Seth MacFarlane once again stretches the boundaries of comedy and propriety as writer, producer, director of and actor in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” He tells the tale and plays the lead in the story of Albert Stark, a soft man in hard times who is trying to figure out how to escape this godforsaken frontier that seems to be trying to kill him – and everyone else in it – at every turn. A sheep farmer whose fickle girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), leaves him when he backs out of a gunfight, Albert feels like a chump.
Adding to Albert’s distress and feelings of inadequacy, Louise takes up with the town’s most successful businessman, arrogant moustachery owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). And what Albert can’t dream of offering in terms of financial stability and facial hirsuteness, Foy has in spades. But when a mysterious and beautiful gunslinger named Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town, she helps Albert begin to find his courage and they start to fall in unexpected love.
Further trouble ensues when Anna’s husband, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) – a notorious outlaw whose name strikes fear into the hearts of the citizenry – arrives seeking revenge on the man whom he thinks has made a dishonest woman of Anna. Reluctantly, Albert must now put his newfound courage to the test in a one-man-left-standing gunfight that will earn him Anna’s hand and long-denied respect in the Wild West…or another unmarked grave forgotten in the annals of history. Directed by MacFarlane from a screenplay co-written with Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild, the film also features Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman.
At the film’s recent press day, MacFarlane and Theron talked about his follow-up to “Ted,” the attraction of working in film versus television, what drew her to the role and why she found it liberating, the difficulties of shooting on location and dealing with extreme weather, the funny and unexpected cameos, the decision to novelize the script, why Liam Neeson was fantastic in his role, the challenges in the post production process, how Louis L’Amour, Elmore Leonard and John Ford were inspirations, and more. Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: Seth, we’ve heard you act but never seen you act, so what new anxieties, fears or joys did this experience bring for you? And Charlize, your character at one point is telling Seth you have great tits. Did that come out of a real-life conversation?
CHARLIZE THERON: Can you all see my tits? Oh, there’s no camera on there.
MACFARLANE: “The “Gilmore Girls” and Star Trek Enterprise were the extent of my [acting in front of a camera].
THERON: You were on “Gilmore Girls”?
MACFARLANE: Two lines a piece.
THERON: Whoa, whoa. You were on “Gilmore Girls”?
MACFARLANE: It was like one episode. Oh, yeah, oh, yes.
THERON: We need to go Google something.
MACFARLANE: That did make me more than a little uneasy going into this, and there were two things that became apparent pretty quickly into the process. One was that the muscles didn’t take as much reconditioning as I thought that they would. It was more like voice acting than I thought it would be. It’s some of same – you’re using your whole body, and there are things that are different – but when you are doing a character, even in the booth, nobody’s watching, but my face will do different things when I do different characters. But also, I was with the most talented actress that I possibly could have.
THERON: Yes! Yes!
MACFARLANE: So what became clear as well – and again, this is probably old hat to actors, but it was new to me – was that, wow, your performance really does depend in a large portion on what you’re getting from the other person. I got so much from Charlize and was made so comfortable by her during this process that I got to like it pretty quickly.
Q: And Charlize, the tits line?
THERON: I’m very method, so it has to be real. Otherwise, I can’t do it. No. I don’t have any tits, so I had to pad for this role [laughs].
MACFARLANE: So did I.
Q: Charlize, how did Seth convince you to do the role?
THERON: No. It was quite the opposite. I got to read this pretty early on, and there was talk about him doing this film. Even before I read it, just the idea of doing something that’s kind of pitched in this very unusual way of a comedy Western situation and him at the helm of that was very intriguing to me. That already had me very interested, and then reading the material and just how well it was written. I really liked this character. I felt like I could bring something to the table. So I definitely did some chasing.
Q: What was it like shooting on location?
THERON: What was that like?
MACFARLANE: It’s New Mexico.
THERON: Look, it’s a gorgeous place. I understand why you want to paint it. I would want to paint it. I don’t necessarily want to go and shoot in it again. It’s just that the weather was unbelievable. I felt like it was biblical times, and we were all going to die a horrible death by weather.
