Ye Olde Set Visit: Your Highness!
here is a prop trailer sitting quietly outside the soundstages where YOUR HIGHNESS is filming in Belfast, Ireland. Extras are bustling to and fro dressed in Old English style amongst catapults, rickshaws, pushcarts and many of the other standard props of a medieval-style adventure film. But then there's that prop trailer and almost immediately upon entering your eyes meet a table covered entirely with bongs. Next to that are shelves with more bongs. And hookahs, pipes, bowls and just about every kind of weed-smoking apparatus you can think of in increasingly ornate design. These belong to Thadeous. He is our hero.
If the bongs didn't tip you off, the big-dicked Minotaur will: this is not your normal epic fantasy adventure film. (More on the well-endowed Minotaur later, I promise.) Oh sure, it could be. After all, it stars the dashing James Franco, who once spent seven weeks training with a horse and sword for TRISTAN AND ISOLDE, and the classically beautiful Natalie Portman whose English accent sounds as authentic as any native Brit. But BEOWULF is not what director David Gordon Green (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) and writer/star Danny McBride had in mind.
"This is KRULL meets BARRY LYNDON," McBride recalls pitching to executives at Universal. "They just stopped." He laughs and continues, "They were like, 'Don't ever phrase this movie like that again.'" But McBride and Green knew what they were aiming for wasn't something that could be easily described to skeptical studio execs. "We're not trying to make SPACEBALLS. We're trying to make a fantasy movie for real that just happens to be funny."
Director David Gordon Green on set with Danny McBride
Gordon Green adds, "I would debate as to whether it's approached as a comedy at all. There's no jokes in this movie, there's just a bunch of funny shit that happens."
The film is based on a script by McBride and Ben Best but what you'll see on screen differs largely from original script (as is par for the course for a David Gordon Green film). "I haven't pulled the script out in more than four weeks. It's all just improvised," Green explains.
On this particular day. McBride isn't even filming but he's on set working on script rewrites. Despite the ever-changing dialogue, the original crux of the story hasn't changed - a ne'er-do-well named Thaddeus (McBride) is forced by his father, the king, to help his heroic brother (Franco) rescue his bride-to-be (Zooey Deschanel). But, tables upon tables of fake bongs aside, the film isn't quite what you'd think.
If you're looking for MEDIEVAL PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, you're barking up the wrong tree. "The original double entendre of the title played into the idea that there'd be a lot more pot smoking," says Franco, "but there actually isn't."
But in the prop room there are a shitload of bongs.
"Those are some cool props," Franco explains while laughing, "but we didn't actually use them that much."
Once Green got involved, a good portion of the pot smoking was jettisoned as the director wanted to keep the aesthetic that they were shooting a fantasy-adventure film and not a pot comedy. "Once [Thadeous and Fabious] hit the road, it's too life or death for a lot of smoking," McBride says, careful to add that his character still knows how to party. "Weed is just one of his indulgences. Thadeous likes to buttfuck girls and drink a lot and smoke weed. That's just part of his deal."
It's not surprising that Danny McBride, a huge fan of movies like KRULL, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and BEAST MASTER, wrote a movie like YOUR HIGHNESS. What's surprising is that the movie ever got made. In a time when seemingly audience-friendly films like SCOTT PILGRIM and PRINCE OF PERSIA flop at the box-office, how the hell did McBride, who's never played the lead role in a film before, convince Universal to fund a raunchy, fantasy-adventure comedy?
McBride puts it bluntly. "Honestly, it's a miracle."
James Franco and Danny McBride
Back in 2008 former college roommates McBride and Best met with Universal executives and pitched them on a concept for a comedy that took place in a fantastical universe. "Swords and cocks," McBride would later say (though I doubt he used that terminology in the pitch meeting). Though McBride was still relatively unknown to the moviegoing public at the time - PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, TROPIC THUNDER and FOOT FIST WAY had yet be released - Universal was working with him on the then-filming LAND OF THE LOST and believed he was a comedy star in the making.
Scott Stuber, the Universal-based producer behind THE WOLFMAN and SCOTT PILGRIM, quickly snatched up the pitch and was able to convince McBride's longtime friend and fellow North Carolinian, Green, to direct the project.
"We snuck in at the perfect time," McBride says of the Writer's Guild strike that had left Hollywood searching for projects to fill the void left following the four-month long work stoppage. "I think that if we would've been behind by a month, it wouldn't have happened."
