William Shakespeare’s way with words are timeless, relevant, and very accessible for the modern audience. For The Avengers director Joss Whedon, he attempted to capture the heart and soul of the dark romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing in a matter of 12 days, and nearly all of its production being conducted at his Santa Monica home. Not only that, but he took time off his vacation to shoot the film, in black & white no less. Fans of his work will notice a plethora of actors and actresses that have worked with Whedon in the past, all of whom embody the characters they play flawlessly. We were fortunate enough to attend the film’s junket, which was held on opening day.
During the press conference, Whedon, and actors Clark Gregg, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, and Nathan Fillion shared their experiences with the famous English playwright, the rehearsal process, Shakespeare’s relevance with today’s audience, and talk about fun stories about fingers. Hit the jump to read the full interview.
Hi guys. First of all I wanted to congratulate you all. I personally think that if every school student sees this film in seventh grade before they pick up a Shakespearian book, they will love Shakespeare for life. Well Done.
Everyone: Here, Here.
Whedon: I say we should go.
Gregg: Thanks for coming everybody.
And I’m also happy to finally see Westly and Fred back together.
This goes to Joss, it is absolutely beautiful in black and white, what considerations did you and Jay Hunter have to make it in black and white? What kind of challenges did it present for you shooting and developing a beautifully pallet and tone with what you have?
Whedon: Well black and white was my contribution as beautiful as Jay [Hunter] is. We both felt, I felt very strongly, that it fit the narrative, that it’s kind of a noir comedy, that the dramatic and the comedic elements are very much a mix and an old fashioned feel that I wanted to capture, and I couldn’t afford costumes, so it seemed like Black and white was the way to go. And then Jay really managed to sort of – he was really influenced by French, Italian, New Wave Cinema, and the older stuff, even though it was a light lighting package, he made sure he used the sun and what little we had to give it that old fashioned-kind of glamour. Because besides the fact that you know it makes everything pretty, it takes away a lot of problems actually because anything that doesn’t fit the pallet, you don’t know about it. Somebody shows up in an aquamarine dress in the background and you didn’t see it in time your fine, you’ll never know. But it gives the movie a little bit of a remove. It’s very casual, it’s very intimate, but at the same time it’s a film, and that allows it for the language to settle in a way that had just looked like a home movie it wouldn’t have.
And you shot this before the monitor came out?
Whedon: Ah yes. We had it in color, we just turned the color off on the monitors.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays that you could have chosen, what attracted you to this one? And for the actors, you have all worked with Mr. Whedon before, and in someways his work is very Shakespearian, his words, could you compare acting in his projects using his words to working with Shakespeare’s?
Whedon: I see a lot of opportunities for you guys to piss me off.
Whedon: You know I love Much Ado, it’s hilarious, it’s accessible, but it’s also very dark, and it has a lot to say about love, not all of it good, and how we behave, and it poses a lot of interesting questions, it doesn’t resolve all of them, even though it has a happy ending, I think it opens a debate on how we behave, and the way we are expected to, and so I – the short answer is – that’s why I want to Much Ado.
And for the actors, working with Shakespeare compared to working with Whedon?
Fillion: I don’t want to say, Joss Whedon is the Shakespeare of our generation, it’s true, but I don’t want to say it.
Denisof: I’ve been saying that Shakespeare is the Joss Whedon of his generation. Trying to let people know, if they are confused on that point.
Fillion: I think there is a real poetry to Joss’ words, and being the same way you do not paraphrase Shakespeare, you do not paraphrase Joss Whedon.
Whedon: I’m just going to sit here.
Acker: Also what Joss is saying about, you know, this play having this perfect blend of comedy and tragedy, he does that so well, and that’s what makes his being in his stuff so much fun as an actor is that he’s not afraid to take it to different places that you don’t expect it to go.
Denisof: And in the same way that Shakespeare was writing very much for his time, he was also unearthing observations that would last for generations beyond him, that I hope, that I hear, to see that happen with Joss’ work. It’s true that I think he has his finger on the contemporary pluse of American youth, but his finger is going a lot deeper than that.
