- The Avengers director on adapting the 400 year old play for a modern audience and how Shakespeare’s ultimate rom-com has more in common with Buffy and his sci-fi dramas than you’d think
“First of all, thank you for trying to not have spoilers for a 400 year old play!” Joss Whedon laughs. We’re gathered in the living room of Whedon’s hotel room in London; it’s been an exhausting week for the director and writer. He’s just come back from the Dublin Film Festival, having completed the North American film circuit. It’s little wonder he’s stocking up on energy drinks to keep him going, several empty cans of which litter the otherwise Spartan room. As we sit around the table discussing his new film adaptation of Shakespearean classic Much Ado About Nothing,(and his rather modern additions to the plot) he’s animated despite physical fatigue.
By now, the story of how Much Ado came to be is in full circulation, but for the sake of full narrative disclosure, I’ll recap at speed. At one of their regular Shakespeare readings, hosted with his wife Kai Cole at their home, Whedon struck upon the idea of adapting the play into a feature film, impressed by the energy and humour which Alexis Denisof (Benedick) and Amy Acker (Beatrice) brought to their respective roles.Fast forward several years to September 2011: whilst wrapping principal photography on summer blockbuster The Avengers, Whedon’s planning an anniversary vacation to Italy with Cole when she suggests they use the 12 day break to make a low-budget film adaptation of Much Ado instead. Starring Acker, Denisof and a troupe of regular Whedonverse actors – which also includes Nathan Fillion, (Buffy, Castle), Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods, Dollhouse) and Reed Diamond (Dollhouse, 24, The West Wing) – the result is a sleek and cinematically beautiful black and white film, shot entirely within the confines of the couples’ property, and produced and directed (and scored) by the pair.Above: Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker)
Why Much Ado of all of Shakespeare’s plays though? “Well, y’know, it has the least ‘fantasy’,” Whedon replies, a genre that’s come to encapsulate his work. Still best known for sci-fi drama-cum-comedy-cum-horror series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like his television shows, Much Adois driven by strong characterisation and wordplay. In that sense, it is the perfect vehicle for Whedon to adopt. “Structurally, it’s the granddaddy of all romantic comedies” he quips, “it’s very textured and weird and cynical and romantic of love, and our rituals of love. That, to me, made it worth doing – I thought there was something to say and it’s all of a piece.”Above (left to right): Franz Kranz (Claudio), Don John (Sean Maher), Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark), Conrad (Riki Lindhome)
Whedon’s version of the play is largely faithful to the original, though simultaneously sanitised and sexed up in one breath. Gone are many of the anti-Semitic jests that pepper the play – though Whedon points out he “still left something offensive in, Fran and I were so excited about the ‘Ethiope’ line!” he says, referring to Claudio’s statement “I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope”. In their place, several key scenes are added to plug the 400 plus year gap between the sexual and social mores of a Jacobean and those of a modern audience.
Opening with a ‘flashback’ scene – to borrow from Shakespeare himself, of Beatrice and Benedick “making the beast with two backs” – Whedon explains, “Amy, Alexis and I discussed it and we all feel that some people interpret the text that way, the ‘I know you of old,’ thing, that there’s been something between them. All three of us felt that would give their banter an intimacy and a painfulness that it might not have otherwise, so we chose to make that the back-story.” The barbed tirades they exchange sit against this backdrop of emotional history, creating a bridge of empathy and intrigue for the audience.
As we delve further into Whedon’s ‘adaptation’ of the original text, inevitably our attention turns to the additional scene Whedon has added of Hero watching fiancé Claudio grieving at her tomb, having rejected her in the previous act for ‘cuckolding’ him. In the space of a minute, this scene turns traditional interpretations of her character on their heads. “A lot of this for me was about finding the strength in Hero” Whedon explains, “she doesn’t talk a great deal – often she is shunted aside as a completely passive character, but she’s the onlycharacter that never believes something that isn’t true”. The “strength” Whedon unlocks comes in the form of compassion: “I thought the step that will take this to where I can accept it is that Hero sees Claudio at the tomb and knows that he is genuinely upset. He’s not as upset as he could have been” Whedon jokes ,“because Fran was like: ‘OK, are we going again ‘cos I can really bring it this time?’ and I’m like, ‘What part of Magic Hour do you not understand? Magic Hour’s ten minutes long, we got that shot we’re moving on!…’”Above (left to right): Margaret (Ashley Johnson), Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Beatrice (Acker). The bond between Beatrice and Hero is one Whedon was keen to emphasise in his adaptation
Such is the nature of a short production schedule. “Her watching and seeing that he really means it is empowering but also necessary” he adds, seriously. In a stroke, the play takes on a distinctively modern complexity. “I don’t think it’s cheating – besides the fact I think it’s the most beautiful shot in the movie, I love that she’s there and that Beatrice is with her” he says, echoing the strength of the emotional bond that typifies the characterisations in his work.
“You see a lot of productions where people try to outsmart Shakespeare but, y’know, he’s still the smartest guy in the room” Whedon says, pointing out that he chose “not [to] change a word, except for a couple of pronouns we had to (because I put some girls in there)”. Ultimately, it’s the wordplay that gives Whedon such formidable and rich material to work with, and it’s a fitting homage to Shakespeare, to whom the English language is so heavily indebted. In his own quiet way, Whedon’s making his own impact on the English language. At Universities across the world, lectures are offered on Whedon’s “Slayer slang”: like Shakespeare, Whedon’s not afraid to alter the English language, changing adjectives to nouns (whether it’s by giving someone “a happy”), or by slapping a y on the end of a word to adjust it’s usage, or, as with futuristic sci-fi film Serenity or comic-book and Fray, he’s making up a new discourse of his own.
- As we wrap up, I ask him which was more terrifying to direct– a big budget blockbuster like Avengers, or a low-budget project like Much Ado. He answers without hesitating. “This was more scary. Not because it was more personal – that I don’t mind – but because although Shakespeare was constantly playing to the crowd (and very successful at it) he wasn’t so worried by it.” A moment of humility, he admits, “it’s hard for me to know how an audience is reacting, unless they’re laughing or crying!” Thankfully, Whedon’s adaptation has the audience doing both, and at just the right times.
Words Betty Wood
Much Ado About Nothing hits cinemas UK wide from 14 June
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