LAist Interviews 'Your Highness' Stars James Franco, Danny McBride, Justin Theraux & Director David Gordon Green On Their Funny, Fantasy Film
Director David Gordon Green’s latest film, Your Highness, brings back the star of his hit film Pineapple Express, James Franco, but puts him in a whole new world, or rather an old medieval one. It’s a world created by it’s co-screenwriter Danny McBride, who also appears in the film as Thadeous, the “spare” to Franco’s royal brother “heir,” Fabious.
Fabious must embark on a quest to rescue his capture-prone, yet beloved, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). Bella is being held prisoner by the evil sorcerer Leezar, played by Justin Theroux, who must impregnate her with a dragon to complete his family’s plan for him to rule the universe. (More on the, ahem, particulars of the ceremony, described by Theroux below.) A reluctant Thadeous and woman-warrior Isabel (Natalie Portman) accompany the valiant Fabious in his quest to save his love and the world.
LAist recently met with the stars of Your Highness, James Franco, Danny McBride, Justin Theraux and director David Gordon Green, and found out when the story began and just how seriously these guys take their comedy.
Danny: David Green and I went to film school together. I was a freshman, he was in his second year of film school, and we both lived in the same dorm. I met him the first week I was going to school there. 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 its all of these pretentious art house 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 kind of instantly clicked on was that we appreciated those films, but at the same time appreciated movies like Beastmaster, Krull and Dragonslayer, the fun movies that capture your imagination when you're a kid.
James: The first thing I ever saw in a movie theater when I was very young was The Dark Crystal, I would see 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.
David: Your Highness literally began as a beer-drinking game we’d played for years. I’d say, “The movie is called “Character Witness,”‘ and Danny’d say, “It’s about a guy that’s paid to lie under oath in court, and he puts on all these disguises.” He’d just come up with the dumbest, bullshit movie ideas. So, the dumbest, bullshit movie idea of all of them was when I threw out the title, “Your Highness,” and he said, “It’s about a prince in the Middle Ages that smokes weed and fights dragons.” We’d laugh it up, and then we’d move on the next terrible idea. But that was one that just kept coming back up. The more we started talking about it, the more we thought of this movie as an opportunity.
Danny: It was really important for David and me, when we were coming up with the idea, we thought the comedy would only work if the movie itself was approached as a serious fantasy film, and that's where we made the comedy. To us when it came time to cast the film, even with the craftsman that we pulled onto the film, the guy who designed the weapons designed the weapons for like Braveheart. You know our production designer worked for Danny Boyle and the person who designed the armor designed the armor for Kingdom of Heaven. And so we really just approached the movie as if it were a serious epic fantasy and we just found the comedy in the fact that the more serious we took the movie, 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.
Justin: Danny and David have a very particular style or alchemy when they work together that it somehow becomes forgivable and very funny. Danny can say horrible shit and it just makes you laugh and it’s usually because it is coming from a very grounded performance place. And David, just when he gets back to the lab and the editing room and is mixing it down, it stays true to the story and the arch of the characters. What I love about it is a particular style of blunt force comedy that, it’s a weird thing, a lot of writers will go right up to the line and then they’ll use three lines to get to the punchline, and then maybe they’ll drop a pun or something. Danny walks right up to the line and just punches it in the face with his comedy.
LAist: Was there a lot of improv once you got on set?
Danny: There was a tone. I’d worked with David a few times before, and the way we worked on Pineapple Express and the stuff we've done on Eastbound and Down, we always tend to do one or two takes of what's on the page first. From there David, gets in there and we just start pushing it. And it’s not always just to find jokes, we'll just improv so that everyone in the scene is one their toes. You often find this reaction that you couldn't have gotten when the actor knew exactly what was coming next. Improving is essential to what we do and there's a ton of it in here, right James?
James: Yeah. And David, like Danny's saying… When you have a movie where you improvise during every scene, it's not just about finding funny lines, it does something to the actors. 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 then, you know, 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.”
Danny: That was the direction he gave to Charles Dance at one point and it was very funny to see his reaction. He was kind of like, "What did I sign up for?"
LAist: Justin, how comfortable were you with getting into the improvisation that was involved?
Justin: I’m very comfortable with it if the material’s good. I think it’s almost like Danny gives his script short shrift, he is a really funny writer. I think all good comedies, in particular, if the script is tight and good, it’s only giving the actors a higher platform to do their acrobatics off of. That’s what was so great about this script, that it was already really funny, so it doesn’t take too much special sauce to make it even funnier. It’s become sort of a weird past time in comedies to be like, “Yeah, we improvised the whole thing,” but the bedrock of this script was really good and tight. And there was a good story, believe it or not. I believe that even if you striped the comedy away, you’d still have a really great quest movie.
LAist: When you have so much improvisation going on, on the set, is it a big challenge to decide what to keep and what to cut?
