“Don’t believe anyone who tells you they know what they are doing. William Goldman, the screenwriter, once wrote ‘nobody knows anything’ in the movie business, and it is true. I know I don’t.”

BEN STILLER has written, starred in, directed, or produced more than 50 films, including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Zoolander, The Cable Guy, There’s Something About Mary, the Meet the Parents trilogy, DodgeBall, Tropic Thunder, the Madagascar series, and the Night at the Museum trilogy. He is a member of a group of comedic actors colloquially known as the Frat Pack. His films have grossed more than $2.6 billion in Canada and the United States, with an average of $79 million per film. Throughout his career, he has received multiple awards and honors, including an Emmy Award, multiple MTV Movie Awards, and a Teen Choice Award.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

I have a lot of unusual habits that I don’t think I should go into here. I love stopping on the side of the road whenever I see a historical marker and reading the whole thing, and then sometimes exploring the site. While not absurd, I can sometimes go down the rabbit hole of this kind of thing and take big detours from my schedule.

I like to dunk my head in a bucket of ice in the morning to wake me up. I don’t think it actually is therapeutic but it is definitely invigorating and probably absurd looking.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
I was given The Second Tree from the Corner, a book of short stories by E. B. White, when I was a teenager by my older sister’s friend. It has always been so inspiring . . . it’s a simple inner monologue about a guy in his psychiatrist’s office trying to answer the question of what he wants in life. It is simple and uniquely moving in that it distills how ephemeral and fleeting moments of happiness can be, yet that’s what life’s mystery is all about. The humor and emotion of the story moved me at a young age and connected with something inside I previously could not articulate.

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me Nine Stories by Salinger. The story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” affected me deeply. A simple story about a soldier dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (though not called that at the time) and how a short encounter with two children while he was in the war comes back to help him after he is back. The gut punch of the ending, which is little more action than reading a letter, made me realize the power of storytelling. It encapsulates what art can do—move you, and in such a simple way. The story is about human kindness and how a small act can mean so much. This idea, coming to me at a formative age, really affected my attitude toward art.

The Jaws Log is a book written by Carl Gottlieb, the screenwriter of the movie Jaws. It is a day-by-day account of the making of the movie. It is filled with the details of making a movie on location. It was incredibly inspiring to me—I wanted to be a director and Jaws came out when I was ten years old. I loved the movie and was fascinated by everything having to do with it. I ingested the information and it sort of became my bible for filmmaking as I set out to make my Super 8 movies with my friends. A book like that at the right time, that feeds your desire for knowledge about a specific craft when you are just learning about it, can be formative. I still remember the texture of the tattered paperback cover and how excited I was to read and reread it. Also now, in this new age of digital filmmaking, it is a great chronicle of how movies were made back when the process was much more analog.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
I found the right backpack [Incase City Collection]. It makes a big difference, since it is sort of my portable office/pocketbook. For a guy, unless you carry a “purse” (man purse), I think a backpack is essential. It always seems to end up getting overstuffed, and when it does, I remind myself I don’t need to carry everything with me all the time. Getting one with a good top compartment for wallet, keys, etc., really makes life easier.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
I think the commercial and critical failure of The Cable Guy would be what I look back on as the most educational and spirit building. The making of it was a pure creative experience. We basically did what we wanted, and the power of Jim Carrey to take a chance with that movie afforded us that. So in making it, we felt fulfilled and excited. But when it came out, everyone hated it and no one went. It was pretty shocking, mainly because I never experienced such a high- profile project not doing well. It hurt, as failures always do, but I think the first time you go through something like that you don’t know how to emerge. And when you finally do, it gives you a perspective you could never have [otherwise]. In terms of how people react to art or entertainment, you learn that it sometimes goes well and it sometimes doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that the cause and effect are connected. In other words, you always do the best you can in the moment, and then it either connects or it doesn’t. Going forward, I was less innocent or maybe naive about that. Then, when I did something well received after that, it was always tempered by the knowledge that it didn’t mean that the project itself was better or worse. I think that was very helpful. Also, with movies, you learn that the true mark of “success” is whether people still connect years later. If the movie has a “life.” With Cable Guy, I have found it does, more so than other movies I made that were more “successful,” when people mention it to me, I find it even more fulfilling.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere, what would it say and why? Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?

“BE HERE NOW” (something I am constantly trying to do, though not always successfully).

Because life is short, and we only have the current moment. Our memories are precious but they are the past, and the future is not here now. As I get older, I am trying to live fully in moments with the people I love and care about. I have spent a lot of years focusing on the next thing, and, in so doing, stressed about things that ultimately don’t matter or bring happiness. I keep trying to sort of “relax” into where I am now, whether it is where I want to be or not.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
Taking time to breathe when I feel stressed. I will try to just breathe and concentrate on my breath. I find it really relaxing, and it helps me refocus and reset.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I think people are too aware of trying to figure out what’s “hot” and trying to emulate that. Ultimately, you need to develop your own voice as a filmmaker or even as an actor. It takes time. In terms of bad recommendations, don’t believe anyone who tells you they know what they are doing. William Goldman, the screenwriter, once wrote, “nobody knows anything” in the movie business, and it is true. I know I don’t, and I have been doing it a long time. It’s always starting from scratch each time.

So don’t listen to anyone who tells you what kind of movie to write, or how you should look, or what kind of work to do.


Previous post “Be a good wife/husband/mom/ dad/friend. Look at Paul Newman’s life. Do that.”
Next post “Yoga, and the community I came to know through my practice, saved my life.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *