New Mexico is where Aaron McPherson rode horses for nearly four months. And it’s where he purchased one, all while filming “A Million Ways To Die in the West” – a comedy in the vein of “Blazing Saddles” that opens nationwide today.
“His name is Whiskey,” said McPherson, an acting coach cast as the villain Ben in the film. “I bought him from one of the wranglers while I was out in Santa Fe. I called one day and told my wife about the horse and she was fine with it. I also went to 12 rodeos, met Miss New Mexico and ate some of the best food in my life while I was there.”
McPherson is part of the Hollywood ensemble cast in the Western comedy, which stars Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron, Seth MacFarlane, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris (from Albuquerque), Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman.
The film, which was shot at Santa Fe Studios and Bonanza Creek Ranch, tells the tale of Albert Stark, played by MacFarlane, who is trying to figure out how to escape an Old West frontier that seems to be trying to kill him – and everyone else in it.
McPherson is MacFarlane’s acting coach and ended up playing Ben.
“It all happened by chance,” McPherson said. “Seth asked me out of the blue to be in the movie.”
Stark is a sheep farmer who loses the love of his life – played by Seyfried – to a much richer man named Foy, played by Harris, who grew up in Albuquerque.
But when a mysterious and beautiful gunslinger named Anna, played by Theron, rides into town, she helps Albert begin to find his courage, and they unexpectedly start to fall in love.
Scott Stuber, a producer of the film, said that, when production started, the crew looked for a place where the town, Old Stump, could be built.
“Few of those towns exist anymore. Thankfully, there are about four in New Mexico and a few in Arizona, so they were applicable to what we wanted,” Stuber said.
“We needed Albert’s farm, the town itself, Louise’s house and the barn dance, and it was great luck that 80 to 90 percent of our locations were available as practical ones.”
MacFarlane said the team wanted the comedy to look and feel like a film that could stand with an old John Ford Western.
“We went everywhere from Jemez Pueblo, which is gorgeous, to Monument Valley (Ariz.), which is legendary,” MacFarlane said.
The town of Old Stump was created at Bonanza Creek Ranch, just south of Santa Fe.
The ranch is spread out over thousands of acres and features more than five ponds, one movie town and two home sets. More than 130 movies, as well as various videos, commercials and catalog shoots, have been filmed there.
The filmmakers transformed the movie set into Old Stump, a town that is, well, naturally, built around a stump. The team that created the sets built 3-D models of the existing town and started to plot a façade of buildings and streets to artificially double its size. In every direction, they placed buildings, windmills, water towers and a church.
The team then went in and gutted the interiors of each building. It took nearly three-and-a-half months to build Old Stump.
“When I came here with Seth, the challenge was that we fell in love with the town, but it was about half the size that we wanted it to be,” said Stephen Lineweaver, production designer. “So, the first task was to pick what we had, illustrate how we would expand the town and create additions. It opened up a little too clearly to all the four exits, so we created a lot more visual information and architecture to double the size. It was also a bit run-down, which is what we liked about it, so we had to put it back together.”
Along with the four-month-long shoot, the cast and crew had to deal with New Mexico’s ever-changing weather. The cast was here during monsoon season and was hit with daily dust storms.
“I have made several movies in Santa Fe, and I understand why people come here,” Theron said. “It’s incredibly beautiful to shoot. Out of all the movies, this is definitely a tricky season. We had days where there are these incredible dust storms, and there is no way you can possibly shoot. But, at the end of the day, it really lends itself to the story, so I can’t imagine us making this movie anywhere else.”