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Ben Stiller's Coming of Age : Premiere of His First Film Puts Director in Sundance Spotlight

January 28, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

PARK CITY, Utah — Faxes with his name on them sit on a counter, a Federal Express package waits downstairs, a woman is on the phone arranging screening tickets, a man has just arrived to take his clothes to the cleaners. And in the middle of it all sits Ben Stiller, comfortably rumpled in torn jeans and a well-worn flannel shirt and looking like this fuss couldn't possibly be about him.

But of course it is. Stiller's "Reality Bites," which he directed and co-stars in, is about to have its world premiere in a prestigious out-of-competition slot tonight at the Sundance Film Festival, complete with program notes describing it as "the twentysomething film we've all been waiting for."

A completely charming romance starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke that manages to be warm and empathetic without losing its sharp comic edge, "Reality" is poised to position Stiller in the forefront of what co-producer Michael Shamberg, who developed the project, calls "a new generation of mainstream talent." But is Ben Stiller calm and relaxed about all of this? What do you think?

"I'm excited that the film's here, but I feel a little bit like an outsider," he says with an appealing uncertainty. "Though it has an independent spirit, it wasn't financed independently, and I'm a little nervous about studio movie backlash. (Universal is releasing "Reality" on Feb. 18.) With (Sundance) films being made for $20,000, if you didn't put up your entire life savings, people may think you're taking advantage."

Stiller, 28, also has reservations about this story--four college friends trying to find their way in the nominally real world--being labeled the quintessential Generation X movie.

"For me, that's like a disaster," he says. "Whenever I hear that I think, 'Screw you, somebody's trying to sell me something.' This generation doesn't want to embrace anything, doesn't want to be sold to, and it's very aware of people trying to take advantage of it. When we did a test screening in Berkeley and the Universal logo came on the screen, they hissed. Everyone is so cynical."

Along with his thick black hair and quietly intense manner, Stiller, already a 10-year show-business veteran, comes by his anxieties naturally. His parents are the gifted actors and comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara and he grinningly admits to being one of those kids who could never stop performing.

"While my parents were doing 'Prisoner of Second Avenue' in summer stock, my sister Amy and I would be acting out the play in the lobby," he remembers. "When I was 8 we'd be doing fake Shakespeare in our living room, with pillows strapped to our heads for hats and me wearing my sister's tights-- oy , I shouldn't talk about this."

Having decided early on that he wanted to be a director ("I've always said it, my whole life"), Stiller got his start making Super 8 movies when he was 10. "I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and from time to time got mugged by the older kids on the way to school, so my first films were these 'Death Wish'-type revenge things," he says, not quite believing it himself. "They all had the same plot, me being pushed to the ground then taking revenge, and they had titles like 'They Called It Murder' and 'Murder in the Park.' "

Stiller was admitted to UCLA but dropped out early in part because "I think I matured later than most people, I was not ready to break away from my parents." He lived at home for a year, "feeling really lost, wondering what do I do, how do I go forward, which is where I can identify with the kids in 'Reality Bites.' "

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He became involved in acting as a way into directing and eventually made his professional debut in the 1985 Lincoln Center revival of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves." Parts in films like "Empire of the Sun" and "Fresh Horses" followed, but Stiller never gave up on his short films. One of them, a parody of "The Color of Money," got him a job at "Saturday Night Live," which in turn led to "The Ben Stiller Show" first on MTV and then on the Fox network.

It was short-lived but won a writing Emmy last year for Stiller and co-writer Judd Apton, and with such skits as "Oliver Stoneland," where "the objective is not to escape but confront," and "Cape Munster," where Eddie comes back to take revenge on the executive who canceled his show, revealed a formidable comic intelligence.

Although not totally happy with parody ("an existence based on someone else's creativity"), Stiller did wonder if his facility with it would hamper his direction of "Reality Bites." "I didn't know if I could do it, if I had it in me to make a real movie, especially one that I saw could be parodied," he admits. "But you have to be willing to take chances that could be made fun of, to be willing to put yourself out there in a very vulnerable position."

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