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Interview - Seth McFarlane talks Ted

07 Aug 2012
The writer, director, producer and star on his foul mouthed soft toy feature debut
Peter, Lois, Brian, Stewie, Meg and Chris – six names that will forever be associated with one animated TV show, Family Guy, and the name of one man, Seth McFarlane. Born out of a short which the young student made at college that focused on a middle aged man called Larry and his talking dog called Steve, the idea would be refined while he worked at Hanna-Barbera in the late 90s, eventually getting a prime time slot on Fox in January 2009.McFarlane became the executive producer working in TV, with Family Guy but declining ratings and irregular broadcasts meant that it was cancelled in 2001 at the end of season three. But the fans rallied, notching up over $3 million in DVD sales and the show made a triumphant return in 2005. Seven years on and McFarlane has become the highest paid writer working in television and now has his sights set on pastures new in the form of feature filmmaking. Here, he talks about making that transition with Ted.
Q: With all of the success that you’ve had on television, what made you want to make this movie? A: Because I’m just a big greedy bastard (laughs). I was interested in doing something new. I had been doing animation for close to ten years, actually longer than that if I count my years at Hanna-Barbera. I felt like I was ready to try it. The idea seemed like something that was a good debut for me. It was also a story that I felt I could write well and really make sing. On top of that, the technology had reached a point where a character like Ted could be done well.Q: What was the impetus? Where did this idea come from? A terrible roommate? A bad toy? A: I like talking animals. There’s something amusing to me about talking animals played in a very mundane, kind of casual way. I was a fan of The Far Side when I was a kid. The thing that always kind of cracked me up was how normal and uninteresting, in the most hilarious possible way, Gary Larson made animals. He had cows named Warren and Zelda living in suburban houses. Jim Henson did the same thing with The Muppets. He created a world where it was completely normal that these animals were walking around and talking. No one would ever say, “Oh my god, that frog can talk.” They would say, “Wow, that frog was really just passive-aggressive to me right now” (laughs). With the technology of movies like Avatar and The Lord of the Rings reaching this point, where you really could do a character that looks this way and yet moves and behaves and emotes and gesticulates just like a human being. Thanks to motion capture, it seemed like the perfect time to do it. No one had done it with a comedy. You see this technology used in adventure movies and action movies but never in comedy.Q: Why do you think that happens? A: Well, I mean the style of comedy right now in Hollywood is… there’s a lot of sledgehammer realism to it - just very real, real, real. In the 80’s, there were movies like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future and comedies that contained a fantastical element. You don’t really see as much of those anymore and certainly not in adult comedy. Ted is sort of a hybrid of the modern day, ultra-real improvisational style of comedy married with the 80’s style of fantastical Spielbergian magic.Q: Mila Kunis said that you went through numerous incarnations of the script. Finally you got it right and you were ready to go. What guided you towards Mark Wahlberg to play Ted’s buddy? A: The thing that was going to make or break this relationship was subtlety and realism. If I had cast a broader comic, by broad I mean bigger and more over the top, I don’t think it would have worked. The relationship between John and the bear had to be completely believable. It had to be the same as it would be if Ted was another human. If there’s one single goal that I had with this movie, it’s that you forget what you’re watching is a teddy bear and that you just start to think of him as another person. Mark was a guy who I felt could do that. He’s also funny. I’d seen him be funny in THE OTHER GUYS and I thought this guy can do comedy. He can also obviously, as evidenced in THE FIGHTER and any number of other movies, do drama very well. When the movie gets a little emotional towards the end, you need somebody who is going to be able to pull that off, too. I didn’t want it to feel like two cartoon characters sitting there. It was enough that the bear was the bear. The other guy had to be playing it very real and convincing the audience that this was entirely normal.
Q: What was Mark’s reaction when you told him he’d be playing opposite a bear? A: He never seemed fazed by it. I don’t know that he’s done CGI interaction to this degree before but he sure seemed like he was comfortable with it.Q: Who did you base the bear on? A: No one in particular. He’s a Boston guy. I had a lot of relatives from Massachusetts. I was surrounded by that dialect when I was a kid. I knew a lot of Boston meatheads. Ted is Massachusetts sort of the same way that Peter Griffin is Rhode Island, I suppose.Q: Why did you decide to do the voice yourself and was that taking on too much since you’re directing for the first time? A: It didn’t seem like a lot only because I had just come from a medium that required wearing so many different hats just to get 22-minutes of animation done. It is nine months involving many different types of disciplines. I kind of thrive on that. I like delivering my own stuff. I’m used to it. I’ve been doing it on Family Guy for years and I knew what I wanted out of this character.Q: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film? A: The biggest challenge was learning the basics. I had come from a medium in which you don’t have coverage. You don’t have eight different angles to choose from. You have the one angle that you pick when you’re storyboarding the scene and that’s what you wind up with when the animation itself is done. You can’t cut to a wide shot or say, “Let’s cut to a close-up here.” You can’t do that, so learning the basics of all of the standard shots that you need was actually new. Ironically, the more complex parts of the movie, like the special effects integration, felt more like home to me because I had just come from the world of animation. It was things like the difference between a “traditional over” and a “French over”. And this is called a “cowboy shot” or this is called a “fifty-fifty” when the two characters are facing each other and they’re in profile. Those things were oddly the most challenging. It was the film 101 things.
