Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. So, I knew I was going to sit down with Seth MacFarlane after his big SXSW panel, but what I didn’t know is that we would be joined by Mark Wahlberg who stars in TED, MacFarlane’s debut feature film.
The flick is a hard R-rated comedy that opens this summer about a little boy who wishes his teddy bear would be a real friend. He gets his wish and after all the world is amazed by this Christmas miracle the bear grows up like anybody else. So you have a sweet childhood relationship that morphs into what typically happens with childhood best friends… a vulgar, friendly ribbing, wrestling, pot-smoking, video game playing, slacker pair of buddies. Except one of them happens to be a teddy bear and sound like Peter Griffin.
About 20 minutes prior to the interview I was alerted to that fact, so I did what I could to roll some question’s Wahlberg’s way.
These kinds of interviews are always a little difficult even with a significant heads up. I’m a fan of Family Guy, something Herc gives me endless amounts of shit for, but I had to ask questions about a film that I haven’t seen and only have a vague idea based on a few minutes of footage… in many ways, this is my average Comic-Con interview experience.
We began by my introducing myself to the two men and reminding Wahlberg that we briefly met during my time on The Lovely Bones set. That conversation spun off into New Zealand and Lord of the Rings which is what was being discussed when I got my recorder turned on. We’ll jump into the conversation there.
Seth MacFarlane: I’m actually looking forward to that movie (THE HOBBIT). I was not a big LORD OF THE RINGS fan, but I’m looking forward to this one. I could never get into those books, the old ones. It’s…
Quint: Very dense.
Seth MacFarlane: Every time somebody is outdoors or passes a glade or is even by an open window, I have to read eight pages of fucking nature described.
Quint: (laughs) Yeah, Tolkien liked trees. THE HOBBIT is a lot more of an adventure story, that was written before Tolkien decided he wanted to really myth build and all of that stuff. We should probably talk a little bit about your movie instead of Peter Jackson’s movie. I think he’s going to have plenty of people talking about The Hobbit…
Seth MacFarlane: He’ll be fine. Don’t worry about him.
Quint: I’ll tell you at what point that I knew that we were kind of on the same page during the Ted footage presentation. Any time anybody shows even and inkling of love and respect to TEMPLE OF DOOM I feel like I’ve found a soul mate.
Seth MacFarlane: Doesn’t deserve the whipping that it some times gets.
Quint: It’s one of my favorites and I think it’s a very underrated movie.
Seth MacFarlane: It might be the best John Williams score ever.
Quint: Oh, it’s incredible. I listen to it all of the time. I thought it was a really good idea to show the opening eight minutes of TED, because you really set the fairy tale tone. I think when people see the red band trailer… that’s a little bit more what they are expecting from a feature from you and it will be more of a surprise I guess when they go into the theater and they see how it does have that very fairy tale, innocent beginning. Anybody who was an 80’s kid can recognize the detail of the world, whether it’s the INDY poster or people opening up a Nintendo. So I’d like to start with talking about finding that tone and talk about why you decided to take a little time to build the world before you break the innocence, I guess.
Seth MacFarlane: Yeah. The idea of keeping it very, very sweet and kind of massaging the audience’s experience from the get go for at least the first eight minutes or so was always part of the script and that radical tonal shift is deliberate. Obviously Patrick Stewart’s narration, which is not the last you hear of him in this movie… Yeah, it was something that was done purposefully and it does set a tone of sweetness that is carried throughout the film despite how edgy it is. There is a backbone of heart to this thing that I think might surprise some regular FAMILY GUY viewers.
Mark Wahlberg: I just observed the other day that the boy who plays “Young John,” he thinks it’s like this little sweet movie. They were showing some stuff and he was like trying to watch and his mother wouldn’t let him watch. (laughs) He was like “Why? What’s going on?”
