Danny McBride is grinning like he just got away with something. Like his inner-eleven-year-old somehow convinced a major Hollywood studio to make a ludicrously vulgar sword-and-sorcery movie called YOUR HIGHNESS - the catch being that this f/x-heavy epic had to be made on a "comedy budget". In other words, McBride (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Best) and his film school buddy David Gordon Green were given just enough dough to traipse off to Ireland and make a modern-day DEATHSTALKER. Most filmmakers would consider this an insult; for McBride and Green, it was a blessing.
So McBride has every reason to be grinning: he's hanging out at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons promoting a film in which he gets to brandish a broadsword, battle a minotaur, romance Natalie Portman, quaff a goodly amount of mead, and, of course, smoke a shitload of weed. And if you fondly recall lobbying your parents to let you rent T&A-laden fantasy films directed by Italians, YOUR HIGHNESS will probably leave you grinning, too. The plot of the film is intentionally stock: Prince Fabious (James Franco) and his ne'er-do-well brother Thadeous (McBride) embark on a quest to rescue the former's beloved Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) from the lascivious clutches of the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux). Along the way, they encounter a vengeance-seeking warrior (Portman), a harem of naked chicks who belong to the awesomely-named Marteetee (John Fricker), and a Yoda-ish creature called The Wize Wizard (who shares a troubling history with Fabious). It's an unabashedly silly film that, for the most part, pays homage to the genre's conventions instead of parodying them.
This distinction is important to McBride. As you'll learn in the below interview, he genuinely loves the sword-and-sorcery genre, and would be thrilled for this film to be placed alongside YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE on the fantasy shelf at your local video store - if such magical places still existed. As a fan of these movies myself, I had a great time chatting with McBride about his influences, why they were thrilled to make this film on a "comedy budget", how they managed to turn an expository scene into one of the movie's filthier moments, and, most importantly, the whereabouts of a rather tumescent spoil of war. There interview gets spoilery about halfway through; I've posted a warning for those of you who walk in fresh.
Our conversation began with a question that sounds terribly inappropriate out of context.
Mr. Beaks: You mind if I put this here?
Danny McBride: Yeah. Put it right there. Our iPhones are gonna kiss.
Beaks: How you doin'?
McBride: Doin' good!
Beaks: Holding up well?
McBride: Holding up well. We took the movie on a week-long journey to all these different colleges the last week. It was a different college every single day. It's been a fun ride so far. This is a funny movie to travel around the country with.
Beaks: In traveling to all of these colleges, did you fall back into the college lifestyle?
McBride: I wish that I had more time to fall into that. There's nothing like realizing how fucking old you are when you step onto a college campus. I think this trip has helped me realize that I am not close to being in college anymore. I am an old man.
Beaks: So this tour shattered your perception of who you are.
McBride: It did.
Beaks: Everything from now on is going to be coming from a depressed, middle-aged-man perspective?
McBride: Yeah. Everything's going to be very serious from now on. (Laughs) When you spend time in L.A., it gets really weird. It's summer all the time, and I think people have the illusion that they're younger than they are. And then as soon as you walk out of here, you realize, "We're old as shit!"
Beaks: (Laughing) I think I speak for most people my age when I say that I miss the old sword-and-sorcery movies that were filled with gratuitous violence and boobs. What movies were you riffing on when you decided you were going to make YOUR HIGHNESS?
McBride: The moment that I set this up, the best fucking time I had was when I went to Virgin Megastore and just started buying all the movies I thought needed to be encapsulated in this film. That list was everything from KRULL to DEATHSTALKER to THE DARK CRYSTAL to the original CLASH OF THE TITANS to CONAN THE BARBARIAN to BEASTMASTER. It was just incredible. Those were my bread-and-butter growing up, and, honestly, that's one of the first things David Green and I bonded on when we first met each other. We lived in the same dorm on the same floor my freshman year in college. You're at film school, so the tendency is for everyone to come in and act like they're so intelligent when it comes to films; they're listing off all of these arty films and foreign films just so everyone knows they're smart. And these were the kinds of films I was telling people I was into - and Green was the same way. We shared this mutual appreciation for movies in general, and had an appreciation for films that captured your imagination. I have an appreciation for the art films as well, but when it comes down to it, at my core, this is the type of shit that would get me off when I was a kid. This is the type of shit that made me fall in love with movies.
