The sense of fun and excitement on the production of his latest film “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” in Vancouver is palpable, with cast and crew in high spirits. In a break from filming, Stiller, dressed in green khaki pants and a blue hooded sweat shirt actually cycles through the galleries, stopping in one of the museum halls on the set and parks his bicycle, before settling down to chat about the film.
Stiller is one of Hollywood’s leading comic actors and filmmakers. Show business is in his blood. He is the son of husband and wife comedy team, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara and as a child began making movies at home on a Super 8 camera. Always interested in films, he originally planned to be a director and is now an accomplished and innovative actor, director, producer and writer.
Stiller, back in his museum uniform, is filming one of the many scenes from the enormously entertaining sequel, which promises to be even funnier and more exciting than the original hit. This time the stakes are far greater, involving much more than one museum. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. America’s capitol has 18 museums and they are in danger, unless Larry Daley and his historical ‘friends’ can come to the rescue. Daley has been called back in to the museum world to help avert disaster.
Why did you think a sequel was a good idea?
“The original movie had a great vibe; people seemed to get a good feeling watching it. I knew right away that it was a movie I would want to see, especially if I were ten or twelve years old. It would be my dream movie. Making the original Night at the Museum helped me reconnect with my own childhood. The idea of all the museum exhibits coming to life was just a cool idea. I think there was a real sense of humanity to it and it was easy to relate to. It was fun and a very different idea, and I think people like seeing things that are unusual. There was also a natural progression that could happen in a sequel, with other places to go.”
So is this one entirely different and fresh?
“It seems to me that this one is even more exciting with a better story and an actual antagonist, and Larry is in a different place this time. In the first movie, I was discovering things and having to react; I can not believe these things are coming to life. In the second one, Larry knows what is going on and it is really more about having to interact in a different way with the things that come to life because he’s already experienced it before.”
What are the challenges you face with this sequel?
“I think people have an expectation for a sequel; they want one, but they don’t want to see the same thing. They want it to be better, which it should be. I thought the script was better this time. It was exiting to have all the main actors come back and great new actors coming on board.”
How has Larry’s character developed and moved on?
“In the first one, Larry had taken the job as a security guard because it was his last chance to hang onto a relationship with his son. In the second one, he is really successful; he is rich and has a different journey, which is about reconnecting with what makes him happy. He still comes back to visit his friends but he’s moved on and has become a little distant from the life at the museum. And then he gets the call from little Jedediah (Owen Wilson) because they are updating the Natural History Museum and all the old exhibits have been shipped to the Smithsonian. They are in trouble and so Larry has to see what’s going on with them. I get back in my uniform because I have to sneak into the Smithsonian, and it is there that the adventure continues.”
What was it like working with Amy Adams?
“I had the best time with her; she invigorated the whole film. In the first film I had to react to different situations, running around on my own. It was quite lonely. So having a relationship, someone to interact with, is great. Amy’s character, Amelia Earhart, has a real zest for life and she helps me to get in touch with what I’ve been missing. Obviously she is made out of wax, so there is not really a great future for us. Amy is such a good actress. She brings innocence to the role because she is playing someone in a slightly different reality, but she also delivers that tough 40s-style Katherine Hepburn banter; she’s just amazing. Amy has the ability to take a stylized character like this and give her an actual humanity.”
How much fun is it working and improvising with this fantastic international group of comedians?
“Completely fantastic. In some cases I grew up watching these people I wanted to be like; they made me want to do comedy in the first place. I respect them so much and working with them is really cool. Christopher Guest, who plays Ivan The Terrible, is one of our great comedic filmmakers and actors. And it was great to get a chance to work with Hank Azaria again (who plays Kahmunrah). He is an old friend and is just brilliant. He is funny but also imposing; there is a fine line to playing a character like that and he figured it out. Owen Wilson is back and so is Steve Coogan. Kids love their miniature characters and it is interesting to see how they are invested in the reality because the acting is so good. Robin Williams is fantastic as always and Ricky Gervais is amazing. We made each other laugh all the time.”
