Interview: Danny McBride Talks ‘Your Highness,’ Molesting Puppets, and CGI Hand Jobs

The fact that a major studio made Your Highness is both reassuring and baffling. The commercial appeal is there, obviously, but this isn’t your standard comedic fare. David Gordon Green’s 80s fantasy throwback is filled with crudeness and audacity. This is a film with a child molesting puppet; isn’t that such a thing of genius which defines ambition? I believe so. A film like Your Highness is, as stated before, reassuring because we’re witnessing such talents as Green and co-writer/star Danny McBride getting to further explore their divisive sensibilities in a rather sizable studio film.

Danny McBride didn’t just set out to make a parody or a satire, but a genuine adventure film that, which he admits, isn’t for everyone. Your Highness is not the pot comedy one expects, but a road movie about lovable and immature idiots. McBride’s Thadeous is a moron in all senses of the word, except an actual self-aware moron. There’s a charm to his baboon-like nature. Your Highness is almost a coming of age story, but about a grown, pot-smoking, and crude man.

Here’s what Danny McBride had to say about getting a comedy with a large scope, not making a spoof, crafting lovable idiots, and the difficulty of practical effects:

To start off, can you discuss some of the difficulties behind making a film broad in scope, but with a comedy film’s budget?

We’re humungous fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and even Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but a part of their humor was that they didn’t have the money to make it big, so they poked fun at that fact. For us, because that ground was so well covered by those guys, we had to figure out a new way to approach the film. It seemed much funnier if we took the movie seriously, and that meant having a very big scope, visual effects that looked legit, and the undermining it with juvenile humor, but approaching every other element about it seriously.

Universal basically gave us a comedy budget to do this; they didn’t give us a budget to make something large. We just had to get creative with how we approached the movie, which was one of the reasons why we shot in Belfast. Belfast is just naturally beautiful and grand that just by shooting there we could raise the scope of the movie. When it came to the visual effects budget, it was about how we were going to stretch it and make it big.

For instance, that’s how we came up with that hand creature. Initially, it was supposed to be this huge earth worm, but we found out quickly that moist flesh is basically the hardest texture to create and the most expensive. When we asked what’s a less expensive texture, they said reptilian scales are easier. From there they suggested multiple heads to give it scope, because they could just take one head and duplicate it. We brainstormed how we could get the most bang for our buck, and we approached every creative decision that way.

I read that the original script was quite massive. What did you have to cut make the scale more manageable?

It would have literally been over a 200-million dollar movie. We wrote the first draft by letting our imaginations go wild and writing everything we could think of. There was like a city on the back of a huge snail [Laughs]. There was all this insane stuff that we would have never been able to possibly film. It wasn’t until we turned that draft in that we saw Universal was interested in making the movie. I always thought the movie would be too big of a risk that no one would take on me and my friends. When we saw they were interested in making it, that’s when we started to think about what we could pull off.

That’s when we started trimming back on our set-pieces and started focusing on the relationship of the two brothers. We knew that no matter what the budget was, as long as we had the story there and good chemistry between the brothers, then that could buy you everything else and the rest just falls into the backdrop. With the next draft, we approached it with what we could physically shoot. If we tried to make a movie that large, no one would have ever let us do it, and if they did, we probably would have had to tame the humor. We wouldn’t be able to go for this hard-R rating, which is always very important for us.

What did you have to cut out?

There was that whole floating city, which was on the back of a snail. My character, Thadeous, also found this mythical weapon, which was called “the hoop of doom,” and it was basically a hula hoop that killed people. I don’t know how to hula hoop, so we knew that would have to be CG. We just started to trim things back from there [Laughs].

I believe that the climatic battle was originally going to take place during an orgy, is that correct?

It is. That’s the one place that Universal got us [Laughs]. We were sending them pages saying that it was going to be like a weird, medieval Eyes Wide Shut party. They said, “You know what? We’re letting you get the minotaur’s dick in there, so lets just call it a day and give us a regular climax.”

Was there an MPPA issue at all with the minataur’s erection?

Yeah, you know, I don’t think you can have a male erection an R-rated movie. But since the minotaur’s half-man and half-bull, so we just said the erection was the half-bull part.

When it comes to the tone of the film, as to whether or not it’s a parody or satire, what would you label it as?

I cant figure out what we’d label it as. In a weird way, it’s a sendup of those films. We never wanted to spoof the genre, but just make one of those movies and put our own spin on it. I think the closest approach to compare it to is to what Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg took towards zombie movies. They didn’t make a spoof with Shaun of the Dead; they just made a zombie movie. They had their own interpretation of the genre and put their own touch on it, and I think that’s what we were trying to do with this. We weren’t trying to spoof fantasy movies, but we just wanted to make one.

I came up with this idea with David Gordon Green. It made a lot of sense for why he should direct, because I love how he did that with Pineapple Express. It didn’t just turn into a spoof of any of these action movies, but became an action movie by the end. I think that’s what was really important for this film.

