In the big budget family flick “Night at the Museum”, Ben Stiller stars as Larry Daley, a slacker dad who finds a job as a security guard at New York’s Museum of Natural History, where the exhibits come to life every night. Dick Van Dyke also stars as a security guard who shows him how to do his job and the pair, along with director Shawn Levy, spoke with reporters at a news conference in Beverly Hills last month about the project and what drew them to it:
Question: Dick Van Dyke, why did you decide to work on this particular movie with this particular group?
Van Dyke: Well, I mean, the group, that question answers itself. There’s so much talent. I’ve been a fan of Ben for so long and, you know, some of the best things in my life …
Ben Stiller: What? Got that backwards.
Van Dyke: … best things in my life have been when somebody said, “Why don’t we get him to do it?” These two guys [Stiller and Levy] thought of me and called me, and I said, “I got to be in this movie.” It’s a classic family movie. It’s right down my alley, except for the fact that [SPOILERS AHEAD] I get to play a bad guy. …
Question: You generally don’t play a bad guy.
Van Dyke: He’s not a really bad guy. The way I rationalized it is, what he’s trying to steal, anybody would, which is eternal life and eternal youth. Anybody would steal for that, and he turns out to be an OK guy. But … I get to sneer and leer at Ben a lot, and … I get to beat him up, too.
Question: Which of the items in this museum would you most actually like to see come to life?
Van Dyke: Mickey Rooney.
Shawn Levy: You know, I don’t think we’re going to top that answer, so we’ll all go with Mickey Rooney. …
Question: Ben Stiller, with movies like this and Madagascar, are you looking more specifically for a movie to do for your kids? Like, do they ask you what does Focker mean [a reference to his adult comedy film Meet the Fockers]?
Ben Stiller: [Laughs.] Um, no, I have not had my children ask me that. I haven’t had my daughter say Focker yet. I’m trying to keep that, you know, from happening as long as possible. … I think I’ve just become more aware of these kinds of movies. I actually started working on Madagascar before my daughter was born. … But I think you just become more aware of it, because when you have kids you want to be able to go to movies that you can take the family to and actually all enjoy together. And I think there aren’t that many great live-action family movies that everybody can enjoy. So that’s what was exciting to me about this one. But … I wanted to do it because I really love the idea. When I first heard the title, I loved the title. I thought, “Wow, that sounds like a cool idea.” I grew up near the Museum of Natural History, and … I just felt, like, a gut reaction, like “I really would love to be a part of this movie.” … I just thought as a kid I would love seeing this movie, and I thought as an adult, the kid in me would love to see this movie, too.
Question: Ben, what was it like working with the monkey?
Ben Stiller: Screen teams, sometimes … on screen they have good chemistry, but offscreen they don’t get along. I’d say that’s sort of what me and Crystal [the capuchin monkey] had, because, … first of all, she’s a female monkey, and she’s playing a guy, so I think that … she already had a chip on her shoulder about that. And she wears a diaper, and I think she resents that she can’t control herself [laughs]. … And then she got to hit me, you know? She gets to hit me, but I guess some rule was … like, the animal protection laws or … just because, you can’t hit a monkey because they’ll bite you or something …
Shawn Levy: I think it’s just kind of viewed as morally wrong.
Ben Stiller: Right. So … she could hit me as hard as she wanted and was encouraged to hit me very hard …
Shawn Levy: You know, Ben had to literally stand there for half an hour at a time, with whipped cream all over his face, as the trainer, right behind him, said [to the monkey]: “Hit Ben! Hit Ben! Hit Ben!”
Ben Stiller: Yeah. … “Get him! Get him! Smack him! Smack the crap out of him!” And, you know, she had this, like, way of doing it that really, like, when she connected, really was just really annoying, you know? And … I couldn’t hit her back, so I’d have to go like that [mimes a swing] and then stop, and then when it came time for my close-up, I’d get the monkey puppet to hit, or like a green tennis ball.
Shawn Levy: Which is really–it’s not satisfying.
Ben Stiller: It’s not satisfying. So I have unresolved issues with Crystal, and if I see her now I probably would want to smack her.
Question: Ben, I haven’t seen you run that much in a movie. It looked like full tilt.
Ben Stiller: Yeah, full tilt.
Question: Did you have to train?
Ben Stiller: I just studied Tom Cruise running in every Mission: Impossible movie, because I think … he’s one of the best screen runners, and I just wanted to emulate that.
Shawn Levy: I should add that all the sliding was Ben’s idea. I mean, every day we would do a scene, and Ben would call for one of four shoes. There were the kind of good-looking boots. There was the sneakers for high-speed Cruise-esque running, and then there were these slippery booties for the scenes where he wanted [to slide across the floor], … to do, again, the Tom Cruise, … Risky Business slide across the floor. So, really, clearly an influence.
Ben Stiller: It all goes back to Cruise, for sure.
Question: Ben, you played with Robin Williams in this film, and it seemed a switch, where he’s relatively restrained, and you’re allowed to improvise.
Ben Stiller: … I think you never want to have to go into the scene having to improvise. You want to make sure that it’s working on the page. … But I do like to have the ability to like, try stuff just in the moment, to try to give it some sort of, you know, spontaneity. And especially if you feel like there’s an area you can go into. But with Robin, our scenes, we didn’t really do any improvisation.
