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Joss Whedon on How Much Ado About Nothing Made Him a Better Filmmaker

If you had a little bit of time off after shooting a gigantic blockbuster like The Avengers, you'd probably take a vacation, right? That's what Joss Whedon had planned to do last fall ... and then, all of a sudden, he changed course and used his break to shoot a low-budget film version of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, starring Whedonverse staples Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, and Nathan Fillion. The film will debut later this week at the Toronto Film Festival, so Whedon rang us up recently to chat about how it came together, how it differs from the 1993 Kenneth Branagh version, and how shooting it gave him new perspective on The Avengers. (For more on Whedon's Marvel projects, check out our chat with him from last week.)

It sounds like making this film was a relatively spontaneous decision you made after shooting was finished on The Avengers, but had it been percolating in your mind before that?
It had, but I never felt like I had enough of a take on the material. I love the text and I had really enjoyed the Branagh version, and I didn't know what I had to say about a movie where half of the title says "About Nothing," since I tend to like things that are about something. So it was a long time of just picking at it and putting it back, and it was Kai, my wife, who said, "We've been talking about starting a small film company, and you've been talking about this play for years. You probably should just shoot this." So I picked it up again and it was as if I'd never seen it. I suddenly went, "Oh, I know exactly what I have to say about this, and this text is actually very important to me in terms of romantic love and how we treat each other." I don't know how I'd missed that over the years.

Did going off to shoot Much Ado give you a new perspective on The Avengers?
You know, it did, actually. In a way, it was sort of a coming-home party because everyone in it is someone I love, or at least someone I'm a big fan of and planned to love. It was also a palate cleanser after a grueling shoot of a very effects-driven movie. I came off The Avengers and I was exhausted. We were already editing because our schedule on The Avengers was very accelerated, and I was having to cut out things and I was in that space where I'm like, "Ohhh, it's not really my movie anymore. It's not about anything!" [I was] sort of having the angst. And then I shot Much Ado and was able to come back to The Avengers and go, "Okay! Whoa, sorry guys. I'm back." I could see it clearly and go, "You know what? [The Avengers] is getting better, and here's what I need to take out." It just sort of gave me perspective, and not the perspective of, "Oh well, I got to make my passion project, so now I'll just churn this out," but the perspective where I could look at it the way I was supposed to because I felt like I'd been on a vacation for a month. At least, that was my idea of a vacation.

Do you think you're happiest when you're busiest? Did the shoot do more for you than an actual vacation would have?
I've tried to relax, and then I just start thinking about stuff, and that doesn't help anybody. [Laughs] Yeah, I love to work, and I've never been happier than I was shooting Much Ado. Kai knew better than I did how much I needed it. I said to her, "There's no way I can adapt the text and prep the movie and get a cast together in one month." And she was like, "Really? Because November doesn't work for us." And then, on the first day of filming, she said, "So, are you happy?" And I smiled so hard that my face broke. My lips just split because I was smiling so hard.

Did your TV background help you pull this quick shooting style off?
Oh yeah. Ohhhh yeah. It was eight pages a day of Elizabethean dialogue with very few stage directions. Your actors have to be splendid and very on point, because we made this for one-tenth the cost of an episode of television. Schedule-wise, everybody knew the drill, and I knew going in that I had to know exactly what I wanted at all times.

I've heard that you often have actors over to your house on the weekends to perform Shakespeare. Was Much Ado borne out of that, and did any of your casting arise from it?
Absolutely! We did it a couple times, but the one that stuck was Amy and Alexis reading Beatrice and Benedick. I knew that if I was ever going to shoot it, they were going to be my couple.

Which match of actor to role in this film delights you the most?
You know, I love all my children, but I would say besides my two stars, Nathan Fillion pretty much closes the book on Dogberry. It's a masterful performance, and it's performed by a guy who tried to get out of it because he was so scared.

What freaked him out about it?
He had never performed Shakespeare except for once or twice in my backyard. He was very overburdened with Castle, and he was basically just, "I don't want to do this, I have to do Castle," and I was just like, "You don't have a choice." And he's extraordinary.

Obviously, you and Kenneth Branagh have the Marvel movie thing in common, but did you speak to him at all about Much Ado?
I didn't. I've seen his movie so many times that I deliberately said, "Okay, I can't look at that again, because I don't want it to influence me one way or the other." I just felt so comfortable with the material and so strong about what we were doing that it never really occurred to me to call someone and go, "Uh, how do you make Much Ado?" I was making a different version of it that's much more like a production of the play. It is very much a film, but it's that one step past a staged reading, in a way. A movie that was hugely powerful to me was Vanya on 42nd Street, because it deliberately blurred the line between a reading and a film. It's a very compelling film, and it's compelling because they put the camera on actors who say the wonderful dialogue really well, and that's pretty much my film style. [Laughs] "Put the camera on people while they're saying the cool stuff."

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images