Fillion: That is the one that is going to get quoted.
Whedon: Well I am a doctor.
Can you talk about your gateway drug into Shakespeare? The time that in your life, the particular work that drew you in?
Whedon: There were a couple of specifics moments. For me though, much ado really was the gateway drug, which I saw a beautiful production at the Open Air Theater in Regents Park in London. Where they just nailed it, it was hilarious, and I was stunned by not just by how funny, but how accessable and contemporary it was; and I had read Shakespeare, and I was interested in Shakespeare, but it had never just opened itself to me that way, particularily the moment when benedict says “This can be no trick,” with such authority after the most obvious trick that’s ever been played. And I was like really? Shakespeare, he’ll do that? He’ll go that far? Something just clicked, I saw that production three times, so that one was big for me. Also the Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet on the BBC. He is the Hamlet by which were all compared, for me. Anybody else? Anybody else have a Shakespeare gateway?
Gregg: Much Ado was my gateway to the whole thing, the whole shebang. I was playing soccer at a small school in Ohio, and I was goalie, and I dislocated my thumb, and they kind of banned me from practice, and I was walking past the theater, and I saw some very attractive students walking in, and I followed them in, and there was an audition for Much Ado About Nothing, and they fool heartedly gave me the role of Benedict, and I delivered them a legendary Christmas ham. But I was kind of hooked, and I immediately dropped out of school, and moved to New York because I loved it so much.
Nathan, last summer at the L.A. Times Hero Complex Film Festival you talked to the crowd about how scared you were to do this, you had asked Joss if there was someone who could replace you, I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, why the fears, and what it took you to get over that, and if the rest of you had those kind of fears, there is this comparison I have in my head, I’m wondering. You know who does math so well, the level of like calculus, and then tries to go back and do simple division, was there that same kind of thing, was it hard to do this after coming off The Avengers?
Whedon: It’s all the same job. Why is everybody here? What is the most emotionality of humor I can get out of this moment. You’re in the moment you’re in. And then you’re in the next one. You see the whole, trying to adapt Shakespeare is certainly as daunting as trying to make a superhero movie, but for different reasons. But for me, the level for which things are working doesn’t matter, it’s only about right now, is this the most I can get out of this. There really isn’t a difference, although, it was lovely doing this after The Avengers, just because it was so all compressed, we accomplished so much so quickly, that you were fed back. It wasn’t “Oh I’ll spend like three weeks on one-third of a shot, and give it to a house for six months, and then send it back as complete and then boom,” we did it, it was like theater.
Fillion: I was afraid to do this project for as much the same reason I’m afraid to watch Shakespeare, that I will not understand, and that was stopping me from learning, literally learning my lines. I didn’t understand what I was saying, until I sat down, and studied like back in school; “what’s being said, what pictures being taken, was I able to actually comprehend what I was suppose to be doing in much the same way I watch Shakespeare done well; I’m gesturing to these people right here, I get it, it’s so easy. I get it.
Whedon: And I have my finger deep in the youth of America. The pulse.
Why do you think Shakespeare is or should be relevant to today’s audiences or youth?
Whedon: The stuff that Alexis said, the stuff he’s talking about it’s universal, I relate to it as much as anything I’ve seen or read. The poetry of the thing is extraordinary, and it’s lovely to sort of interpret through that. But what we are talking about is love identity, jealously, pain, you know all of the things we still need to talk about, and Amy falling down the stairs. It’s a win-win.
What was the rehearsal process like, because it really felt like you got to me you got the chance to dig your teeth into each scene before you got in front of the camera, so what was like that for each of you guys?
Acker: Some of us more than others.
Denisof: Clark not so much.
Clark: I came in a little bit late. Did you guys rehearse before that? They had these Shakespeare brunches I heard.
Acker: Yeah, but we actually rehearsed this play.
Clark: You did?!
Acker: Yeah, were we not suppose to tell him?
