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When Seth MacFarlane decided to put the spurs to tried-and-true Western genre, he of course immediately turned to Oscar winner Charlize Theron to bring the outrageous comedic edge to A Million Ways to Die in the West.
OK, not exactly. But the Family Guy creator, who co-wrote, directed and stars in his follow-up to Ted, knew he needed a leading lady who would not only be able to deftly land her punchlines but also convincingly sell their chemistry as a couple. And as Theron’s lauded stint on Arrested Development demonstrated, she can be as cozy with off-kilter laughs as she can with any on-screen love interest.
MacFarlane and Theron recently met with a group of journalists to discuss the million ways they loved – and occasionally hated – sending up the many hazards of life in the Old West. (Note: There are a couple of minor spoilers at the end of the interview.)
We’ve only ever heard you act and never seen you act, so what new anxieties, fears or joys did this experience bring for you?
Charlize 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: So yeah, 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. And one was that the muscles didn’t take as much reconditioning that I thought that they would. It was more like voice acting than I thought it would be. That 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, with 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. 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 Seth convince you to do the role?
Theron: Quite the opposite. I got to read this pretty early on, and there was talk about him doing this film. And 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 – that to me, was very intriguing. That already had me very interested, and then reading the material and just how well it was written – and yeah, I just really liked this character. I felt like I could bring something to the table, so I definitely did some chasing.
How was the experience shooting in 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 like the weather was unbelievable. I felt like it was like Biblical times, and we were all going to die a horrible death by weather. 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!” And 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. And it would literally come out of nowhere, and it 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.
Theron: Frogs. No, that’s Magnolia.
MacFarlane: It was frogs. You know, every kind of weather – hail at one point. It was a perfectly nice day, and suddenly there’s like these giant hail stones coming from the sky. And it slowed us down enormously. We joke about it but it was a big problem. So if we were to do this again, it would be nice to find a more temperate climate.
You released the novelization of the screenplay before the movie came out. What influenced your decision to do that as well?
MacFarlane: As far as the book was concerned, it was just 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 grade school. And 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, so I read a lot of Louis L’Amour books. So I went, “God, I wondered 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.
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 – so from a directorial standpoint, film is more satisfying. But they’re both forms of media that I’d like to keep involvement in.
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 kind of 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, and so he just wrote one of the best scores I’ve heard in the past 15 years. As far as Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is probably my favorite Western, and 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 kind of spends the whole movie going “What the fuck is wrong with all of you? You’re all a bunch of savages!” And that’s sort of the viewpoint that Anna and Albert have in this movie. So they’re very much looking at this world through a modern lens, and yet they do live in that time.
Theron: There’s something about him: He is not just the one-dimensional actor, no matter what he does, and I think that’s why people are so endeared by him and why you emotionally tap into him, no matter what he plays. And 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. And I think all of us were all a little star-struck. …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 the sweetest, one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever been around. I mean, couldn’t be sweeter. I think just everybody did really great, and you did a really, really good job casting this movie. And there really wasn’t a bad apple in the bunch. It really 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. And 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. I think one of the things that comedies of this type did so well in the ‘80s was – the ones for me that worked – 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 completely 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. And he was just fantastic, and I think a great guy to have around. Just consummate professional – everybody loved him.
Theron: And 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 think I laughed through most of it. He’s like, “You should stop laughing after getting slapped.”
There are some great references to two Western-themed films, Back to the Future III and Django Unchained, with some very fun cameos. How did those come about?
MacFarlane: [Laughs] 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 said, “All right, we want to keep this more or less 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. So we did stay away from a lot of that stuff. And then while we were filming, we thought, “Well, you could kind of explain this away because it is a time machine, and why not?” And [the Doc Brown sequence] was just something that turned out to be such a crowd pleaser, that I’m very glad we put it in. And 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 sort of a way to kind of buy back what is probably the edgiest gag in the movie, which is the shooting gallery. And once again, the shooting gallery’s yet another example of the terribleness that was the 1880s. And I think that’s why in our test screenings, people aren’t really that [upset] – they 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. But [Foxx’s cameo] was something that helped to buy it back at the end of the day.
A Million Ways to Die in the West opens today nationwide.