Your Highness, the new fantasy-comedy-adventure film starring McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Justin Theraux and Zooey Deschanel, opens in theaters this weekend. The film plays as an affectionate but tongue-in-check nod to ’80s fantasy epics such as Beastmaster, Krull and (a personal favorite) Dragon Slayer.
In fact, as McBride laughingly relayed at the Los Angeles press event we attended for Your Highness, “the first day we pitched this script, we came in and pitched it as this is “Krull” meets “Barry Lyndon,” and the executives were like ‘never pitch this movie like that — ever again.’”
No one was more surprised that they were ultimately able to make this film than the film’s creators. Though they had worked together on Pineapple Express, and the television series Easbound And Down prior to this project, the seed of the idea for Your Highness was planted for McBride and director David Gordon Green when they met during their studies at the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts film program. As McBride tells it:
“When you go to film school, you’ve got all these guys who are trying to show everyone how smart they are. When they talk about movies it’s all of these pretentious arthouse films because they think those are the kinds of movies you have to like if you’re going to film school. One of the things that David and I kind of instantly clicked on was that we appreciated those films but at the same time appreciated movies like “Krull” and “Dragon Slayer,” these fun movies that capture your imagination when you’re a kid.”
Green offers a slightly more intimate look at the genesis of the story.
“It literally began as a beer-drinking game we’d played 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 it, the more we thought of this movie as an opportunity.”
Though Your Highness is an unabashed raunchy, outrageous, light-hearted comedy, it was important to both McBride and Green to approach the story as if it were “a serious fantasy film,” and allow the humor to arise from that. “I didn’t ever want to approach it satirically,” Green said of the film, “and that’s a difficult task,” the director continued:
“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. Bringing these fresh spins on a genre is really my goal.”
“Even with the craftsman that we pulled onto the film, (we were taking it seriously).” McBride explained.
“The guy who designed the weapons designed the weapons for “Braveheart.” Our production designer worked for Danny Boyle, and the person who designed the armor designed the armor for “Kingdom of Heaven.” And so we really just approached the movie as if it were a serious epic fantasy and we just found the comedy in the fact that the more serious we took the movie, the more the comedy seemed to work.”
“It really is hard to make an earnest fantasy film,” James Franco agreed.
“And until “Lord of the Rings,” and maybe the “Harry Potter” series there haven’t been too many of these films that have been embraced by an older audience. Usually they were thought of as kids films. It’s hard to put on all that gear, and I think people think of heroes in a different way now, but because this had a comedic element to it, it’s like you can get away with that. So actually I tried to play the character pretty earnestly, and because it’s a comedy we can get away with a lot of the cheesiness that maybe can hurt a film that’s completely earnest. But because we get away with it, you can actually address some of the real feelings and real dynamics between brothers, like jealousy. That’s kind of the secret of bromances – it’s like you can talk about relationships between guys and brothers because it’s a comedy, and if it was not a comedy it would probably just be boring, or cheesy.”
A portion of the humor in the film comes from simply switching the focus from what the audience would normally expect, and taking that slight shift just as legitimately as you would if you were genuinely attempting to create an epic adventure film. So rather than a brave and stalwart hero, we follow a petty, slovenly, up-skirting coward. McBride often asks audiences to take a ride with him as a character that we would not ordinarily be on board with. As to Your Highness, the actor/creator tells us that, “It just felt like following your typical hero. Well, the only way we’re going to be able to find comedy then is if we make the fantasy silly, if we make the action silly.” Which they did not want to do.
So for us, once again, it was like shifting that lens of who you typically follow in these films and trying to find someone that’s a little bit more unexpected. It just allows you to hit some of those cliched moments with a new perspective. To us that’s kind of what was comically interesting about it and what separated it from other films that are in this genre. You’ve gotta just find those layers of how exactly you are going to get an audience to kind of root for someone who is so morally corrupt, or who makes these bad choices, and how can you get someone to identify with this person that normally they wouldn’t identify with.
Justin Theroux, who portrays the films requisite lascivious, bride-stealing villain, Leezare, describes his character as having a “backwards trajectory.” The actor breaks down the ordinary course of events for a fantasy film antagonist, vs. the path Leezare follows, saying:
“Normally the bad guy grows more and more powerful, and my trajectory was coming in horrible and you think ‘oh this is a guy to be reckoned with’ and as he goes on he grows more and more neurotic, so he has this sort of downward spiral. So by the end your saying ‘oh god this guy’s unraveling.’”
When asked if his characters devolvement is inherent in the script, or if it came out of on-set improv, Theroux replied laughingly that it arose organically from the circumstances of “the f**kaning” – cue record screeching to a halt. You may be asking yourselves, what is this “f**kaning” of which you speak? And rightly so. Let us back up. As Theroux explains, “With these kind of movies there’s always an event called “The Darkening” or “The Awakening” or the whatever, so I said ‘how about we call it “The F**kening”?’ and they were like ‘oh my god!’ Yeah, we weren’t mincing words.” It was, “I’m going to take her, and have my way with her, and put a dragon in her womb.”
The inciting incident in the film is Leezare’s kidnapping of Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), the virgin bride of Fabious (Franco), in order to impregnate her with a Dragon that he will then use to rule the universe. His heinous act forces the valiant Fabious to seek the aid of his pigeon-hearted brother, Thadeous (McBride), and the truly bloodthirsty warrior-wench Isabel (Portman) to retrieve his woman, and save the world. In many respects, this is actually a fairly standard set-up for an adventure-fantasy film, yet the twist that created the comedy for Leezare, and the circumstance that his character’s neurosis was born from, was the fact that he was a nineteen-year-old virgin (rather than a centuries old wizard) who has been raised to:
“Have sex, under two moons, in front of his parents. The idea of his whole life being about The F**kening, and making this moment happen (unhinged him). Why on earth would you put this on a platform in the middle of a huge room in front of your parents? That would be the worst way to lose your virginity. So I think it (the humor) came out of – weirdly enough – the reality of our fantasy movie.”
In the end, as McBride and Green predicted, the more sincerity that the creators used in their approach to the outlandish circumstances of the story, the more absurdly funny the film became.
Your Highness opens in theaters today.