We recently spoke to McBride about "Your Highness" which in many ways takes '80s-styled fantasy pics and mashes it up with plenty of blue humor. He shared his approach to the film (which he co-wrote with Ben Best), the pros and cons of sequels and weighing the financial responsibilities when taking on high concept films.
Tell me about this sure-to-be Academy Award-winning film. You guys must have popped the champagne early.
Danny McBride: Yeah, I don’t like to take or get people’s expectations too high, but it definitely is probably one of the best movies ever made [laughs]. We don’t like to oversell the film. What do you want to know? Let’s see, this movie is a homage to a bunch of the films that David [Gordon] Green and myself loved when we were kids. Everything from "Conan the Barbarian" to "Death Stalker" to "Krull" to "Dragon Slayer" to "Clash of the Titans." Even to things like "Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth," we always just thought it would be cool to try and make one of those movies and we just had to figure out what our way in would be and when we started working together on comedies we kind of figured that that would be a good way to crack that genre and actually make a legitimate fantasy film that’s not about action but find the humor in the fact that my character does not belong in the story at all.
I expected something purposely low budget but it’s pretty epic in it's effects and scope.
Well we studied things like "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," like the fact that they found so much humor in that the movie was low fi and they found so much good comedy in the fact they didn’t have horses but had coconuts instead and to us it’s like we’re not going to try to dance in territory that’s already been covered that well, so for us it was like the more serious we could take this film the funnier we thought it would be. So if we could approach all of the action and the visual effects and make it look like something you would see in the world of "Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter," to us that made the comedy work better.
So what was the genesis of "Your Highness"? How did this one come up as an idea?
It came up in a pretty odd way. The first film I ever made, I was in "All the Real Girls" with David Green and I’ve known David for a long time, he was, he lived on my hall the Freshman year of college so we became friends and when we were in film school we would play this dumb game where we’d try to come up with a title for a movie and then quick try to find out what that movie is. Examples of that are like, David will say it’s a TV show, it’s called the "Face of Danger" and then quickly it’s like, "okay, it’s about Steve Danger, he’s a plastic surgeon and he solves mysteries." And you know so we’d do that kind of stupid, nerdy, film school shit. On the set of "All the Real Girls" David was like, "alright, here’s the title, it’s a movie called 'Your Highness,' what’s it about? And it just came up like, "alright, I’m a knight who fights dragons and gets stoned all the time" and that idea just tickled us, we thought it was kind of stupid and funny and as the years went on it just was a weird idea that we kind of kept building upon.
Every time we’d get around each other we’d just joke around, we would come up with new ideas for it or what it could be. I guess when we were on "Pineapple Express," at that point my career was kind of moving in a direction where I was being considered for bigger projects and David was moving from the Indie world into the mainstream world and we were trying to decide what we wanted to do together and this idea...we always thought there was some promise in it. I think once we met James [Franco] the idea soon mutated. "Oh, it’s not about a prince that gets stoned, it’s about two brothers and one’s jealous of the other," and we started to flush it out from there and build on this relationship between these two brothers and their sibling rivalry and how they have to get past it and move forward on this quest.
I find it hysterical that this movie got made because it’s so absurd. Were you surprised when you pitched this idea that people weren’t like 'what?'
We were totally surprised. Honestly it’s a movie that I thought no one would give us a chance to make until much, much later in our careers. I was sitting in a pitch meeting back in the day and I just pitched them a few ideas that I was working on and everything was like, they were mildly interested in the stuff I had and at the last minute before I left I thought, "I’m just going to give this idea a shot, this thing is crazy and maybe they’ll think it’s funny," and I pitched it and they flipped out for it! They were like, "yes there’s nothing like this out there right now, let’s develop this." And even as we wrote the script and everything I thought it was something that someone was really not going to give us the opportunity to make and I can remember the first day of filming and David and myself and Natalie [Portman] and James [Franco] and Zooey [Deschanel] were on the beach and it hit David and I like, "this is insane!" We’re in Northern Ireland, I’m presenting a severed Minotaur penis to Natalie Portman and we are actually making this movie and you know the cinematographer was Tim Orr a guy we went to school with, so it was all these guys who had been there from the very beginning and somehow we’re all in Northern Ireland just making this crazy movie that you know, it was the type of stuff that we always wished would be in the theaters but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood ever gets the nuts to make.
Well, it's filthy, pretty R rated and someone had those nuts. It’s not like there’s compromise in this picture.
Yeah, that was important to us, we were basically given the budget of a comedy and we needed to figure out how to make the movie feel like more than that. That was part of the emphasis for going to Northern Ireland is because the landscapes there were so beautiful and even when it came down to our approach on visual effects. You know instead of like doing everything CG, let’s refer to these other techniques. Let’s include a puppet, let’s put men in suits and let’s just figure out how we can stretch this and make this as big as it can possibly be. But still keep it in a reasonable budget so we can afford to push the comedy and push the envelope and take it into an area where it’s not going to necessarily appeal to everyone in America.
You guys really go for broke on this thing. Did you use test audiences at all? Did you have to worry about the tone?
When it comes to tone we never censor ourselves on the set, we will just go for broke on the set you know, it’s the same approach that we have on things like 'Eastbound,' and that David has even on his serious films. We will try everything on the day and there were takes you know where David would be like, "okay, in this take I don’t want any modern references, no swearing, everything is period in this take," and we would do a take just straight forward like that and then the next take he would say "okay, cuss as much as you want in it, throw modern stuff in it" and we’d do a take like that. And then we’d get into the editing room and kind of pick and choose what was working and what wasn’t so we could arrive at that balance of finding the comedy but not blowing the fantasy out of the water.
And you got the great Charles Dance in this. How did those classic English actors take to some of the ridiculousness they were subjected to?
All of our classically trained thespians and these incredible actors like Charles Dance, Toby Jones and Damian Lewis, these guys were all sports, they were all down for it and I think getting those guys in the film to David and I, that was the real kicker for us. That’s when we felt we were really doing something different because the instinct is to fill those roles with all comedians but for us it’s like if we can get real, distinguished actors in those roles, that’s just only going to make the comedy and the absurdness of this film that much better and I think that there would always be like you know a day or two when we’d get on set when those guys would look at each other like, "what the hell have we signed up here for?" But everything is so loose on the set and everyone has such a god time that it’s kind of hard not to just fall into the spirit of it.
How much on the written page is the final film?
We improvised a lot and it’s at a point where I honestly can’t even tell what was written anymore and what was improved. So much of our process is improvisation. It’s not just improv jokes it’s sometimes to take the scene in a direction that the other actors aren’t expecting and to see what their reactions will be and so you know we’ll always do like one or two takes of what is on the scene and then we’ll take it from there and really try to push things and give ourselves those options we know we’re going to want once we get into editing... Basically, every joke that’s awesome was written and every joke that fails was improv.
Ha, of course it was. You’ve done some Hollywood films but you’re doing a lot of projects with classmates from way back in. Is it important for you guys to keep developing those projects?
It is. You know to us it’s like trying to find…there’s a world in Hollywood where there’s so many remakes and sequels and to us it’s like as much as we can try to figure out how to still make the type of projects that we love and not have to water it down or sell it out. We would love to stay in that area and I think that’s just a combination of hopefully a few of these films connecting with audiences and not getting ridiculous with the projects we’re taking on as far as what the financial responsibilities of those things are. When we start making huge movies then there has to be huge expectations. And for us...the comedies I tend to like are not things that everyone across the board likes. I tend to like things that are not revered by everyone and that I think is a more interesting place to play it.
There’s been a bunch of different projects in the last year you’re attached to, what’s coming up next for you?
Like you said we’re writing the last season of "Eastbound and Down" and we’ll shoot that this summer, I have '30 Minutes Or Less" in August and then I’m trying to develop something to get behind the camera. You know I went to film school, that’s where I met Jody and David, I was focusing on being a writer and director there and I really would love to step into that role, so I’m really trying to focus on that next (read more about Danny McBride's plans to get behind the camera here).