THERON: I mean, there was a night where we shot, and Seth left before me. I got a text from him that literally just said, “The road is washing away! Get out of your trailer right now and start driving!” I was like, “I’m going to die on this movie.”
MACFARLANE: These flash floods would come out of nowhere. We were driving back, and it was like Wayne Knight in “Jurassic Park.” It would literally come out of nowhere, and it was every weather extreme that you could imagine, oftentimes, right on top of each other. It was blistering heat. It was arctic winds. It was torrential rain. It was lightning storms happening all around you.
THERON: Frogs. No, that’s “Magnolia.”
MACFARLANE: It was frogs. You know, every weather – hail at one point. It was a perfectly nice day, and then suddenly, there’s like these giant hail stones coming from the sky. It slowed us down enormously. We joke about it, but actually it was a big problem. If we were to do this again, it would be nice to find a more temperate climate.
Q: What was your biggest challenge with the post-production-editing process?
MACFARLANE: As far as the post production, some of it was easier and some of it was harder than on “Ted,” but you didn’t have this thing of an absent main character as we did in “Ted.” That movie, we had to cut shots that just looked like backgrounds and kind of guess where the bear was going to go. Here, there was a lot more coverage, so there were a lot more dailies to look at. That was probably the biggest challenge because I like to look at every single frame of every daily. I’m terrified that I’m going to miss something, and that was enormously time consuming.
Can you talk about the decision to release the novel version of the script before the movie came out? Obviously, it gives away little things.
MACFARLANE: As far as the book was concerned, it was sort of a companion piece to the movie. Novelizations were something that I remember getting a kick out of as a kid. I think I read the book version of “Back to the Future” when I was in grade school. Also, at its core, in our depiction of this genre, there is a genuine affection for Louis L’Amour, for Elmore Leonard. I loved that. I’ve read a lot of Louis L’Amour books. So I went, “God, I wonder if there’s some hybrid between the tone that this movie sets and something that actually breathes as a Western novella of sorts,” and it was an experiment.
Q: I loved the “Back to the Future” and “Django” sequences in the film. How did you come up with the idea to include those references and get those actors to be a part of it? Does this mean those two films now take place in the same continuity?
MACFARLANE: [Laughs] What a nerd question. Like in the same universe, that kind of thing? Well, they were both ideas that came about after we had started shooting. We went out of our way to not do those kinds of jokes in this movie because we wanted to keep this more or less in the real world with some exaggerations of Arizona in 1882. So it’s not going to be anachronistic. We’re not going to fill it with pop culture references of today because it’s just a whole different tone. We don’t want to be that broad. We did stay away from a lot of that stuff. And then, while we were filming, we thought you could kind of explain this away because it is a time machine, and why not? Doc Brown was just something that turned out to be such a crowd pleaser, that I’m very glad we put it in. And then, the Jamie Foxx bit, that was something partially we just thought it would be cool to have him in the movie, and also, it was a way to buy back what is probably the edgiest gag in the movie, and is the shooting gallery. Once again, that shooting gallery is yet another example of the terribleness that was the 1880s. I think that’s why in our test screenings, people kind of give us that one. They’re not really that offended because they recognize the context, and Albert points out that this is horrific. It was something that helped to buy it back at the end of the day.
Q: Did it take place in the same film world, do you think?
MACFARLANE: In your fucking imagination, they can be married [laughs].
Q: Seth, I want to thank you for bringing science back into the living room on Sunday nights with “Cosmos.” How are you balancing doing the comedy stuff? Are you going to do more of these science series that will be geared towards families?
MACFARLANE: I don’t gravitate toward any particular genre. I like to do things that interest me, regardless of genre. I have had a blast doing “Cosmos,” and I’m sad that it’s coming to an end. Yeah, I would like to do something else like that. It’s something that we felt was necessary at this point in time, but also, it was just a fun project to be a part of. It was something different. So yeah, I would like to keep that kind of thing in my sphere of work as I go forward.
