Joss Whedon on Much Ado About Nothing

We speak to director, writer and wannabe stuntman Joss Whedon about his switch from Avengers' billion dollar comic-book franchise to Much Ado About Nothing, the low budget Shakespeare adaptation he shot in and around his Santa Monica home

Feature by Kirsty Leckie-Palmer | 04 Jun 2013

“The director’s job is to secretly want to do everybody else’s job. If you’re not a wannabe, you’re going to miss out on something. Being a wannabe actor focuses me on performance. I love wardrobe. I would make costumes in a heartbeat for a living. I love stunts. I love creating stunts. I love throwing myself about like an idiot. Everything there is; I’m interested in.”

So this is Joss Whedon: director, writer, producer, comic-book guy, cinematographer, geek-pleaser extraordinaire, composer and actor. Last year the 48-year-old nailed hyper-feature Avengers Assemble, the third highest-grossing film of all time. His fan following is legendary; every new project earns him cult status. But in conversation, Whedon is thoroughly humble, unostentatious and articulate, with a genial, nuanced voice on the quiet side of gravelly. As soon as we sit down to speak he points to my battered brown leather boots and mouths “love those!” with a grin. I suspect it’s to put me at ease. It works.

After completing principal photography on his superhero roll call, Whedon could forgivably have sunk into his blossoming, fan-fed laurels for some well-earned downtime before rounding on Avengers 2. Instead, he spent a 12-day break from explosive primary colours occupied with a new challenge. Surrounded by a company of close friends, all alumni of previous works like Buffy, Firefly and Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon began shooting Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing on a micro-budget, at his home in Santa Monica, California.

It seems there was very little ado involved in his decision. Whedon tells The Skinny that Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof first read the text in his backyard eight years ago. Things evolved naturally enough, and he wanted the film to showcase both actors. His wife, Kai Cole, convinced him to take the plunge and film Much Ado instead of taking a break from work. According to Whedon, this was pretty insightful advice: “I’ve never had more fun in my life, or felt more rested.”

The resultant adaptation is a jewel of concentrated appreciation for Shakespeare, for Whedon’s friends and for the directness of the task at hand. “It makes it easy as a filmmaker when you’re working within the constraints of so little time and money,” Whedon explains. “[The play] is very accessible; it’s very modern, both in its cadences and in its storyline. And after all these years I finally figured out, after just being amused by it, how dark and manipulative and strange and cynical a romance it is.”

This new figuring of Much Ado About Nothing takes place in a crisp, suburban compound peopled with immaculate, sophisticated characters that swoon and banter in orbit around its self-contained setting. Wound about with barbed exchanges between its heroes Beatrice (Acker) and Benedick (Denisof), interactions are knowing, adult, and augmented by the genuine insight of the actors. Whedon keeps things elegant and aspirational. “Leonato’s estate [where most of the action takes place] is like the Kennedy compound,” he says. “Everybody is rich, fabulous, well-dressed and drunk.”

Whedon, for the first time, relinquished scriptwriting duties to another party: a fellow scribe he refers to as “the spear guy.” So, aside from a few elisions for the sake of expediency, this Much Ado is bona fide, not from-concentrate Bard, and its language remains as intricate and elusive as any work that splashed from a quill. So how did Whedon cope with interpreting it?

“The great thing about Shakespeare is you can see a Shakespeare film and then take the same text and make it your own,” he explains. “You have a take on why [the characters] are talking about something, or why they’re talking about it so much, or what this person’s actually going through. Then the text becomes coherent, and musical, and beautiful. I learned more about actors on the first Shakespeare reading than I have before or since.”

“I love throwing myself about like an idiot" – Joss Whedon

In another first, Whedon had a hand in composing the film’s seedy, noir score, which leaks indelibly into the diegetic in one particularly suave soirée scene. He seems pleased his efforts were noted. “It was really terrifying. I’m not qualified but I felt like this is an opportunity I’m never going to get again. Probably the best moment of the entire thing for me was when we were recording some strings. A cellist asked me, ‘Did you meet the actors?’ And I realised: Oh my God, she just thinks I’m a composer – that’s so legit!” This last part is whispered with a mix of awe and pride.

While Much Ado’s music is velvety and languid, the film’s aesthetic can only be described as ethereal. Light melts over everything, pooling across flat surfaces, smudging shadows and sculpting the actors’ already beautifully sculpted faces. The cinematographer, Jay Hunter, had worked with Whedon previously on Dollhouse. To achieve such a singular look with such limited means necessitated preparation. “Our lighting package rose in the east and set in the west,” Whedon says. “He [Hunter] spent a day in the house just figuring out where the sun was going to be. We based our schedule on it. We obviously had lights to augment the interiors, and occasionally for the exteriors when the light was changing faster than we were shooting, but we wanted naturalism. We wanted it to feel very found, like an overheard conversation.”

For the most part, it does feel like a singular, found moment in time. These characters seem forever fixed within the finite walls of their setting, their purpose to discover and appropriate a text that has been repeatedly interpreted and echoed for generations. But while inhabiting a poignantly insular vision, Much Ado never feels small or constricted. Its composition and editing imbue every frame with a sense of revelation. Whedon wanted to evoke the richness and glamour of his settings using mirrors, glass and windows to shoot through. “[It’s] something I’d like to do all the time," he says, "but particularly in a movie that’s all about lies, and manipulation and misunderstandings. The more you can warp the frame a little bit, the more it speaks towards what’s going on.”

So apart from Shakespeare, where does Whedon seek inspiration? “Anywhere, in anything... My dad once said, ‘Great art doesn’t come from inspiration. Great art comes from something you saw before that worked.’ I did have a particular thing that I was going for when I was talking about noir comedies. Even though we think of it as a very urban thing, most of the great noirs are in LA where there aren’t any giant buildings – it’s all sprawled out. Unfaithfully Yours. The Apartment. The Grifters. Movies that are as dark as they are fun, and they have that seedy grandeur. That seemed like the place from which to start.”

Much Ado About Nothing was the closing gala of this year's Glasgow Film Festival and is released 14 Jun by Kaleidoscope Film