I read that you and Jody are writing a bank robbery film?
Yeah, that was a project that Jody and I at one point were working on, but that thing has kind of fallen to the wayside since the interview.
What are your expectations for your Highness? Are you going to do a sequel? Are you into sequels?
I feel like this is one of those movies that I loved working with everybody in it from the production designer to David to Natalie to James to Zooey so if I was given the opportunity to work with all of them again, I would do it in a heartbeat and if it were in the capacity of this story that would be awesome but honestly that just kind of depends on the audience, if anyone goes and sees this film, and if there’s a demand for it, it’s definitely something that we had a good time making and I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to get people to come and do it again.
Do you guys get worried about that kind of thing? You talked about earlier a sea of remakes, reboots and sequels, but it seems like it would be really easy to fall down that path if you're having fun with the people you work with.
It’s interesting, with something like "Eastbound and Down," we approach it like a movie, so in a way each season to us has felt like it’s been a sequel or something because we don’t write it like a TV show. The writing staff is basically me and Jody and one other guy and we write the show seasons as if it’s one long season and then we break it into parts. So Eastbound has definitely felt like we’ve been involved in some weird franchise, you know where years have gone by and we’re still stepping into this character and you know there’s good and bad with that stuff. There’s times where you start to be perceived as that character but at the same time it’s our creation... so if people are appreciating it then we’re happy to do it. We honestly have a really good time making 'Eastbound' so as of now there hasn’t been anything negative with that, but I think as any creative person you have to make sure that you’re not relying on the same joke, that whatever you’re doing you’re pushing yourself forward because the moment you start to get bored with the work the audience is going to be very bored with the work.
Tell me about "30 Minutes Or Less."
[Director] Reuben [Fleischer]’s an amazing guy, I had a blast working with him and I get to work with Nick Swardson for the first time and he just kills me, I think he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met and it has an amazing cast. Aziz Ansari and Jesse Eisenberg and yeah, it’s about a pizza delivery guy who gets kidnapped and has a bomb strapped to him and is forced to rob a bank. My character and Nick Swardson’s characters are the bad guys that put him up to this and Jesse Eisenberg is the pizza guy and Aziz is his best friend so those two guys are going to have to go through with this bank robbery because we’re assholes and we made them do it.
Is it different for you playing a villain?
This is just a straight villain. It was fun, it was cool to come in and play the bad guy. With something like 'Eastbound' it’s always trying to figure out this person is morally corrupt but at the same time you have to figure out how to get the audience behind this character and in "30 Minutes Or Less" there’s not that obligation, it’s just being a villain and being a bad guy and being the person that has to be conquered in the film.
There’s a project you're involved in called "Bully" that’s about getting payback on people. There's "Olympic Sized Asshole" that has a similar theme. That seems to be a recurring theme in your work: revenge.
I guess, I guess we like revenge films. We like movies about dudes being dudes and righting wrongs.
I know you didn’t have the hugest part in Pineapple Express, but I know there was some talk about potentially doing a sequel.
I’ve talked with everyone from Seth [Rogen] to Evan [Goldberg] to Judd [Apatow] to Franco, I mean all of us had an incredible time on that film and I do think it was something that everyone…we kind of joke around about it. Out of all those guys I don’t think there are any that are dragging their feet about it, I think it’s a matter of getting the right story, Seth and Evan coming up with an idea of the proper way to do a sequel but if those guys called me today and said we want to do this I would definitely be down.
Do you have a dream project because in a way "Your Highness" was your dream project, but it's been fulfilled.
You’re right. Your Highness kind of was that for the longest time, it was that idea if we ever get a chance to make something crazy, this is how we want to do it. Now that we’ve done it I think we need to figure out what our next dream project is.
You going to tackle a genre picture or anything big like that?
There’s all different genres that I’d love to do. Everything from Westerns to sci fi, there’s a lot of things I’d love to dabble in.
"Your Highness" opens in theaters this weekend, Friday, April 8th.