While arthouse heads may bemoan that David Gordon Green — at least for the time being — has left behind the dramatic character fare that marked his early work like “George Washington,” “All The Real Girls” and “Undertow” they simply haven’t been paying attention. From day one, Green has never hidden his enthusiasm for all things cinema from the artiest of obscure movies to big, dumb popcorn blockbusters. He’s a true fan of film, with interests delving into nearly every genre and not constrained by invisible lines of what’s approved, and there is no greater evidence of that than this weekend’s “Your Highness.” Starring James Franco, Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Justin Theroux, the film isa massive homage to films like “Krull” and “The Dragonslayer” while mixing influences from road movies, quest films and yes, stoner pics. It’s a winning and hilarious mash-up that also marks Green’s most ambitiously staged big screen outing to date.
We recently had a long chat with the director and we talked about everything from working with the effects team to get the most bang for his buck, some funny scenes that didn’t make the film and the opportunities afforded by working within the studio system. Oh yeah, some minor spoilers are in here but the movie still rocks if you know about them or not.
So is this something you’re surprised actually got made?
“Your Highness”? Absolutely. It’s an idea that Danny and I have had for a long time. As absurd as it is, it’s a passion project. We knew from the get-go that it was incredibly ambitious to pull off and to try to achieve….we probably have been talking about the idea for ten years. The fact that it came as quickly as it did even is pretty astonishing. Probably more so to me than to Danny, he’s more of an optimist. I’m pretty cynical about what the industry will allow me to make and the development process. Even the post production process, once you’ve made it, getting the version of the movie that you want in the theater. It can be very frustrating and ultimately depressing on a lot of stuff. There are a lot of projects I’ve spent time developing that have gone nowhere and so I’m shocked and in awe and very proud of what we’ve done and there have definitely been a lot of obstacles in getting it to the screen and it’s been a long time but I’m really proud of it.
You’re proud of bringing the minotaur penis to the screen?
Absolutely. I gave it to Danny as a wrap gift in a glass case, like this is going to represent the next phase of our career.
When you get your Academy Award I expect you to mention the minotaur penis.
Oh yeah, I’m going to wear it to the Oscars when I take the gold.
You did a technical leap with “Pineapple Express,” but this is a quantum leap with the effects and everything that’s going on.
Yeah, and that was the draw for me to do something I had never done before and I had never worked in a movie with this degree of action and visual effects and creature design. And as a kid growing up watching behind the scenes of “The Empire Strikes Back,” I remember always looking forward to those little TV specials and going to the creature shops and watching the concept art, learning about the sound effects. That kind of stuff always was opening a world to me that I was super enthusiastic about. I’ve always wanted to be a director and I never wanted to be a fireman or all of the other kind of aspirations that people in more well rounded youths have. It was really all about stories and movie making and use it as a passport to the world and an excuse to hang out with a minotaur and a labyrinth — that kind of thing.
You’ve got an Academy Award winner and nominee in this.
Isn’t that funny? It’s really hilarious to think that they went from the production of this to go make those movies and with such acclaim and prestige and we get to benefit from the profile that got elevated. The timing of the movie couldn’t have been more perfect in my eyes. Hopefully people will take a chance and wrap their heads around it. We’ve got a certifiable cast on this movie.
How was the post-production process?
It was great because, it’s something I hadn’t done before and I had really smart people helping navigate that. Framestore was a visual effects company in London that we used for the computer generated effects and so it was a creative process of them looking at our budget — which was very difficult because Universal gave us a comedy budget — and Danny and I looked at each other and whispered, “Yeah, let’s make a fucking adventure fantasy movie out of this budget.” So we’re looking at an Adam Sandler style budget and trying to make a Peter Jackson style movie. So it got a little crazy. Having people that were creative and invested in the post-production process became really valuable. Where Framestore could say “Okay, this is the amount of money we have for this creature,” it needs to be badass, we wanted it to be one of a kind. [Instead of] making it a giant earth worm, which is what we had in the script, that will take your entire movie budget, why don’t we make it something where we can duplicate a head, so what would be an excuse to have something that has multi-heads that will look the same. Things like that, so it became this kind of creative process that I was totally enthusiastic about because it was kind of like we were making an indie movie trying to figure out how to make something for a few bucks on a tight schedule, only we’re doing it on a pretty massive scale in Northern Ireland.
It’s like practicality through creativity.
