Danny McBride interview: Your Highness, improvisation, Percy Pigs and R-rated comedy

With Your Highness out now in UK cinemas, we caught up with co-writer and star Danny McBride to talk about improvisation, R-rated comedy and jelly sweets...

“Reversy Percy?” Danny McBride asks, holding out a bag of sweets. “I used to eat Percy pigs all the time while we were shooting, so someone went to Marks & Spencer and picked up a bunch of ‘em for me.”

It’s fair to say you never quite know what to expect when you walk into an interview room, but my meeting with Danny McBride marks the first time I’ve been offered a sweet by a Hollywood actor. Naturally, I didn’t refuse, but then discovered that Percy Pigs are among the chewiest, gummiest sweets on the planet. So, when Mr McBride asked, “They’re great, right?”, my jaws were almost too stuck together to respond.

Fortunately, the following transcription is entirely free of chewy sound effects, and McBride, who’s enjoyed success with films including The Foot Fist Way, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and the HBO series Eastbound & Down, spoke eagerly about the making of Your Highness, fantasy films, and R-rated comedy.

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Mmm! Very pleasant. I also enjoyed Your Highness. The whole audience seemed to like it. It’s a really good film to see with a lot of people. Sorry, this sweet’s very chewy. [laughs] I was impressed with all the references to old fantasy movies. Was that part of your research, to go back and rewatch them all?

It was. David Green and myself went to film school together. We’ve been friends for a long time. And when you go to film school, you’ll meet a lot of people who’ll just talk about the movies they think they’re supposed to like, so they can look smarter than everybody else.

David and I both appreciate those arty films, the classics, but at the same time, we both have a passion for the films that really worked for us as kids. Films like Beastmaster and Conan The Barbarian, and Dark Crystal. All these movies aren’t, you know, flawless. A lot of them don’t hold up now, but to us at the time, they really captured our imagination, and really worked on that level.

So, we were trying to figure out how we could pay homage to those films, and make one of those films with our own comedic slant to it.

Just how much of it was improvised? I read that a lot of the dialogue was made up on the spot.

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We did. We worked the script hard, so we’ve got the right tone, and everyone’s on the same page, and where the characters are coming from, so the different departments know what the movie’s going to be. But we probably did two takes from what was on the page, and then after that, we pushed the script aside and opened the scene up.

We didn’t do rehearsals or anything. We just jammed on the day of shooting.

I’ve known David Gordon Green for a while and been in a lot of his films, and he has the same approach when it comes to drama as he does comedy. I think it’s really smart, because it gives you a chance to not let the words get in the way, and really develop the characters.

The improv isn’t always used to find jokes. Sometimes it’s used to find that weird look an actor gives where they’re not sure where the scene’s going. And when that finds its way into the scene, that’s a more honest reaction than what was planned.

He’ll work it for jokes, but he’ll also work it for performance just as much.

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Did any of that improvisation alter the trajectory of the story at any point? Did it suggest plot developments that weren’t in the script?

At certain times. There was a scene where we go to see the wizard, where James Franco and I go to this wise wizard to get guidance, and in the script, that was just a scene full of exposition. We just go with this puppet who’s reminiscent of something from Dark Crystal, and we smoke weed with him, and he gives us this object so we can get out of there.

And we had these two puppeteers working the puppet, and one guy was voicing him, and as we were improvising, James just starts building the story about how he went there as a kid, and he’d take his shirt off and start dancing on the bed. Then the puppeteer would tell me not to tell anyone, and the next thing you know, we’ve improvised this crazy moment where it was implied that James’ character had been molested or something.

That was never in the script. It was something we came up with in one of the takes, and even when we shot it, I said, “There’s no way that’ll make it into the movie.” But, at the end of the day, you get in there and it’s, like, in the film.

That’s the beauty of improvisation. You never know what the hell’s working and what’s not going to work. That’s why we don’t try to censor ourselves. Even on the day, I remember thinking there was no way we could make a joke about something like that, but when you cut it all together, you think, “Well, there’s weirder shit that happens in this movie than that.”

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So, David never censors us when we improvise. We use the editing process to figure out whether we’ve gone too far or not gone far enough.

It’s a quite unapologetically profane kind of film. Was there ever any pressure from outside sources to tone it down a bit?

That was the whole deal with this movie. We were really given the budget of a comedy, but we wanted to make something more like Lord Of The Rings. To us, that’s where the comedy would work best.

We weren’t making jokes about how low-budget the movie was. We wanted the movie to take itself completely seriously. But while we were doing that, we couldn’t really be given the budget of those movies. Because once you start tapping into that arena, the movie needs to have a broader appeal. It needs to be constructed in a way that’s going to appeal to a larger audience, so the studio makes its money back.

We wanted it to feel big, but we didn’t want the pressures of a big movie, because, at the end of the day, this movie’s only worth doing if you do it this crazy way, and push the comedy, push the envelope, and really approach it from this juvenile attitude of dick jokes, tits and marijuana. All the shit that I wanted to see in a movie when I was 12 years old.

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It was a method of mixing high art with the lowest of artforms, you know?

There seems to be quite an appetite, lately, for R-rated, quite edgy comedies. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know what it is. I’ve nothing against PG-13 comedies. I like it when those are done well. But me, personally, when I go to see a comedy, the rating determines whether I’m into the movie or not. It’s the same with a horror movie that’s not rated R. I know this is only going to be so scary, because the sky’s not the limit with what they’re dealing with.

Comedy’s the same. I don’t like there to be boundaries in comedy. I want to go into a movie thinking anything’s possible. They can poke fun at anything, and for me, that’s what’s exciting about an R-rated comedy. I don’t know if that’s what’s exciting for everyone, but that’s what I think about it.

Judd [Apatow] really ushered in the idea that an R-rated comedy can be successful, and that’s something that’s always tricky. When you’re an R-rated movie, and the cinema’s full of PG-13 movies, you’re immediately up against the odds. You’ve isolated a large proportion of the people who can go see the movie.

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It’s a tricky thing. It’s that balance of, if you’re going for an R-rating, it has to make sense financially, and as long as they do that, people will continue to make them. But as soon as you see them tanking, you won’t be able to take chances on them.

I was quite fascinated by the eclectic nature of the cast, as well. There are a lot of quite heavyweight, straight actors in there.

That was important for us. We didn’t want to just populate this movie with just comedians. We thought that, the more seriously we approached the movie, the funnier we could be. And to us, the only way to do that, was to populate it with established actors that you could get earnest performances out of. That just heightens the comedy.

Things like, Damian Lewis’ scene with James Franco, at the climax. There are tears in his eyes. Everything that’s happening is so surreal and silly, and that’s where the comedy is, perfectly, in that realm.

What preparation did you have to do for your role?

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I obviously had to put weight on for the role. [laughs] I was very dedicated to that.

My character’s a terrible swordsman, and has never been on a quest, so I didn’t have to be too prepared. I went to a couple of days’ training, but David pulled me out of it. He was like, “I don’t want you to look like you can do this at all. I want you to be awkward and terrible.”

James was very prepared. He’d done six months’ training for Tristan + Isolde, so he knew how to do all the stage combat and everything. He didn’t have to work too hard at it, because he’d put the time in on another film. He was up to speed.

So, what’s next for you?

I’ve just started writing the third season of Eastbound & Down, and we’re going to be shooting that this summer. I’m going to be doing a movie with Ruben Fleischer called 30 Minutes Or Less, which is getting ready to come out in the States this summer. It stars Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari and myself. It’s like a bank heist action comedy.

Danny McBride, thank you very much.

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