Beaks: But you guys made your bones making the other type of film. Were you just biding your time doing stuff like ALL THE REAL GIRLS?
McBride: I don't think so. When you're going to film school and you're learning the craft of filmmaking, and you're watching all of these art films, you obviously emulate the stuff you're being taught. Also, when you're making independent films, you don't have the resources to make these kinds of films, so you tend to find simpler stories that involve basic human interactions. I think we started just out of a place where, financially, these are the types of films you can pull off for these budgets. And as we've gotten more opportunities, I think you've just started to see the type of stories... we're just walking into a weird arena where we're allowed to make movies like this.
Beaks: The thing about a lot of those movies is that they can only be so competent visually or then they lose their charm - or become numbing, big-budget spectacle. In your movie, both worlds are being serviced. That said, I can imagine that the studio was like, "Have fun, but please don't make this movie look like shit."
McBride: When we went in to pitch this film, I pitched it as "BARRY LYNDON meets KRULL". And they were like, "Never pitch this movie like that ever again."
Beaks: "It's a combination of two movies that made no money."
McBride: (Laughing) But to us that's always how we always saw it! This isn't a spoof movie. We just want to make a comedy that's set in this fantasy world, and in order to do that, it felt like the more serious we took the film, the funnier the film would be. But the studio was only really giving us the budget of a comedy film, so it became "How do we get this scope without having one of those budgets - because if we have one of those budgets, we're not going to be able to have these dick jokes! We're not going to be able to push the comedy where we want it to go. It'll have to have a broader appeal." And this movie having a broader appeal was nothing we were interested in. We knew exactly what we wanted this movie to be. This was exactly for the thirteen-year-old versions of us. And we knew that there were enough dudes out there who would appreciate what we're trying to do.
It was also one of those things where... David and I were given this opportunity to make a movie at a studio, and those don't come easy. So we didn't want to waste that opportunity making something safe or down the middle. We were just like, "Let's go for it! Let's make what the young versions of us would've wanted to see. Let's push it."
Beaks: How much fun did you have just coming up with the names?
McBride: It was awesome! We had a bible on the set of made-up cuss words from the time period. We were like, "What if he calls his dick and balls his 'filthies'?" We constantly were just coming up with language and names that just sound so regal when you put on a fake British accent.
Beaks: Names like "Marteetee".
McBride: (In his British accent) "Marteetee." (Laughs) It was funny to hear the British crew say these characters' names, too, because it instantly sounded like you were in something epic. "We are in Marteetee's lair." It would always make us laugh.
Beaks: Um, where did the name Belladonna come from?
McBride: Where did Belladonna come from? I mean, I'm aware there's a porn star called Belladonna. Big fan. But I don't think she was inspired by the porn star. We wanted a name that sounded like she belonged in a Disney film. It sounded very pure and innocent.
[Here's where things start getting spoilery.]
Beaks: And then you have a pedophile Yoda. That's so fucked up. And yet Fabious's relationship with the Wize Wizard is still quite loving and innocent!
McBride: Yeah. Fabious has not been scarred by his encounters. And we don't really know what happened! They could've just jumped up and down on the bed with their shirts off. We have no idea. (Laughs)
Beaks: How did that character come about?
McBride: In the script, that scene was just a lot of exposition. He's the guy who's just telling us what we have to do. And we got in there on the set, started rehearsing and... every day on this movie was a dream. When you're writing the Wize Wizard, and then you go to Spectral Motion and you see what they're creating as the Wize Wizard, it's just insane. So I remember coming on the set, and he's on the bed, and I was like, "You know what this feels like? This feels like when you have to visit, like, a grandmother at the nursing home, and they're decrepit and gross, and they still want you to kiss them." So we just started to play around with how awkward and gross it would be. That's where it all sprung from. Honestly, the stuff about Fabious and the Wize Wizard potentially having hooked up in the past, that was all improvised. That's how David works on a lot of his films, and that's how we worked on EASTBOUND and FOOT FIST. We'll do what's on the page once or twice, and then we'll just start exploring the scene and opening it up. And, in this case, that's where the opening went to. (Laughs)
Beaks: I just like that all of this time and money was sunk into creating a magical creature who, it turns out, is a sex offender.
