The Family Guy mastermind discusses his first feature film, Ted, not botching CGI movie characters, and maintaining a provocative edge in Hollywood.
This feature appears in Complex's June/July 2012 issue.
Seth MacFarlane doesn’t play comedy safely. Take his mega-hit animated series Family Guy: Whether the jokes skewer Sarah Palin, Star Wars, or some unlucky ethnic group, the 38-year-old MacFarlane and his team are not afraid to offend any- and everyone. The same goes for the Connecticut native’s two other successful Fox cartoons, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, both of which have made MacFarlane the king of Sunday night comedy.
In Ted, his R-rated feature film directorial debut (in theaters June 29), Mark Wahlberg plays a guy whose best friend is a crude, bong-smoking teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane) who makes anal sex jokes. Cartoons and stuffed animals? Yes, this man enjoys kids’ stuff. Grown kids’ stuff.
With all of the success you’ve had in your career, this is still your first feature film. Do you have any anxiety about how it will be received?
Yeah, that’s always in the back of my head, because it is my first film. At this point, with the animated TV shows, there’s a little bit of… Not that I ever try to take advantage of it, but there’s always a little bit of room for error; here, there’s no room for error. There will be a lot of eyeballs on it, so it will have to do what it’s expected to do. We’ve seen enough test screenings with audiences that make me breath a pretty big sigh of relief.
Going back to when you first premiered Family Guy in 1999, was directing a movie something that was in your plans even at that time?
It’s something that I have always wanted to do, but I did want to wait until Family Guy was firmly on its feet again after the cancellation [in 2001]. So, I did devote a few years more to that than I probably otherwise would have if the show hadn’t gotten cancelled. Family Guy really is the mother ship, in a lot of ways, so I wanted to make sure that it was going to be OK on its own.
It was really all about timing, and this felt like the right time to make a movie. I started the movie about four years ago, so it’s something I’ve been working on for awhile. It takes an insane amount of time to get a movie from its conception to the screen, both creatively and in a corporate sense. It’s been a long process, but I’m really happy with the way it turned out. When you screen it for a big room and you get laughs, you allow yourself to stop worrying quite so much.
What made you want a CGI talking teddy bear in your first film?
All of my experience has been in animation, so I felt it would be good to include an animated element. But making Ted was also about finding a balance between that sort of sledgehammer-realism of modern comedy, at least in that Judd Apatow style, and capturing the style of comedy that I loved in the '80s, movies like Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Those movies were funny for adults, but they also had an element of showmanship to them; there was an element of un-realism. It was always very well-balanced.
Ghostbusters is a movie that we looked to often during Ted’s production process, because it’s a movie that essentially takes place in the real world; New York City is presented as New York City and the characters are all very realistic, but there’s this one element that’s completely unrealistic. By keeping everything else very grounded, they earned that. You don’t have wacky characters in a wacky situation—you have grounded and real characters and one wacky situation for them to deal with.
I hope Ted establishes the modern version of what those ’80s movies accomplished: combining real characters with a fun, outrageous, summer comedy premise.
What was your biggest challenge as a director?
Creating an animated character that interacted in a true sense with the live characters on screen. It always bugs me when I see a CGI character in movies and there’s a pristine quality, a sense that this character is distanced from every other actor in the film.
If you watch a movie like Garfield, you can hear the recording studio quality of Garfield’s voice, as opposed to the soundstage quality of everyone else’s voices. I wanted to give Ted, the character, all of the same benefits that any traditional actor would have, and that meant doing the voice live on set with Mark [Wahlberg] and Mila [Kunis], and being mic’d the same way, so you don’t feel like he’s the one element that was inserted after the fact. That seems like such a simple and obvious approach.
Everything had to be treated exactly as it would be treated for a live actor, and it really makes a huge difference; it really brings Ted into that world. You don’t feel like he’s the one element that was inserted after the fact; it feels like he was there from the very beginning, which is also due in part to how incredible Mark was acting against empty space on set. For about 80% of this movie, he was staring at empty space, and what he was tapping into as an actor resulted in the insertion of the bear being seamless.