Acclaimed filmmaker and Buffy mastermind Joss Whedon hosted a screening of his newest film, a black-and-white, contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, last night at the always excellent Brooklyn Academy of Music. The movie, shot in 12 days at Whedon’s house, is fantastic, its tiny budget and time frame giving the final result the energy of a live performance, with superb acting (particularly on the part of Whedonverse favorites Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, not to mention a hilarious Nathan Fillion) and elegant, generous directorial choices. This is a filmmaker who loves his audience — and it comes through in everything he does. After the screening, Whedon hosted a Q&A where he discussed what still excites him about TV, how a love of dance has inspired him to consider making a ballet about a library, and how Shakespeare’s Claudio is basically Michael Scott.
Asked why he chose to adapt Much Ado About Nothing out of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Whedon had a whole list of reasons: “One, it all takes place in one place. Very important for a microbudget studio. Two, Amy and Alexis. We read it at the house, and when they read Beatrice and Benedick I was like, ‘I gotta do that, I can’t not.’ I was like, ‘I’m getting right on that!’ Ten years ago. And then finally because I’d talked about it, because we had the location, we had the cast, my wife had already put together a crew for another project she’s doing, so everything was really in place, it was just a question of, oh yeah, why Much Ado? And so I just went into the text and really looked at it with fresh eyes and saw a lot of darkness and pain and manipulation and cynicism and thought, this’ll be great! I found that the rest of the play, which is so often just a backdrop for a two-hander, is in fact very much integral and a part of the same text, and the jolly manipulations of Don Pedro are exactly the same as the tragic manipulations of Don John, and what everybody’s doing is corrupting the idea and deconstructing the idea of romantic behavior. So he’s basically pulling apart the idea of the rom-com, which he is inventing. That, to me is impressive.”
Whedon is much beloved for his powerful female characters, and while Much Ado About Nothing has Beatrice, who is arguably Shakespeare’s best leading lady, it also has Hero, her mostly silent, mostly victimized younger cousin. How did Whedon turn her into a Whedon heroine? “My direction with Jillian [Morgese] was just, you need to lean forward at all of this, you need to come at him. You don’t have to be wilting – you have to faint. It’s gonna happen. Huge plot point. Can’t get away from that. But it was very important to me that she have — and it was part of the reason I cast Jillian — real poise of presence and power… As much as possible I tried to give her character power – it’s in the lines if you choose to play them that way. She did. She’s one of the few people who watched the Branagh version before we shot and she said ‘apparently I’m supposed to twirl a lot.’ I’m like, ‘we’re actually going to take that out. It is in the text. Enters twirling.’ And by the same token, at the end when she says ‘as I live I am a maid,’ she’s not just saying don’t worry, I’m still a virgin, she’s saying, you was wrong. And there’s a reason she’s standing above him and a reason he bows to her at that moment. You know, you do what you can. It’s Hero, she doesn’t have many lines. And she’s not Beatrice. But I wanted people to get the feeling that she’s definitely someone Beatrice loves and would hang out with and is her cousin, and not just, you know, twirly-wilty.”
To the same point, another filmgoer wanted to know how it felt that women were completely without power in Shakespeare’s time — something the bard has Beatrice address in one of the play’s most moving monologues. “Such a relief,” Whedon joked. “You know one of the things that I find extraordinary about this is that speech, more so when Amy says it, but just that Shakespeare not only saw it but felt that he needed to spell it out so baldly. It’s part of what makes it beautiful. It doesn’t have to be a world where women are empowered, it has to be a world where they are realized. Where they are human beings, where they have more to do than just stand around going, ‘Don’t fight, Johnny! Win, Johnny!’ And Shakespeare always gives you that, never more so than with Beatrice. So for me it didn’t feel any different than anything else I’ve done –- I felt their presence and their power and how they felt about where they were as much as anything else I ever wrote.”
The film is pretty close to the original text, though as with any modern film adaptation, much has been left out. Whedon did make one specific addition, however: in his film, Hero watches her own funeral, a powerful and delicately handled scene. Whedon explained that taking this liberty “to me just helped get us to the idea that she and Claudio could be together and not make you roll your eyes. You see her seeing him being truly penitent, that she can forgive him, and we can. And then he says the Ethiope thing… You know, there are some things that are funny because they’re so anachronistic and because, it’s like this is just an Office moment. This is pure Michael Scott. The other side of that is that I don’t have Benedick saying, ‘If I do not love her, I am a Jew.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna come back from that one. That’s not gonna sell.’ So I changed it to, ‘If I do not love her I am a gay.’ No, that doesn’t scan, let’s go with ‘fool.’”
But what about the ballet he mentioned earlier this week in another Q&A at Lincoln center? “The ballet I’m thinking of wouldn’t actually be a film,” Whedon explained, “although I have many sort of floaty ideas, this would actually be performed by a ballet company on a stage. I’ve had this in my head for a long time. And, well, I’ve never actually told anybody anything about it. I’ll only say this much: it’s about a library.”
Pressed by a ballet-loving filmgoer, Whedon explained his interest in dance further. “Obviously I write a lot of words. And I like men who write a lot of words. But movement is the essence of film, it’s why there’s film. The first things that we filmed, obviously we didn’t have sound, but the first things that we filmed were just things that were moving – Oh my god! A train is coming at me! That man is kissing that woman! And my favorite thing to watch, and I used to film a lot of it in school, in college, is dance. Dance for me is the most sublime thing that there is, and free action kind of replaced dance in American cinema. We used to have Fred Astaire and now we have guys flying through plate glass windows, trying to jump moving cars, and it’s all very good because it’s all movement, it’s all exciting, but for me, that’s my single favorite thing… One of the things that I loved best, obviously, was working with Summer [Glau]. Because she acts with her entire body, her fingernails are emotive. I think some of you may already know how I feel about her feet. If you watch [Firefly series finale] ‘Objects in Space’ it gets a little weird.”
Despite his successes in film — The Avengers is the third highest grossing film of all time, after all — Whedon is probably still best loved for his work in television, for Buffy and Firefly, and even Angel and Dollhouse. This September will see Whedon’s return to television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a Marvel show set in the same universe as The Avengers. Whedon described the series as reflecting “the story that I like to tell the most, which is the underdog story. It’s about the people in a super world who are not super. It’s about the people who didn’t win that lottery, who aren’t on the Avengers, and the fallout from the fact that, after the Avengers, everyone in the world knows that there are monsters and aliens. So it’s about being ordinary. Needless to say, all of these ordinary people are geniuses, and awesome, and surprisingly attractive. But to feel a little bit of those ripple effects and disenfranchisement is interesting to me.”