Writer/Producer/Director/Actor Seth MacFarlane’s latest venture is A Million Ways to Die in the West, a comedy Western that tells the tale of Albert Stark (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer who is trying to figure out how to survive the very harsh frontier life of the 1880s. When the mysterious and beautiful gunslinger Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town, she helps Albert find his courage and shows him that he deserves to have someone appreciate him for who he is. The film also stars Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris and Liam Neeson.
During a conference at the film’s press day, Seth MacFarlane and Charlize Theron talked about shooting on location in New Mexico in weather conditions that rival those in Biblical times, the biggest challenge of the post-production process, how the film tribute sequences came about, deciding on who would get cameos, how liberating it is to work on a film like this, and how everyone was starstruck by Liam Neeson. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
SETH MacFARLANE: I haven’t done it to this extent, no. Gilmore Girls and Star Trek: Enterprise is the extent of it, with two lines apiece.
CHARLIZE THERON: You were on Gilmore Girls?!
MacFARLANE: Oh, yes!
THERON: I need to go Google that.
MacFARLANE: That did make me more than a little uneasy, going into this. 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 they would. It was more like voice acting than I thought it would be. 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 is 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 [worked with]. So, what became clear – and this is probably old hat to actors, but it was new to me – was that your performance really does depend, in a large portion, on what you’re getting from the other person. And I got so much from Charlize, and was made so comfortable by her, during this process, that I got to like it, pretty quickly.
Charlize, how did the joke about your tits come about? Was that your idea, or was it in the script?
THERON: I’m very method, so it has to be real. Otherwise, I can’t do it. No. I don’t have any tits! I had to pad for this role.
Charlize, how did Seth convince you to do this role?
THERON: I got to read this, pretty early on. There was talk about Seth doing this film. Even before I read it, just the idea of doing something that’s pitched in this very unusual comedy-Western situation, with Seth at the helm of that, was very intriguing. That already had me very interested. And then, I read the material and it was really well-written. I liked this character and I felt like could bring something to the table. So, I definitely did some chasing.
What was it like to shoot on location in New Mexico?
THERON: It’s a gorgeous place. I understand why you’d want to paint it. I would want to paint it, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to go and shoot in it again. The weather was just unbelievable. I felt like it was Biblical times and we were all going to die a horrible death by weather. There was a night where we shot, and Seth left before me, and 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 gonna die on this movie!”
MacFARLANE: These flash floods would come out of nowhere. We were driving back, and I felt like Wayne Knight in Jurassic Park. It would literally come out of nowhere. There was every weather extreme that you could imagine, and 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. There was hail, at one point. It was a perfectly nice day, and then there were suddenly these giant hail stones coming form the sky. It slowed us down enormously. We joke about it, but it was a big problem. If we were to do this again, it would be nice to find a more temperate climate.
Seth, what has been your biggest challenge with the post-production process?
MacFARLANE: In some ways the post-production was easier, and in some ways it was harder than Ted. We didn’t have an absent main character, as we did in Ted. With that movie, we had to cut shots that just looked like backgrounds and guess where the bear was going to go. With this, there was a lot more coverage, so there was a lot more dailies to look at. That was probably the biggest challenge because I like to look at every single frame of every dailies. I’m terrified that I’m going to miss something, and that was enormously time consuming.
How did you come up with the idea to include the Back to the Future and Django Unchained sequences in the film? And does this movie mean that those two films now take place in the same continuity?
MacFARLANE: What a nerd question! In your fucking imagination, they can be married. 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. We said, “We wanna keep this, more or less, the real world, with some exaggerations of Arizona in 1882. We’re not gonna fill it with pop culture references of today because it’s a whole different tone. We don’t want to be that broad.” So, we did stay away from a lot of that stuff. And then, while we were filming, we thought we could kind of explain the Doc Brown sequence away because it is a time machine. And it turned out to be such a crowd pleaser that I’m very glad we put it in. And then, the Jamie Foxx bit was something where we thought it would be cool just to have him in the movie, and it was a way to buy back what is probably the edgiest gag in the movie, which is the shooting gallery. That shooting gallery is yet another example of the terribleness that was the 1880s. I think that’s why, in our test screenings, people gave us that one. They weren’t really that offended because they recognize the context, and Albert points out that it’s horrific. But, it was something that helped buy it back, in the end of the day.