Q: That list of girls’ names that Mark’s character rattles off, he said there were 57 names. Did you throw in some girls that you knew? A: Just the other day somebody asked me how many of those names have I dated. I think I’ve only dated one.Q: What about your own childhood. What was it about magic and wishes? A: It’s probably the reverse. I was much more interested in science and the rational way that things came to be. I wasn’t really a superstitious person. So, this movie doesn’t necessarily represent any deep-rooted point of view as far as whether or not I believe in the power of magic. It’s a fairytale for adults.Q: Was Flash Gordon your hero when you were little? Is that why you put him in the film? A: Believe it or not, that is not true, I’m afraid. Captain Picard was my hero. I discovered Flash Gordon when I was in college. I had a lot of friends who were into it when I was a kid.Q: So, you didn’t go to the movies when you were a little boy to see Flash Gordon? A: For some inexplicable horrific reason, my parents took me to see Poltergeist when I was eight-years old, which I could never really understand. It was a different time, I guess. Let’s take our eight-year old son to see not only a movie about a child that is kidnapped, but also a movie about a child that is kidnapped by ghosts.Q: After this experience, are you going to make another film or is this it? A: No, I’m not going to make any more films or TV shows. I’m going to go buy a farm somewhere and raise cattle. Just kidding. I would like to keep a hand in both. Each offers a different kind of pleasure by virtue of the nature of the medium.Q: Are you able to push more boundaries in one medium than the other? I’m sure you couldn’t have said on TV some of the things that you definitely say in the film. A: You can definitely do more in an R-rated film. Depending on the scene, it’s not always a good thing. There are the things that make an R-rated comedy like sex, nudity and excessive violence. Actually I don’t even think that gets an R rating in America. Language is the only reason that this movie is really an R-rated comedy. There is brief nudity.Q: What about Ted pretending that he’s having oral sex? Things like that. A: We’ve shown stuff almost that graphic on Family Guy. It’s very tame compared to what I’ve seen in other R-rated comedies. It’s language. The only reason there’s a lot of language in the film is the same reason that there was language on a show like The Sopranos. That’s just the way these guys talk. You’re in Boston where you’re surrounded by a bunch of meatheads in their Red Sox caps. That’s how they talk.Q: Was there any reason for the evolution of the bear that starts out very pure and innocent but becomes this raunchy, bong-smoking, sex crazed bear? A: It’s because I wanted to treat him just like everyone else. Because the bear came to life in Boston, it stands to reason that he would grow up to be like a Boston guy.
Q: Why did you bring so many of your Family Guy cast onto this film? A: I like working with people that I’ve worked with before because I know their rhythms. I also figured I have a lot of self-educating to get through during this process. So I thought, this is my first movie and it’s a fairly complex on so I have a lot to learn about the medium as I go along. I’ll make it a little bit easier on myself and work with people who I know will deliver because they’ve delivered for me before.Q: Do you have any desire to do Ted as an animated series or to follow up with it? A: That was how it initially came to be. It was an animated series idea that I had a number of years ago. In that version, John had a wife and kids and he felt as put out by the bear as everyone else did. The friendship aspect wasn’t there, though.Q: What made you decide to make it into a feature film? A: I had shelved the idea for a number of reasons. It wasn’t something that I felt had all the kinks worked out. When it came time to do a movie, I kind of cleared the dust off it and had this thought that it probably would be something that is better served as a single story arc. It had the potential to have some actual warmth to it, some actual sweetness. For an R-rated movie to do well and to have any kind of impact, you do have to have that. I think that’s the one distinction that you can make between R-rated comedies that really score and the ones that don’t. It’s that all of the racy comedy is tempered by a real sweetness and innocence. I hope that’s something that people take away from this movie. That third act we play pretty nakedly. There’s no cynicism there. There’s no attempt to be sentimental with a wink. We’re actually trying to make it sad.Q: The poster for the film is just like a nice family advertisement with this bear on it. Are you worried little kids will ask mom, “Can you take me to this movie?” A: That is the responsibility of the parents to do their research. It’s not that hard. Google “Ted movie,” read three sentences and you’ll know whether or not you should take your kids.Q: What do you hope people will take away from the film? A: In a perfect world, God knows if this will ever happen in a perfect world, I’d love for people to think of it as an R-rated E.T. It’s a sweet story about a man and an imaginary character with some shit jokes that really made you laugh out loud.Ted is in cinemas from the 1st of August. Check out our review here.
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