Clark: Yeah I came in quite late because of an issue with my schedule, which then beautifully cleared up, and I don’t know I was quite daunted by the process, I remembered in that production that I was in was not being a big part, and I was wrong, so I had a lot of lines to learn quickly, at the same time it felt perfect. It felt perfect to me that way to think about it, I probably would have over thought it, and there was something about the way things were getting out of control for poor Leonato, that really felt served by just standing there and I also felt the words were so magnificent, not because they were so pretty, that kind of misses the point, but their so active, you say stuff, and stuff starts to happen, and I wasn’t really prepared for any of that or where it was going, and it certainly felt that people didn’t want to rehearse too much, I wouldn’t normally have approached Shakespeare that way, even in a film, I’m really glad it worked out that way.
Denisof: The last thing Joss said to me when he proposed this crazy idea was: “ You better know your lines,” and that seems like simple advice, but it was fantastic advice because looking back on it, first of all, I wouldn’t want to have wasted any takes not knowing my lines because we didn’t have that many takes, and secondly he afforded us the opportunity to play these scenes from the beginning to the end all in one, which is such a rare treat on film, anyone can tell you, you shoot a master maybe, but who uses it, it gets chopped up and slowly throughout the day, and various angles and closeups, but the rehearsal process, could we get together in the same place, in the same time for long enough to make it worth while, and if we could get two people, then there was a rehearsal. If Joss could be there, great; if he couldn’t, he gave us permission to just carry on the process, and he could work in when he could or he would meet with you individually, there was a lot of stuff being worked out on the fly right before shooting it, but it’s his home, he had a vision of shooting what he wanted to achieve and we all had complete trust in him so you could try something out knowing that if it didn’t work, Joss was going fix it.
Was it more difficult to use an American accent reading Shakespearian English and not falling back into a pseudo-British accent? And for Joss, did your house go on lockdown after two weeks of having everybody, cast and crew, that you just shut everybody out for a month afterwards?
Whedon: Uh, no. You know what, it was sort of more and more people were coming, we were rehearsing, an afternoon we would get four or five people to go to where we were going to shoot, block it, figure it out, talk about the characters, all that good stuff, you know, tech guys were coming in, how they were going to set up the lights, you know, then you have to clean up afterwards, before that, the house was designed for art to flow through it all the time, you know my stepmother coming to paint, or somebody coming to the use pottery wheel or dance, that’s how it sort of works, so it never shut down entirely. I may at some point very soon.
Nathan, Amy, and Clark, what was it like to work wit Nick [Kocher] and Brian [McElhaney] and bring them into the Whedonverse?
Fillion: I still don’t know who they are. I have a couple of these friends in my life where, wherever they invite me, whoever they introduce me to, I know they are going to be good people, they are the center, they are the hub of a wheel of amazing people, so anytime I am coming to Tom Walken’s place, Joss Whedon’s place, or whoever is going to be there, is going to be fantastic people, I am going to walk away with some new friends; case in point, Brian and Nick, and I did another little project called “Sexy Little Pool Party” after that.
Gregg: They were around, everyone was kind of around at the house, and I kind of, there was time, every once in a while I kind of make a point of “what, you have a what, a website,” and everyone I looked at their stuff, I was blown away by the person who was coming in and out of every scene.
Acker: I am now stalking them because I love them so much. Their just so – they really brought a fun energy into everything, and they carried that through the whole year since it’s happened it’s always “everyone come to our show,” or “we’re having a party,” their always – everyone jumps on board for any ideas they have, and it’s been – we’re glad Joss introduced us to us.
Whedon: She says that, she’s a killer at charades.
Denisof: If you get a chance to see their live show, it’s so worth it.
Fillion: And if you play charades with them, they cannot be on the same team.
Joss: Telepathy is cheating.
What was the adaptation process like? How do you decide how much Shakespeare you can trim, and did you make a list of decisions before you started shooting a complete Shakespeare adaptation?