Do you particularly like working with comedians you know well?
“Yes, it’s great working with people you can improvise with and try new things. The director (Shawn Levy) was looking for that spontaneity.”
How challenging is it working with characters who are not actually there when you are filming?
“You have to commit and react to something that’s not there, and just trust that it’s going to look believable and real. In the first film working with the dinosaur a lot — or the lack of a dinosaur — was very educational for me. Having that knowledge in my head made it easier going into the second one, doing scenes with a squid, or flying cherubs that aren’t there. You use your imagination a lot more because they’re going to do all of the animation later so you actually have a lot of freedom to improvise.”
Are there some interesting creatures in this one? Last time you had lots of antics with the monkey for example.
“Yes, I felt it was important to have a lot of fun with creatures in this film too. We have a giant squid and another monkey, a space monkey. It was challenging. You don’t think ‘great I am working with the monkey today’, but it is funny. The first one was an exploratory process in many ways with the animals because we had no idea how the movie would turn out. With the second one we have a head start because we know what works.”
Are there any specifically funny scenes you can discuss – for example with Owen?
“Owen and I were never were in the same place at the same time because they always shoot the little people later. So I do all my scenes with a little matchstick; I am literally talking to the matchstick. I have this emotional scene with Owen and I am holding him in an hourglass and he’s not there. It is pretty funny; there is just a little plastic doll of him so I would laugh and make a joke with Owen that we interact best working with dolls of each other. There were a lot of funny experiences on the movie. We had to do a slap fight with the monkeys. Apart from Dexter (from the last film), in this film we have the Space Monkey Able, who went up into space with NASA. He comes to life and we get into a double slap fight with Dexter and Able. I get slapped by both of them but I was not allowed to slap them because of animal rights so I had to slap a dummy or a tennis ball; it was a weird experience.”
What is it like working with Alain Chabat, who plays Napoleon? Watching the two of you fighting was just so funny.
“Alain is great; he’s so dry and funny. He has the ability to be very subtle but he can also go really big if the scene calls for it, so it was fun to work with him. I get to be taller than him in the movie.”
You are also a director. What is it like starring in a film like this that you are not directing? Is it a relief in some ways to have Shawn Levy at the helm?
“It is a relief in that there is so much less responsibility in terms of keeping the movie afloat, watching the budget and staying on schedule — all those considerations. As an actor, you can just show up and do what your director wants you to do. The director has to be the engine pushing the movie forward all the time. I appreciate working with a really good director like Shawn, who knows what he wants. If I have an idea I’ll tell Shawn but that is part of our collaboration and like most good directors, he welcomes ideas from anybody. I can come in and have fun. I love directing and it’s great to be able to do both but I am happy just to act in this one. How often do you get a chance to work with these actors, these environments and these sets? How often do you get the chance to get up close and personal with a giant squid?
I know you love museums and continuing the historical museum theme must be great fun. Is it?
“I loved museums growing up. The Natural History Museum in New York was such a special place for me as a kid. I had been to The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. just once when I was 15, but I hadn’t been back till we started shooting this film so that was interesting. I love the technology at The Air and Space Museum; I’m a big STAR TREK fan and they have the model of the USS Enterprise (the fictional starship), and then just to see the actual Spirit of St. Louis (the monoplane that was flown solo by Charles Lindbergh in 1927) or the space capsule that John Glenn orbited the earth in, was fantastic. Going to the actual Smithsonian to shoot for a couple of days was also fun; to actually go behind the scenes was incredible.”
Was history a passion when you were a kid?
“Yes, I don’t know what it was but I just enjoyed feeling a connection with the past. I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist for a long time. I loved ancient Egyptian history. In fact, I just recently went to Luxor and Cairo in Egypt. I visited the Valley of the Kings where King Tut (Tutankhamun) is buried and there are all the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs there. Then I went to the Pyramids and that was a lifelong dream for me; it was pretty exciting.”
