Set Visit: Danny McBride and Natalie Portman get medieval in 'Your Highness' in Ireland
It is October of 2009. Belfast. And Danny McBride does not belong here.
I'm standing in a soundstage that was once, a century ago, a hangar for a shipyard where a boat called the Titanic was built, in a city that was, for most of my life, known more for its violence and long-simmering civil unrest than for its film industry.
I'm looking around at a huge castle courtyard set, with a few dozen extras packed in, all dressed like they're part of a new "Lord Of The Rings" film. The details of the set and the costuming and the faces of the extras... all authentic. All meant to sell a reality, more historical drama than fantasy.
I'm looking at Toby Jones and Charles Dance standing on the steps of the courtyard, and for a moment, I expect some rousing call to arms, like I'm back on the "Narnia" set I visited in Prague. This looks like every other giant-budget genre film I've visited in terms of depth of detail...
... except that's Danny McBride there on the steps. And, again, he does not belong here.
The crazy thing is, he's not just in the film... he wrote the film with Ben Best, and he's the star of the film. Looking at him standing there, it's this weird visual dissonance. No matter how the set feels, how the world around us on the set feels, this is not "The Silmarillion."
No... this is a wild, profane adventure about brothers, wizards, weed, women, and finding peace with your place in the world. This is "Your Highness." And it represents one serious gamble for Universal, the studio that seems to be fueled by the adrenaline from high-risk gambles, one after another these days.
It is the story of two brothers. One is Fabious, played by James Franco...
... and the other is Thadeous, played by Danny McBride.
There's a girl named Belladonna, played by Zooey Deschanel...
... and another girl named Isabel, played by Natalie Portman...
... and, of course, a bad guy who happens to be a wizard named Leezar, played by Justin Theroux...
... and here's how the whole thing came together.
Danny McBride and Ben Best, who have worked together on "The Foot Fist Way" and "Eastbound and Down," co-wrote this film for Universal, and then they recruited David Gordon Green after he wrapped "Pineapple Express" and his work on the first season of "Eastbound." It's one of those films that seems improbable when described, and in our conversations with McBride on the Belfast soundstage, he acknowledged that with a laugh.
"It's a miracle. If we'd been behind by a month, they would have said no. We were too far down the road for them to pull the plug."
What makes the film such a fascinating challenge is that it's not a spoof. It's not a parody. It's not even overtly a comedy. Danny talked about how the studio's marketing department had decided from day one to sell the film with an emphasis on the action and the fantasy, and then just punctuate it with the humor. "The first mock-up we saw used the font from 'Dragon's Lair,' the video game. Which is on the money. Perfect." The titles Danny namechecked as he tried to describe the tone of "Your Highness" to us was a list of pure nerd pleasure for the 12-year-old in me. "Krull." "Clash Of The Titans." "Deathstalker." "Conan The Barbarian." I have such fond memories of the era when those were being released theatrically, a small avalanche of similar movies.
He didn't get involved with "Your Highness" to make fun of those movies, but to make one of them for real. When he talked to us about coming to work and getting blood all over you and holding a sword and dressing in armor, he couldn't stop smiling. "I used to have to wear an apron at Crocodile Cafe, so this is definitely a step up."
As we spent time on set during the day and as we spoke with the cast, it was apparent that the reason Danny felt comfortable in such a radically different environment was because of David Gordon Green, who was just as out-of-his-comfort-zone as Danny. It seems like that energizes them, forces them to really work at it, and Danny talked about the pleasure he got from watching David on the set. "It's been fun to watch him work with these esteemed British actors like Charles Dance and Damien Lewis, and watching them react to the way David will give direction. 'Okay, now do it like you're taking a shit.'"