Q: You’ve been in television for many, many years. Your film career is just starting now. In terms of your comedic style, what would you say are the benefits of working in film versus television?
MACFARLANE: I love both. From a writing standpoint, I would say television is maybe a little more satisfying because it’s not all hinging on one thing. You can experiment week to week, and you can be a little narrower in your scope one week, and then be a little broader the next week. But with film, everything can look the way you want it to look. You can really sculpt the final product and have it. So, from a directorial standpoint, film is more satisfying. But they’re both forms of media that I’d like to keep involvement in.
Q: Is there a certain added benefit to going from one movie that is its own thing to another movie that’s completely different?
MACFARLANE: Again, they’re just different. There is an appeal to building, to evolving the same characters week to week, but there’s also an appeal to the newness of something that you haven’t tried. It scared me a little bit, the idea of doing this movie. And so, that is something with film that you can get maybe a little more often as you’re constantly reliving that excitement and that fear of doing something new.
Q: Charlize, what was it like being a part of something like this?
THERON: Liberating. I mean, everything about it was liberating. I think what we do is liberating. I don’t really know if I can speak about it in that context because you have to be able to feel like you can play way outside the box. If you’re with a great filmmaker and someone that you trust, that’s encouraged – and Seth was definitely that kind of filmmaker and co-star – so every day just felt like endless possibilities. But at the same time, there was a really good foundation that we had laid because of him two weeks leading up to the film, just really knowing what he wanted and how we could be that color for him to paint on that canvas. So very clear, very precise, and then he’s a fun guy to be around, so it was definitely not like going to the dentist every day. This! Doing this (press) with him is like going to the dentist.
Q: Seth, it really showed in the film with the visuals and the score that you have a fondness for traditional Westerns. What are some that loom large in your pantheon?
MACFARLANE: Yeah, I tend to lean more towards the Westerns of the 40s and 50s as opposed to the 60s and 70s. They get a little too drab for me when you get into the Spaghetti Western era. I love the John Ford movies. I love the music. I love the scope. My composer, Joel McNeely, and I are both big Elmer Bernstein fans, and so we wanted to treat this as if it was a drama, essentially. The score should feel like it’s playing things straight. He wrote one of the best scores I’ve heard in the past 15 years. As far as Westerns, “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is probably my favorite Western. Oddly, if there’s any dramatic Western I can point to that bears any similarity at all to this movie, it would probably be that one, because Jimmy Stewart spends the whole movie going, “What the fuck is wrong with all of you? You’re all a bunch of savages.” That’s sort of the viewpoint that Anna and Albert have in this movie. They’re very much looking at this world through a modern lens, and yet, they do live in that time.
Q: Audiences love those surprise cameos that seem to come out of nowhere. Seth, how did you decide how to utilize that amazing talent? Does Ryan Reynolds charge per word?
MACFARLANE: Well, you know, it always depends on the gag more than the person. The only time it came out of nowhere was when Charlize said, “Hey, Ewan McGregor is doing a movie up the street.”
THERON: No. He had come to say hello. He was there. He just came to say hello, and I was like, “Do you want to be in our movie?” He was doing a western, so he had the face. He was already in hair and makeup from his movie. We just threw him in.
MACFARLANE: I was like, “Shit! You already offered him? Alright.” But it was strange. He’s got that beard and that moustache which he wore for “Jane Got a Gun.” The gag is so quick, I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know that it’s him.
THERON: But that’s good. It makes you watch it again or somebody tells you about it.
MACFARLANE: It just depends on the moment, who it is and who that cameo is always – not always – but generally tends to come second. We needed Liam’s character to kill a guy in the saloon to scare everybody, and we thought, “Well, this Ryan Reynolds thing in ‘Ted’ went over so well. Let’s get a laugh here where it would normally play as just a straight moment.”
Q: Charlize, what would you have hated about the Old West other than the weather? And Seth, there are jokes about every minority group, but you missed the Mexicans. What happened?
