James Franco and Danny McBride play unlikely brothers in David Gordon Green’s Your Highness -, but they play well off each other. McBride finally has a straight man, and Franco gives the character the gravitas to the film’s silliness. It’s a good working relationship– though the two worked together before in Green’s The Pineapple Express. In Your Highness they’re joined by Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel as their love interests and Justin Theroux as an evil wizard. It’s a movie that loving plays on the tropes of early eighties sword and sorcery movies, which McBride co-wrote. The two also made for a fun interview. Check it out.
On Getting the Picture Made
How challenging was it to pitch this script?
Danny McBride: The first day we pitched this script, we came in and said “it’s Krull meets Barry Lyndon” and the executives were like “never pitch this movie like that ever again.” To us that is what it was, we wanted to approach it as a serious drama but have that fun that we had with a movie like Krull. That was the concept, and what was interesting about taking on this project was “can you make a legitimate fantasy adventure movie like this and still find a way to find comedy in it without making it a spoof?”
Can you talk about some of the movies you’ve watched for research?
DM: David Green and I went to film school together. I was a freshmen and he was in his second year and we both lived in the same dorm. I met him the first week I was going to school. When you go to film school, you’ve got all these guys who are trying to show everyone how smart they are. When they talk about movies it’s all of these pretentious arthouse films because they think those are the kinds of movies you have to like if you’re going to film school. One of the things that David and I instantly clicked on was that we appreciated those films but at the same time appreciated movies like Beastmaster, Krull and Dragonslayer, these fun movies that capture your imagination when you’re a kid. So it was awesome to be able to actually try to make one of those movies. It gave me an excuse to my wife for why I needed to be watching Krull on repeat, because I couldn’t have gotten away with it unless I was getting paid for it. It was a selfish reason to make this film.
James Franco: The first thing I ever saw in a movie theater was The Dark Crystal and I saw that repeatedly in the theater, then The Neverending Story and the original Clash of the Titans. They’re a little hokey now, but still have a lot of charm.
Was there anything you were particularly surprised at that you got away with?
DM: The fact that we made this movie was very surprising to us. David and I were never convinced that somebody would make this crazy movie. It was an opportunity to make a film that seemed so specific to what we wanted to see. I think we have the first Minotaur erection that has ever been filmed. We’ve made cinematic history. A lot of people have tried and haven’t been able to accomplish it but we did it, we did it.
Can you talk about the comedic structure and why is it typical for this kind of comedy, what it adds to make it funny?
DM: When we were coming up with the idea we only thought the comedy would work if the movie was approached as a serious fantasy film, and that’s where we made the comedy. When it came time to cast the film, and even the craftsman that we pulled onto the film it was serious first. The guy who designed the weapons designed the weapons for Braveheart. Our production designer worked for Danny Boyle and the person who designed the armor designed the armor for Kingdom of Heaven. We approached the movie as if it were a serious epic fantasy and found the comedy in the fact the more serious we took it, the more the comedy seemed to work. So in the writing of it we thought of it as a comedy second and as an adventure movie first. Then we tried to find that humor on the set.
With your historical research did you find that the mullet was a common hairstyle in the Middle Ages?
DM: We really wanted to make this an educational film for kids that people back in the Middle Ages, when there were two moons, people look just like people do now. We were modeling that haircut off of Mel Gibson’s Lethal Weapon. That’s what we were going for with that haircut.
Was there a lot of improv going on?
DM: There was a tone. I worked with David a few times before and – even the way we worked on Pineapple or the stuff we’ve done on “Eastbound and Down” – we always do one or two takes of what’s on the page and then from there David gets in and we start pushing it. And it’s not always to find jokes, we’ll improv so that everyone in the scene is on their toes. You find that reaction that you couldn’t have gotten when the actor know exactly what’s coming next. So improv-ing is essential to what we do and there’s a ton of it in there.
JF: When you have a movie where you improvise during every scene, it’s not just about finding funny lines – like Danny is saying – it does something to the actors because you’re more aware because you don’t know what’s coming next so you don’t get lulled into a way of doing the scene the same way one time after another. You’re much more aware, and it does something to the behavior. It makes it more immediate, it makes it more alive. And David won’t have you just improvise different lines, he’ll have you say it in very weird ways like “say it like a robot” or “say it like you were taking a big dump.”
