Debunking rose-tinted Old West

Writer-director Seth MacFarlane (above), who was behind the 2012 movie Ted (left, with actor Mark Wahlberg), helms the western, A Million Ways To Die In The West.
Writer-director Seth MacFarlane (above), who was behind the 2012 movie Ted (left, with actor Mark Wahlberg), helms the western, A Million Ways To Die In The West.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE, UIP
Writer-director Seth MacFarlane (above), who was behind the 2012 movie Ted (left, with actor Mark Wahlberg), helms the western, A Million Ways To Die In The West.
Writer-director Seth MacFarlane (above), who was behind the 2012 movie Ted (left, with actor Mark Wahlberg), helms the western, A Million Ways To Die In The West.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE, UIP

When he hosted the Oscars last year, he did a whole song-and-dance number about looking at famous actresses' boobs. This, coupled with the fact that his most famous screen creation is a womanising teddy bear, means that Seth MacFarlane's feminist credentials are not exactly sound.

But in the 40-year-old's latest project, A Million Ways To Die In The West, it is a woman - the gun-slinging, straight-talking Anna, played by Charlize Theron - who saves the day and effectively rescues the wimpy male protagonist Albert, played by MacFarlane himself.

At a press day for the film in Los Angeles last month, the comedic powerhouse behind the hit movie Ted (2012) and the hugely successful adult-themed cartoon series Family Guy tells Life! that Anna is probably one of the strongest female characters he has created to date.

"We didn't really set out to write a strong female character so much as a strong character, period," says MacFarlane, who also produced the film.

"She and Albert are the same in so many ways, we treated them as two people cut from the same cloth, regardless of gender. And that's one of the things that works in the relationships," he says of the movie, which begins with Albert getting dumped by his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) after he backs out of a duel.

"We were just writing characters in their purest form and not really thinking, 'Gosh, how do we make them strong enough'.

"Anna's personality is plenty strong, she's a lot stronger than he is and, yeah, I think it's certainly one of the better female characters that we've written throughout the course of our work," he says of his collaborations with co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, who worked on Ted with him.

"We're really happy with the way Anna turned out as a character and certainly Charlize responding to it as she did was also very gratifying, because it told us we'd done something right here."

Granted, the film flopped when it opened in the United States, where it has also been skewered by critics, many of whom were expecting a repeat of the runaway success of Ted, a comedy about a potty- mouthed, pot-smoking teddy bear.

But with Ted 2 in the works and Family Guy still going strong after about 13 years on air, MacFarlane continues to preside over an entertainment empire said to be worth more than US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) and is likely to remain one of Hollywood's most influential writer-directors for some time.

He concedes that it was on the strength of Ted that this new movie, with its unlikely premise, was greenlit at all.

"Ted afforded, more than anything else, the embracing of a comedy western as a premise. That's probably something we would've had trouble with had Ted not succeeded the way it did," he said.

"But because Ted was a quirky idea that in some ways shouldn't have done as well as it did, I think the thinking was that maybe the same thing would be true here.

"It's a weird enough idea," he says of the new film, which turns on Albert's rather astute if anachronistic analysis of how terrible life in the Old West was. "Particularly in an age where everything is either a reboot or a sequel or a re-imagining. I think they felt this was something kind of fresh."

With this film, MacFarlane also wanted to debunk the rose-tinted view of the Old West that has been popularised by Hollywood.

When he and his co-writers were working on Ted and killing time watching old westerns, it occurred to them "what a horrible, depressing place this must have been to live in, despite how much it's been romanticised in popular culture, at least in America".

"And it felt like an angle that no one had really explored before."

He felt it was important, too, to have a different kind of protagonist.

"I like that Albert is not a heroic figure by any means. Westerns are populated with larger-than-life heroes, but most people are fairly average and you don't ever hear any of those stories.

"So I like that we see what a nerd would be like in that time period."

Alison de Souza

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