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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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