Taking a gamble with ''Night at the Museum'' -- The Ben Stiller comedy hopes to hit it big this holiday season

Ben Stiller takes make-believe very seriously. And here on the Vancouver set of Night at the Museum, he’s literally sweating the details. He’s dressed in a dorky gray security-guard suit as Larry Daley, the new night watchman at the Museum of Natural History. In this scene, his hapless character runs out the front door in pursuit of a wandering caveman. It seems that thanks to a magical Egyptian tablet, every exhibit in the museum comes alive at night — including a skeletal T. rex, a nasty little monkey, and hordes of belligerent diorama figures, such as our caveman friend.

In order to appear harried, perspiring, and out of breath, Stiller has been sprinting the full length of a vast exhibit hall before each take. (These soundstage interiors will later be intercut with exteriors of the real Museum of Natural History in New York City.) The star’s task is to run up to the camera and look stricken as he sees the escaped caveman hoofing it toward Central Park — which is being represented, at the moment, by a big, blank wall. Stiller is just winding up for the close-up when a crew member who should know better strays into his line of vision, breaking his concentration. ”Dude,” Stiller says. ”Dude”. He turns back to try the shot again. And again, and again, at least a dozen times.

Focus and believability are paramount for the actor, who’s certainly got a lot on his mind with Museum (due Dec. 22). Aside from 2005’s Madagascar, it’s his first truly family-friendly project, as well as his first extended foray into major-special-effects territory. The comedies that have made him a box office heavyweight — There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, Dodgeball — were relatively cheap to produce. Now he’s in fantasyland, where movies are pricier and where the ones that click can click really, really big: Witness Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Hoping to tap that revenue stream, Twentieth Century Fox has plunked down a reported $110 million-plus for Museum. They’re betting that Stiller’s prickly-guy tics can work in warmer, fuzzier territory. Says director Shawn Levy (who put Steve Martin through his paces in Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther), ”Ben’s never done a live-action family event. He knew it was risky. Our deal was that I would make sure the movie was edgy and funny the way a Ben Stiller movie needs to be, and he would make sure it was emotional and poignant the way a Shawn Levy family film needs to be.”

Stiller, who counts 1984’s trailblazing comedy Ghostbusters among his favorites, admits it’s not easy to pull off that balance. ”I always connected the family-film thing with sort of a milquetoast thing,” he says. ”There’s that fear, do you lose your edge if you do that? Or could you bring too much edge to it? You’re making jokes a 6- or 7-year-old has to get…. We kept trying to think, What would be spooky yet funny? Hard to figure that out.”

For a long time, Fox couldn’t figure out how to get Night at the Museum off the ground at all. The story began as a 1993 children’s book by Croatian illustrator Milan Trenc. Optioned by Fox, it languished at 1492 Productions, where Harry Potter director Chris Columbus considered making it. Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) took a whack at it around the summer of 2005, but that iteration soon stalled — in part, says a production source, because it would likely have been darker and less comedic than what the studio wanted. It also would have cost far more, says the film’s production designer.

By the fall of 2005, Fox had instead snagged Levy and Stiller, and the rest of the comedian-heavy casting got under way. The ubiquitous Robin Williams took the role of President Teddy Roosevelt. Ricky Gervais came aboard as the museum’s snippy director, Stiller’s pal Owen Wilson agreed to play a pint-size Old West-diorama cowboy, and British funnyman Steve Coogan signed on as an itty-bitty warmongering Roman commander. Stiller’s mom, Anne Meara, scored an employment-officer cameo, and Levy even got Hollywood veterans Dick Van Dyke, 81, and Mickey Rooney, 86, to appear as a couple of grizzled old guards who are about to retire.

But Stiller and Levy still had a conundrum on their hands. With Museum, they’d set out to meld two kinds of filmmaking that are, at their cores, antithetical. Comedy calls for lots of alternate takes and improvisation, making it easier to fine-tune the humor in editing. Fantasy, on the other hand, demands massive preplanning in order for the live action to match up with CG and greenscreen F/X (in this case marauding Huns, stampeding African-veldt animals, and crowds of hostile, three-inch-tall combatants). And with Museum‘s mandatory holiday release date, the pressure to blend the two in a hurry was on.

Ultimately, comedy prevailed. Time after time, Levy and Stiller invented new action on the spot. Says effects supervisor Jim Rygiel, an Oscar-winning veteran of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, ”It changed hour to hour. Ben would make a suggestion and bam, I had 10 extra CG shots to do.” Did that bug the F/X wizard? Not at all, he says, because Stiller was ”fighting to make the movie better.” Exhibit A: the scene where Larry, new to the museum’s nocturnal antics, locks himself into a room with lions. After Levy blocked out the action, Stiller pointed out that the scene made no sense unless something was actually chasing Larry. ”Nobody thought about that in all the years the script was in development,” says Stiller. ”Including me.”

What did Levy do? ”I started talking out of my ass,” recalls the director. ”There were 150 people waiting for an answer. So I said, ‘A woolly mammoth has cornered him. He has to seal the gate to keep the woolly mammoth out.”’ Just one problem: This was the first time the CG crew had heard about a woolly mammoth. While they scrambled to respond, the suits at Fox leaned on Levy. ”I did get the calls asking, ‘What are you doing?”’ says Levy. ”There was a lot of responding, ‘Trust me, trust me.’… I had a cluster of people telling me, ‘This isn’t done.’ To which I responded, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be done on this movie.’ And they got with the program.” Says Fox president Hutch Parker, ”Shawn came to it with great trepidation, because it felt like a foreign universe…. By halfway through, it was as if he’d been doing this all his life.”

According to Levy, the budget stayed in check because he cut as many CG sequences as he ordered up. And the picture has a good shot at making back its money quickly because there aren’t any sure-thing, name-brand fantasies opening against it — no Harry Potter, no Narnia. ”We didn’t anticipate lucking into the one Christmas season in recent memory with no [competing] franchise,” says Levy. ”Somehow, this year, there’s no daunting giant.” Except for a rampaging woolly mammoth bent on squashing a humble security guard.

Night at the Museum
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes