The man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes on the Bard
Fans of Joss Whedon have learned to expect little other than the unexpected from the game-changing producer, writer and director. This is an artist who would take a TV series about vampire killing with the goofiest, most Valley-girlish title imaginable and transform it into the most incisive show about teen angst ever. He may take a troubled boob-tube project—a Western set in outer space, no less—and somehow force it to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes as a summer sci-fi blockbuster. Or he might decide to follow up the biggest box-office hit of the year, one chock-full of special effects and men in tights, with a scrappy black-and-white adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy shot for less than the cost of a day’s catering on The Avengers.
Which is exactly what Whedon did, in fact; where mere mortals might spend a break from filming the aforementioned Marvel superhero epic unwinding, the 48-year-old filmmaker instead gathered a gaggle of actor friends and shot a guerilla production of Much Ado About Nothing literally in his own backyard. The combination of Shakespeare’s verse and the well-honed crack-sarcastic comic timing of various Whedonverse alumni (Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion) initially suggests a lost episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the cult auteur isn’t courting irony. As he told Time Out, this off-the-cuff production was the culmination of a long infatuation with the Big Bard’s tale of bickering lovers.
So Joss, you were on an 11-day break from production on The Avengers, and naturally, you decided to shoot something…
No, no, we shot it in 12 days. I mean, c’mon, to try and shoot something in 11 days – that would be madness!
I’m very sorry for exaggerating.
I’m going to keep decreasing the time with every interview I give now. By the time the film comes out, it’ll be “Yes, we shot the whole thing in 30 minutes! We talked very, very fast, then wesloooowed everything down during the editing.”
Back to the timeline: you’d finished production on The Avengers but hadn’t started post-production, correct?
It was a month after we finished production but while we still working on post-production; we’d been editing and tweaking stuff as we were shooting the film, simply because the schedule was so accelerated. Some people at marvel were even offended by the idea that I was going to take a vacation, but I told them, look, this was a grueling shoot; I need a week off.
About a month before we took the time off, however, my wife [executive producer Kai Cole] suggested out of the blue that, instead of relaxing on a beach, how about we shoot Much Ado About Nothingaround our house? For some odd reason, I thought: this is a great idea. One of her strengths as a producer is that she just wants people to do things she knows they can do well. It’s something we have in common, and I wanted Alexis and Amy to head up a movie. I wanted people to see how funny Nathan (Fillion) could be with the language. I knew they could do these things beautifully.
So, filled with this ridiculous sense of giddiness, I just threw myself into it. “Yes, I can adapt this play in two weeks! Yes, I will rehearse it every other afternoon! Yes, I shall take advantage of the fact that my friends are insanely talented and know this text very well!”
This essentially started with you hosting Sunday afternoon Shakespeare readings at your house over the years, right?
It probably starts even further back then that, when my mom and stepdad would host readings over Thanksgiving. But yeah, around season five of Buffy, we started hosting these Shakespearecentric lazy Sundays, which were inspired by my family’s holiday pastime. This particular play was one we’d done at the house several times, with Alexis and Amy reading the parts of the lovers Benedick and Beatrice—and with those songs you hear in the film, which I’d written specifically for one of the readings. There was always a great energy around those particular stagings, so when Kai and I started talking about filming something in the interim, this was the first thing that came to mind.
Had you ever thought of filming this play before, either in the interim between TV shows or around the time of the 2007–08 writers’ strike?
No, because as much as I’d seen great productions of it over the years and I’ve always loved the writing, I didn’t feel like I really understood the coherent whole of what Shakespeare was doing with the narrative. I didn’t feel like I had a cinematic take on it. Then when Kai gave me the book during The Avengers shoot, it was like reading it for the first time. Suddenly, I thought, oh, I know exactly how to do this! Then it was go time.
Do you remember the first production of Much Ado About Nothing you saw?
It was a letter-perfect production of it at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theater when I was in high school in London. I saw it three times; they were doing it in rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I also saw three times. I remember the way the actor who was playing Benedick said the line “This can be no trick!” – and just losing my shit, it was so gut-bustingly funny.
I had great love for the play, though it was years before I really got that the story is presenting two sides of the same coin. Shakespeare is deliberately juxtaposing a very light tale with a very dark tale, and he’s saying that what we think we believe and feel are basically the manipulations of what our society expects us to think and feel. All that, plus it’s got a happy ending… I mean, that’s a story worth telling! [He sticks his face very, very close to the recorder] Everyone out there, I’m just going to say this once: I don’t kill anyone this time, OK? I promise you, no beloved Shakespearean characters die by my hand!
Should I preface that comment by saying “spoiler alert”?
You’ll want to do that for all the ’Speare-heads, yes.
