Much Ado About Nothing: Joss Whedon’s Superhero Ode to Shakespeare
Most filmmakers center their career on a particular style or genre to best express their artistic vision, and allow their storytelling platforms to build accordingly. The most successful examples spend years cultivating a repertoire that presents a diverse and well-balanced criterion of work within those creative parameters. As a result, fans begin to generate certain expectations of their favorite auteurs. Pop culture icons are of an especially vulnerable breed, as their devoted audiences pay particularly close attention to the details and consistency from one project to the next. Any departure from their established niche proves risky for those who have made a name for themselves in a specific arena.
For beloved geekverse messiah Joss Whedon, making the transition from sci-fi and superheroes to Shakespeare was one such task. With the arrival of his contemporary version of the Bard’s landmark romantic farce Much Ado About Nothing, the mind behind such cult favorites as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly shows he has a knack for the classics, too. Whether or not his acolytes will start speaking in iambic pentameter as a result, however, remains to be seen.
Whedon and his Much Ado cast participated in a panel discussion at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood Wednesday evening, following a screening of their new film. Despite the audience’s warm embrace of his experimental side project, Whedon insisted he isn’t trying to force Shakespeare onto his preexisting fanbase. Rather, he hopes the fact he utilized actors with whom his followers are familiar will primarily contribute to the film’s overall artistic success.
“You know, not really,” Whedon laughed, when moderator Matt Holzman asked if featuring past muses like Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse), Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel) and Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Dr. Horrible) throughout Much Ado was intended to guarantee a certain draw.
“If I were like, ‘Wow, I can get fans of this one guy or this one show or even fans of me to come to this movie,’ this movie will lose money,” Whedon explained. “We have fans, but not crazy amounts that could just make a movie work. You have to sort of think beyond that and just go, ‘Okay, this is the best person for the part, period.’”
Much Ado’s whirlwind production came on the heels of Whedon’s arduous shoot for The Avengers two years ago, a notion he openly acknowledges wasn’t a coincidence. Although The Avengers ended up a massive blockbuster that arguably gave the director and writer his first surge into the mainstream spotlight, the demands of helming a summer tentpole film inspired Whedon to wield an entirely different approach for his next project.
Shot over 12 days in minimalist black-and-white, Much Ado is very much the antithesis to Avengers’ bombastic special-effects extravaganza in content, aesthetic and execution. Whedon discussed how the experience juggling two divergent projects at once served as an almost therapeutic effort to maintain balance in his creative process, noting overlaps in his approach toward both movies despite their inherent differences. Interestingly, Whedon found Much Ado’s organic composition a more valuable filmmaking tenet than the technical wizardry saturating Avengers and its ilk.
“The takeaway from this to that is you want to be there,” he began. “You want the sloppiness, you want the immediacy, you want the best performance and not the best camera move, and I feel like that needs to be taken into the big budget movies [too], because they can be too perfect.”
Of course, sometimes the biggest struggles on set have little to do with the film itself. Whedon joked about the common organizational difficulty surrounding both Much Ado and Avengers, proving neither creative control nor studio support makes for an easy production. “It’s surprisingly similar,” he quipped. “We’re way behind, and everybody’s schedule is a nightmare, and you’re just trying to get it out before they kick us off the location.”
While much of the cinematography for The Avengers was created in post-production, Much Ado had a decidedly more accessible setting to help make the shoot all the more intimate and familiar. Whedon bypassed the need for permits and location scouts by filming the entire movie at his Los Angeles home, thus eliminating his winking fear of being exiled from the lot. The decision is one he freely admitted he found “wonderful,” especially upon being able to, quite literally, “roll out of bed” and start shooting. Utilizing family, friends and film students as extras also helped keep the atmosphere as effervescent as Shakespeare’s dialogue.
“The party was in the front, the movie was in the back,” Whedon laughed, describing the close-knit community that often defines his work environment. Boasting a cast widely known for regular appearances in past Whedon productions spawned questions about possible fan participation in Much Ado, but Whedon admitted he had to draw the line somewhere. “We didn’t really want to open our house to fans,” he explained. “Bless their hearts, we thought that might be a little weird.”
For the actors, the chance to exercise their craft with such classic material was made all the more exciting when paired with a director with whom they’d already bred an important relationship. Fillion, who plays the droll, defensive constable Dogberry, found his Much Ado experience belied the initial fear of tackling Shakespeare on film.
“I said yes first, and then when I realized how tough it is I tried to chicken out. But Joss said no,” Fillion laughed, before explaining the impact Much Ado now has on his career outlook. “This is the bar to which I set all other jobs against. This is the way it oughta be. When I dreamed about [in silly twang] ‘bein’ on teevee,’ this was it.”
Despite employing actors already known for their various contributions to his extensive canon, Whedon insisted the choice wasn’t spawned from any stunt casting agenda. “What I want to do is have people who have never heard of any of us, and because it’s Shakespeare, it’s Much Ado, it’s a classic, check out our production and be pleased and love it,” Whedon declared. “It doesn’t matter who these guys are in the various Whedonverses. It matters that they are the only people I trusted to play these parts.”
This stripped-down, modernized version of Much Ado About Nothing might mark a significant digression from typical Whedon fare in pure execution, but keeping the focus on Shakespeare’s timeless story and characters helps maintain the director’s reputation for creating a compelling narrative framework. The dichotomy of helming a box office juggernaut like The Avengers at the same time wasn’t only rooted in financial differences, although Whedon did have a pithy response when asked about Much Ado’s grassroots budget:
“The budget?” he repeated. “Was less. Whatever you’re thinking, it was less.”
More importantly, it’s the shared lessons extracted from each experience that will help Whedon continue his rise from underground fan favorite to everyday household name From what he can tell so far, the secret is compromise.
“There’s a sweet spot in between this giant six-month shoot [for Avengers] and then realizing [for Much Ado], ‘We only have 12 days,’” Whedon explained. “Looking back, I would have liked 14.”
Much Ado About Nothing is now playing in select theaters in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco and will open nationwide June 21.
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Images courtesy of Bellweather Pictures and Getty Images.