Is that line of not tipping over into satire or parody something you found in the script, or just throughout the whole process?

It’s through the whole process, but in the script, we really tried to make it feel like an adventure film and that the story of the brothers would be there and we’d inject the comedy when we could. A lot of the comedy comes from the fact that my character doesn’t really belong in the film, as opposed to making fantasy film jokes the whole time.

As for the creatures, what was the decision behind making them all sex fiends? With one, the Wise Wizard, being a pedophile and the other, the minotaur, being a rapist.

[Laughs] They are dirty. When it comes to the Wise Wizard, weirdly enough, that was something that was just improv. We started initially with just seeing where we’d go with this Yoda-like guy, but all the sudden, James [Franco] started improving that he had this weird history with the wizard and the puppeteer started playing along with it. That’s one of those things that you think is too crazy to put in the movie on the day you shoot it, but in the editing room, it’s funnier than what else we had, so it ends up in the film. It was just real surreal walking onto that set seeing that Dark Crystal-esque puppet there and you’re interacting with it and smoking weed with it.

Would you say Thadeous is more self-aware than some of your more well-known and amoral characters?

We set this thing up around the same time of Eastbound and Down, and at the time, I think we were just really interested in exploring this concept of putting the audience behind what should typically be the antagonist, and not you’re typical protagonist. Thadeous definitely fits that train of thought of, “Let’s put the audience behind someone that isn’t morally sound and doesn’t have the brave characteristics of your typical hero,” and that’s in there for sure. At the same time, he isn’t Kenny Powers or Fred Simmons, but this guy with a true wound from living in the shadow of his older brother. When it comes to doing all these asshole characters, it’s all about spotting what their weaknesses, flaws and motivations are, and hopefully getting the audience to latch onto that by the end.

Do you consider Thadeous “likable”?

I think he is. I think people can identify with someone always being overshadowed by someone in their family who is better than them. It’s a comedy, so how he deals with that is just funny and juvenile. I think, by the end, his heart is in the right place. There’s a good person there. To me, he’s likable. I have a more warped sense humor and acceptance of things, so I don’t know if that’s what the norm is [Laughs]. You don’t want to turn off the audience the whole time. With Eastbound and Down, we definitely teeter that line. With this, that wasn’t as important of a motivator for the story. It was a characteristic, but it wasn’t what was driving the comedy.

I heard you got notes about Simon the bird. What were the notes about specifically?

That was one of those things that, at the beginning, the studio wasn’t really sure about what we were trying to do with that. They just thought, “Why is there something mechanical here?” To us, it was just a throwback to Clash of the Titans. I mean, why was that a robot? It didn’t make any sense, and we wanted to play around with that. I held onto Simon dearly, because I wanted it in my home [Laughs].

A lot of it had to do with our own ignorance of things. When we conceived Simon, we wanted to use all these different types of visual-effects technology, so that it could be a throwback to all these different types of films. It was important for us to use a puppet for The Wise Wizard, so that was like us going back to The Dark Crystal, but we still wanted to embrace badass effects creatures, like Marteetee’s hand creature.

We couldn’t imagine doing the bird without stop-animation, and the studio was a little more wise about it. They said how it was very limiting, very time consuming, expensive, and we could make him look stop-animated by using CG. That was one of those things that was just a learning process for David and I. We just thought, “This worked for movies when we were kids. Cant we just do it like that?” When you start to actually get into it, you learn how limited those processes are. We’ll surrender to him being CG in some stuff and physical in others, and I think they did an amazing job with it. I cant even tell when it’s either one.

What were the limitations?

You’re just kind of stuck with things. If you do one move, you’re limited to the speed for how the bird can come in. There’s just room to change things. For instance, if it looks too dark in a scene, you’re stuck with how you filmed it. If it’s done through visual-effects, you can change everything about him. You can put more light on him. You can change his colors. You have a lot more creative control over him through post-production.

Obviously, you do a lot of improv, but when it comes to FX shots, like the climatic battle, is it challenging not getting that freedom to do 30 or 40 takes of a scene?

That’s really where the budget constraints came into play. This is a movie that should have been 100-million dollars with the production value, but it’s not that at all. I remember when we did the opening action scene for Tropic Thunder, we were shooting that for around three weeks. When we shot the climax of this movie, it was a three-day shoot. You’re in a set that wasn’t exactly laid out how you initially imagined it, so you gotta figure out new ways of how to choreograph your battles.

Despite how the movie looks and feels, at the end of the day, we were running and gunning exactly like we were when we did George Washington and All the Real Girls. We never had enough time to do what we wanted to do. It’s always about just busting ass, moving fast, and trying to get creative about your limitations, and figuring out how to use them to your advantage.

Your Highness is now in theaters.

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, The Long Goodbye, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Ace in the Hole, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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