Absolutely. It was the kind of shoot that if it’s raining for half a day, you don’t get that half a day back. This was the kind of movie where you’re either overschedule or over budget so you were just fucked if you couldn’t figure out a way to shoot what you had a whole day planned for in six hours, so sometimes that becomes a way that you’re like, “Okay screw the scene, let’s try to write it out of the script.” And other times its an opportunity to find an imaginative way to go about it which ends up really working out in the best interest of everybody.
So speaking of that, you’re obviously improvising in this movie, as you have in the past movies, even in the dramas. Is there a worry there about improv because of the schedule?
Oh, big time. It made me realize what a difficult job the big action directors of the world have. There’s so many things that you have to worry about at one time and then on top of that you have to try to get actors to be funny and get a performance out of it, so just massive respect for directors, in any genre that has technical elements to it. It was really hard. It was great to have a cast that I knew really well, actors like Zooey and Danny and James that I had worked with before and Natalie who I knew socially, so I could lean on them when I needed to go deal with some of this crazy technical stuff. [I’d say] “You guys come up with some ideas and I’ll be back and we’ll discuss it and shoot something.” It would be sometimes like that, we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time, so I could lean on them. We did a lot of improvisation.
There’s some creative exposition in it too.
Yeah, the scene with the Wise Wizard, we’d be in there and we’d be filming, in the script that was an exposition scene, it was a quick stop to see this weird old puppet tell them what they needed to go do. But like we had a day to do it, it was one day that we had some time and it was kind of boring to just film the thing talking. So James comes up with this idea, “What if it molested me and I had this past with it?” and Danny’s like “Yeah, what if I treat it like it’s my great great grandma, she’s in a nursing home and I don’t want to kiss her?” So all of the stuff that really brings that scene to life was stuff in a spontaneous moment that was like, “Okay this is playing out like a normal exposition scene, how do we put our spin on it?”
Do you guys worry about tone or test screening for audiences?
I don’t worry about it. For comedies I like the test screening process because it lets me watch an audience and that’s a really valuable thing for me to do because if people aren’t laughing then you’ve got to make some adjustments I think, unless it’s the wrong crowd. If you’ve got the right crowd in there that you feel good about, there’s lots of energy and then there’s silence, it gets a little awkward.
Any deleted scenes or extras that didn’t make the final cut?
There’s a scene I love that’s really funny that’s in the movie. It’s another song between Zooey and James and it’s modeled after the song, the music video from “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” — “Everything I Do I Do It For You,” I think is the song. And I love that video, it’s hilarious. So there’s a montage in the middle of the movie where they break out into song and I didn’t want it to be a spoof. And it’s funny that it almost felt more like a skit than the tone of this movie, so we lifted it and it will be a great DVD extra. There was another version of an ending that we shot with Justin Theroux laying an egg. And out of this egg comes a half-formed dragon fetus that burns his face off. And it’s funny but it’s just so fucked up that the audience has abandoned you like four minutes ago, they’re like “I just want the guy to be dead.” Which I probably shouldn’t give away the end of the movie, but it’s different, it’s a different ending now. And it wasn’t reshoots, we just wanted to see where we could go, the various ways the movie could go. So we shoot a little excessively, even on the tight schedule and the tight budget. Because we want those options in an editing room, I want those options for a test screening. And you know you can never have too much material.
Is that a plan then, “I’m going to shoot and then I’m going to leave some so hopefully we’re under budget so we can do reshoots.” Is that how it works?
I’ve always done that, we never do a reshoot but I always do leave that contingency because you never know. I mean reshoots in some perspective of the industry now are frowned upon which is bullshit because once you’ve seen an audience reaction like why would it possibly be not a good idea to go back into it? I’ve never done it but it’s a perfect insurance policy. It’s nothing against the movie you could have one idea down on paper and then you shoot it and you’re like “It would be funnier if we did this instead because I’m looking at the final movie and why not go pick it up?” I mean it’s weird they look at it like the movie’s in trouble or something but fuck that, it’s a great idea, just save money for it.
Your career has gone over all different areas, but now you’ve done three comedies in a row, you’ve done two movies in one year, that’s crazy.
It is crazy. After “Your Highness” I did want to do a character piece. I love working with kids, I wanted to be in NYC and I literally had that guideline. I want to do a character piece with kids in New York City and but at that point I [didn’t] want it to be a comedy, but then the script for the “The Sitter” showed up and I was like, “Alright, this is funny as shit.” So it was like one of those things that came to the right place at the right time for what I was looking to do and it seemed like a great idea and you know hopefully I’ll be able to take some leaps from this point. I’m going to do a comedy TV pilot next month and then hopefully get into a horror film.
