By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—TV audiences know Seth MacFarlane as the creator of the hit animated series “Family Guy” and the voices of its irrepressible baby, Stewie and goofball father, Peter. MacFarlane now makes his big screen directorial debut with “Ted,” an irreverent comedy that stars an animated teddy bear that’s anything but cuddly.
MacFarlane recently spoke about his R-rated comedy, which mixes live action with animation, and how he cast tough guy Mark Wahlberg and his old friend Mila Kunis, who has provided the voice of Meg in “Family Guy” for a decade, in his first movie. Wahlberg plays a man-child named John who has to choose between his lifelike childhood toy and his exasperated girlfriend, Lori (Kunis). MacFarlane provides the voice of trash-talking Ted. Like his TV series, MacFarlane’s “Ted” isn’t for kids, but beneath its naughty veneer the story has a surprising amount of heart.
Front Row Features: You’ve been in television a long time. What took so long for you to do your first film project?
MacFarlane: I wanted to make sure (“Family Guy”) was fully on its feet before I stepped away to do a film. I knew I’d have to step away from that show completely for at least a year. That was something I hadn’t done yet. And this was an idea that had actually been floating around in my head for a while. I had originally conceived it as an animated series idea and for a number of reasons shelved it. When it came time to do my first movie, it seemed like a story that would make a much better film than a series.
Front Row Features: Mark and Mila are known for their dramatic roles in movies. Why cast them in a comedy?
MacFarlane: I already knew from “Family Guy” that when you bring A-list actors to an animated show, it separates the men from the boys instantly. You see who is a pretty face and who actually has the chops and we’ve had plenty of A-list people who’ve come in and we’ve seen the emperor’s new clothes. For all these years we’ve thrown a lot of very subtle comedy at Mila for the role of Meg. You’re not seeing her lovely face; you’re hearing her voice. All you’re getting is her ability and it’s tremendous. That, to me, is the best example of all.
Front Row Features: Did the special effects turn out to be more challenging than you expected? Did you have to rewrite a lot of Ted’s dialog in post?
MacFarlane: No. We were trying a fairly new technique of doing it all live on set to get a sort of improvisational feel, but it went surprisingly smooth. We had a great animation studio, Tippett, which just knocked it out of the park for us. We had a little bit of liberty to do new Ted lines in post in case something didn’t work. That was kind of a luxury that we took advantage of. We would screen the movie and if something didn’t work, we’d try a different line at the next screening.
Front Row Features: What can you say about the design of Ted?
MacFarlane: As far as the bear’s design, I wanted to keep it very simple. There’s a style of 2D animation that “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” employs. I’ll use Homer Simpson as an example. When Homer Simpsons is being addressed, he just sits there with a blank stare. There’s something that’s just 100 times funnier about that than if there were a series of Disney-esque subtle reactions because each audience member can kind of imprint what they think is going on inside his head based on their own (idea). I wanted to do the same thing with Ted. Oftentimes CG characters are so human-like that they come off kind of creepy looking. “Jack Frost” is an example of CG animation gone wrong. They all acknowledged it after that movie. So I wanted to keep Ted simple. His eyes are very kind of blank. There are little expressions with the eyebrows but it’s a pretty simple design and that was deliberate. I wanted to leave enough to the imagination what that expression is or what the thought process is. It’s supposed to be a little different for each audience member.
Front Row Features: You’re used to working with a TV 14 rating constraint but with this you had free reign to make an R-rated movie. Was it weird suddenly having this freedom to do what you wanted creatively onscreen?
MacFarlane: Yes. With film, you’re not dealing with the restrictions imposed by the FCC. They’re self-imposed, so in a way it does make it harder. You actually have to think about it as opposed to just taking for granted you’re not going to be able to do something. With this movie, most of (the rating restriction was due to foul) language. This movie isn’t a hard R. There isn’t any graphic sex and there’s no heavy drug use. We did cut down somewhat (on the language) because we found that it was starting to eat into the sweetness of the story a little bit.
Front Row Features: You do a brilliant job of clashing youth and adulthood in this movie and your television series. I’m just curious as to what your interest is in that and where you think you can find the intersection?
MacFarlane: Adults acting like children and children acting like adults is generally a pretty reliable comic device. On “Family Guy,” you have Stewie who’s a baby who acts like an adult and Peter, who’s a man, who acts like a child. It’s a fairly reliable comic device. This movie is a bit more textured and has a lot more shades to it, but in terms of the dynamic, we’re essentially playing the teddy bear as the physical manifestation of John’s inability to grow up and get on with his life.
Front Row Features: Mark has a memorable fight scene with Ted in a motel room reminiscent of the epic battles between Peter and the chicken on “Family Guy.” Was that intentional and was it difficult for you to shoot?
MacFarlane: The chicken fight on “Family Guy” was very cartoony and broad in a lot of ways. This was supposed to be something very different. The whole joke of this was we wanted to play it as realistically as possible. We wanted it to feel like a fistfight in “The Bourne Identity,” except one of the characters happens to be a teddy bear. I think we pulled that off. Mark just sold it 150 percent even without the bear (really there). When you look at that raw footage and the sound effects and him getting the s*** kicked out of him by this invisible adversary, it actually still kind of works. Hopefully, we made it painfully realistic.