But snuck in they did and just a few months later Green, McBride and Best set out to shape the film, even if Universal still wasn't sure what they were going to get. "There were a lot of "You know?"s," Green says, "and they were like, 'No...we don't know....'"
Whenever you're mashing up a number of genres, as YOUR HIGHNESS is certainly doing, the tricky part is finding that line; that fine line where you're able to pull off everything with equal success. The jokes need to be funny, the love needs to be romantic, the action needs to be intense and the the peril has to feel...perilous. YOUR HIGHNESS is an equal mix of comedy, fantasy, action, adventure and romance and the hardest part for the creative team was finding that balance. As it turns out a creative breakthrough came courtesy a not-so-surprising director: Guillermo del Toro.
"We spent an afternoon at Guillermo's house," Green recalls. "Specifically, he opened up a vault of Richard Corben art. That's exactly the reference point of what we want. It's not silly. But it's angry and funny and intense and exciting and provocative. It had all the elements we were trying to pinpoint with this movie and it's accessible."
Once they were able to clearly identify the tone of the film, Green, McBride and the producers toured a few locations in Europe and quickly settled on Belfast, which provided everything they were looking with a burgeoning production scene, actual castles and other inspiring locations. With a location locked and a detailed photographic record of the setting, McBride and Best began writing for those locations. And once a rough draft of the script was completed, the cast began to take shape even further defining the film.
"The cast is gonna reflect what the look of the movie is," Green explains. "I could say Frank Frazetta but then Franco shows up and he's not so juiced up. You know that if you've got someone that can really act and has the chops, you're gonna have to design something that is real for them. Even reflective of the creatures they fight and encounter. You don't want it to feel like it doesn't fit into our reality."
Natalie Portman stars as Isabel
Franco though, as it turns out, wasn't all that interested in the project at first. "There was less of Fabious in the movie," he explains. "But David said that wasn't the movie he wanted to make." As you can glean from the title, it originally focused on one brother's quest but Green was far more interested in focusing on the brothers and their relationship. The relationship between Thadeous and Fabious was developed to be far sweeter and more dimensional than previously written. In one scene, Franco is trying to cheer up McBride and tells him come sit on his lap. McBride reluctantly agrees and Franco just gives him a big hug and a smile. So yeah, not your average fantasy-adventure/comedy.
Green says another issue with the first draft of the script was as it went through budgeting at Universal, it turned out to be too expensive to shoot. "We're not gonna outcool LORD OF THE RINGS," says Green of the decision to cut down the script to a more manageable draft. But just because they cut down on certain elements of the script, doesn't mean the YOUR HIGHNESS is a low-budget affair.
"We have a character that's a bird, Simon," Green explains about some of the flourishes in the film. It's a nod to Bubo, the mechanical owl from 1981's CLASH OF THE TITANS. Mario Torres and Larry Odien of Spectral Motion, took out a giant remote control and fired up Simon as he sat on his perch. This isn't a bird that it supposed to look lifelike, it's supposed to look like a robotic bird, which it does, quite well. The robot, as they explained, was being used for close-ups but that Green quickly realized he would have to recreate Simon in CGI for flying scenes.
"Anytime we can have the robotic bird," Green says, "I'm breathing a sigh of relief," literally breathing a sigh of relief. "It's not that it's the coolest way to do it, but I know it's the way where the actors are most engaged and I can see the scene in my head. I don't have to try and imagine what will happen later."
Which brings us to the aforementioned Minotaur. Next to Simon was a giant animatronic minotaur head. Mario and Larry had another remote control and began working the face - the eyes blinked, the mouth talked and the snout snorted. It looked amazing. "Um," Mario said, glancing at Larry and wondering what they were allowed to reveal, "this is only half of it."
The other half is a practical suit worn by a rather tall actor. It's fairly standard for a minotaur costume, except for one thing. One rather long and thick thing: the giant minotaur dick that dangles down from between the legs. There's a scene in the movie where Thadeous, Fabious and Isabel (Portman's character) are being chased by the Minotaur and the thing is just flopping all around to the left and right. McBride can only chuckle and say, "This is SO weird that Natalie Portman is in here doing this fucked up stuff."
Trust me, when I tell you this is only the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of our epic visit to the Belfast set of YOUR HIGHNESS including more with James Franco, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, Justin Theroux and Zooey Deschanel!