Daniel Schechter (Life of Crime) on Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane is funny. He's also good-looking (I mean, the guy can wear a tuxedo). He's got a great speaking voice and he can sing as well.

Seth MacFarlane is funny. He’s also good-looking (I mean, the guy can wear a tuxedo). He’s got a great speaking voice and he can sing as well. He hosted the Academy Awards, he created and for years has voiced multiple characters on hit shows like Family Guy and American Dad, and he also used that voice for the titular character in Ted, the most financially successful R-rated film comedy of all time. Oh, and he wrote and directed that film as well.

So, when it came time to cast the lead of his sophomore feature film, the Blazing Saddles-esque A Million Ways to Die in the West, he decided to cast himself, an unproven box office star, in the lead role.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s play amateur casting director and presume that Seth is so hot (career-wise) he could have had his pick of any leading man in town. So who else could/should he have gone with?

Funny-guys-slash-occasional-action-heroes like Wahlberg, Tatum, or Reynolds or 80% of other leading men probably couldn’t have genuinely pulled off the coward-turned-hero arc of the character, Albert. A brainy, sensitive type somehow misplaced in time, living on the 1880’s Western frontier.

Seth Rogen probably would’ve been pretty damn good. But let’s say Rogen was busy… or “too Jewish” for this everyman. How about Jay Baruchel? He’s had a few shots as leading man, he’s slightly less Jewish and I think he’s genuinely talented and funny. I can even hear him doing the dialogue… but I can’t say that would’ve gotten me excited (or a studio for that matter, I presume).

Owen Wilson? He kind of did this with Shanghai Noon, though (love that movie).

So let’s just say MacFarlane could cast Jason Segel to play the lead and, well, let’s say Jason would want to do it and the studio also agreed. (In fact, let’s assume the studio would have been very pleased if MacFarlane suggested he wanted a known, bankable star to play his leading man.)

So how do I feel about MacFarlane choosing himself instead of Jason?

He’s certainly not the first to do it.

Most recently, Jon Favreau returned to his indie roots with the critically-acclaimed comedy, Chef. He wrote a low-enough-budget script, surrounded himself with A-listers doing thank-you favors in small parts and cast himself to play his leading chef.

Now I love this; Favreau’s created a realistic vehicle for himself, asked a reasonable price to do it and earned himself his dream opportunity in being the lead in a major film. I’m going into the movie knowing this, and that knowledge is affecting my experience with the film because I get that metaphorically the film is working on meta levels as it discusses themes of art versus commerce, and believing in your talent. There’s a subtext to him casting himself that adds to what the movie is saying.

Just as much subtext as Favreau’s casting had in Swingers, playing a struggling actor looking for success and fulfillment and ironically finding it in the movie he wrote about that time in his life when he had none.

(Or maybe Jon is just the kind of guy you root for on and/or behind the camera.)

I’m wildly jealous of and obsessed with writer/director/actors. Woody Allen, Lena Dunham, Albert Brooks, Louis C.K., Roberto Benigni, Christopher Guest… I had the opportunity to cast myself in my semi-autobiographical film Supporting Characters, but wisely went with the wonderful Alex Karpovsky (HBO’s Girls) instead to play my alter ego, Nick Berger. Alas, I am grateful to know I cannot act, nor do I have that “it” quality people want to see and hear on film… and I’ve seen many an indie captain take down their own ship with the false assumption they can hold my interest and my sympathies for an hour and a half.

But I think when the right auteur/actor project comes along, we really celebrate and connect with the film and the filmmaker in an abnormally generous way. Tiny Furniture, Garden State, The Brothers McMullan, Buffalo 66, The Puffy Chair, Me and You and Everyone We Know… all the way back to Chaplin and Buster Keaton, there’s something wonderful about knowing the filmmaker has created the circumstances they’re in, and fascinating to see how they wish to portray themselves.