David: There was nothing we had to cut. It was really a very smart, wonderful collaboration of people putting their heads together to think of what makes the best movie. There were no rules, really. There was nobody saying, “You can do this,” or “You can’t do this.” Even the MPAA was very generous with us, in allowing some of the things and the taboos that we’re trying to deconstruct a little bit. We do a lot of riffing on set. We really want to have all those options in the editing room.
LAist: How did Natalie Portman fit into your group of merry men?
Danny: David (Gordon Green) had been in talks with Natalie about another project, and once we started getting some movement on Your Highness, it looked like that's what was going to be next. In his conversations with Natalie, she kind of brought up this project and was saying she was dying to do a comedy and really wanted a chance to work with us. That thrilled us, because having actors like James and Natalie really separates this movie. It's not filled with your typical comedians. It's cast with a lot of prestigious actors and that to us is what made this movie unique and fun. I honestly was really embarrassed to hand Natalie the script for the first time, I was like, “Should I just go through and take out all this dirty stuff? I'm nervous to show her this.” And David was like, “No, we've got to let her know what she's in for,” and she was a total champ. The stuff that I thought would make her blush was the stuff that she thought was funny, and she totally embraced it. On the set she never shied away from that stuff, I mean she can definitely hang with the boys. She wasn't intimidated by any of the foul stuff going on.
Justin: We all I think suffered from, as did the women in regards to the men, we all respected each other so much that I think there many times where we would have to say lines to each other where we’d go like, “Please don’t make me have to say this to Zooey Deschanel. It just feels wrong.” And Danny had a similar thing with Natalie and she had a similar thing with Danny, but because of the world we were in, and the stupidity of the world we were in, it was sort of fun to say those sort of ridiculous things to each other.
Danny: You know, surprisingly, the scene that I couldn't get through was the scene I had with Natalie (Portman) where we were sitting at this table in this tavern and I have to confront her about stealing this compass. And the whole time that David Gordon Green directs, he's literally right out of frame of the camera. He just stands there and makes you say the most ridiculous things and you can't really hesitate, you have to just keep on going with it. And in the scene he's like, "Call her a bully and a whore." And so I just started doing it without thinking but as soon as I looked at Natalie and the word "whore" came out, I just felt horrible. I couldn't get through it. I just had to keep going through it over and over and that weirdly was the hardest thing.
LAist: What kind of training did you have to do for swordplay?
James: Well Danny was the writer so he conveniently wrote his character as someone who was very bad at using swords so 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.
LAist: Danny, in your historical research, did you find that the mullet was a common hairstyle in the Middle Ages?
Danny McBride: Well, historical accuracies were very important to us in this film. We really wanted to make this an educational film for kids. Show them that people back in the Middle Ages, when there were two moons, looked just like people do now. And we kind of were modeling that haircut off of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. That's what we were going for with that haircut, yeah.
LAist: So it was the 1480’s.
Danny McBride: Yes. When they rocked the Mel Gibson Lethal Weapon haircut, yes.
LAist: Justin, there seemed to be more of a Gary Oldman Dracula kind of thing going on with your hair.
Justin: Yeah, poor Gary Oldman. I rip off Gary Oldman, and I’m kind of the better actor. (laughs) No, but we steal a lot from Gary Oldman. We stole the hair from Dracula, but just enough so we wouldn’t get copyright infringement. In Zoolander I stole his True Romance look when I played Evil DJ. Me and David and Danny watched a lot of villains from the era. Labyrinth, all the movies I watched growing up. And then the performance style I took from was Merlin in Excalibur, that slightly, drinky English thing. That performance made me laugh so hard, cause it always looks like he’s been drinking all morning. I took my lead from that performance style. And then a little bit of makeup from David Bowie from Labyrinth, we took the teeth from Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart. It’s just a Frankenstein of other villains.
LAist: Most medieval “sword and sorcery” villains try to dance around what they’re going to do. How did it feel to conspire to “The Fuckening?”
Justin: That was from a conversation I had with Danny and David earlier. With these kind of movies, there’s always an event called “The Darkening” or “The Awakening” or the whatever. So I said, “How about we call it ‘The Fuckening’?” and they were like, “Oh, my God!” We weren’t mincing words. “I’m going to take her and have my way with her and put a dragon in her womb.”
LAist: But your character has some difficulty completing his revenge, perhaps due to performance anxiety?
Justin: Well, he has this backwards trajectory. Normally the bad guy grows more and more powerful, and my trajectory was coming in horrible and you think, “Oh this is a guy to be reckoned with” and as he goes on he grows more and more neurotic, so he has this sort of downward spiral, “Oh God, this guy’s unraveling.” I asked David and Danny, “What’s the deal with my character?” And David said, “He’s nineteen years old.” I thought he was a four-thousand-year-old, no he’s nineteen. And that makes so much sense, because he’s a nineteen-year-old virgin. He’s a guy who’s never had sex, who’s been raised by three demented women who are much, much older, and he has to perform under two moons in front of his parents. Why on earth would you put this on a platform in the middle of a huge room in front of your parents? That would be the worst way to lose your virginity!
Your Highness is now in theaters.