Interview: Your Highness Director David Gordon Green

By Eric Eisenberg 2011-04-07 01:51:20discussion comments
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Interview: Your Highness Director David Gordon Green image
Back in 2008, director David Gordon Green surprised a lot of people with his film Pineapple Express. While most went into the theater expecting a simple stoner comedy, they ended up being witness to a solid action flick that happened to have stoner characters and a lot of hilarity. Now he’s ready to do it again, only instead of being set in the modern day, Your Highness takes us back to the Middle Ages.

Last week, Gordon Green took time to sit down with reporters and discuss his newest movie, which is due out this Friday. Check out the interview below in which he discusses why the movie isn’t a parody, how the story developed as a game between him and star Danny McBride, and the really terrible way they tried to pitch the movie to studios.

What was more of a challenge for you, getting the effects right and making it look good, or getting the guys to do what you needed them to do?

The beauty of it being a fantasy movie and it taking place not in any specific time period or region is that I could pick and choose everything that I like from everything. So, it was an anything goes kind of movie. That was the beauty of it. The challenges of it were the logistics. In my eyes, going into the movie, I wanted it to be a huge swashbuckling adventure film that had massive visual effects, creatures, landscape and an adrenalin-fueled sword and sorcery feel, like the films that I grew up with. Having all of that, and doing all the development of that, the pre-production of that, the research of that and the education of that, the goal then became, “How do I make it funny as hell? How do I put a fresh spin on this, so that it’s not just a low-rent spoof of a Harry Potter movie or a The Lord of the Rings movie?”

I didn’t ever want to approach it satirically ever. I didn’t even really want any jokes in the movie. I just wanted it to be really funny, and that’s a difficult task, especially when you’re dealing with the expectations of an audience that knows what a satire is. We’ve seen a lot of wonderful Monty Python movies and hilarious Mel Brooks movies. What we really tried to do was infuse serious, great actors who knew what comedy was, but are most known for serious roles, even the supporting cast, like Charles Dance, Toby Jones and Damian Lewis, and then getting really skilled American actors, like Natalie Portman and James Franco. And then, there’s the wild card of Danny McBride who, as an actor, is just now starting to come to the surface and introduce himself to audiences. Bringing these fresh spins on a genre is really my goal.

Was it just that you were watching one of the classic fantasy movies and decided that you wanted to make a movie like Your Highness?

Yeah, I had that goal when I was 11 years old [laughs]. It’s interesting, I’ve never wanted to be a fireman, in my life. I’ve never really wanted to grow up and be anything other than a film director. So, it’s been an obsession of various genres, disciplines, and aspects and elements of movie-making. It’s always been something that I’ve really aspired to, so doing something new and different, reinventing myself and working with new people is just the passport to the amazing world that is the movies. So, with this particular idea, it was about 10 years ago and Danny was acting for the first time. We went to film school together and lived down the hall from each other, in the dorms. We really just admired each other’s eclectic sensibility and VHS collections. We were writing things together, making short films and working on our school projects together. We were in production on a movie called All The Real Girls, which filmed in the fall of 2001, and we really discovered who Danny McBride was, as an actor. When I say we, I mean me and a crew and a small audience that would hit the art house. He’d never acted before, and it was a really refreshing, eye-opening experience to watch him unleash, in front of the camera, all this comedic potential that we knew he had, as a human being and as the guy doing keg-stands at the party.

When you see somebody actually be able to channel that into an accessible, beautiful tool, you start to see the craftsman behind it. So, when we were in production and we were shooting up in the mountains of North Carolina, we started playing this game that we’ve played since college, where I’d give him a title and he’d tell me what the movie was about. It literally began as a beer-drinking game, and we’d done that for years. I’d say, “The movie is called Character Witness,” and he’d say, “It’s about a guy that’s paid to lie under oath in court, and he puts on all these disguises.” He’d just come up with the dumbest, bullshit movie ideas. So, the dumbest, bullshit movie idea of all of them was when I threw out the title Your Highness, and he said, “It’s about a prince in the Middle Ages that smokes weed and fights dragons.” We’d laugh it up, and then we’d move on the next terrible idea. But, that was one that just kept coming back up. The more we started talking about, the more we thought of this movie as an opportunity.

