News Column

Joss Whedon: 'Much Ado,' a soothing switch from 'Avengers'

June 16, 2013

YellowBrix

June 16--It was the fall of 2011, and writer/director Joss Whedon had just finished shooting "The Avengers." He had a bit of time off, in honor of his 20th wedding anniversary, and thought perhaps he'd take his wife and children on a little trip. Then another idea came to him. And ... here's how actor Alexis Denisof explained it.

"He got back to Los Angeles and called me and said, 'I need to talk to you about something. Are you at home and available?'?" remembered Denisof, a Seattle native who's had roles in a number of Whedon projects including "The Avengers." "I said yes to both. I hung up and told my wife that Joss had a very strange tone in his voice, and I think I'm going to be cut from 'The Avengers' and recast and reshot, and he wants to tell me in person."

But Whedon had a surprise in store. "He said, 'instead of going on vacation with my family, I'm thinking of shooting "Much Ado About Nothing" at my house in a couple of weeks. We have 12 days. Are you in?' I said, 'yes' before he even finished the sentence."

Whedon, known for creating the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly," and for his work in feature films, has long had a little-known hobby: For years, he's invited groups of actors and friends to his Los Angeles home to read Shakespeare -- and, for years, has talked about turning one of those readings into a movie. Now he's finally done it: Whedon, Denisof and other cast members came to Seattle last month to see "Much Ado About Nothing" open the Seattle International Film Festival to a sold-out house. The film opens in theaters Friday.

Interviewed during his Seattle visit, Whedon gave much of the credit for the project to his wife, Kai Cole, with whom he has a production company. It was she who convinced him to shoot the movie he'd long talked about, rather than take a vacation -- and to shoot it in their airy Spanish-style house, which she designed. "She's the architect of this film, in every way, more literally than usual," he said.

By necessity, "Much Ado" came together quickly. Whedon made some phone calls and pinned down the cast (some of whom, he said, "didn't really understand that it was an actual production"), scouted locations by strolling through his home, and spent "about three days" trimming Shakespeare's play down to feature-film length. Not only was that "awesome fun," said Whedon, "but to have a script that's already written and cannot be changed, not so much as a comma -- it's exciting."

And he made the decision, with Cole, to film in black and white. "I had thought of it really as a noir comedy, like 'The Apartment' or 'Unfaithfully Yours.' [Black and white] also evoked a classicism, a sort of '30s whip-smart, talk-fast, 'His Girl Friday,' him-vs.-her delightful comedy, and it also gives a timelessness that frankly we didn't have the budget to get any way else."

Once the film was shot, with Denisof and Amy Acker playing the sparring lovers Benedick and Beatrice, Whedon returned to work on "The Avengers" -- while editing "Much Ado About Nothing" in his spare time. "Editing 'Avengers' was a really difficult chore that required a ton of people and was very loud," he said. "And then I would come home and I would sit in my office and edit people talking, in black and white, and it was very soothing."

Now Whedon's back to making loud movies ("The Avengers 2," scheduled for a May 2015 release, is next up), but he hopes that his usual audience will follow him on his foray into Shakespeare. "My favorite thing is when someone says, 'I'm not a comic book person but "The Avengers" worked,' or 'I'm not really a Shakespeare person but I loved "Much Ado."' Every time you get a person who's resistant to the genre, it means you hit something bigger than that. That's supposed to be why we're here."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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