Whedon: Oh I made all those decisions before shooting. There is I think three lines we cut – we did not have time to shoot anything we weren’t going to use. And also I wanted to know the flow of the thing, you know as a film before it wasn’t – I don’t like to create films in the editing room, obviously you learn something, it’s part of the process, I like to go in with very exact intent, and cutting it, was just helping me, it’s a very long play, there is a good deal of redundancy in the explanation of things, and if I couldn’t find the heart of something, for example Antonino, the brother of Lenoato, I couldn’t find a reason to keep him in. He would just say “So here’s what happened so far, brother.”
Denisof: Antonio is so noisy, and have such terrible A.D.D., because it is repeated frequently.
Whedon: Look people are just entering, and they are drunk. So let’s talk again about what happened.
Denisof: Prelap. Prelap. Prelap.
Whedon: Stuff like the gulling scene. Its like a Chinese menu, everything is delicious, you can’t use it all, it’s really long, it’s also very compartmentalize, and so obviously you want to keep as much as possible the reason why you should up, add only visually what helps explain the emotionality of the thing, and that’s the scenes that I added, very small, wordless scenes were for.
Joss, now that you finished Much Ado, do you have any aspirations to do another Shakespeare adaptation?
Whedon: Most people don’t see Hamlet as an old bald guy. Hamlet is the text that I studied the most. No one over the age of 18 gets over thinking on some level that he is Hamlet, and there are others, Twelifth Night is the first thing that comes to mind. Hamlet like Much Ado has that unity of place, where you’re sort of trapped, Denmark is a prison. Messina is kind of like a wonderful prison, they have that same hot house intensity, which is another thing that attracts me to both.
What was it like to do something where nobody died?
Whedon: Fucking weird. I don’t have any death, I’ll add sex.
Acker: Someone died, and came back to life, so if your familiar with the material.
Whedon: Hero died if you’re some of the characters.
With the short shooting time, and the incredible actors that you have at your disposal, how much of those scenes were planned ahead of time, a part of the dialogue, and how much of those were really improvised?
Whedon: Everything was pretty well locked in, because the one great thing was the sets were built well before, and so we’d read it through, and then we rehearse in the space as the space was exactly going to be. So we knew “oh he’ll run down and do a balcony scene with here,” “Oh, well go from here to here,” and some of the physicality we dialed in very specifically, a lot of it happened on the day, and that all came from these guys. Obviously Amy didn’t say something and throw herself down the stairs, we didn’t have that one. We had the major perimeters set up and then within that space we saw what happened with a shrub, or a cupcake, or a coat.
How much of this did you have planned out when you decided that you were finally going to do this?
Whedon: I started with my leads, they were my deal breakers. I called them even before I had finished anything, I wasn’t going to do it without them. The second person I called was Nate, and because I thought I don’t have a second choice. I sort of was going through – I have this extraordinary stable of people, and wanted to make sure if people were available, without having to go to five guys and saying “hey you want to play this part; oh you all do. Shit,” It was a delicate process, it was a lot of me asking questions where people were going to be for the next month, specifically I wanted to know what dates. And Clark’s was obviously the most torturous, because we wanted to make it work, it wasn’t going to work, I went through three Leonatos, two days before production and asked him “Are you still busy,” in every case I got the person I wanted the most to play the part, which is not to say – I honestly – you could sort of do a Woody Allen in September and film this with another group of extraordinary people, I wouldn’t, I don’t want to, you know it’s an embarrassment of riches, I sort of had to make sure I didn’t piss anybody off and that there’s not person where I was like “well… they’ll do,” I got my dream cast.
Nathan, Joss, can you talk about what it was like to work with Tom, because after I saw you two work together, I wanted to see some sort of buddy cop spin off.
Fillion: Here’s what I learned, if you want to be funny, stand next to Tom Lenk. I’m not a big prop actor, but if I could have only one prop for the rest of my career, it’d be Tom Lenk.
Denisof: I would watch that show.
What did you learn about yourself or everyone else making this particular project?
