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.
Why do you think so many filmmakers allow that disconnect in their CGI-heavy movies?
From a practical standpoint, you’re probably not going to get a guy like Bill Murray [who voiced Garfield] to come to set every day. [Laughs.] You have to give them some leeway for the practicality of it all. But I think there are many directors who don’t quite understand animation and how it fits into live action. Any time there’s real-time synergy between the production and effects ends of a movie, you really do see it on screen.
The effects side of this movie wasn’t something that was an afterthought—our effects team was with us on set every single day. How the bear fit into this was a daily issue that we dealt with, with great care. So, in the simplest terms, I think it has to do with going into this with an understanding about how animated characters work.
It’s similar to how you can watch a 3D film and right away tell if it was converted into 3D after the fact, rather than being shot in that way from jump.
Yeah, and it was fun to do it this way. Doing all the motion capture live on set during production, right there just off camera, that’s something that I don’t think has been done, though I could be wrong. I think that’s one of the things that could hopefully set this movie apart as something that is able to really meld these two worlds together in a believable way.
Even though you come from an animation background, were there still elements of CGI that you had to learn from scratch while making Ted?
Absolutely, mainly with some of the environmental stuff. Really, there’s not that much of it in the movie. There are some shots where we actually had to build an environment, but not that many. The movie really does take place in real world Boston. But, yeah, I definitely learned a great deal about other types of effects shots, and how an actor working against a green screen is integrated into what is ultimately a CGI environment. I knew the basics, but there was a lot on a day-to-day basis that I absorbed that I did not know. Once you got outside of the world of character animation, I definitely had an on-set education as we moved through the production.
In Ted, there's a hilarious and really well-executed fight scene between Mark Wahlberg and the teddy bear—it looks impeccable, as if he was actually brawling with a stuffed animal. How difficult was it to execute such a tricky, CGI-versus-reality action sequence?
Oddly enough, that was, for me at least, one of the effects scenes that I was pretty comfortable with. I had a good sense of it and was on the same page as the effects team on how we’d integrate the bear into Mark’s fight moves. The physical task of shooting that whole scene was a challenge, because it’s very cut-heavy, but, at the same time, that’s an example of a situation where everyone involved gets the joke.
Our stunt coordinator, Scott Rogers, treated that scene as if it was a fight scene between two guys in one of the Bourne movies, and that was the goal from the get-go: This should be completely real and completely raw. There’s no music behind it, so it’s pretty realistic, despite the fact that there’s a teddy bear involved. The effects team was in sync with us; they understood that this character has to be a real person. There can be nothing cartoon-y about him outside of the way he looks. It was possible for it to be as good as it was because everyone understood what the joke was that we were trying to pull off.
That scene instantly brings to mind the infamous Peter-versus-the-chicken fights on Family Guy. Was part of the fun of making Ted to do some of the things you do on Family Guy in a new format?
Absolutely. With Peter and the chicken, you can have two characters hitting each other in the head with mallets, but with Ted, you have a realistic fist fight between two characters, so it was a matter of adding some reality into what we do with Peter and the chicken.
Those fights on Family Guy tend to become pretty absurd, with Ferris wheels, sinking ships, and what-not. So, yeah, this was certainly the next level of reality, and it really captures the essence of what makes the bear work, I hope, throughout the entire movie: that we treat him like just another actor. We don’t give him any special treatment just because he’s animated.
From Family Guy to Ted, your work is fearless, especially with regard to offending people. To what do you attribute that ballsy approach to comedy?
The only barometer you can use is whether you, yourself, are laughing or not. The jokes that are in the movie, and on Family Guy, are jokes that made me and the other writers laugh. It’s not shock for shock’s sake. You just hope that your instincts are valid. There’s always the danger of going too far. There have been episodes of Family Guy that had to be completely rewritten because there was overkill, and it numbs you if you go too far.
In terms of “going too far,” are there ever times when you’re writing or preparing a Family Guy episode and you stop and say to yourself, “Wow, we need to tone this one down”?
There are things that we know are going to generate controversy or make waves, and you just make the determination of whether the joke is funny enough or not to warrant the controversy that it’s going to cause. But there have been many jokes that have completely surprised me, as far as how they were received.
The Sarah Palin joke, for example, that caused all the flack from that Family Guy episode ["Extra Large Medium," season eight] was one I never expected to generate any kind of controversy. I thought the content of the episode at large might do that, but that’s a joke that totally caught me off guard. There have been many situations where jokes that seemed innocuous to us have generated heat among viewers or special interest groups, and I’m sure there will be a few of those in Ted. [Laughs.]
It seems like you had a great experience making Ted, but, as evidenced by your three hit shows, you’re a TV guy at heart. Is television what you’ll always rely upon as you bread-and-butter?