Shawn Levy: I think because Robin was playing an historical figure [President Teddy Roosevelt], the latitude was kind of limited. …
Ben Stiller: He kept on doing this hilarious improv, where he would do the Teddy Roosevelt in old newsreel footage, where it’d just be the fast motion and his voice coming in and out. It was so brilliant, it was like a perfect Robin Williams bit. But we couldn’t figure out a way to put it in the movie. Remember?
Shawn Levy: Yeah, it was really funny, and it still bums me out that we didn’t find a home for it. But Ben’s being slightly modest in that, … certainly the entire visual-effects team that worked on the movie has said that this is far and away the most improvisational adventure effects movie they’ve ever heard of. Because, you know, whether it was Ricky Gervais or [Steve] Coogan or Owen [Wilson], oftentimes with Dick, Mickey, it was a heavily improvisational process, and a lot of, frankly, my favorite scenes are almost entirely improvised.
Ben Stiller: Ricky Gervais is really, you know, he’s so much fun to work with in that way, because … he cracks up really easily, and so he cracked me up, I’d crack him up and, you know … The crew was bored, but we were cracking each other up. They’re just like, after 12 takes, they were like, “Come on, already!” But it was really fun to work with him in that. … But Owen and I didn’t really get a chance to work together too much, because they shot all [his] stuff after we were finished.
Shawn Levy: Well, the interesting thing about those scenes [in which a full-size Stiller talks with a 3-inch cowboy played by Wilson] is literally the way we did it, because Ben and Owen weren’t even in the same country. So literally we shot the scene with Ben talking to a toothpick, and Ben would say the scripted line to the toothpick, and then he would do 20 variations on the scripted line to the toothpick. Then I would literally have to watch it all, write down every variation that Ben did, and, three months later, when Owen Wilson showed up, I would sit there, and I would feed him all 20 versions so I could get 20 possible reactions. And then, literally, I figured out editorially which ones I wanted to put together. So it is improvisational, but it’s unlike any improv I’ve ever been a part of.
Ben Stiller: And then he would take that toothpick and put it in a club sandwich and eat it after the scene. That was to complete the process.
Question: Dick Van Dyke, do you have your own secret to staying young at your age?
Van Dyke: I think I picked the correct ancestors, for one thing. I don’t know. I have always kept singing and dancing. I do a lot of exercise, swim and a little, you know, work out with resistance and stuff. And you get to my age, you have to, or you’ll freeze up like the tin woodsman. I just keep moving, is the idea, and don’t eat too much. …
Ben Stiller: Yeah, Dick’s incredible. I mean, … the dancing. … I think it was, like, two or three times when I just turned to you and said, “So, you’re 80? Really? I don’t believe you.” And also, you know, the character in the movie is sort of the same thing, … that he has stolen this tablet that’s keeping him young. So I think there’s like a portrait of Dorian Van Dyke somewhere in a closet.
Van Dyke: [laughs] I guess some of the dancing’s over the credits, I understand?
Ben Stiller: Yeah.
Van Dyke: We laid down some dancing. He just turned on the camera and said “Dance!” That was it.
Shawn Levy: Literally, it was an idea that came to us on the day. It was never in the script, and we just played some music really loudly, and I just screamed, “Dance! Dance!” And, first of all, Mickey Rooney was kind of confused, and then he’s like, “You really want me to dance?” And then they all really committed to it, as you can see. But none more gracefully and with such agility as Dick Van Dyke. … I don’t know if you stuck around that long in the credits, but my personal favorite is when Dick, after doing some weird, sinewy Axl Rose kind of snakelike move, he turns his back to the camera and just does a pure booty shake for about five seconds. I hope you caught that, because that’s a gem.
Van Dyke: About the time you cut, I was ready to strip. …
Question: Ben, this is a very special movie for you and some actress named Anne Meara [Stiller’s real-life mother and a veteran comic actress in her own right].
Ben Stiller: Oh, yeah, yeah. It was really fun to get a chance to work with my mom. … Shawn, … I think that was your idea, wasn’t it? To cast my mom?
Shawn Levy: Yeah. I mean, … I remember Ben’s mom from Fame. I remember her as, like, the English teacher.
Ben Stiller: She was the mean English teacher.
Shawn Levy: Leroy’s mean English teacher. … I’ve loved her work since then. So when we needed someone to play this kind of forbidding employment officer who ultimately sees a glimmer of potential in this rascal, I thought that Anne could really, you know, play it, and she did.
Question: Ben, this is the first time you two played a scene together.
Ben Stiller: I think it is, yeah. I mean, we did some stuff a long time ago. I had, like, a cable TV show [HBO’s The Ben Stiller Show], and, of course, my parents [Jerry Stiller and Meara] were on that all the time, you know, because they’re parents, and they were helping me out. … But this was first time we actually did a scene. It was really fun, and … it’s funny, because … we’ve got the same DNA, and it’s … interesting to kind of go back and forth with someone you’re related to like that when you’re not playing mother and son. There’s a thing where I sort of wink at her that we cut out. It was too weird.
Shawn Levy: Yeah, it was officially too weird. It was definitely too weird.
Ben Stiller: You were just exploring all the Oedipal layers to the relationship