Denisof: Because of the short time we have, it was really an exercise of instinct, and for me it was a great chance to trust my instincts and hope for the best. Because I already trust Joss, Amy, and the rest of the cast, I think, myself, that’s what I learned.
Acker: I think I’d just reiterated how lucky we have such great friends, we all got to do this together, we all have this amazing friend who has introduced us all and made it all possible. Mainly that.
Gregg: I have to say I feel like it was a profound gift. And I just went to Joss’ house for dinner to see if he was okay after shooting The Avengers, and a couple of days later “oh you’re playing this guy,” to have someone not ask you to see your Shakespeare license or ask if you have done it in twenty years, it gives you guys a kind of trust, and I feel like a ripple effect that that caused, that what it must feel like to do it, “Is it so smart to ask me to do that? I don’t think,” and it is so deliciously empowering that I’m there, and “I don’t know how to do this. Oh there’s Amy, what’s she doing is just so riveting, and charismatic, and simple,” I feel like if I could just look into her and kind of – I felt like this whole kind of organism, it’s like a weird group hug, which is ironically the name we had for The Avengers and all the secret documents. It was this weird kind of Elizabethan group hug going, there was this energy, it was really magical, and I feel like it’s a gift that just stays with you and keeps – makes me want to do this with other people.
Can you talk about some of the warm and fuzzy stories about how you took the language?
Gregg: Can they involve fingers?
Denisof: What I would say – a lot of our stylistic approach has its roots in the Shakespeare readings that we were doing at Joss’ house, where people were so relaxed and natural, and in this particular play thankfully he chose a play that’s primarily in prose, it’s not in iambic pentameter or rhyming couplets, that allows us to find our own rhythms and our own interpretations, and to have as much fun as possible and not feel that we were responsible for a poetry recital.
Acker: I felt the same about what Clark said earlier, once you learn the words and then you get to chew on these amazing words and they bring out the emotion and take the scene to places that when you were reading it, you never think it was going to go, but as that dialogue comes out and the poetry comes out, it really influences the scene.
Mr. Whedon compare the pressure of doing pop tv to classic literature.
Whedon: Well the shooting schedules are very similar. Everything is the story, everything is how much can I squeeze out of this, everything is –they are very similar because with tv as soon as you are locked in you have a text, you have your sets, you have your cast, you know so much going in you have the confidence to experiment in structure of a very short shoot, that was similar to this, because obviously we knew the text from various productions, and they knew it because they had to say it, and study it, and knowing that Shakespeare wrote it is a great comfort factor, at the same time I knew the sets intimately, knew that this cast as going to give me exactly what I needed, but that they were all going to surprise me on the day and make this thing alive in a way that I couldn’t predict. It’s very easy, particularly if your doing a TV show that’s going on and on and on. Or if you’re dong a play so famous that it could be represent as a stately home to forget you know that spark, and that intent behind this, and the way that I like to shoot anything, get the space ready, and give it to the actors and let the electricity of stage performance happen between them in the moment.
Amy and Alexis, could you tell us what you like about working with each other?
Acker: This is awkward.
Denisof: Uh oh. Well I – the holy trinity for me is Joss, myself, and Amy, in a scene; so to get a chance to work with them in a scene is a my favorite day of work. Amy all you have to do is watch and listen. Kind of the same way with Joss, that’s my approach. Their so good, that I’m so happy to be there.
Whedon: Okay Ringo.
Acker: I’m pretty sure that anyone who has done a scene with Alexis, feels that he’s their favorite person to work with, I don’t think I’m special in that way. But I think it’s kind of the same way, there is a kind of trust. He’s so smart, and handsome, and nice, should I go on?
Denisof: Yes please.
Whedon: I don’t think I’m like Shakespeare, can we please be very clear. If I am, he’s Frank Sinatra, and I’m Frank Sinatra Jr. That’s how we rank.
Much Ado About Nothing is out in limited theaters now, the film will expand its opening in a select few theaters next week before making its wide opening on June 21.