With any luck, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing will be shown in high-school classes for years to come, waking up students who were falling asleep trying to comb through Shakespeare. It might even be the first time they actually enjoy the Bard. The film is also a delight for Whedon acolytes who like to play Spot the Actor, because just about everybody in this film has previously appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, or one of Whedon’s movies. After becoming friends on past works, they were invited to Whedon’s home (where Much Ado was filmed) for a Shakespeare brunch, in which they would read a play, get smashed, and sing some tunes — which gave the writer-director the idea to turn one of those plays into a film. Joining us in a conference room downtown, Whedon shared with Vulture the results of his Shakespeare brunches — which had been going on for at least a decade before this movie was shot — his newfound obsession with Twitter, and what play might be in the middle of Avengers 2.
This looks like an interrogation room …
And I will probably break. I am not 100 percent right now. I woke up yesterday thinking, [in happy voice] “It’s my day off!” But now I’m sick. I was pretty grouchy about it. [Ed note: The next day, he tweeted, “Doc called: bronchitis with a side of strep, so the kissing booth WILL be charging extra.”]
Sorry! But it is nice to see you finally on Twitter. You finally signed up to be a Twit wit.
Yes, yes. That was actually in an effort to drive up business for the movie, and of course, one gets a little obsessed. And people get angry. I just tweeted something about gun control [“How come nobody ever talks about how many school kids have been HELPED by semi-automatic weapons?”] and people got angry. There’s a lot of anger in the Twitter-verse, as I’ve discovered. But there’s a lot of love.
A lot of writers would be intimidated to attack Shakespeare. And several writer-directors have tried to modernize the Bard. But no one seems to have had as much fun with it as you did.
[Laughs] You know, if there was one thing I wanted to convey, it was that. Because when we did the Shakespeare readings at the house, we had a blast. Every single time. And even with plays like The Winter’s Tale that half of us were like, “What the hell was that about?” we still really enjoyed bringing it to life. We found things we hadn’t seen before, we saw each other in different ways, and it was just a delight. The jokes were fun, so we all got to goof around, and the drama was dramatic, and there were snacks. It really was just the way it should be, the way it is with a lot of great productions, where it’s like, “Oh! This is just how we talk,” and not like that sort of, [imitates an overwrought pompous voice] “I am Stinkley! You will be boooored!” Um, good luck spelling that. But everybody has something different that they want to bring to it. And for me, it was actually more of a darkness than anything else. It was really to examine the underbelly of Much Ado About Nothing, which the movie does, but at the same time, if it’s not fun, why on Earth would people show up?
I heard Much Ado was one of the first ones you did at the Shakespeare brunches? Or the very first one?
Yeah, actually! I think it was. But we were all so nervous for that one. We were well into it when we did it with Amy [Acker] and Alexis [Denisof] in the backyard, and that was the one that made me go, “Ah! Yes. Another film. Not close, but somewhere around here.”
I also heard that you guys gathered around the piano at these brunches and started singing, and that was the genesis of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, “Once More, with Feeling.”
That was the first one, too! The very first one. I’m not going to lie — we had a few drinks. We were very nervous, so we had a few drinks.
Was there a lot of drinking at these Shakespeare brunches?
At first. But the drinking fell away. The drinking was fun, and then the jam sessions got pretty intense, like people would really stay for a long time, play different songs and instruments, and it was great fun, like homemade karaoke, basically. This first one, I refer to as the [Michelle] Trachtenberg era, because when we started doing them, we had a girl who had just turned 15, so we weren’t about to be too debauched. And at that first one, I sat down at the piano and said [to Anthony Stewart Head], “Tony! I can bang out the chords to ‘Rocket Man,’ and you should sing it.” And then suddenly James Marsters picked up a guitar, and then suddenly Amber Benson started singing, and I started to go, literally, that night, “Oooh! I can do a musical!” And the day it came up — “Let’s do this!”— was the day after we decided, “Let’s do a comic book!” [Coughs] So it was a fertile time.
There’s a little bit of Spike and Buffy in Beatrice and Benedick.
Interesting. [Grins] Yeah, the parry and thrust of a good romantic comedy, absolutely. I don’t think of Alexis as a Spike, but in terms of the “Something Blue” of it, [when Buffy and Spike got engaged while under a spell], they’re fooled into thinking they’re in love and as soon as they are, they become complete idiots! [Chuckles] Honestly, a lot of the things I do can be traced back. Some of my best stealing — I mean, inspiration — is from Shakespeare. In fact, when Amy first auditioned for Angel, to make sure I was right about the feeling I had the moment she walked in the room, I wrote a scene for her and I had Alexis and J. [August Richard] play it with her, and it was basically A Midsummer Night’s Dream: They were under a mystical spell that makes them all Shakespearean and in love with her. So that path was set before I even knew it.
When you watch that and Much Ado About Nothing with modern eyes, you can see a lineage of romantic-comedy tropes that owe a debt to it, such as the two people who can’t stand each other but are perfect for each other. And yet …
What blows me away is that I realized Shakespeare’s basically inventing the modern romantic comedy while he’s pulling it apart. He’s going, “Well, this is all a lot of nonsense. The way that you behave is not natural. These romantic comedies are idiotic!” It’s like, “We haven’t made them yet! How would you know that?!?”
It’s kind of what Cabin in the Woods did to horror films: take the archetypes, use them, destroy them.
That’s what interests me. I like to be able to talk about the thing that I’m doing, and hopefully not obnoxiously. Cabin in the Woods is probably the most directly I’ve ever done it. But it’s something that I feel I see very much in the work of Sondheim, where it’s not enough for him to write a song about a feeling, the song about the feeling contains the meaning of how we feel about songs about that feeling, why they’re there. I feel like if you’re not breaking it apart, if you’re not letting the audience sort of sift it through their fingers, then it’s a yarn. It’s not really a story.
