Joss Whedon follows 'Avengers' with a Shakespearean labor of love filmed at his house
Of course, when you're in the midst of making the biggest, highest-stakes Hollywood blockbuster of the year, the thing you want to do is take what little downtime you have and make another movie. In your own house.
Ah well, nobody ever accused Joss Whedon of treading the conventional path. Despite the Good Hollywood stamp of approval that came with helming Marvel's The Avengers, Whedon's track record is that of a maverick, developing quirky genre mash-ups that most would write off as geek-set follies: a high school horror comedy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a Western in space (Firefly), a sci-fi musical parody for the Web (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). But his new film, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's proto-rom-com Much Ado About Nothing, made on his own dime while he was still wrangling Marvel's megabudget superteam, may set a new standard for the writer-director's iconoclastic ways. He and his wife, producer Kai Cole, were set to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a couple with a holiday in Venice when she urged him to use the free time instead to shoot a long-discussed version of Much Ado. The idea was inspired by a reading of the play at the couple's home, with Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, from Whedon's Buffy spin-off Angel, as the feuding cynics Beatrice and Benedick, who are tricked by their friends into believing that each is desperately in love with the other. For years, Cole and Whedon had hosted Sunday readings of Shakespeare plays with friends who had worked on various projects of Whedon's, and this one struck a special chord. In less than a month, Whedon wrote a script that moved the play to contemporary Southern California while preserving the Elizabethan text, composed new music for the play's three songs, recruited a cast of colleagues and friends from various projects – Clark Gregg (Avengers), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Reed Diamond (Dollhouse) – and shot the whole thing in 12 days, using his and Cole's Santa Monica home as the sole location. In advance of the film's South by Southwest premiere, Whedon explained to the Chronicle just what it was that inspired him to make the film.
Austin Chronicle: So what started the readings at your house all those years ago? Is there a secret society of Shakespeareans in Hollywood?
Joss Whedon: Hardly. No, I don't think so. Or if there is, they've kept it a secret from me. [Buffy star James] Marsters said something about doing the show feeling like being in rep, and we had had readings like this when I was a kid at my house with my mom and my stepdad, and I enjoyed them, and I thought, "Well, why don't we do that? Why don't we all get together and have a read?" And they just kept going. And it was one of the great sources of joy in my life, to be able to get my friends together and just sit down with the book and a glass of wine and just explore.
AC: Are you still able to do that?
JW: I am going to be. I had children, which sort of shut things down for a few years, and then we had just started again. But before we'd stopped, Amy and Alexis had read Beatrice and Benedick, and I had thought, "Well, if I'm ever going to film something, I would love to put those performances on film." But for a long time, I just didn't have a take on the material. I hadn't found my way in. And then, suddenly, when my wife suggested that it was time to shoot it already, I looked at the text, and it was as though I was reading it for the first time. I realized what a coherent and specific work it was and also what a great ensemble piece. I think too often it's played as a two-hander, and it's so much more than that.
AC: How did that inform your casting? Did you have a sense from that first reading that this person would be perfect for this role and that one for that role?
JW: Amy and Alexis were always in the mix. And when I started to think that I might really do this, so now I need to figure out who I think the rest of them are, obviously Nathan Fillion as Dogberry was the first thought that crossed my mind. And then I sort of had been nosing around a bunch of friends, finding out, "Well, are you free when ...?" and "Is it possible that you could ...?" without telling them why and ended up with my dream cast, because everyone was either free or made the time. Obviously, I leaned heavily toward people who have Shakespearean experience, although a number of the cast didn't. A lot of the heavy lifting – people like Reed, as Don Pedro, is a complete rock star, and Clark, who had also done a bunch of theatre – I believe his first-ever role was Benedick. Fran [Kranz], also classically trained, as clearly shows. Knowing I had those heavy hitters, I was able to take some chances with some other people. I had an embarrassment of riches of people who were capable. I really felt these were exactly the people that I hoped would come along.
AC: Given that other film you were directing at the same time, did you ever see yourself as Nick Fury, pulling together all these star players into a team for this extraordinary mission?
JW: I did not see myself as Nick Fury, but now that you've said it, I'm going to. That would be much cooler. I did feel similarly about the two projects in the sense of, Avengers was all about making sure every character carried equal weight, had equal fun, mattered in the final battle, in the final analysis, that everybody was somebody's favorite. And when I got into really parsing the text, I was like, "Oh my God, I'm in love with Margaret. Oh my God, Borachio is a tragic hero in his own mind." All these people opened up to me, and that's kind of how all my storytelling works: making sure that everybody gets respect.
AC: And while you were shooting it, were you ever thinking, "We should have taken that trip instead"?
JW: No, I never once did. I'm too selfish for that. It was and will always be the greatest vacation of my life.
AC: There's a real joy that comes through in every frame that reflects that.
JW: I'm glad to hear that. You know, we all felt that. It bled into the crew, who weren't people that I worked with before. Everybody was in the same giddy state. And that doesn't always translate. Sometimes you look at a movie and go, "Well, they clearly had fun, but I'm not." In this instance, I felt like it would be useful. It would be something that is part of the play, because it is everybody having a good time – sometimes a little too much of a good time, and sometimes it goes sour, but there was true joy that permeated the thing, so I'm glad to hear that it showed up on screen.
AC: There is this sort of dichotomy between Much Ado and The Avengers that's like, to use a Marvel reference, Bruce Banner and the Hulk. You have one of the biggest blockbuster films that Hollywood makes and one of the smallest indie films that gets made. As the person in the director's chair, the person leading the way, what shift in mentality did it require, moving among those radically different scales?
JW: I would say the biggest difference was, here I was literally at home with the people I love most in the world, doing something where the stakes were nonexistent and that was purely an expression of our feelings about a piece of art and our attempt to create one. Avengers I was very happy about, but the process itself is kind of grueling, so really what I had to adjust to was the idea that I could have so much fun. Because you're dealing with so many of the same problems: You're always losing the light; your actors' schedules are always messed up; the paint is drying on the set. All of that's going on in every production, and, in this instance, that adjustment wasn't so different. If I could have traded one thing, you know, running sound in your own neighborhood turns out to be ... there's a lot of mowing that goes on in the world.
Much Ado About Nothing
Headliners, U.S. Premiere
Saturday, March 9, 1pm, Vimeo
Sunday, March 10, 4pm, Alamo Village
Wednesday, March 13, 11am, Rollins