By now, questions about improv are really boring when you're talking to a generation of screen comics who are known in large part for their tendency to improv in their movies, but we still had people ask a few of them during our time with Danny. He was polite about it, but as he spoke, he did illuminate the way David's process in particular works. David doesn't do much rehearsal. He would instead assemble the cast and then just discuss tone more than anything. David prefers rehearsal on-camera, shouting out lines and direction from behind-the-camera while film is actually rolling. That way, if anything does pop, they've got it.
Danny talked to us about the way they shot the climax of the film for almost two full weeks, and how totally different that was from anything they'd ever done. He talked about how the FX and the action is all meticulously planned and rehearsed, which then allows them to play with the dialogue and character, and how David really took to this process.
That's why they cast Franco. They'd both worked with him in "Pineapple Express," and Danny talked about how important it is to him to have an open and experimental atmosphere on the set, and how Franco gets that. At the time they were making this film, they couldn't have known that Franco would go on to make a film right after "Your Highness" that would feature the kind of performance that was going to get him end-of-the-year Oscar buzz. They also couldn't have known that Portman was about to do the same thing, meaning that right around the time the marketing kicks into gear for "Your Highness" in a big way next year, there's a pretty strong chance James Franco and Natalie Portman are both going to be serious contenders for major awards, which is going to make it even better when people see just how deranged this film really is.
"Fabious is Beowulf. He's always killing monsters," McBride said, describing Franco's character. "And Isabel is Red Sonja. But with intimacy issues." He talked about how great all of Portman's footage so far had been, and how game she'd been for anything Green asked of her while shooting. "It's so weird that Natalie Portman is in this movie," McBride said, laughing.
Asked to describe his own character, Thadeous, McBride talked at first about how he and Fabious lose their mother when they're very young, and how Thadeous knows he'll never be king which is why he feels no pressure to live up to anyone's expectations in any way. He is pressed to join the quest by his father (Charles Dance) because the King hopes it will finally force Thadeous to become a man.
"Thadeous likes to butt-f**k girls and drink a lot and smoke weed. That's just part of his deal." Okay, I'm almost sure no one on "Krull" ever described their character that way, and McBride's not just speaking hypothetical, either. Once he starts talking about the outrageous side of "Your Highness," he can't help himself, laughing as he continues. "At one point, we smoke weed with this puppet who looks like he's from 'The Dark Crystal.'" He talked about how they have embraced and even encouraged truly terrible accents in the film a la Matthew Broderick in "Ladyhawke," and the more he talked, the more excited McBride seemed by the whole thing. He talked a bit about how many different types of fantasy creatures show up in the film, and how that required them to hire a whole lot of little people. The Dwarf Olympics also happened to be in town at the same time, which meant that almost every hotel was completely full of rowdy little people. "Yeah, it was 'Under The Rainbow' in Belfast," Danny said. He kept trying to speak to us seriously about the way Thadeous changes over the course of the film, but everything he described had the full room of reporters laughing. "At the very beginning of the film, he's getting ready to be hung because he butt-f**ked the Dwarf King's wife. That was one of the most amazing days of filming. The Dwarf King had the actual throne from 'WIllow.'"
There are so many things I love about the preceding paragraph that I would like to invite you to read it again.
This is a real movie. Really.
There was one particular day on set when they were shooting something (McBride wouldn't say what it was) where he and David just watched, slack-jawed, as this entire crew went about the business of professionally figuring out how to shoot this one particular thing, and all Danny and David could say to each other was, "I cannot believe this is being funded by a studio." Based on how outrageous much of it appears to be, we asked at one point if they were scared of the MPAA at the end of the process. They admitted that it could be a problem, but that they expected they were breaking new ground. "I wonder if they've even ever had to consider what to rate some of these things before." There's a lot of frontal male nudity in the film, although not the kind you'd expect, and Danny seemed grateful that "Observe and Report" and "Watchmen" were setting precendent for them as they try to get an R.
We'll have more on this film this week, but for now, let's just say I'm very optimistic that this is going to be worth seeing. Good or bad, this is going to be a film where nothing is done in half-measures.
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