Is that “Suspiria”?
Yeah, that’s the goal. [read more about his plans for “Suspiria” here]
Is it like going back to your roots? Or is it going to be at a big studio with names?
I don’t think it will be with names, but hopefully a big studio just because, there’s a lot that I really enjoy about having a movie that’s marketed and people go and see. There’s something really satisfying to make movies that folks go to check out so I mean it can get frustrating when you’re hitting the circuit and working your heart out for two years and then it’s over and done with in an art house in a week and a half.
That was the case for some of [those indie pictures] wasn’t it.
Not that I wouldn’t do that again, but it definitely has its time and place, and the ride I’m on I’m definitely enjoying some sort of commercial appeal.
There’s got to be something to be said for just not having to worry. You know that Universal’s going to market the shit out of this and you don’t have to worry about it.
I always worry about it, you always worry about it. Are they going to market it correctly or are they going to market it, are people going to think it’s a spoof? I mean that’s the big “Your Highness question” — how are people that are just watching basketball and then seeing a commercial for this movie, how are they processing what this is? So it’s always scary because you have to tell the movie in 30 seconds. This is a movie that is very vulgar and outrageous and you can’t show most of it on TV and you’ve got to grab people by the throat these days with their advertising and I think the movie’s more ambitious than something that can be simply set up and introduced in 30 seconds. And this isn’t a sequel, it doesn’t have pre-existing material behind it.
I was talking to Danny earlier and we were talking about how Your Highness is sort of a dream project that you guys obviously didn’t think was going to get made, or at least you’d been talking about it for several years and then all of a sudden it’s done. Is there like another dream project that you and Danny have?
We have a ton of ideas together and I’d be curious, we’ve never huddled about a dream project. I mean I have a dream project that would be great to be involved in, but he doesn’t even know what it is. You know he’s never even heard me pitch it. [read more about David Gordon Green’s musical dream project here].
You have Rough House and you guys are developing a lot of projects.
Yeah we’re having great success in the world of TV right now. We have an MTV cartoon coming out. Just like [the “Your Highness”] comic book it’s something that was kind of a funny idea that turned into something serious. But yeah, Rough House is a great way that some of these strange ideas and concepts can be done now. Bar room bullshit turned into something substantial. So it’s great to have that; assuming people turn out or continue to turn out for what we’re making we’ll keep cranking it out.
So these are projects you can either jump on and do yourself or hand off?
And that’s why I kind of started this, particularly from the film school that we went to, we have a collective of guys that are just awesome, and you know I cant make a movie every six months and there are a lot of guys that should be making movies that aren’t making movies and you see guys like Jeff Nichols that we went to school with and he made this movie called “Shotgun Stories” that didn’t get a lot of exposure and he rolls into Sundance this year with a movie that’s fucking knocking people out, with Michael Shannon. He did this movie “Take Shelter.” It’s really exciting.
It seems like you’re going fast these days.
Yeah tell that to my girlfriend. I don’t come up for air much but I’m having fun while the opportunities are here and people are giving me this passport to go check into a fancy hotel and get room service, come on.
Are these projects that you’re developing, are you just writing them as assignments or are you directing them?
Who knows. I jump into something I’m enthusiastic about and just see where it goes and sometimes they just end up like scripts on a shelf somewhere and the opportunity that I’ve been happy to have had, and paychecks that are on account of the cash and sometimes they are things that becomes a heartfelt labor of love, a passion project like “Your Highness.” You’ve just got to pick and choose and be as prolific as you can. Also get a little down time to go sit in my cabin in Colorado and smoke a cigarette and have a beer at the end of the day.
Are you going to ever go back to the earlier quieter stuff you’ve done?
Absolutely. I met with a writer this week and had dinner with a writer that has written a really small character portrait that I’m really eager to embrace and try to find time to go put the stuff together and make sense and that’s not something where you can hang your hat on a big marketing campaign or commercial profile but it’s something that is social and it’s nice to get back to the woods sometimes.
In addition to “Suspiria” and the dream project linked above, Green also talked to us about his writing gig on the gestating remake of “Ice Station Zebra” which you can read about here. And go check out “Your Highness” — it’s in theaters today.