Well, there are advantages in both. I think it’s worth keeping a hand in both forms of media. With television, you really have, I suppose, an opportunity to make more of an impact with your characters; I feel like, as important as characters are in film, if you really want to take a simplistic view of it, you can say that television is character-based and film is premise-based.
That’s not to undersell the value of characters in movies, obviously, but in the simplest form that might be an argument that you can make. The immediacy of television is definitely appealing; in the time it takes to get a movie off the ground and get it made, you can create and launch a television series—everything just happens faster.
With movies, the slowness of production is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s an advantage in that you really have time to perfect each shot in ways that you can’t on TV. But at times there’s a sense of, All lright, let’s just get this thing out there—we’ve been working on this forever, let’s get it in front of some people, for God’s sake. So, for me, I would like to keep a hand in both from here on out. You could never do a character like Ted on television, at least not now—maybe in 10 years or so.
And why is that?
To generate that kind of detail and that kind of realism just takes time. It takes a lot of work—you couldn’t do that with TV. The level of animation is just too extensive.
The immediacy of TV lends itself to allowing you to work on multiple shows at once, which you do with Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show. Do you ever look at your TV slate and think of ways to fall back from those projects? Or figure out end-dates that will make it easier for you to concentrate on other things, like movies?
I am far from doing it all single-handedly, though; I’m a big believer in hiring people who are smarter than you are. [Laughs.] That’s one of the things that has made it all work.
The importance of Family Guy is always paramount—that’s a show that really does still have to be taken care of in a big way. American Dad is a show that should be credited very much to Mike Barker and Matt Weitzman, who have run that show almost since the beginning. I co-created it with them, and it was around the same time that Family Guy came back from cancellation, so I had to spend most of my time getting Family Guy back in motion and I couldn’t devote much time to American Dad, and I didn’t really have to.
Those guys are so capable and they’ve given that show a voice that’s so unique. It’s the only thing that’s allowed me to do so much: I’m surrounded by a team of people who I can really delegate to in a big way. It becomes a matter of relinquishing the vision to somebody you trust, and letting them make it their vision, in a lot of ways.
The Cleveland Show is another example of that. Mike Henry and Rich Appel run that show on a day-to-day basis, and they do a fantastic job. It makes it unnecessary for me to have to juggle eight million things at the same time, which I really couldn’t do. I wouldn’t enjoy it, it would be impossible, and I’d drop dead from exhaustion.
With Family Guy being “the mother ship,” it’s important to keep it fresh and exciting, even though it’s been on the air for 10 seasons now. Is it difficult to keep the show provocative and relevant?
It is a constant source of discussion. I’m a big believer in, this late in a television series, doing things that could potentially ruin the show. [Laughs.] Those types of stories always seem to work, because they take risks. You really can’t do the same things that you’ve done since the beginning after 10 years; episodes like the hour-long murder mystery ["And Then There Were Fewer," season nine], or the one with Stewie and Brian in the vault ["Brian & Stewie," season eight], or Stewie and Brian going back to the pilot episode ["Back to the Pilot," season 10]. There are things that you have to constantly keep changing about a series, otherwise it gets stale.
I think when a TV show lasts a certain amount of time there’s a tendency, with both comedy and drama, to fear deviating from the formula. In a lot of ways, that’s what happened late in the game with the Star Trek franchise on television: They were so successful, and everybody loved what it was that they did, and they created such a unique tone for those shows, but 15-20 years after the fact, there was a tried-and-true formula that, perhaps, wasn’t being deviated from quite enough.
I think that’s the secret to keeping a show alive after so many years: You have to keep taking risks, and, from time to time, abandon things you know will work in favor of new things. That’s the nice thing about television: If something doesn’t work one week, you always have next week. But that is always in the back of my head as we move into the later seasons of Family Guy: Let’s do things that make noise, and change the world that we see within the show’s context.
You became the youngest executive producer in television at age 24, and you bounced back from Family Guy’s cancellation to show Fox executives that they screwed up big-time. Do those accomplishments give you extra confidence?
Yeah, but maybe not quite enough. [Laughs.] In many ways, I’m just as insecure as I was when I started. There’s truth to the belief that when you start to think you’re doing great work, it becomes the opposite of that. It’s good to maintain a sense of insecurity and fear about what you’re doing, because it causes you to push yourself that much harder, but you have to have some confidence; even in the beginning, I had confidence in what I wanted Family Guy to be. But you should always be questioning yourself every step of the way, just to keep yourself honest.
I once had a conversation with Norman Lear, who’s probably the greatest sitcom writer there ever was, and I asked him, “Does it ever get any easier? Do you suddenly understand how to break a story and what works and what doesn’t?” And he said, “Absolutely not.” You just never really know. If the answer was “experience,” then people who’ve been in the business for 20 or 30 years would be making one hit TV show or one hit movie after another. If we’re smart, we all remain somewhat fearful of screwing up. I know I certainly do.