Let’s take my favorite film: Knowing that Albert Brooks has invented the entire bureaucratic, purgatory-like world of Defending Your Life as the writer and director, and yet his character has to act wildly curious and confused about the rules and logic here as he’s on trial for his own life… that really tickles me. Brooks sets himself up to look like a schmuck the entire movie (as he does in almost all of his films), but on some level we know he’s written himself this part and he’s in on the joke. That kind of self-deprecation endears me to Brooks and his work, as I know he’s playing both the fool and the great thinker.

So what’s the subtext while watching A Million Ways to Die in the West?

Well for me, because I make films (and have a vague understanding of how they’re put together) I guess I had to imagine a scene in my own mind, wherein Seth MacFarlane pitches his new movie to a bunch of studio suits, drooling over the follow-up to Ted, and before leaving the room dropping, “Oh, and I want to play the lead.”

Fuck, I admire it. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take an “A Film by Dan Schechter” credit because the thought of an additional title card embarrasses me and makes me feel like I want too much attention. (Or perhaps I’m more worried that others will believe this about me.)

But MacFarlane’s saying, “Mel Brooks did this, Woody Allen did this, I love those movies and now I want to do it. I’ve earned it.” And I suppose I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit it also feels to me like he’s saying, “I’m really funny, likable, handsome, charming and compelling on screen.” How else can one interpret casting yourself in the lead of a rom com?

The self-esteem! I couldn’t imagine having it.

Though perhaps it’s simply perceived vanity because no one else is choosing him, but rather he decided to choose himself and believed he was the best person to play the part. But aren’t those the best stories in film history?


Good Will Hunting!

My Big Fat Greek Wedding!

MacFarlane is very good in the movie. He’s funny as hell, naturally delivers tricky dialogue (often chunky monologues), he’s a believable love interest for Charlize fucking Theron for cryin’ out loud and the camera does favor him. He can even summon my sympathies on command with a hangdog, defeated look.

What makes a movie star (not a famous actor, but someone who commands the screen) is such an impossible-to-define alchemy of talent, being photogenic and having something unique to offer. It’s something we can’t really know until we see it. I can’t tell you why Seth Rogen is a studio film leading man and Sam Rockwell isn’t. I can’t tell you why Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm and James Gandolfini are more successful on TV than film. Because I have no idea why, they just are.

I can see clearly that MacFarlane has far more performance abilities and watchability than I would as an actor and if I were him I’d believe I could carry a movie. I feel lucky not to secretly envy my lead actors, as I don’t really want to be them and I’m grateful they exist to do their job so I can do mine.

But if I was Seth? I don’t know what I’d do.

Actually, I do: I’d pussy out.

At the first look an exec, or friend, or crew-member gave me that suggested I didn’t deserve the opportunity and I was being egotistical. That I was harming the film’s financial chances. Harming my own career, perhaps.

Objectively though, do I think he should have taken that role?

Fuck yes. Why not? If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? Especially if believing in yourself and your instincts has gotten you to be one of the most prolific and successful comedy moguls working today. Believing a film about a talking, magical teddy bear would be both incredibly funny and surprisingly touching. That even though there hasn’t been a successful Western in two decades, and studios even hate the word “Western,” you just want to go make a film that you would really want to see and you have the balls to believe others will too.

Big balls. That’s what the subtext was for me: Seth’s big-ass, risk-taking balls, and how that can’t be unrelated to his success.

I hate that I care and worry so much about what others will think. That I ever waste time and genuine enthusiasm listening to others’ advice, driven by their own fears and insecurities. And the irony is the greatest successes I’ve had is when I’ve stopped listening to negative people around me (including, most especially, myself).

I say if someone else is willing to pay for it, do whatever makes you happy. Follow your gut. Either it’ll work or it won’t. Who knows? The world will still have plenty Jason Segel movies.

Anyway, that was something I thought about while enjoying the movie.

Daniel Schechter is an indie filmmaker living in New York City. His micro-budget feature Supporting Characters is now available on iTunes and Netflix and his latest film, Life of Crime starring Jennifer Aniston, will be released on August 29th, 2014.