Friends and writing partners for over a decade, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild can now finish each other’s sentences in conversation — which is a little bit confusing for interviewers, but a big reason why they average more laughs per minute that just about anyone else in Hollywood.
Having initially met while working on the staff at “Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn,” they moved on to work under Seth MacFarlane when “Family Guy” relaunched in 2005. The threesome moved to live action by co-writing 2012’s smash hit “Ted,” a film that grossed $549 million worldwide and wrote them what was more or less a blank check to make whatever film they pleased.
MacFarlane always dreamed of starring in a western, and so here we are just a day ahead of the release of “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a cowboy comedy that co-stars Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Giovanni Ribisi, and Amanda Seyfried. The pair spoke with TheWrap late last week about writing the film, as well as several of their other projects. It was a very enlightened conversation.
TheWrap: Were you fans of westerns or just said, let’s give it a whirl when Seth asked?
Sulkin: The second thing. I mean, you know, I think we enjoy westerns, I certainly do. But a western comedy? That seemed like a more risky proposition.
Wild: I think it was at first sort of like, MRC [Media Rights Capital], the people who funded it, I think they were kind of like, let’s let Seth do his little pet project so we can get it out of the way and get to Ted 2, and I think it turned out better than they thought. Because it’s a hard sale, as Alec was saying, especially internationally. I don’t know how well that kind of thing will play.
With “Ted” on your side, you have clout.
Sulkin: Yeah, he can make terrible movies for the next 15 years, all he has to do is put Ted in the commercial and then it will be fine.
What important elements did you take out of watching some westerns before getting started? Even for a spoofy western, what did they have to have?
Sulkin: Well it has to be in the west… There has to be a good guy and a bad guy.
Wild: At least one gun at least.
Sulkin: Yeah, one gun at least.
Wild: Seth had us — we didn’t really read it, but we sort of skimmed it — “The Last Gun Fight,” the book about the OK Corral, by Jeff Guinn. He used that a lot for period-appropriate references and stuff like that, so we went through that. But mostly, just Alec is a huge consumer of westerns, it seems like you’re always watching something.
Sulkin: Well I just think that, and I think we all kind of feel this way, either westerns are either very entertaining and good, or they’re ridiculously bad and entertaining. There’s something great about terrible westerns, too. They look like gay dancers and bad, overwrought dialogue and overacting, black and white sped up horses.
Wild: What’s the name of the movie where they’re like, “Get that coffee over here!” or something?
Sulkin: Oh yeah, that’s actually one of the classics, that’s The Searchers. So even within the classics, even “The Searchers” which is considered one of the best westerns of all time, there are several ridiculous moments that are just so period-specific where people are yammering on about passing coffee back and forth for way too long a time.
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“Family Guy” is so jam-packed with pop culture references, but there was literally zero pop culture you could put in this. So how do you fill that void that so many movies get to use?
Wild: I think that was good for us, to tie our hands behind our back and say here, go ahead, do it without pop culture references. Although I think there is one there.
There’s a long speech in the movie where Seth talks about why he wants to leave the west, and it’s a recurring theme, that it was an awful place festering with disease and sadness. That adds a whole new frame to the movie, makes it a lot more meta. Why did you decide to add that?
Sulkin: That was like the beginning of everything, I think. We started from that place. We started from a place where, “Wouldn’t it be funny to do a western about how terrible it was to live back then” and then just started listing all the reasons why it was terrible. I think that was, and I think Seth feels that, it was sort of the thesis of the whole movie.
Wild: And we wanted to satirize the racism of the time and people’s attitudes and the simplicity. Not just the illness and death but people being treated terribly.
It is sort of as if Woody Allen putting himself into a Western, like he’s the eyes of the audience.
Sulkin: Yeah, we talked about “Love and Death” before that, and we talked about “Seinfeld,” because there were four of them. Four people who were just generally annoyed by the time and place in which they were living.
You are probably the foremost experts on this, so settle something for me: If you had to choose between dick jokes and fart jokes, which would you choose? Which are better?
Sulkin: I think Wells, you pitched a joke where there was a combination of both, where there was a fart noise, and the guy said, “That came out of my penis.” So that’s the way around the whole thing.
Wild: We managed to make a penis-fart joke.
Sulkin: Personally, I mean, I guess I’d just go farts just because they’ve been with me longer. Fart jokes have been there since the beginning so they’re a little more timeless.
Wild: The dick doesn’t come around ’til puberty. Everyone can fart, but not everyone has a dick.
This is your second live action film after doing “Family Guy” for so long. And that offers you the opportunity to do anything you want. How different is writing a live action movie?
Sulkin: I think we always shift gears. If someone was to sit down and watch an hour and 45 minute long “Family Guy” episode, you’d be absolutely exhausted and probably sick of it after 30 minutes. You have to pace things out in movies a little bit more and just resist the temptation to jam-pack it with a billion jokes.