Quint: In his mind it’s a Spielberg film! What’s really interesting though and in a very odd way, that stark contrast in a weird way grounds the movie. I don’t think the joke would have been funny if it had started with a wise-cracking teddy bear. I like that he grew up with the kid, matured as close childhood friends often do… I don’t know if there’s a question there… (laughs)
Seth MacFarlane: Well it’s a way to, hopefully, emotionally invest the audience from the get go. There’s a title sequence that you’re actually not seeing here where we kind of travel through the years a little bit with these characters and watch them grow up together and then you are kind of hit in the face with this present day reality.
Quint: Mark, is that kind of how you approached it? I think what makes the buddy aspect of it work, at least in the footage we saw, is that you don’t treat him any differently than you would treat any other friend. He just happens to be a teddy bear.
Mark Wahlberg: I love the relationship between them and again when I talked to Seth my biggest concern was that I could just try to play it as real as possible and play it as straight as possible and hopefully the laughs will come from the situation that they are in and the craziness that they are experiencing and the writing… It was really funny, but when I started to read the script, halfway through it you forget that it’s a bear and you’re just thinking “Wow, these guys have this great relationship and this guy is stuck in this dilemma between keeping his girlfriend happy and wanting to spend most of his time, if not all of his time, with his best friend.”
Quint: Yeah, again I think what really impresses me about the concept is that it’s a typical buddy film, but with a crazy supernatural element to it. I think that’s really fun.
Seth MacFarlane: We were shooting for that very contemporary R-rated in a lot of ways relationship comedy kind of tone, but one of the characters is of course CG and I’m not sure that that’s been done before. Maybe I’m missing something, but it was something very specific and I asked a lot of Mark. I think it’s a huge testament to him as an actor that essentially he was… Most of the movie… These are not action scenes, these are real scenes of relatability in which he is playing to empty space and he was seeing that bear there. He was speaking to empty space and yet interacting with someone and when the bear went in later on it just felt so organic. I don’t know that that would have been possible with another actor.
Quint: In the Q&A you mentioned that you were there with him and were doing your dialog with him and that you weren’t locked into a previously recorded track. You used the Bill Murray/Garfield analogy.
Seth MacFarlane: I know. I don’t mean to shit on that movie, but it’s the only example…
Quint: Murray shits on the movie. He doesn’t care!
Seth MacFarlane: That’s what I figured.
Quint: Every time somebody asks him why he did it, he’s like “They paid me two million bucks and I stood in a room for a day. I’ll do that job every day of the week.”
Seth MacFarlane: A lot of it is sound though, too. I mean we mic-ed the bear dialogue the same way as everyone else. Any environment we were in, it was all live. I do think no matter how sophisticated your mixer is, you are still artificially duplicating the sound of that room and on FAMILY GUY we did sort of a rough pass at this where we put Brian, the dog, on Bill Maher’s show and it was mic-ed the same way as everyone else and the sound of that room and the consistency of the recording quality really pulled him into that environment in a lot more than just with the audio that you think it would.
Quint: I have it imagine from an acting perspective that made all the difference in the world, where Mark’s not acting against just playback. So how did it work? I don’t imagine you were in the scene, but were you off camera?
Seth MacFarlane: Yeah. I was generally just off camera in the room as much as possible. Most of the scenes with John and Ted we did that way.
Quint: So you guys were acting together?
Mark Wahlberg: Yeah.
Quint: I have to imagine that helps, because you can actually read emotion.
Seth MacFarlane: Well, not really.
Mark Wahlberg: He’d be like over there (motions in his periphery) and I’d be here with this stuffed bear or a doll.
Seth MacFarlane: If the bear is sitting in this chair, I’m across the room and he’s looking at this empty chair and interacting. It’s a lot to think about all at once for an actor.
Mark Wahlberg: But it’s also just like being at home learning the lines and rehearsing. I spent hours looking at myself in the mirror and I just imagined… (Laughs) No, I’m kidding.
Quint: (laughs) You had me going there for a second. I’m like “Oh? Really? That’s your process, huh?”