MACFARLANE: First of all, we don’t use that word any more. I can’t tell what you are [laughs]. Okay. All right…
THERON: Wow, that’s great.
Q: In a lot of the movies set in the Old West, you always have the ugly Mexican, so…
THERON: You do? Really?
MACFARLANE: I’m not familiar.
Q: The banditos are always scrubby looking, scary guys, or you have the white man playing a Mexican.
MACFARLANE: There are certain Westerns that take place closer to the border and others that take place…
THERON: Oh, is that how you excuse it away?
MACFARLANE: Yeah, yeah. I think there was another part to that question that…
THERON: That works for you? No, that’s fantastic. Keep drinking. How’s that coffee?
MACFARLANE: Mmm. Good.
Q: Charlize, what would you hate about the Old West besides the weather?
THERON: For me, personally? How do you know what he hates? Did you guys have a private conversation?
Q: We saw the monologue in the movie.
THERON: But that’s his character. My character’s pretty clear about it too, right? That’s interesting. So you’re real in the movie, and I’m… wow. Okay. Sorry, God. I think his feelings are hurt right now. He doesn’t want to show it.
MACFARLANE: Look, she’s the one that just asked for more racism. You know, there was a bit at the end — that Jamie Foxx bit ended up going in its place — where Neil and Amanda are, you know, because of the shitting in the hat, he has to leave town because he’s so embarrassed. The last scene is they’re riding into this Mexican village, and she’s like, “Why Mexico?” He says, “Because no one will know of my shame. We can make a fresh start here.” And you cut to these two Mexican guys, and one is like, “More assholes from across the border. Somebody should build a wall.” And so, that originally was there.
THERON: I totally forgot about that.
MACFARLANE: It will be there. It will be on the Blu-ray, yeah.
Q: I can think of no better person that you could have cast in the role of Clinch Leatherwood than Liam Neeson, and I’m wondering Charlize, if you could talk about working with this amazing actor?
THERON: Yeah, for sure, for days. He’s great. There’s something about him. He is not just the one-dimensional actor, no matter what he does. I think that’s why people are so endeared by him and why you emotionally tap into him, no matter what he plays. He plays the baddie in this so convincingly, but there’s a realness about him. He’s not putting it on. It’s always coming from a place of understanding and empathy. It’s not plastered or mechanical. I don’t want to speak for you, but I think all of us were a little star struck.
MACFARLANE: Oh, yeah.
THERON: Yeah. There was definitely that [whispers], “Liam’s here.” “Yeah?” “I saw a car by his trailer.” “Is he here?” “Yeah?” “Is he coming to set?” “Wow.” Like trying to be cool when I met him first, and he’s just one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever been around. I mean, he couldn’t be sweeter. I think everybody was really great. You did a really good job casting this movie and there wasn’t a bad apple in the bunch. It was just a bunch of great people together having fun, working hard, there for the right reasons, wanting to make the movie the best they possibly could. We laughed a lot, and drank a lot, and almost died together a lot. So we are bonded for life.
MACFARLANE: I’m still astonished that he agreed to do the movie. That character needed to be a pretty genuine threat. One of the things that comedies of this type did so well in the 80s was – the ones that worked for me were the ones that played the jeopardy real. As ridiculous as “The Naked Gun” is, that movie does not work without Ricardo Montalban playing it completely earnest and real. It just grounds the whole thing and gives it a backbone. And that’s what Clinch had to do. And Liam’s presence, it cannot be overstated how essential that was to the story working as a whole. He was just fantastic, and a great guy to have around, just a consummate professional. Everybody loved him.
THERON: He was funny, too. He had really, really funny moments. I think everybody was really surprised by that. That day we had to do the slap and the Mark Twain line, I laughed through most of it. He’s like, “You should stop laughing after getting slapped. It’s sending the wrong message.” The way he delivered that, “Is it? Is it?” So funny.
Q: Did you use a butt double?
THERON: Well, there are some things that we talk about and some things that we don’t. Just like my tits.