Joss Whedon on the 'No Brainer' of Modernizing Much Ado About Nothing

The Avengers director discusses adapting Shakespeare's comedy to the present day, what it was like to film in his own house, and the future of Dr. Horrible 2.
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Much Ado About Nothing. The title itself could serve as a rebuke to the Hollywood blockbuster. But in the case of Joss Whedon's adaptation of Shakespeare's notably modern prose comedy, the more appropriate term might be "reprieve"--not merely for filmgoers already exhausted by the usual summer litany of sequels, threequels, and superstar vanity projects but, more uncommonly, for the director himself.

In October 2011, when Whedon had a few weeks' worth of vacation in the midst of editing The Avengers--pretty much the contemporary definition of a Hollywood blockbuster--he opted to forgo a planned trip to Venice and instead spend his "downtime"... making another movie. With the help of his wife and co-producer Kai Cole, he gathered a cast from the extended Whedonverse of Angel (Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof), Firefly (Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher), Dollhouse (Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond) and, yes, The Avengers (Clark Gregg, Jillian Morgese), and over the course of 12 days shot a contemporary, black-and-white interpretation of Much Ado set entirely in his own home. 

Even for a director known for his outside-the-box projects--in 2008, Whedon circumvented the disputes of the Writer's Guild strike by creating the online musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog--this intimate adaptation of Much Ado represents a unique cinematic experiment. I spoke with Whedon about the film, which opens in select cities today, on the phone last week.

So this is an awkward way to begin an interview, especially for a fan of Cabin in the Woods, but do you mind if I put you on speakerphone for recording purposes?

No, that's fine.

I promise that Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford aren't listening in.

That's good.

I know you've discussed your need to recharge while you were editing The Avengers, and the way Much Ado arose from the informal Shakespeare readings you've done at your house dating back to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer years. But I wonder if you'd like to say a few more words about how the project came together so quickly.

I had talked about doing Much Ado for years, because Amy [Acker, who plays Beatrice] and Alexis [Denisof, who plays Benedick] had done it at the house, and I thought I'd love to film them doing that. My wife Kai and I had a little bit of vacation time, and I'd been gone for a while, and Kai sort of acted like a producer: "C'mon, do it. Do it, do it, do it. What are you, chicken?" She just knew that it would be the most relaxing and fulfilling thing I could do after a year of being involved with a giant blockbuster.

So, from the beginning you knew that you wanted to do Much Ado? It wasn't that you wanted to do a Shakespeare play and it just turned out to be Much Ado?

I've wanted to do a Shakespeare play on film for years, decades in fact. But it was Much Ado because, you know, Amy and Alexis--they're kind of my guys. Also, very practically, I was thinking, it's light, it all takes place in one location, it feels like the sort of thing you can do with a breezy air. It's not that ponderous "We Are Doing Shakespeare." It's kind of a gateway drug for Shakespeare in a lot of ways.

It's so modern. I hadn't read the play since high school, and I remember back when I saw the Kenneth Branagh adaptation, there were a number of lines that felt as though they must have been inserted into the film--for example, the Benedick line where he refers to Don Pedro and Claudio as "the prince and Monsieur Love"...

Or his reading of "There's a double meaning in that."

My favorite moment in that movie! My wife and I quote it to one another. And then there's the fact--I don't know if you agree--that Beatrice seems very much a Whedonesque heroine.

I like her pretty well, I'm not going to lie. Knowing that, it still astonished me, when I went back to the text, how that one scene, "Oh, that I were a man"--how bald it is, how unapologetic it is. It's one of the most important things Shakespeare ever wrote, particularly in this play in which libertines treat women not just appallingly, but publicly.

I don't know whether this was in the back of your mind, but the film also offered you a chance to give Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof the happy ending that you denied them not once but twice on Angel.

It wasn't initially what I was thinking about. I threw those two together because they've got extraordinary chemistry. But it did occur to me later on. It is sort of the last chapter of their trilogy. Hopefully, not the last, but it does feel like a grace note for Wes and Fred.

Did you have any concerns about there being a relatively recent and well-known cinematic adaptation in the Branagh film, and how did that movie inform your vision of what you wanted to do with yours?

I saw that movie a number of times, and one of the things Branagh does best is really open it up in that personal way of making you go: Oh god, this is all dialogue, not speeches. These are people talking about themselves. And he's so good at finding the humor and the rhythm--not just in that, but in his other films. And that movie is 20 years old. I was like, how old am I? Oh my god...

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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