger.
Ben Stiller: 45:04 And what did you say?
Alan Alda: 45:08 You know I don’t remember what I said. I think it was… I don’t know what I said.
Ben Stiller: 45:15 Strange question, yeah I don’t know. Strange is also an interesting word. You know? What’s strange like weird.
Alan Alda: 45:22 Yeah, what’s strange depends on the circumstances.
Ben Stiller: 45:24 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 45:25 Okay. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Ben Stiller: 45:32 It’s hard to stop. I find that people who are compulsive talkers usually don’t listen.
Alan Alda: 45:37 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 45:38 So you can stop them for a second, right? But they’re really just kind of waiting for you to stop talking, so they can start talking again usually. I find it really hard to interact with people like that because they have such a preconceived idea of whatever it is they’re thinking. So they can be interesting and I’m thinking of a couple of people I know who are really, actually like very famous people who are incredibly interesting people.
Alan Alda: 46:05 Yes, are we on the verge of hearing names now?
Ben Stiller: 46:08 I’m not going to say any names but incredibly famous.
Alan Alda: 46:13 And they won’t stop.
Ben Stiller: 46:15 They won’t stop talking but-
Alan Alda: 46:17 Always about themselves or about anything?
Ben Stiller: 46:19 Yeah, but it’s all interesting and I enjoy listening to it because they’re telling you these stories that you go, “Oh my God I can’t believe this person’s telling me that story.” But they’re not as interested in really hearing what you have to say. I’ve been around people like that, it’s not necessarily a bad thing because I find it’ll be like that with almost anybody who’s put in front of them.
Alan Alda: 46:41 When you get that feeling it kind of diminishes your sense of your role in the whole interaction.
Ben Stiller: 46:47 Exactly, it’s I’m just the human being that’s in front of you.
Alan Alda: 46:49 Yeah. All right, the next one. How do you like to start up a conversation with someone who you don’t know at a party?
Ben Stiller: 46:58 Wow, that’s a tough one too because I’m not good at that at all.
Alan Alda: 47:02 At like a dinner party where you’re sitting right next to them.
Ben Stiller: 47:04 I usually would probably say, “Hey how are you doing?” Probably introduce myself.
Alan Alda: 47:11 Right. Does it tend to lag after that?
Ben Stiller: 47:15 Yeah. I am not good. Dinner parties stress me out I’ll say that.
Alan Alda: 47:18 Yeah, cocktail parties stress me out.
Ben Stiller: 47:20 Yeah, well cocktail parties at least you can move around to somebody else if it’s not happening, right? And that’s very awkward, “I’m just going to…”
Alan Alda: 47:29 I’m just going to get away from you.
Ben Stiller: 47:30 Walk away. Or how can you do that without insulting the person? Like this is pretty good but I’m going to go see if there’s something better. That’s basically what it is.
Alan Alda: 47:39 You can’t do that at a dinner party.
Ben Stiller: 47:41 What do you do? Yeah, I find it so stressful. Like we were at that birthday party and that was a dinner party and I feel like oh I have to be interesting. More than worrying about what they’re going to tell me, it’s like how am I interesting to whoever it is across from me.
Alan Alda: 48:01 Well, these are really interesting answers. Here’s one I want to know, what gives you confidence? Or do you have any?
Ben Stiller: 48:11 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 48:12 I think you do, you certainly seem to.
Ben Stiller: 48:14 Well, confidence, here’s what I think for me, I think I probably was a lot more confident when I was younger. In that way that you can be when your younger because you don’t have that self-awareness of thinking, well maybe I’m being a little too cocky or maybe I think I know what I’m talking about but I don’t.
Alan Alda: 48:34 You remind me of a line Tolstoy a couple of times in War and Peace and I noticed it because he used it more than once. “He was young and so he thought everyone loved him.” And that’s a little like the confidence you’re talking about.
Ben Stiller: 48:48 Yeah, and I think that allows you to, and by the way kudos to you for reading War and Peace because I have never done that.
Alan Alda: 48:55 I had to read it in three days because I was up for a part in it.
Ben Stiller: 48:59 Really?
Alan Alda: 48:59 I was 18.
Ben Stiller: 49:00 Oh my God.
Alan Alda: 49:02 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 49:03 That’s daunting. Anyway, for me, yeah I think I had this sort of confidence where like oh yeah, I’m going to do it this way and I really thought I knew what I was doing and that allowed me to take chances and do things I probably wouldn’t have done.
Alan Alda: 49:19 So how do you get confidence now? Now that you know more?
Ben Stiller: 49:22 Well, I’m thankful now that I have a sense that I don’t know that much because I feel like the flip side of that is you can end up alienating a lot of people I think because your kind of going, with your confidence.
