What Night at the Museum 2's Ben Stiller did after hours in the Smithsonian

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Ben Stiller and Shawn Levy, the star and director of the fantasy comedy Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, told reporters that they invested a lot of time in finding just the right story on which to build the sequel.

"We wanted to find a way to separate the first movie from the second movie that was different, because we had already done the idea of things comings to life," Stiller said in a news conference at the Smithsonian Institution over the weekend in Washington.

Night at the Museum 2 picks up two years after the original film and finds that Stiller's character, former New York Natural History museum security guard Larry Daley, is now a successful infomercial product inventor. Preoccupied with his business, Daley is shocked to learn from curator Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) that all his magical museum friends, from Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson) to Dexter the monkey, are being boxed up for the federal archives in order to make room for new high-tech exhibits. Daley then heads to the Smithsonian to help his pals escape new threats, while meeting new friends such as Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) and Gen. Custer (Bill Hader) along the way.

Stiller and Levy spoke alongside screenwriters Ben Garant and Tom Lennon and cast members Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Hank Azaria and Amy Adams at a news conference; the following is an edited version. Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian opens on Friday. (Spoilers ahead!)

What setup ended up being interesting enough to base the new movie?

Stiller: To start the second movie, we felt like we needed a new idea, and the idea is that Larry's successful and is not happy. The idea of what he thought would make him happy is not making him happy just felt like a new idea to start the movie off.

Does that life lesson of pursuing your true happiness serve as the underlying moral to the story for both parents and kids?

Levy: Certainly we never set out with purely moralistic or educational agendas, but for me where it really clicked ... was when I discovered that the title of Amelia Earhart's autobiography was The Fun of It. I couldn't believe it when I stumbled on that title, because it encapsulated the theme of the movie, ... which is the blessing of doing something you love with people you love and respect.

How did you get the Smithsonian to allow you to shoot in their museums for the first time ever?

Levy: For starters, you promise that you won't break anything. I think it helped immensely that our first movie was well-known enough that people could recommend to the Smithsonian that we were going to treat their institution respectfully, with humor and wit and reverence as well. Also, the first movie actually increased attendance at the New York Museum of Natural History, I'm told, close to 20 percent after Night at the Museum. The Smithsonian knew that the first movie had actually affected museum attendance, so anything that can actually catalyze interest in these institutions is a good thing.

How much of the film did you shoot in the actual museums?

Stiller: We were here for the first week of shooting. We shot here as much as we could get away with without disrupting things. Shooting at the Air and Space Museum was really important in establishing the scale of the film, because it's just so huge. Even with our sets being immense in Vancouver, nothing was even close to the real size of the museum here. I was really happy to be there for the first week just to have an understanding of what it was all about, get connected to it and see all the real stuff.

Did your scouts at the museums actually inspire any new scenes in the film?

Stiller: I really enjoyed everything at the Air and Space Museum. It's really fun to be around all the real stuff, like the real Spirit of St. Louis. In the back, we were walking around one day, and there was this incredible model airplane collection that nobody sees. There are literally hundreds of model airplanes detailed out beautifully. ...

Levy: And that's what gave us an idea, actually, for the sequence where the Air and Space Museum comes to life. It was always scripted with rockets and airplanes, but [we added] those Harrier jets and [World War II] fighters. It was pretty inspiring. And this room we are in now [referring to a rotunda in the Smithsonian Castle building], initially we weren't sure in the initial screenplay where the [villain's] hideout would be. It was only once we came to D.C., to this room in this building, that we were inspired by the Gothic movie-ness of the Castle, which is the original building of the Smithsonian, and it became the hideout for our Axis of Evil [i.e. Kah Mun Rah, Al Capone and Ivan the Terrible].

What was your favorite moment being on location at the Smithsonian?

Levy: A great moment for me was actually a couple of nights where Amy, Ben and I had some time off. It was three in the morning, and we were waiting for stuff to get lit, and we just walked around the Air and Space Museum alone in the middle of the night. It was silent and dark, spooky but completely cool.

Stiller: There were a couple of times we were shooting things on the National Mall, and Shawn was prepping a shot with a bunch of Russians running across the Mall with lanterns in the dark. I remember thinking to myself, "What is this? This movie is so weird."