And then, the more our profiles started to rise, and Danny started to be discovered for roles in films like The Foot Fist Way and Tropic Thunder, and we collaborated again on making Pineapple Express, people came to us and said, “What do you want to do next?” That literally was an opportunity of just looking at each other and saying, “Are you ready to get into this?” We expected them to shoot us down and say, “No way in hell would we allow you to ever make this movie.” But, we gave them a very clear pitch. We wanted to make this movie a very commercially accessible, huge event popcorn movie that’s somewhere between Barry Lyndon and Krull. If people could wrap their heads around that, then we were ready.

We heard that the first time you pitched that it didn’t go over so well.

“Don’t ever say that again.” We’ve had a lot of “Don’t ever say that agains” happen in our careers. Fortunately, working with Universal was just a real opportunity of a supportive, not only financial entity, who not only financially backed and distributed the movie, but creatively collaborating with us, and gave us ideas and creative ways to make a movie that was budgetarily responsible, because they designed the movie within the auspices of making a comedy, but here we go, we want to inject this with all the action. We want a huge carriage race sequence, we want this massive hand monster to come up and attack these guys in this huge center piece arena. We want a minotaur chasing them through a massive labyrinth that we want to build so we can do it in a practical, tangible world. With that massive ambition, the collective of us – the writers, the producers, and the artists and technicians that kind of came to the forefront and invest themselves in this movie – really said, “Okay, let’s respond to the challenges of the schedule and the budget and let’s make a massive movie, turning the absurdity that it might sound like on a piece of paper or on a movie poster into an passion project.

Watching this movie you can see the inspiration from movies like Krull and Dragonslayer, but did you guys discuss implementing more modern fantasy movies, like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings?

The beautiful world that we live in right now is amazing because I think the subcultures of some of the more obscure movies that you referenced have now become the culture, and I think that the vernacular of videogames and media and the event tentpoles of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchises really opened it up to the youth, but the whole culture to a modern mythology that has really given us a lot of opportunity and leeway within this movie. Now, since it’s not a spoof and it’s not a satire, we’re not going with familiar play-ons of those genres, but we are going with specific fingerprints of what our spin on what one of those movies would be. It’s not a movie that you need to have a reference point in order to enjoy what’s funny, you have to really be open to…like, if you like an action movie, if you like a love story, if you like a science fiction film even – any of these genres that blur the lines between what this movie really is, and hopefully it invites everybody into the theater.

When you have so much improvisation going on, on the set, is it a big challenge to decide what to keep and what to toss? Was there anything you had to cut that you wish you didn’t have to?

There was nothing we had to cut. It was really a very smart, wonderful collaboration of people putting their heads together to think of what makes the best movie. There were no rules, really. There was nobody saying, “You can do this,” or “You can’t do this.” Even the MPAA was very generous with us, I think, in allowing some of the things and the taboos that we’re trying to deconstruct a little bit. We do a lot of riffing on set. We always film what we’ve scripted, and then we get the wild versions of it. We do several takes, sometimes. “How can we put a spin on this, that we never imagined?” The wise wizard is an example of a scene – in the script they go visit this little Yoda-like puppet with an electric shower cap and then he gives them some exposition about what their quest and their journey is going to entail. And then through the collaboration of the actors and the ideas off set, we came up with, “What if we had this little tweak about this weirdo?” or “What if I approached him like I’m kissing my great-great grandma in a nursing home and she has bad breath?” Or maybe behind the scenes dialogue that really infuse themselves in the characters in the moment and make it relatable, also make it strange, also make it hilarious. Something that gives it a unique spin.

We did one sequence that was another musical sequence between Zooey [Deschanel]’s character, Belladonna, up in the tower, and James Franco’s character, Fabious, on the quest. They were singing a duet, far apart. We shot that, and it’s beautiful and really funny. It’s an homage to an old Kenny Loggins, ‘80s movie song, but when we put it in the movie, all of a sudden it started to break the rules that we’d established and it felt a little bit like a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s tremendous on its own. It’s hilarious, it’s beautiful and it’s very interesting. It actually drives the narrative in its own peculiar way, but when we put it in the movie, we were like, “You know what? We should take that out of the movie because it does start to lean a little bit far towards satire,” as opposed to what we’d set up as a genuine adventure movie. While we’re filming, we get the dramatic version and the funny version. Sometimes we go a little too far, and then we pull it back. We really want to have all those options in the editing room. The editor I’ve used on my last three movies, Craig Alpert, is like the centerpiece navigator. He’s worked with Judd Apatow on a lot of his films and really has a great comedic background as an editor and he helps us filter and challenges us on where we want to go and really helps us execute our vision at the end of the day.