Mark Wahlberg: No, I’m just fucking with you. I do remember hearing stories… I think it was Keanu Reeves who would just say the lines in the mirror like “Try it like this. No, no try it like that…”
Quint: So we didn’t see much of the relationship with Mila [Kunis]. Maybe we could talk a little bit about that and some of the other cast in the movie. I saw that Joel McHale, who is really funny, and a lot of the FAMILY GUY people pop up.
Seth MacFarlane: Giovanni Ribisi was also in the movie. He was great.
Quint: He can be really funny, too.
Mark Wahlberg: He’s spectacular.
Seth MacFarlane: Yeah, Mila… The challenge with that relationship and again this goes back to the whole premise being, ideally, tonally grounded in reality, at least as far as the audience is concerned. We wanted to treat this like this is somebody who is living with your boyfriend, from Mila’s perspective, who is a sap on your relationship who is just draining the life out of it, because he’s a leech and he’s been there for too long.
She played that so real and so effectively that it just worked and the trick too is with a character like that… You see often times in comedies the female character with her hands on her hips badgering the guy to do this or that and get his act together and often times it can come off very hen pecking and Mila is a very balanced, very shrewd actress who is able to acknowledge the dangers of that and really hone that performance in a way that…
Mark Wahlberg: She’s not a bitch.
Seth MacFarlane: Yeah, makes her stern with him and makes her persistent, but you get where she’s coming from. She’s right. Her character has a very legitimate beef.
Mark Wahlberg: Yeah, that’s a finer line to walk than either of us were doing. She had the tough part.
Seth MacFarlane: That’s true.
Mark Wahlberg: I smell a nomination. (laughs) Let’s start the campaign early.
Quint: So is there a child star aspect to Ted as a character?
Seth MacFarlane: A little bit. It’s something we hint at now and then, but I have always kind of wanted to underplay that. I feel like the uniqueness of this movie depends on the normalcy of this character living in this world. It’s like THE MUPPETS and all of my Muppets references are fucking old, but in THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER Kermit and Fozzy are working for a newspaper and their boss is chewing them out like “You didn’t get the story and we are going to lose money because of it!” It’s never mentioned that it’s a bear and a frog. They are just treated like normal citizens.
Quint: If that’s the reality established in the movie and you don’t betray it, the audience accepts it.
Seth MacFarlane: It is and I think all too often there’s a gimmick where “Oh, only this kid can hear his dog” or “only this person can hear this person talk.” That always drives me crazy. All it does is limit you.
Quint: To be honest, that’s where I thought this was going just from the description, but that all changed when young John introduces his new friend to his parents, when Ted walks into the kitchen the parents had a very natural reaction I thought. “Get my gun!”
Mark Wahlberg: “Is it a hugging gun?” (laughs)
Seth MacFarlane: Everything about it was supposed to be real. I mean this is a terrible analogy, but there was a movie called ALIEN NATION that came out in the 80’s and the whole premise was it was five years after the aliens landed and now everyone is used to them being around, that no matter how crazy and bizarre.
Mark Wahlberg: Yeah, yeah with Jimmy Caan?
Mark Wahlberg: His pants were hiked up a little too high.
Seth MacFarlane: (laughs) No matter how insane an event, eventually people just have to get used to it. If something like this happened, give it thirty years and no one would care anymore. They would just be like “Well, we can’t be shocked every day. Let’s go with it.”
Quint: So what’s the plan for the film? It’s a summer release, right?
Seth MacFarlane: Yeah, July.
Mark Wahlberg: I think we want as few people as possible to see it. We’ll try a different approach. (laughs)
Quint: “Counter-counter promotion.” Cool, well I don’t think I have too much more, unless there’s something else you want to discuss.
Mark Wahlberg: Just convince everybody to go see this movie about how awesome it is. Give us an A+ rating.
Quint: (laughs). Well, thank you guys. I really appreciate your time.
And there you have it. Seth MacFarlane says Ted is like Alien Nation! Take it to the bank!