Wild: I think also, when working with Seth, you don’t even necessarily have to limit yourself. There are limitations of live action that don’t exist in animation, but if we think of something funny together, Seth will usually try to find a way to do it. And with “Ted” we were sort of half in that world anyway, because Ted was an animated character. Working with Seth, there aren’t that many limitations, because he can find a way to do something if we all think it’s funny enough.
Are there advantages, things you can’t do in animation?
Sulkin: It’s just the obvious thing of, you’re able to work with great actors and actresses, like Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron who, if you have them as an animated character on a “Family Guy,” it doesn’t have nearly the same impact on the viewer, because you’re working with the “Family Guy,” everyone-looks-the-same cartoon. But when you see these great actors on screen in our movie, it’s actually an honor and it actually has an impact, and you can see great actors acting, actually.
Wild: The story becomes much more important in live action. Like Alec said, you can have more emotional impact than you can with sad Peter Griffin or whatever, who cares?
Were there a lot of jokes you had to kill for pacing? What was your favorite that you had to cut?
Sulkin: I barely even know what’s in the movie. It’s been such a tornado of watching like 80 cuts. I was surprised that the date sequence with the young girl got cut. I don’t know if it was my favorite joke but I thought it would get a lot of laughs. There was a sequence in there about him trying to date again after Amanda Seyfried dumped him, and one of his dates was, in the Old West, it was somehow deemed appropriate that guys could go out with 12 year old girls and marry like 13-year-olds or something. So we actually had Seth on a date with a girl who was like, I dunno, 10 or something. And we just thought it would be hilarious but nobody ever laughed.
If it was in animation, it could do that. You guys had a tough time with “Dads” this year, are there things you can do in animation that you can’t in live action?
Wild: Yeah, obviously, coming out of a Peter Griffin idiot character, you can get away with so much. And it’s not real, it’s animated, it’s not in your face. He’s just this idiot with this ridiculous voice. And the same thing with the bear, Ted’s not an idiot like Peter Griffin, but that same kind of goofiness can get away with so much, so much more than you can get away with live action.
Sulkin: I watched a “Family Guy” the other night and there was a scene where Peter and Joe were both dressed up like cops and savagely beating Cleveland after they pulled him over at a traffic stop. And all I could think to myself while I was watching it was, “Yeah, ‘Dads’ was really racist.”
Wild: Like “Prom Night Dumpster Baby” from “Family Guy,” you could just never get away with that in live action.
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You want to have a lot of jokes, you want to be a spoof and parody, but like you say, you also want emotional impact. How do you get that?
Sulkin: I think you saw with “Ted,” everyone just fell in love with Ted, and Ted was like everybody’s little puppy dog and so when Ted was torn in half at the end, you could hear audible gasps in the movie theater, people very upset and crying. And so I think that’s the way it worked with “Ted.” With this one, it’s a love story, so you play on the same things that happen in all kinds of relationships, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl and all that kind of stuff, and I think the audience will always respond to those kind of things.
Wild: And “Ted” was way riskier in terms of will people actually care about this bear or not? We didn’t really know until the first screenings of, will anyone give a shit about this bear, have real feelings for this fucking animated bear? With a western, it’s like, yeah of course, it’s real people and real actors, and we know what they can do and we know how people will react. With a bear, it was like, oh god…
What’s it like writing for Seth acting on camera?
Sulkin: We gave him a tremendous amount of shit, just like, “You’re gonna suck dude! You’re going to be terrible! You can’t act.”
Wild: We felt like tough love was the best way to help him.
Were you surprised that he wanted to do it? Was he nervous, or was it a dream of his?
Sulkin: I think it was definitely a dream of his. I was a little bit surprised at first, but it definitely was a dream of his, and I think he was nervous to do it, and I think he still is very nervous right now as it’s about to come out, as to how people will receive it. But I think he did a really good job, it’s not something where, a movie you’d go away from and say, “That was really funny but that lead guy sucked.” I think he did a totally good job.
Wild: And he stood up to Charlize and stuff and the relationship actually seems real. He pulled it off.
So is “Ted 2” ready to roll?
Wild: Yeah, we should be done with the filming by end of summer.
Amanda Seyfried is gonna be in that, too. What was the impetus to have her join and have Mila do less of it this time?
Sulkin: The impetus was just the story changed and you know, sometimes it’s tough to get people to be in sequels and I think we just had a little bit of that problem. We’re happy to have Amanda in there, we just kind of made the story about a new character. She really impressed all of us in “A Million Ways,” her comedy chops were well-developed. As a person, seeing that she’s capable of just hanging out and talking and also what she did on screen.