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...

I had the exact same experience. When I first heard you were making this, I was thinking, but that play was made into a movie just a few years ago...

We all thought that. Somebody IMDb'd it, because I was staying away from watching it again so I wouldn't have it in my head when I was shooting. And it turned out it was then 18 years old. What?

Did you ban the cast from watching it, too? Or was that left to their own discretion?

I didn't encourage it. I know that Jillian [Morgese, who plays Hero] watched it, and when she came back she said, "Apparently, I'm supposed to twirl a lot."

I don't know whether it's my imagination, but it seemed to me that Alexis used a similar accent to Branagh's in the masquerade party scene...

I think Branagh did something French-y and Alexis did something Russian-y.

Let's talk a little about your feelings in updating the film so that it could be set in a contemporary period. I realize part of this decision was simply the circumstances surrounding the production. But did you have other thoughts about how this story needed to be altered to take place more or less in the present day?

In a way, it's a no-brainer. The decisions you have to make--guns for swords, phones for letters--they present themselves as rather obvious. And then it's just a question of what you can do to augment what's being said. Because you're not updating it in the sense of changing it or subverting it or even really re-interpreting it--I mean, obviously you're interpreting it because you're a filmmaker and you're saying something about yourself that is personal and is different in every production. But at the same time, part of the glory of Much Ado is how modern it is, so you're really just trying to house the intent as best you can. The addition of Leonato's aide, who was Frankensteined out of the two messengers and a touch of Balthazar, was a way of saying Leonato is an important man because he always has this other guy with him.

There's the photographer, too, who is following Leonato around.

The photographer as well--who was also our on-set photographer.

That's perfect. So, in this telling, we're meant to understand that Beatrice and Benedick had a night of wild sexual passion together at some point in the past.

A lot of productions use that interpretation, I think, and obviously a lot don't. There are some lines in the text that indicate it, but there are some lines that contradict it. Amy and Alexis and I all felt that it was right for this version. They wanted to play the vulnerability of two people who had opened themselves up to something, but were not ready for it, ran away from it, and then blamed each other.

Did you worry that there would be any tension between that sexual history and the central tragedy of the play, in which Hero's virtue is sullied so badly that even her own father wants her dead?

No, these people sort of have license to do whatever they want, and then when they suddenly turn on Hero, it's a very ugly moment. I believe that Claudio and Leonato's pain is genuine. They feel betrayed by someone they trusted.

So the crime is less the sex per se--the virtue in the classical sense--than it is the perceived disloyalty and deceit.

Exactly. I remember the first time I saw a production of the play, I didn't really understand the whole idea that she had to be a virgin; I understood that she had to not be sleeping with someone else the night before her wedding. Which, you know, I still believe in modern times.

Yeah, I hope we can continue to keep the bar at that level. So what was it like to film the entire movie in your own house? Did you leave the rooms set up pretty much as they are in everyday life?

There was stuff to be done, mostly a question of moving things and getting flower arrangements. But it really was, more than anything else, the house as it would appear--except the actual house is in color.

So is that your daughter's actual bedroom, where Benedick stays?


Those are her actual twin beds?


So did she think that was cool, or did she consider it an invasion of her space?

She thought it was cool because she got to sleep with Mommy and Daddy that night.

Now, was it in the back of your mind when you were making the film that some part of the appeal for your fans would be the sense of getting a glimpse into what your life might be like off screen, or even the feeling of being secondhand guests in your house?

That actually kind of gives me the creeps. We took the street number off the door digitally--Danny [Kaminsky, the co-producer and editor] noticed that, and he was kind of like, you know, you might want to hide the actual address. But I am very proud of the house. Kai built it, she designed it, it's beautiful. And it's just the perfect space for that story. So it's exciting to show it off. But it's more like a house-tour kind of show off, not a come-look-in-our-drawers show off.

I saw that you had compared your experience in making Much Ado to your experience in making the musical episode of Buffy, "Once More With Feeling." I was wondering if you see any other musicals in your future and, specifically, where things might stand on the long-anticipated Dr. Horrible sequel.

Dr. Horrible 2 got shafted by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [the upcoming Marvel Universe series set to debut on ABC in the fall]. We feel strongly about finishing it, and have done a lot of work on it, but where it fits in all our schedules is a mystery right at this point. But I definitely want to do it, and I want to do other musicals, too.

But it's safe to imagine that any of these projects will be post-Avengers 2?

Right now that sounds fair.