Obviously the film is entertainment but it is actually quite educational because we learn a lot from these movies don’t we?
“Yes that’s the thing. I joke with Shawn that there should be some kind of warning: ‘this is not based on historical fact’ because we definitely aren’t sticking to history precisely but I guess it is good to get kids interested in these historical figures.”
As a father it must be great making a film like this.
“My kids aren’t that impressed. They see me as their father first and I am really happy about that. I also have to go away to do these movies. So all these things are complicated as parents. It is an interesting balance that you have to strike because you want your kids to enjoy the fantasy of movies but then, as a parent you want them to understand what you do so that you can explain why you are going away when you are leaving to go to work. Small kids don’t get it and really there’s no reason why they should. You say ‘I have to go away to work’ and they say ‘but I want you stay.’ My three year-old visited the set of this film and when he saw Attila the Hun, his first question was: ‘Why are you chasing my Daddy?’ Attila explained to him that he had to do that as part of the movie, that he was angry with Larry and Larry was running away from him, and he also added that I was faster than he was. In the end he had a good conversation with Attila, so they dealt with it. My daughter is really excited that Amy Adams is in the movie because she loved Amy’s film ENCHANTED. So Amy came over to our house and had a tea party and that was pretty special.”
Overall, what can audiences look forward to with this film?
“An exciting story with so much more going on because the Smithsonian is not just one museum, so there are many different environments. We go into photographs; you see paintings come to life. You see rockets take off and fly around the Air and Space Museum. It is definitely a lot of fun.”
Most of the comedy in this film and most others comes from men. Why do think that is? Is there some kind of prejudice that women comedians face?
“I do think there is and I think it comes from men. I am surrounded by funny women in my life: my mother, my sister and my wife. My wife Christine is hilarious. I don’t think it is true that men are funnier than women. There have been funny women for years like Gilda Radner and Catherine O’Hara. There is no one as funny as Tina Fey just now, male or female. I think that in general though, there’s a certain ‘men’s club’ sort of attitude about comedy in terms of how men see women. But it goes deeper than that. I think men want to see women in a certain light, it’s subconscious and they are not even aware of it. It has to do with men’s outlook on women. Hopefully, that will change.”
How much of your own comedic talent is inherited from your famous parents do you think?
“I obviously get a lot from my parents. They used to rehearse their sketches at home in the living room and they were very funny. But sometimes you couldn’t tell if they were rehearsing or fighting because they would yell at each other. They had this sketch called ‘The Hate Sketch’, which involved them screaming about how they couldn’t stand each other: ‘I hate you so much’, ‘Well I hate you this much’ and we’d listen at the door and knock, and they’d be like ‘no, we’re just rehearsing. It’s fine! “
Is it true that you were ‘directing’ movies as a child?
“I always loved acting and directing. I made little home movies when I was kid; Death Wish-style muggings with revenge plots. A kid would get mugged and then he’d run after the other kid and beat him up, and that was it. My dad was in the real film AIRPORT 1975, and my sister and I made did Airport ’76 with a Super 8 camera. We turned the foyer in our apartment into the plane. My sister played the stewardess and my friends in the building were passengers and then we made the plane crash; we had a model and we set the model on fire and blew up the cockpit of this 747. It was all pre-9/11 of course.”
Having grown up in show business, is acting still a passion for you?
“Growing up, it was exciting being around the business because my parents did so many different things: TV shows, movies, night club acts, plays; there were so many different experiences. I loved being around it. I have a great job; it’s always different, and to have the chance to choose projects in the way that I can is a real luxury as an actor so I don’t ever take that for granted. It is still a great passion and there is no reason to do it if you do not love it.”
Finally, would you consider another sequel?
“I think a European jaunt that would be good — maybe a trip to The Louvre or The British museum. There are many other exciting places to explore and bring to life.”