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David Gordon Green on the Bar Game Origins, Prop Penises, and Molestation Improv of Your Highness

Technically, Your Highness — the medieval stoner comedy starring Danny McBride and James Franco as odd-couple brothers on a heroic quest — takes director David Gordon Green even farther away from his self-described “indie dramatic days” than 2008’s Pineapple Express, his first Hollywood production, did. But Green’s movies are still tightly knit projects: He went to film school with McBride, at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and the two of them hatched the idea for Your Highness years before they ever thought anyone would actually let them make it. It’s an awfully sweet story that has culminated in the hilarious raunch of Your Highness, where mimed masturbation is practically a supporting character. Ahead of the movie’s Friday release, Vulture spoke with David Gordon Green.

How did the idea for Your Highness come about?
We’d play this game where [McBride] would throw out a title for a movie and I’d say what the plot was, and then I’d throw out a title and he’d say what it was. So once "Your Highness" came up, and Danny goes, "It’s about a prince that smokes weed and fights dragons." We’d write them down and, the millions of times that we'd play this game, this was the one idea that didn't end up being peed on in the bathroom floor. When his profile started going up after The Foot Fist Way, people were asking what he wanted to do, and he pitched the idea with Ben Best, our other college buddy. They paid him to write it, and I said I wanted to direct it, and it was really exciting. It evolved in terms of concept — the first draft would have been a 240 million dollar movie.

You always thought Danny McBride could star in Hollywood movies?
I always knew that Danny was a great commercial talent. Even when I wrote something that didn't involve him, I'd come to him with questions about structure. In my indie dramatic directing days, I’d turn to Danny as a writer, to get somewhere that was lighthearted, to get some laughs. So I knew he'd be successful in movies. But he studied directing and writing with me in film school — there was never that goal of becoming an actor. He’s never auditioned for a movie, and now he’s in a movie with Oscar-winning movie stars. It’s pretty hilarious. But there was always a drive creatively almost on an absurd level — "Let's just see what we can do if we put in the work."

The script has been described in some places as more of a basic outline, with lots of room for improv.
There's some quotes that are misleading out there. I don't know what context those were taken in. We have a script: It's got so many stunts and logistics and tricks, you can't just go up and go, "All right, guys, let’s riff." What I do do — [laughs] doo-doo — I put a couple of takes that are unscripted. And we crack gold sometimes. When they go and visit the wise wizard, in the script that's just an exposition scene: "This is what you do, see you later." We were kind of bored with that exposition, so Franco goes, "What if I got molested by [the wizard]?"

The villains, especially the character Marteetee, were really scary, which was surprising.
We never wanted to approach this — as contradictory as this statement sounds — as a comedy. Technically we wanted it to have a dramatic structure centered around brotherhood and chivalry, and then we wanted to embellish that with incredible situations and creatures. We wanted the quality of a legitimate action-fantasy movie, just a very funny version of it. Marteetee was a nod to the original Jabba the Hutt, when it was just a guy.

Wait, really?
Yeah. In Empire, I think he originally made a cameo and it was just a big Irish dude … the guy we got to play Marteetee, John Fricker, had never been on an airplane before. He’s just a guy who showed up at an audition and blew our minds.

Was Rasmus Hardiker, who plays Danny McBride’s right-hand man, also found through open casting?
Totally. And we always looked at that character as kind of like Steve Buscemi in The Big Lebowski — he pipes up one time too many, and the lead shoots him down … It’s tricky when you have a guy who's gonna be in the whole movie — you get more money when you put famous people in your movies. They can hang their hat on their marketing, you know, here's this awesome ensemble. But I'll make the financial compromise if I have the right creative crew behind me.

What was the thought process with the accents? You have real British actors, some people doing accurate British accents, and then Franco and McBride kind of doing their own thing.
It’s not like we're in a specific region — it's a fantasy world with two moons and mythical creatures, so you can get away with whatever you want. I was looking for some sort of consistency but to keep it as loose and free as if we were kids in the backyard playing swords. I didn’t want to make it so that they couldn't improvise in the accents. It’s not an academic British accent; it’s more of a "high speak" thing.

There’s a crucial scene involving a sexually aroused Minotaur. Who made the, uh …
The dick? It's so funny, in a movie like this, to be sitting around with very acclaimed creature designers and executive from the studio, and say, "We're gonna do something that's pretty graphic and vulgar, and it's gonna be a substantial plot point.” And they’re very straitlaced people, just going, "Well, should the penis be circumcised?" It's just Danny and me trying to stifle our laughter. Typically in a movie the creature designers, they’ll try to make genitalia nonexistent. There were conversations about making it cartoonishly big, but I didn’t want to it to be like a campy Russ Meyers movie. In ours, it was a dude that was pretty well hung in the locker room.

I'd met Guillermo del Toro. He'd invited me over his house to discuss the approach to all of this, the world of practical versus computer-generated effects. He’s all about, like, if the guy is getting chased in a labyrinth, it should be a guy in a suit, something on your ass. Otherwise there’s nothing for these guys to respond to. He knows when to embrace [CGI] … [with the special effects], we were looking at each other with a lot of ambitions for a movie that cost less than most Adam Sandler movies. It kind of put us back to our indie roots, working with people who aren’t getting the big payday but they are getting the creative freedom.

This movie almost comes pre-tagged as a cult classic.
I'm hoping it’s bigger than that! We really want to make a sequel. But I see a lot of movies that make a ton of money and I can't imagine why they suck so bad. The counter to that is something like The Big Lebowski: I saw it four times in the theater, then ten years later it’s a cult classic. Where were you earlier?! It takes the right perception, the right marketing. And I'm a critic just like anybody. I started watching movies in the airplane the other day, I couldn't last twenty minutes in any of them.

Which movies?
I got in trouble for talking shit too much. I'm not gonna say.

The end of the movie sets up the sequel. Is that definitely the direction it would take if you make it?
It's a fake-out. It's [more of] a launching pad for lot of the big ideas we weren't able to do financially with this movie.

When would the decision for a sequel happen?
A couple of weeks after this comes out. If this is everything it needs to be …

You have now technically made two weed comedies. Do people now offer you drugs more often?
Absolutely. It’s crazy how that works. Then you make a love story and there's more girls coming up saying, "Hey, what’s up, sweetie?’ No, I get tons of dudes asking if I want to get high.

The first line in your Wikipedia now says “David Gordon Green is an American filmmaker who directed the comedy films Pineapple Express and Your Highness.” Are you cool with that?
I just want it to say “fucking weirdo."

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images