Reporting From the Set of Your Highness

Filmed in Belfast's Paint Hall, Your Highness raises high hopes for the Northern Ireland movie industry

When CultureNorthernIreland visited the Belfast set of Your Highness, it’s an autumn morning in 2009. Fast-forward some 19 months and the Universal Pictures production is finally seeing a UK and Irish release, on April 13.

The timing couldn’t be better. Since filming wrapped in October 09, two of Your Highness’s stars have been nominated for Academy Awards – James Franco, for 127 Hours, and Natalie Portman, for Black Swan. Portman won, meaning this is the first (and most likely last) time an Oscar-winning Hollywood starlet has appeared in a Belfast-shot fantasy comedy flick.

However, producer Scott Stuber says it’s not the first time he’s had an actor go stellar in the period between shooting and release: ‘I’ve seen that quite a bit over the years – people are well known, and then it just explodes,' he said.

'When we were shooting The Break-Up, Wedding Crashers came out, and catapulted Vince [Vaughn] and Owen [Wilson]. There’s always that turning point in an actor’s life. I think this will be it for Danny McBride, where everyone goes, “Oh my gosh.”’

McBride, a scene-stealer in hits from Superbad to Up in the Air, is the brains behind Your Highness. The plot concerns a lazy, arrogant prince named Thadeous, played by McBride, and his better-looking brother, Fabious (Franco), who must go on an epic quest in order to save their father’s (Charles Dance) kingdom.

Zooey Deschanel portrays Belladonna, Fabious’s virginal bride, while Portman is warrior princess Isabel, the lazy prince’s love interest. The casting makes sense when you learn that McBride co-wrote the script, alongside regular collaborator Ben Best.

The pair pitched the film as a throwback to 1980s fantasy romps such as Krull and The Princess Bride, with added crotch and fart jokes. Stuber insists he was onboard from the first meeting.

‘What I loved about it was that it had such great attitude. This is a fairytale movie told through an R-rated lens – like Pineapple Express meets Lord of the Rings. We’re able to really kill people and show the blood, and to say the dirty words, and to show the nudity of the princesses. I thought it was a fun, original movie.’

During the Belfast shoot, Portman and co were spotted everywhere from Boots to Katy Daly’s. Today, the stars are milling about the set in medieval garb, preparing for their scenes. We are invited to watch director David Gordon Green shoot… Well, to reveal what we see would be to spoil the ending.

But we can tell you that main villain Leezar’s freshly constructed lair looks suitably evil (actor Justin Theroux flies in from LA tomorrow), and that the props room is the size of most people’s houses.

The making of Your Highness at Belfast’s Paint Hall Studio, and on location at Parkgate Quarry, is a major coup for Northern Ireland. The big-budget US production represents another step up for the Province’s film industry, already emboldened by the likes of City of Ember, Hunger and Lord Richard Attenborough’s Closing the Ring.

Stuber, who adds Your Highness to a CV bulging with blockbusters including The Wolfman and You, Me and Dupree, can’t praise the north enough.

‘I would bring a movie back here in a second,’ he says. ‘Truthfully, we’ve loved it. I’ve known Mark Huffam, the line producer [and head of Belfast-based Generator Entertainment], for a while, and he’s always going, “It’ll be great, it’ll be great.”

'I was worried it was going to rain on me every day, but the topography is beautiful. Rarely do you get a chance to go out like we did, and shoot in forests and on the water. Being around that, just as a human being, not even as a producer, was amazing. Every day, the crew were so excited to see the beauty of Ireland.’

For a man who is vice chairman of worldwide production at Universal and was once ranked number 58 in Premiere magazine’s annual power list, Stuber is remarkably laid-back. Reclining in a quiet corner of the set in casual slacks and sweater, he comes across more as bloke down the pub than Hollywood mogul.

Stuber says the relaxed atmosphere and the gregarious locals have made for an enjoyable shoot. ‘It’s been fantastic,’ he smiles. ‘It’s a good group. We socialise a lot together. We go out in Belfast, and we’ve taken the train to Dublin a couple of times and gone to some music festivals. You don’t have that on every movie.’

Your Highness is such a major production that even names like Michael Clarke Duncan, Damian Lewis and Toby Jones, each of whom could open a smaller picture, are way down in the credits. With up to 600 cast and crew working on the movie, it’s a tremendous opportunity for Ulster’s filmmaking community.

‘People feel good that the movie’s here in Belfast,’ comments Stuber. ‘It’s providing jobs, and we have definitely put a lot of money into the local economy. I think we’ve done a very good job of supporting McHugh’s pub!’

The only sticking point has been that Your Highness is apparently a 'stoner' comedy. The clue’s in the title, of course, but with the project thought to have injected as much as £10million into the ailing Northern Ireland economy you can understand why the powers that be have decided to play down the more insalubrious elements. It’s probably best if the MLAs overlook the whiff of weed and just get the popcorn in.

Your Highness is in cinemas from April 13.