A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST
Taming the Genre: A Million Ways Begins
As Seth MacFarlane and fellow writers Alec Sulkin
and Wellesley Wild were putting the final touches on
their soon-to-be blockbuster feature debut, Ted, they
were taking a break and watching Clint Eastwood
in director Ted Post's classic Western film Hang
'Em High. The old friends and collaborators started
pitching jokes and riffing on the idea of creating
an unconventional Western, and they soon decided
that a comedic twist on the genre should be their
next project together.
MacFarlane recalls: "We were talking about how
this era is so romanticized in American film and
literature, but it was actually a time and place that
would have been so unbelievably depressing and
dangerous to live in, particularly if you weren't an
alpha male. It took off from there."
The filmmakers felt there was truly no upside to
living in this place at that time, and
they liked the idea of examining
it through a contemporary lens.
MacFarlane says: "One of the
things that we have always felt
about comedy, particularly with
high-concept comedy, is that you
get one crazy thing in your bag
of tricks and then everything else
has to be grounded. In the film,
the high-concept element is that
it takes place in the Old West.
Everything else finds itself to be
based in contemporary reality."
While the team wanted the
setting to be the Old West, they
felt the need to infuse the characters with a modern-day
sensibility, especially Albert Stark, the story's
protagonist. Wild offers: "This was Seth's idea from the
beginning: how to stick a knowing, observant guy into a
world where he just doesn't belong...where everything
is just terrible. Albert is not suited for it. This guy is a
fish out of water, and he shows what an unbelievable
nightmare it would be to live in this time and place."
The more the writers riffed, the more they
started to see that the concept they had was rich
with possibility. Sulkin adds: "We consciously kept
Seth's character a bit more contemporary, so he'd be
the one saying to everyone, 'Hey. What's up?' while
everyone else says, 'Howdy!' We imagined it would
be annoying for him that everyone else is so into the
Old West, and he hates it."
For MacFarlane, it wasn't just the fact that their
unlikely hero lived in the parched and dry 1880s, but
it was also the kind of work with which Albert was
saddled. Through his research, the filmmaker found that
sheepherders were often reviled members of society. He
says: "Everybody hated the sheep farmers because the
sheep would graze so close to the roots of the grass that
it would ruin the land. It's just not a particularly manly
animal to be raising in the first place, so this idea that
the sheep farmers would be the pussies of the Old West
was something that seemed like a good, funny angle
to help illustrate who Albert is and put a face on what
'nerdom' was on the American frontier."
As MacFarlane signed up to wear many hats on
this comedy, he would find that the demands of his
various roles made the project most enjoyable. He
explains: "There's not one specific job that is more
rewarding than another. They're all different. The
writing is rewarding; the directing is rewarding. The
acting is rewarding, but certainly the most terrifying
because I have the least firsthand experience with it."
Assembling a team to work together again
certainly helped provide the project with a sustainable
familiarity. Returning producer Scott Stuber of
Bluegrass Films explains the trio's detailed process
and how they translate their humor: "The Old West
is often seen in movies as a time where everyone was
tough and brave, and stories are told through that
lens. Because it was actually a very hard time in terms
of all the things that could kill you, and how young
and easily you could die, Seth, Alec and Wellesley
found the dark humor there and took it to its funniest
incarnation, as only they could."
Stuber appreciated the antihero
the writers created and loved that they
were taking a riff on a time-honored
genre. About Albert, he further
explains: "He's one of those people
who is miserable in the West. Albert's
not macho; he's not a gunslinger; he's
not looking for a fight. He's a nerd.
He's the guy who's well-read and
sensitive, which are attributes that
aren't associated with characters from
the 1880s. He's just trying to find his
place in the Old West."
Fellow Ted producer Jason Clark
was thrilled to reteam with MacFarlane,
Sulkin, Wild and Stuber for a never-before-told
Western. He offers: "What I admire about working
with Seth, Alec and Wellesley is that every story
that they create with their jokes is grounded in a
story that we care about. So, as an audience member,
there's something to hang your hat on; there's someone
that you're rooting for. The thing that Seth always has
is the ability to bring heart and warmth, even with
these outrageous jokes."
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