How did you decide who would get a cameo and what kind of cameo they would get?
THERON: No, he just came to say hello, and I was like, “Do you want to be in our movie?” He was in a Western ,and he was already in hair and make-up from his movie. We just threw him in.
MacFARLANE: And I was like, “Shit, you’ve already offered that to him?!” He’s got that beard and mustache, which he wore for Jane Got a Gun, so a lot of people don’t necessarily know that it’s him because the gag is so quick. But, it just depends on the moment. Who it is generally tends to come second. We needed Liam Neeson’s character to kill a guy in the saloon to scare everybody, and we thought, “That Ryan Reynolds thing in Ted went over so well. Let’s just get a laugh here, where it would normally be a straight moment.”
Seth, how are you balancing doing the comedy stuff with things like Cosmos, or things geared towards families?
MacFARLANE: I don’t gravitate toward any particular genre. I like to do things that interest me, regardless of genre. I’ve had a blast doing Cosmos, and I’m said that it’s coming to an end. I would like to do something else like that. It was something that we felt was necessary at this point in time, but it was also a fun project to be a part of. It was something different. So, I would like to keep that kind of thing in my sphere of work, as I go forward.
You’ve been in television for many years and your film career is just starting out. In terms of your comedic style, what are the benefits of working in film versus television?
MacFARLANE: I love both. From a writing standpoint, maybe television is 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. So from a directorial standpoint, film is more satisfying. But, they’re both forms of media that I’d like to keep involvement in. They’re just different. There is an appeal 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. That is something, with film, that you get a little more often. You’re constantly reliving that excitement and that fear of doing something new.
Charlize, what was the most liberating aspect of working on a film like this?
THERON: 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. You have to be able to feel like you can play way outside of the box. If you’re with a great filmmaker and someone you can trust, that’s encouraged, and Seth was that kind of filmmaker and co-star. Every day felt like endless possibilities, but at the same time, there was a really good foundation that we had laid because of him, for two weeks leading up to the film. We really knew what he wanted and how we could be that color for him to paint on that canvas. He was very clear and very precise, but he’s a fun guy to be around. It was definitely not like going to the dentist, every day. Doing this with him is like going to the dentist.
Seth, what are some of the Westerns that stand out for you?
MacFARLANE: I tend to lead 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 and the scope. My composer, Joel McNeely, and I are both big Elmer Bernstein fans, so we wanted to treat this as if it was a drama, essentially. The score should feel like it’s playing things straight. And so, he wrote one of the best scores I’ve heard in the last 15 years. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is probably my favorite Western. If there’s any dramatic Western that I can point to that bears any similarity, at all, to this movie, it would probably be that one because Jimmy Stewart spends the entire movie going, “What the fuck is wrong with all of you?! You’re all a bunch of savages!” That’s 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.
Was Liam Neeson your dream choice for the role of Clinch?
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, the ones that worked for me, were the ones that made the jeopardy real. As ridiculous as The Naked Gun is, that movie does not work without Ricardo Montalban playing it completely earnest and completely real. It just crowns the whole thing and gives it a backbone. And that’s what Clinch had to do. It cannot be overstated how essential Liam’s presence was to the story working as a whole. He was just fantastic, and a great guy to have around. He’s a consummate professional.
Charlize, what was it like to work with Liam Neeson?
THERON: He’s great. He’s just fantastic. He’s not just a 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. He’s always coming from a place of understanding and empathy. It’s not plastered or mechanical. I think that we were all a little starstruck.
MacFARLANE: Oh, yeah!
THERON: There’s was definitely a feeling of, “Liam’s here. I saw his car by his trailer. Is he here? Is he coming to set?” I tried to be cool when I first met him. He’s just one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever been around. He couldn’t be more sweet. Everybody was just really great. Seth did a really good job casting this movie. There really wasn’t a bad apple in the bunch. It was just a bunch of great people together, having fun and working hard. Everyone was 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’re bonded for life.
A Million Ways to Die in the West opens in theaters on May 30th.