Did the drinking at the brunches inspire some of the drinking in Much Ado?
The reason there’s so much drinking in Much Ado was that I read the text and I said, “These people are making incredibly silly decisions, they’re at a party for the entire time,” and it just fit with the ethos of the thing. Because it’s also sort of old-fashioned, in terms of doing this in elegant black-and-white film. We referred to Leonato’s estate as the Kennedy compound, the idea that everybody looks fabulous, is fabulous, having a martini at noon. But there were also a couple of decisions, like, “This only makes sense if the people are drunk enough to decide this is a good idea.”
While Beatrice is probably one of Shakespeare’s best-written female characters, Much Ado pivots on another female character, Hero, who is accused of sleeping around — and as soon as it’s suggested that she’s not a virgin before her wedding, her fiancé and her father disown her. More than disown; her father tells her that she should die.
I get this a lot, but I’m going to say that’s not why he called off the wedding. I’m going to say, he called off the wedding because he thought he saw her sleeping with another guy the night before the wedding. That’s different than, “Are you a virgin?” That’s, “Do you love me? Are you lying? Are you cheating on me? Is this a joke to you?” That’s hurt and betrayal and jealousy, and I think that’s very modern. I don’t think he’s thinking about her hymen. It’s the human, not the hymen. I think he’s thinking, I’m cuckolded. I’m a fool. And that’s the worst kind of pain. Now, what he does is reprehensible, but the pain of it is something that’s absolutely relatable. And there are some things in the movie that are slightly different than the play.
Such as when Hero witnesses Claudio grieving, when he thinks she’s dead.
Yeah. That was very deliberate. Everything I did with them, I did to shore up that when they get together, you don’t roll your eyes. When Leonato brings up Claudio at the beginning, I made sure it’s because he knows that she has a crush on him. He’s doing a parent thing. And I made it clear when Claudio sees her, it’s like, “Holy buckets!” And so does Borachio, because the only way Borachio makes sense to me is if he’s in love with Hero. But with Hero, it was very important to me that she was leaning forward more than the other Heros I’ve seen. She would attack her lines with more righteousness than quivery wilting-ness. So I added the idea that she’s watching him mourn, because she’s out of the play at this point, and what is she doing, first of all, and here, we the audience, get to see that he’s genuinely remorseful. Even though I took out his whole speech, he really means it, and I was like, “She really needs to see that, too.” And there’s nothing in the play that says she’s clearly elsewhere. So it felt right for that.
Apparently some people were easier to cast in this than others? Leonato didn’t get cast until two days before you started.
Clark Gregg had a play and a movie he was making [Trust Me], and then Tony [Head] was available, but then he had a pilot, and then I got Gregory Jbara, but then he had a conflict, and I called Bradley Whitford, and then he had something. So two days before we started shooting, I called Clark again, “Do you still have …?” “You got to be kidding me. When do we start?” “In two days.” “You’re out of your mind.” Ninety minutes later, he was at my house with a script. Nathan [Fillion] was coming off his Castle schedule, and so he was running lines in the screening room in between scenes and scrambling to get it done, because everyone knew there was no way to sustain it if anybody went, “Line?”
Do you watch Castle, by the way? He’s always sneaking in Firefly references.
I’ve watched a few. [Chuckles] What can I say? He’s a gentleman and a scholar.
And now a Shakespearean scholar. He is so great as Dogberry. It’s kind of uncanny.
I knew it right away. And not just because of the Captain Hammer pompous thing is very Dogberry, but because of the naturalism and the vulnerability of it. Just watching that scene when she calls him an ass, that moment where (a) he knows it, and (b) he knows that everybody else knows it, it’s a little heartbreaking. And super cute. The first thing he read for us was Bottom [in Midsummer], and that may have been the first Shakespeare he read aloud, and at the first sentence, I was like, “Oh. My. God.” I’ve seen great performances of Bottom, but he just sounded so much like an actor, and not like a guy playing Bottom. I was like, “This is going to sing.”
It makes you want more Doctor Horrible, but I don’t see you having any time to do that just yet, even if you pulled off Much Ado in twelve days.
Not … soon. This was already written. See, that’s the thing. Directing is a joy, but it’s the writing that really requires the energy.
This is your Shakespearean team-up. What about your superhero team-up? You’re potentially working again with Alexis, since he was the guy assisting Thanos in The Avengers, but will more of the Much Ado folks drift over into your Marvel world?
It’s always the same tension between wanting to find new voices, new faces, and new energy, and new threads for the tapestry, and wanting to use the ones that have delighted and worked for me over the years. Much Ado was very specifically, I need people I know I can trust. I need people I know can get along, who work hard, who have the chops, who can do this. But from project to project, it’s always different. I’ve said before that I don’t want these to feel like a party for my friends — Much Ado is the exception. What matters though, is that the audience feel that they were invited, instead of watching somebody else’s party.
So for Avengers 2, you have a draft done, you start shooting in early 2014. What will be the main conflict this time, now that they’ve formed a team? Trying to stay a team? Becoming their own worst enemy? Because these are not folks who can pull off making a movie out of a Shakespeare play in twelve days.
No, they’re not. And actually, that’s the middle of the movie, them trying to. It’s the Avengers trying to do Measure for Measure, and it doesn’t go well. It’s very exciting, especially in 3-D. [Laughs] The rest of it, you’re right about — it was necessary to build this team, but what happens to them and to the world when they actually exist as a team? How does that work? And I have until we shoot in February to make sure that I’m right.