Alan Alda: 49:35 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 49:36 And now, it’s you know, to be honest, it’s a combination of things because I think sometimes somebody tells you they liked something you did, right? That’s a very shallow, yet good way to get confidence, right? If somebody says, “I thought that show as great.” And somebody you respect, that gives me confidence like oh that’s an affirmation.
But ultimately what if I made Dannemora and you didn’t think that about it and nobody said they thought it was good, would I still feel confident about it? And that I find more challenging you know? I find that it’s harder, so finding that in yourself I think when you do something that you know inside feels good, feels right, that your proud of, that you’ve worked hard on, that does give me confidence. But ultimately it’s probably the more shallow outside affirmations.
Alan Alda: 50:39 That’s very honest but you also get it from knowing that you did it.
Ben Stiller: 50:45 Yeah. Well, finishing something.
Alan Alda: 50:48 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 50:49 Completing a task or doing something that’s challenging I think being able to affect some sort of change within yourself or you know I think that does give you confidence to know that you can complete a task and you can do something and get it done, that comes from experience.
Alan Alda: 51:13 Experience.
Ben Stiller: 51:14 Yeah.
Alan Alda: 51:14 I hope that’s the last time you have to listen to that.
Ben Stiller: 51:19 That’s all right.
Alan Alda: 51:22 Here’s the last one. What book changed your life?
Ben Stiller: 51:28 Oh, that’s a good one. Well, immediately I want to kind of go back to something that I read when I was younger because I feel like that’s where you get so affected by a book or movie or something you see or read because it just, that’s when it can affect you and probably when you’re the most impressionable. I remember reading Kurt Vonnegut when I was a kid like I was probably 10 or 11-years-old.
Alan Alda: 52:07 Which one?
Ben Stiller: 52:09 Cat’s Cradle.
Alan Alda: 52:11 And how did that change you?
Ben Stiller: 52:14 I think because it was this sort of… I guess it was the first time I was experiencing a reality. It was sort of not necessarily real reality but it was a world that was created and had all these ideas of what could happen and there was something so new about it to me that was very, very exciting. It was so exciting to me that I guess it was the first time I was experiencing a world on-page that wasn’t my own world but yet related to it. So I could kind of fall into it.
Alan Alda: 52:51 Was that like a spur to your own imagination?
Ben Stiller: 52:53 Yeah, imagination. Like the excitement of my imagination getting spurred and then Slaughterhouse Five or something like that because that did have that fantasy element of it and you know I think that’s one of the reasons why Kurt Vonnegut’s books, young people get so affected by them because also when you try to make a movie of a Kurt Vonnegut book you can’t really do it because it doesn’t really translate you know? That reality. So it lives inside your head but that really affected me. Can I give you another one?
Alan Alda: 53:25 Yeah.
Ben Stiller: 53:26 There’s a short story I read by E.B. White called the Second Tree from the Corner that was just a little short story that about a guy riding the bus home after going to his therapist and I read it when I was about 14 or 15 and I hadn’t gone to a therapist at that point but somehow I connected with it. Because the question in the story is… The therapist asked him what do you want? What do you want in life? And the guy couldn’t answer the question.
Alan Alda: 53:54 So did you take that question personally? Did you think what do I want?
Ben Stiller: 53:59 Well, it made me think about it yeah, because the idea of the short story is that he can’t really quantify it and the therapist says, “I know what I want. I want a new wing on my house and I want to go away for the weekend there.” Like he sort of broke it down to some material thing and the protagonist of the story basically goes, “I don’t really know what I want but I know that it has something to do with the feeling I get when I look at the second tree from the corner.”
Alan Alda: 54:25 That’s nice.
Ben Stiller: 54:27 And how it makes me feel and that’s what life is about, you can’t quantify it.
Alan Alda: 54:32 So that’s how you became a gardener.
Ben Stiller: 54:34 Exactly.
Alan Alda: 54:37 It has been great talking with you Ben, thank you.
Ben Stiller: 54:39 You too Alan.
Alan Alda: 54:40 I really am glad you could come in.
Ben Stiller: 54:41 I’m happy to see you.
Alan Alda: 54:42 Me too. Bye, bye.
If you haven’t seen “Escape from Donnemora” yet, I really encourage you to watch the series. I think it’s brilliant… and Ben Stiller’s talent as a director really leaps out. The series is available now on Hulu. And you can sample the work his youthful band, the one WITH THE EAR CATCHING NAME “Capital Punishment.” You can find Capital Punishment’s experimental post-punk Album “Road Kill” on Spotify.To keep up with Ben, you can follow him on Twitter at: @RedHourBen … and he’s doing good work for worldwide refugees as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UNHCR. The UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees. You can find out more about his advocacy at: unhcr.org