For Seth MacFarlane, best known as the creator of Family Guy, his feature directorial debut on Universal Pictures’ Ted has been a decade in the making, dating back more than a decade to Fox’s cancellation of the animated sitcom.
When Family Guy was revived in 2005, MacFarlane knew he had to ensure the series was on firm ground before he focused on other projects. “It would mean stepping away from that show completely for at least a year,” he recently told a group of reporters. “That was something I hadn’t done yet.”
With Family Guy established as its own franchise, complete with comic books, video games, merchandise and the spinoff Cleveland Show, as well as the standalone series American Dad, MacFarlane recognized it was time to make a movie. Luckily he had an idea for another television show, which he reworked into Ted, a live-action comedy about a grown man and his talking, pot-smoking teddy bear (voiced of course by MacFarlane).
“When it came time to do my first movie,” said the director, sitting with stars Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, “it seemed like a story that would make a much better film than a series.”
The two actors faced their own challenges once the cameras began to roll – namely, working opposite a co-star created on a computer. “It was more of a problem working with Mila,” Wahlberg quipped. “I was a little nervous at first, but once we started getting into it, I felt comfortable.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Kunis added. “I didn’t have much physical interaction with the bear.” Her concern was primarily making sure she was looking in the right direction. “It wasn’t so frightening, necessarily. You have a stick and two eyes [to guide you].”
Early on, the actors watched a test reel to see how the bear effects played. “There was a concern — Seth and I were having a great time acting opposite each other,” Wahlberg said. “Would it translate when you’re putting the bear into the actual scenes?” The test proved that their chemistry worked.
Of course, none of that prepared him for the film’s signature hotel room fight. “I just felt so ridiculous flopping around this room by myself,” the actor admitted. Although it seemed silly to shoot, he put his trust in MacFarlane. “I was wrong and [Seth] was right. Everybody loves that scene.”
“The whole joke of this was that we wanted to play it as realistically as possible,” MacFarlane added. “We wanted it to feel like a fist fight in The Bourne Identity, except one of the characters happens to be a teddy bear.” The director credited Wahlberg with making the scene work. “Even without the bear in there, it still kind of works.”
Asked whether the R-rated film allowed him more freedom, MacFarlane replied, “It’s a fairly moderate R movie. There’s no graphic sex, there’s no heavy drug use. It’s R for language.” In some ways, MacFarlane said, the restrictions placed upon him on network television make it easier to know where the line is.
“The first cut of this movie actually had a lot more uses of the word ‘fuck’,” he recalled. In test screenings, he saw that the abrasiveness of the word began to “eat into the sweetness” of the story. The word appears only a handful of times in the final edit. “You do have to impose restraints on yourself,” MacFarlane said. “It’s more difficult than just being told by someone you can’t do something.”
The test-screening process also helped him tailor the amount of racial humor. To start, MacFarlane has a key rule: “If you’re going to make fun of one group, you’ve got to make fun of them all.” From there, he listened to audience reaction and surveyed the silences or gasps when a particularly charged line was uttered. After one such screening, he cut a particular phrase.
MacFarlane refused to repeat it for the assembled reporters.
It’s this sort of thoughtfulness, even in the face of crude humor, that forms part of Kunis’ respect for the director. “I’ve known him for 13 years!” exclaimed the actress, who provides the voice of Meg on Family Guy. “He sets people up in lowbrow situations with highbrow humor.”
The ease of their working relationship helped to shape the final form of Kunis’ character Lori. “Nine times out of 10 in movies like this, you do see the image of the ‘hands on the hips’ kind of tone,” MacFarlane explained. It was the last thing he wanted in the film, and he made sure Lori had a valid point: Wahlberg’s John needs to grow up. “It’s the character with the most realistic goal,” he continued.
“You want to play the fine line of not having to be too cool, because that’s not realistic,” Kunis explained, “but you don’t want to be the nagging girl in the film, because then you’re stuck being the nagging girl in the film.” She and MacFarlane continued to discuss that balance on set, striving to keep every scene from falling too much into shrewish territory. “Seth was very responsive,” she said.
Those sorts of details are important to MacFarlane. Another is Ted and John’s love for the 1980 movie Flash Gordon. Beyond using some of the soundtrack in Ted, star Sam Jones appears as a coked-up, hyper-real version of himself. “It’s a cult movie that a lot people know, and it’s ridiculous and absurd,” MacFarlane explained. “It seemed like a funny piece of pop culture for John and Ted to bond over. It was something that worked as ‘their movie.'”
Asked how Jones reacted when offered the part, the director said, “He was very enthusiastic.”
On a more grounded note, MacFarlane was happy to set the film in Boston. He used the example of Ghostbusters as a movie with a fantastic premise grounded in a reality that is immediately apparent to the viewer. “You had all these ghosts running around and these exterminators who have to eliminate them,” he said. “But New York is the very familiar, very real New York with all its warts.” Like that film, Boston serves as a completely real setting, allowing the story to easily enjoy its crazy conceit of a talking teddy bear. “The rest of the movie has to be as real and as grounded as possible to earn that. One of the things you can accomplish that with is by setting it in an actual city with an actual, regional flavor.”
“I didn’t know if Seth even trusted that I could do a Boston accent,” Wahlberg added.
Ted opens Friday nationwide.
Related: Spinoff’s Ted review