I’d wager that if you lined up 20 different writers and asked them what they love about Shakespeare’s writing, you’d get 20 different answers…
Wait, are we going to do that right now? [Looks around frantically] Are 20 writers preparing to spring out of the shadows?! They are, aren’t they? Where should I get in line?
We are not going to do that, no, but given that I’ve got you, Joss Whedon, here, let me ask: What is it about his work that keeps you coming back to it?
You know what it boils down to? He loves everything and everybody so much. I mean, his love of language is obvious, as is his love of storytelling; the guy could switch genres or moods at the drop of a dime. But Shakespeare is the sort of dramatist who will give you insight into the souls of his stock characters, much less his lead characters. He will wow you with the intensity of a major revelation into the emotional DNA of humanity – and then he will give you a pratfall. You can go back to his writing for the laughs, for the ideas, for the way the little details and the big picture come together…you could get high off one of his syllables. It’s the complete package.
He gives beautiful lines to gravediggers and jesters, much less princes and kings.
Right! And no matter how big or small the part is, you always get the sense that every gesture and line counts. I remember when I was directing Adam Baldwin in the Firefly pilot, he kept playing up the part’s anger. I mean, his character is kind of a thug, but it felt off. So I took him aside and said “Adam, don’t play him as a criminal. You aren’t the mad guy, you’re the cool guy and this story is really all about you. Think of the character as a lead.” And he adjusted perfectly.
That’s how I think about Shakespeare’s characters, particularly the ones in Much Ado. Someone came up to me after the premiere and said, Wow, this is so different from The Avengers! And I thought, actually, it really isn’t. You have to make each of those superheroes shine, and get the audience to feel like they know where each of those people are coming from before they collectively save the world. I had to know why they were willing to risk everything.
My interpretation of this text was coming from the same place: who are all of these people? Why, exactly, does Borachio do what he does in the play? At what point does he become the most noble person, and why?
It starts with asking questions…
…and ends with you wanting to find out what those answers are. That’s why I needed to do this, really. [Pause] It’s because Borachio is in love with Hero, by the way. That’s the only explanation for me. Once you realise that, it opens up the text in this really incredible way. It also makes Margaret’s story so compelling and sad as well. So knowing that I had all these great actors ready to go, I wanted to make sure that there was a reason for them to show up every day, even if the parts weren’t that big.
That’s a recurring theme in your work, I’d argue: the notion of people banding together for a common cause. It’s there in Buffy, in Firefly, in The Avengers and, to a certain degree, in this. It may be Shakespeare’s text, but the film feels like a Joss Whedon project.
Well, a filmmaker has to be specific and go beyond what’s been written – even if said writer is the most brilliant English-language author ever. You have to skew the material to what moves you, and the notion of a community coming together to face darkness is an appealing notion to me. The same goes for powerful female characters – not just Beatrice, who’s obviously a strong role, but with a supporting role like Hero, who could not be simpering. I wanted her line readings to implicitly say, “I have a right to stand up, and have my say.” That’s very much part of my world as well. So yes, this play had a lot of overlap with thematic stuff I’ve been exploring for a while.
Having gone from shooting The Avengers to shooting a movie in 12 days at your house, do you think that the process of doing a smaller, more guerilla-ish production like this will alter how you work on bigger projects in the future?
There’s never enough time to work on something whether you’re doing it in 12 days or 12 months, really, and necessity is always the mother of invention regardless of the project’s size. You need that for creative inspiration; the one thing I don’t want is, well, everything! We had enough problems with The Avengers, in terms of juggling schedules and getting sets built on time, that it was a guarantee things would never be that easy. But there would be days when we’d be on these beautiful, perfect locations, and I’d just be stymied on what to do. Then we’d move to go a very difficult place to shoot in – and I’d be in heaven. [Laughs] The more you bump against the realities of the world, the more you’re forced to make creative decisions that feel more lived in, more believable, or just more exciting and daring. I feel like the restrictions are part of what makes things work.
What it all boils down to, though, with whatever I do – whether it’s big or small – is to try to make something for everybody. My aim is to make something that’s personal but not the least bit exclusionary at all. I mean, obviously, when you do a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there are some people that simply aren’t going to come to the party – as the network kept reminding me every week when they tried to get me to change the name. But I still made it for everybody; it wasn’t like it was a teen show that said, hey, grown-ups are stupid but teenagers, like, rule!
Shakespeare wrote for the masses, his work was and is incredibly popular, and I know that there are still some people who simply won’t go see a Shakespeare movie, period. But I showed the movie to a few friends of mine, and both of them told me, I’d never go see something like this in a million years, and I loved it. We didn’t make a movie where [affects lordly falsetto] “We’re here to stately declaim blah blah blah.” It’s a romantic comedy. People may take a minute to adjust to the language, but it’s about two people who do ridiculous things in the name of love. Who can’t relate to that?
Much Ado About Nothing screens from Thu Jul 11.