There’s nothing to do, and everything wants to kill you.” That’s the Old West for you, at least the way Seth MacFarlane describes it. A Million Ways to Die in the West, his directorial follow-up to the adorably raunchy Ted, imagines a historical American West that’s less about high-noon machismo and romantic rides into the sunset than it is about snakebites to the crotch and debilitating bouts of dysentery. “The whole place is just a big, dangerous bummer,” MacFarlane says.
The Family Guy creator tackles his first lead role in a feature as Albert, a lily-livered sheepherder who loses his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) because of his cowardice. But what he lacks in bravery he makes up for with social commentary and observational humor far beyond his era. “I’ve described it as a time-travel movie without the time travel,” says MacFarlane. Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron), who shares his forward-thinking mindset, and they bond over the film’s titular running joke: the myriad death traps awaiting the denizens of the wide-open prairie (including Anna’s husband, a nasty quick-draw outlaw played by Liam Neeson). “Some of the more horrific deaths amuse me to no end,” says Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the mustachioed suitor to whom Albert has lost his girl. “They just keep happening and they become such an afterthought. In the middle of a monologue someone will be trampled by a herd of cattle and [the person speaking will] just keep talking.”
While MacFarlane shies away from comparisons to Blazing Saddles, he does think the 1974 Mel Brooks classic contains the key to making a successful period comedy. “At the core of it you had Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little essentially playing men of the ’70s,” he says. “And that’s all it took to bring it into the modern day and give it a relatability, so that’s what I tried to do.”
Even so, MacFarlane set a rule for himself: no glaring period anachronisms. That meant no jokes about Charlie Sheen, Tonya Harding, or that episode of Punky Brewster where Cherie got stuck in the refrigerator. Fans of MacFarlane’s other work might find any stab at authenticity hard to imagine. “Family Guy has always been attacked in some circles for having too many pop culture references,” he says. “It was fun trying to modernize life in A Million Ways while still keeping ourselves to the rules of the 1880s frontier.”
The quest for verisimilitude extended to the actual production. MacFarlane shot many scenes in Monument Valley near the Arizona-Utah state line, a landscape-rich location used for several John Ford Westerns including The Searchers. “We’re doing stunts, we’re riding horses,” says Seyfried. “It’s a comedy, but it’s still a grand-scale movie. We’re speaking in this contemporary way, so I think Seth wanted to balance it out with beautiful scenery and costumes.”
Of course, nothing gets too fancy. The film is packed with MacFarlane’s typically outrageous humor, so you can expect to see some things you wouldn’t catch in an old John Wayne feature on Turner Classic Movies. Case in point: The comedy’s prime gross-out sequence involves Harris in a state of extreme gastrointestinal distress. “I think that was my first day of filming,” he says. “I felt the worst for the poor extras who were watching on the side of the street behind me. I had to reveal my butthole. I wasn’t conscious of what was happening behind me, but I just kept looking back and saying, ‘I’m so sorry you have to be seeing this.'” Well, howdy, partner.