There is that one scene with James trying to sing really badly, but does he sing well in the scene that got cut?

What do you mean “trying” to sing badly? He’s not trying to sing badly. The rules for his singing ability, he asked me, “Should I get a voice coach? Should I try and sing this well? Am I enchanted? What movie am I in at this point?” For the songs I wanted him to rehearse one time, in the car on the way over to the recording studio. I just wanted to make sure that he got it out, he listened to it a lot, we had another singer do a recording and he would listen to that and then he rehearsed it once, and then he sang it live the second time and that’s what we used in the film. So I didn’t want it to be intentionally bad. He’s incredible at a lot of things that come very naturally and instinctively, I’m not sure that singing is one of them [laughs]. But, you know, we can’t all be incredible all the time.

This is the second time that you’ve worked with Danny and James on a film, but this is a very different kind of film. How did the production differ between this and Pineapple Express?

The difference between this film and Pineapple Express was pretty much in the logistics of the technical ambition of the movie and the size and scope of the movie. Pineapple Express was a great success, and that was something that we wanted to capitalize on, but we wanted this movie to be bigger, more adventuresome, bring a bigger audience to the movie, and challenge ourselves to do something new, so having the feats of the giant carriage chase, for example, or taking the time to get all the specific elements to create some of these computer generated characters. There was a lot to keep in mind on top of what’s in the foreground. At the end of the day, we wanted two characters look into each other’s eyes and make each other laugh. That’s going to be contagious and make an audience laugh. So, there was a lot to inject into it, more so than any film I’d ever done before, but that just means a big prep time and a supportive group of technicians that helped educate me about a world that I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to explore.

Was there any thought to putting in lasers or anything outrageous like what we saw in the classic 80s fantasy films?

Lasers we’re saving for the sequel. Being a fantasy movie you can really justify what you want to justify. There are a little nods and homages that I don’t think are essential to the viewing pleasure of an audience, but there are those, like you, that know where we’re coming from can have even more of a wink and a smile at it.

Was there anything considered too far out there for the script?

There was one draft of the script where we were exploring the idea of having the climax of the movie be an orgy, but, for a number of reasons, we decided that was not a good idea. Ultimately, it would have been distracting from the face-to-face, good vs. evil quest of it. It would be distracting, if there were just hot, naked people, all over the place. That would have also been logistic-heavy. We would have needed a few extra days to shoot that. Maybe we’ll have an Ewok-style orgy in the sequel.

Did the MPAA give you any issues about how much you could show the Minotaur penis and how long it could be dangling around Danny’s neck?

Luckily, the MPAA was laughing so hard that they even lost count of the number of times we said the word “fuck” in this movie. There was really no problem with it. Part of the charm of this movie is that it can go to evil places within the narrative of the movie, but it’s so light-hearted and such a swash-buckling romp that nobody really takes it too seriously. We didn’t really have any head-butting there. Creatively, we were able to get away with a lot. You have to push the envelope in what comedy has explored before. They never gave us a rulebook and they never gave me a slap on the wrist. I’ll probably get in trouble when my mom watches the movie, but that’s probably as much punishment as I’ll reap for this movie.

Who inspires you as a director?

A lot of people inspire me. I’m a huge movie buff. From studying and watching movies, over and over again, directly influential are Terrence Malick and his naturalism, Robert Altman and his exploration of improvisation, and Judd Apatow, in terms of his comedic process. Hanging out on the set of Knocked Up was a real education to me – to see how you could get away with such a free-spirited, naturalistic sensibility in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and you could apply a lot of the skills of the ‘70s icons that I really admire to a contemporary, commercial movie.

Do you see a little Terrence Malick in Your Highness?

There are some beautiful vistas and landscapes, absolutely. Every time that there’s a moment to linger on something beautiful, be it an ocean, or cliff-side or something – any time that mother nature comes in to give us a little production value I give a little salute to Terry.
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