McBride: (Laughs) I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but I think [Spectral Motion] liked it, too. When we worked with the guys from Framestore or Spectral Motion, there definitely was a level of passion with those guys that was awesome - and I think it was because they're used to putting their craftsmanship into things that take themselves very seriously. I think it was fun for those guys to be able to execute this kind of stuff and make it awesome, and at the same time be able to make it entertaining in a way that it's usually not played for.
Beaks: So where is the Minotaur's dong right now?
McBride: It's in the trunk of my car. David gave it to me as a wrap gift, and my wife won't let me bring it into the house. It's lived in the trunk of my car. One day I pulled up to... I think it was this hotel. The valet came over to help me get my suitcase out of the trunk, and when he opened it up, there was a suitcase and a severed minotaur's cock in there. The guy just looked at me terrified, and I was like, "You don't ever say what you saw here today," and closed it on him. "Don't put a scratch on this car, or that'll be you."
And I'm not going to lie: I also have the Blade of Unicorn in my house, too. I also have Simon. Really, this movie was made for me to have all of this awesome shit at my house.
[Here endeth the spoilers.]
Beaks: Speaking of Simon, I love that you guys at least had the fucking balls to put Bubo in your movie. The CLASH OF THE TITANS guys only used him as a punch line!
McBride: And we were so relieved. I love that character in the original CLASH OF THE TITANS. I just thought it was so weird that it was robotic and in that time period. And Simon the bird was the one thing we got the most notes on. No one got what he was. And we were like, "You don't have to get it. There's two moons here! Of course there's a robot, too." (Laughs)
Beaks: Natalie's great in this movie. How was she with riffing?
McBride: I was so impressed by Natalie. She's such a talented actress that, even on the set, when you see her go into these runs and effortlessly slip into this dirty stuff while keeping a straight face... that's not easy. And she would just kill it. A lot of times, I would just be at video village looking at the monitors while James or her are doing their close-ups and thinking, "Goddamn, this is a real movie. These are real actors doing this shit." (Laughs) It's amazing.
Beaks: And seeing a gifted cinematographer like Tim Orr shooting something this silly is a lot of fun, too.
McBride: Tim's a great dude. I've known him since film school as well. This whole movie was a family affair: Chris Gebert, our sound mixer who's mixed everything from EASTBOUND to GEORGE WASHINGTON to PINEAPPLE, he was on here, too. I think it keeps all of us grounded. These are the same guys we were making films with back in the late '90s, and now we're in Belfast, Ireland working with Natalie and James making this crazy fantasy movie. I think for all of us, it's always surreal and crazy, and it makes you feel blessed. It makes you not take any of it for granted. Everyone knows how passionate we are about this, and you're just getting an opportunity to do it. It's incredible.
Beaks: And you guys haven't gotten precious about it yet. Oftentimes, after people attain a certain amount of success, they begin to take themselves more seriously - too seriously in some cases.
McBride: We're just of that mindset where we're waiting to be kicked out of the party, so while we're here we're going to do as much damage as we can.
Beaks: So you've established this onscreen persona - with Kenny Powers being sort of the uber represenation of it. Obviously, comedic actors can have long careers doing the same kinds of characters, but others get restless and try to change it up a little. Where do you see yourself going with this?
McBride: I never even saw myself as being an actor. I went to film school to study directing and writing. For that career, I had a plan. But with acting, there's been no plan. With every job, with every step, I feel like I'm in brand new waters, and I have to figure out how to navigate them. You know, I think if you want to have longevity in the comedic world, you have to definitely not be telling the same joke over and over again. I think it's going to be up to me to make sure that, in the years to come, I choose roles that push me and show different sides. I think because I like to write the stuff I'm in as well, I think it's going to challenge me as a writer to toss it up and push things forward.
Beaks: Is there a specific actor you've looked to for inspiration?
McBride: Since I was a kid I've always loved Bill Murray. He's one of my favorites. And I think he has one of the best comedic careers where he was able to be completely relevant and hilarious and awesome, and, to this day, I consider him still the same.
Beaks: Cool. I look forward to your RAZOR'S EDGE!
McBride: Comin' right up!
YOUR HIGHNESS hits theaters Friday, April 8th