DM: That was the direction he gave to Charles Dance at one point and it was very funny to see his reaction. He was like “What did I sign up for?”
Which scene do you remember that cause you guys to break character and laugh?
DM: The scene I had with Natalie (Portman) where I have to confront her about stealing this compass. The whole time David Gordon Green directs, he’s literally right out of frame of the camera. He stands there and makes you say the most ridiculous things and you can’t really hesitate. In the scene he’s like “Call her a bully and a whore.” I started doing it without thinking, but as soon as I looked at Natalie and “whore” came out I felt horrible. I couldn’t get through it – that was the hardest.
JF: I think we had a hard time with the wise wizard too. We were acting with a puppet and I remember we were short on time that day so it was actually a problem that we couldn’t finish it.
How was it working with Natalie Portman?
DM: David had been in talks with Natalie about another project and once we started getting movement on Your Highness it looked like that’s what was going to be next. In his conversations with Natalie, she brought up this project and said she was dying to do a comedy and wanted a chance to work with us. We were thrilled by that, because having actors like James and Natalie is what separates this movie. It’s not a movie filled with your typical comedians. It’s cast with a lot of prestigious actors and that is what made it unique and fun. I was embarrassed to hand Natalie the script the first time, “should I just go through and take out all this dirty stuff?”’ And David said “no we’ve got to let her know what she’s in for.” The stuff that I thought would make her blush was what she thought was funny. On the set she never shied away, she can definitely hang with the boys. She wasn’t intimidated by any of the foul stuff going on.
JF: No she wasn’t.
How did you find the actor who plays Courtney?
DM: Courtney was played by Rasmus Hardiker and it was one of those deals with him where we had been auditioning all the guys for Courtney. As soon as we saw him, before he even came into the room, we were just — you kind of already know that this is our guy. He was sitting in the waiting room and out of all of these people we could identify that that was going to be our guy. He’s comedically brilliant, fast on his toes.
James, how did you approach your character?
JF: I tried to play the character pretty earnestly, and because it’s a comedy we can get away with a lot of the cheesiness that maybe can hurt a film that’s completely earnest. Because we get away with it you can address some of the real feelings and real dynamics between brothers, and jealousy and feelings. That’s kind of the secret of bromances- you can talk about relationships between guys and brothers because it’s a comedy and if it wasn’t it would probably just be boring, or cheesy.
JF: You could go the kinky rout and that would work too.
What kind of training did you have to do for swordplay?
JF: Well Danny was the writer so he conveniently wrote his character as someone who was very bad at using swords – he didn’t have to train at all. I trained a bit, but I had done literally nine months of training, seven days a week for Tristan and Isolde because I was a young actor that didn’t know that that was insane. I didn’t get to use much of it on that film so I got to use it on this movie.
Danny, between Fred Simmons and Kenny Powers and this character you seem to have a comic archetype in the roles that you play, how do you modulate your performance?
DM: When we did The Foot Fist Way that was an independent film, we shot it for 70 grand in like 17 days. Jody Hill and I hadn’t been writing things like that before that movie. We started figuring out that if we change who the protagonist is and get the audience to align with a character they wouldn’t normally align with, it opened up all these different comedic possibilities for the story. With Foot Fist we were just starting to scratch the surface and wanted to do more with it. That’s why we set up “Eastbound & Down” to explore that architecture. “Let’s take this almost cliched story about an underdog, but let’s put the audience with someone that they are not used to following in this kind of story.” That was the design of those things. When it came time to approach this, it was shifting the lens of who you typically follow in these films and trying to find someone that’s a little bit more unexpected. It allows you to hit some of those cliched moments with a new perspective. To us, that’s what’s comically interesting about it and what separated it from other films that are in this genre. I think it’s a fine balance, so you find those layers of how exactly are you going to get an audience to root for someone who is so morally corrupt or who makes these bad choices. For each character it’s a different thing. With Fred Simmons he’s dealing with adultery and loss and betrayal, so the question is “how do you have a guy do this but still find redemption?” “Eastbound’s” the same, you figure out what their wound is and how you can get an audience behind that wound. In this film it was based on sibling rivalry, on someone who felt he was living in the shadows. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to play around with that and how to get someone to identify with this person that normally they wouldn’t identify with.
Your Highness opens April 8. Check it out.