SXSW Interviews: Joss Whedon and the cast of “Much Ado About Nothing”

SXSW Interviews: Joss Whedon and the cast of “Much Ado About Nothing”

April 03
23:39 2013

Preston Barta

Film Critic

On a two-week off-period from shooting last summer’s smash-hit “Marvel’s The Avengers,” Joss Whedon, the man behind television series such as “Firefly,” “Dollhouse” and most notably “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” summoned some of his closest friends to his home in Los Angeles to shoot an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The delightful film had its regional premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival this month and the North Texas Daily had the chance to sit down with Whedon and some of the cast members from the film, including Texas native Amy Acker (“The Cabin in the Woods,” 2012), Clark Gregg (“Marvel’s The Avengers”) and celebrated television actors Alexis Denisof (“Angel”) and Nathan Fillion (“Castle”). The actors talked about how challenging it was to speak Shakespearean dialogue and learn their lines in such a short span of time.

Did Disney give you any guff after they found out that you shot this movie in secret during your two-week break from filming “The Avengers”?

Joss Whedon (writer-director): “It was not a secret from them [Laughs]. I told them and they were nervous as kittens about it. However, they were also very supportive and polite.”

Did you intend to make this film in black-and-white from the get-go?

JW: “Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t the very first thought, like ‘I need to shoot a black-and-white movie. How about Shakespeare?’ But early on, just in sort of describing it as a noir-comedy, you know— the ones that I love are in black-and-white. It gives it a timeless quality, even if there are orange cones in the background.”

Alexis Denisof (Benedick):  “Actors love a timeless quality, especially when they get to a certain age.”

Amy, was this the first black-and-white experience for you?

Amy Acker (Beatrice): “Just Instagram pictures [Laughs].”

JW: “But really good ones, though.”

How about Shakespeare? Were you involved in any other Shakespeare projects before this?

AD: “I had experience. I trained in London. Actually, my first theatrical job was the Royal Shakespeare Company— a production of ‘Hamlet.’ So, I had an amazing introduction to professional theatre and Shakespeare. I had loved it before that, too. But to get to do this production with Joss, Amy and all of our friends— to do something that I love to do so much was a thrill.”

AA: “Well, I went to SMU, and they used to have this summer program that was Shakespeare intensive, where you would go up there and do measure-for-measure. My first paying theatre job out of college was ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ but I played Hero at American Players Theatre in Wisconsin.”

JW: “Mine was merely just studying in school and doing the readings at my house. There was at least one instance where Ashley Johnson, who plays Margaret, was asking me about this one particular phrase that she was having some trouble with and Alexis steps in: ‘Well, Shakespeare liked to take these metaphors… He structured his sentences like this because… This is obviously a pun.’ And I’m just like, [Laughs] she’s sad.”

AD: “I’m not that nice to work with. I like to do everybody’s job. No [Laughs], this is an interesting play. It’s all in prose and not iambic pentameter. So, Joss’ idea to modernize it is especially— it’s apropos for the language structure of this particular play.”

Nathan, Dogberry just had the best lines.

Clark Gregg (Leonato): “Doesn’t he, though?”

Nathan Fillion (Dogberry): “I had the easiest role in the film. I had a number of crutches. One, I had some really great lines. Two, I had Tom Lenk, who plays Verges, right beside me. You can’t not be funny with Tom right beside you. There’s just something about that man.”

CG: “He’s a comedy enabler.”

NF: “He is. He is that. You just have him right next to you all the time, and it makes you funny. [To Clark] You were very kind to my character. You were very forgiving. And you don’t know how it’s going to play out until you get there and see how everyone is going to interact with each other. I could see how Dogberry could be this kind of guy around a forgiving man.”

CG: “Traditionally, Leonato is somewhat frustrated by Dogberry. [To Nathan] But I am such a fan of yours and I’ve never got to act with you. I was like, ‘It’s Nathan!’”

NF: “You’re never unkind.”

CG: “You’re Dogberry was very well intended. This guy is going to straighten things out with about seven brain cells to do it. It’s hard not to root for that.”

The scenes between you guys were cut down quite a bit from the play, right? They seem much shorter than I remember.

CG: “Oh, no. It was after they saw our performances [All laugh]. That’s when they brought it down. But yes, I don’t know if it’s something that Joss did when he realized who had to do it. The first script I saw – and I came aboard quite late – was rather brief for a Shakespearean piece. But the bottom line is tell the story and don’t change the words. I don’t think I’ve seen a Shakespeare production that didn’t have some cuts. There are just some things that just don’t necessarily play with a particular direction. I thought this was an artful, fast moving, hardboiled, sexy noir version of Shakespeare.”

NF: “And this was not uncommon for Joss. Over the years, he would have these little Shakespeare brunches at his house, and he would ask who’s available. Once he had a guest list, he’s say, “You’re playing so-and-so. These two characters are now one character. We’re cutting this scene entirely. This character is not a girl; it’s going to be a guy.” He would make these little cuts just so he could get down to the nitty-gritty of the play.”

Joss, you’re known for being Nick Kocher’s bathroom coach and bird. How did you get the guys from BriTANicK, Kocher and Brain McElhaney, involved as the watchmen?

JW: “Well, I’ve been coaching them in the bathroom for many years, and you know, good luck to them [Laughs]. I was a fan of those guys when I saw their videos, which a friend turned me on to. I think it’s some of the most elaborate and intelligent sketch comedy.

I had never met them, but Daniel Kaminsky, who co-produced the film, said that, ‘I think that I can get a hold of them.’ I said, ‘Yes. See if they want to fly out to LA on their own dime to play first and second watchman,’ and they did. But, we made their bathroom video, ‘The Coach,’ after we shot this film.”

You obviously have a great sense of community with your actors, with every project that you do. It’s almost like an extended family. When you work on something like this, which is such a personal project, how do you maintain that layer of professionalism to where there is that balance of— “Yes, we’re all friends and I love you guys, but we are here to work and make sure that this is done the right way”?

AD: “It was hard work, but it’s the hard work that you loved to do. So, I don’t know. Joss, was professionalism required? You should have told me [Laughs]. You should have told me that you were looking for professionalism.”

JW: “No, no. Not from you [Laughs]. The only command I gave everybody was know your words because it’s going to be eight pages a day— almost like a television schedule. No one could ever mess up a line. We didn’t have time. But everybody took it to heart.”

NF: “For me it’s a comfort level. Everybody is there because they are good at what they do. Professionalism? You come in and do your job.”

CG: “I think we’ve all been in situations where you’re trying to do something that’s kind of vulnerable, deep, funny and scary. There’s just a whole level of trust that is required for any ensemble to work well. And a lot of times, that’s not what you’re in. You’re not in an ensemble. You’re with a bunch of people you just met that morning. Some of which are psycho, frankly— difficult and ungrateful to be there.

There’s a reason why people keep assembling groups that they can count on to be happy to be there because it’s a night and day situation. All of sudden you have someone you know that says, ‘I love playing with this group.’ I’ve played basketball with the same 20 guys for 15 years at the YMCA at seven in the morning. Every once in a while someone will wonder in who’s a little nuts but I know that they are there to play a kind of basketball that’s a form of unspoken communication. They are going to be glad to be there.”

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions are set to release “Much Ado About Nothing” on June 7.

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