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Toronto 2012: Shakespeare, according to Joss Whedon

Writer-director Whedon's latest project is a black-and-white version of "Much Ado About Nothing." Shot in 12 days at his house, with a modern spin on setting and dress.

September 11, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Joss Whedon is attending this year's Toronto Film Festival with a new movie called "Much Ado About Nothing."
Director Joss Whedon is attending this year's Toronto Film Festival… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

TORONTO — When Joss Whedon found himself with two weeks off after completing "The Avengers" last year, he opted not to spend the downtime in a conventional way — on a Hawaiian vacation, for instance.

Instead, he decided to make a Shakespeare film. In black and white. At his house. In 12 days.

The writer-director just unveiled his new feature adaptation of the Bard's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" this past weekend to enthusiastic crowds at the Toronto International Film Festival. Whedon's version of the story about contrasting pairs of lovers — the cynics Benedick and Beatrice and the romantics Claudio and Hero — retains nearly all the original language but is set in modern times with modern dress.

PHOTOS: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Whedon veterans such as Clark Gregg and Nathan Fillion appear (as Leonato and Dogberry, respectively); Fran Kranz plays Claudio, while Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof play Beatrice and Benedick. There's also a smattering of newcomers, including Jillian Morgese as Hero.

The shift, said the nation's fanboy in chief, was a reaction to his recent big-budget effort.

"I worked very hard to make 'Avengers' into a personal film," Whedon, 48, told The Times on Monday from a lounge near the festival's main screening venues. "But at some point you do go, 'I am shooting one-tenth of the frame, and the other people are going to create the rest of it.' On this we were doing two meaty scenes a day, and everyone's coming out and feeling fulfilled."

FULL COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Whedon has been hosting weekend Shakespeare readings at his home with actor friends for years, but he said he could never find the time or the creative motivation to develop the pastime into anything larger.

The small post-"Avengers" hiatus gave him the window, and Kai Cole, Whedon's spouse and producing partner, helped work out the logistics of shooting a movie at their Santa Monica residence. Constant mowing on a nearby golf course and the noisy demolition of a neighboring home proved unusual production challenges.

"We had neighbors sanding their floors and a yappy dog that wouldn't shut up," Whedon said. "I think we even had a crow."

PHOTOS: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

The juxtaposition of old and new in "Much Ado" is unusual; most movies that use the original language are set in period, but Whedon said he couldn't take the film back in time.

"I'm not a fan of having enormous puffy starched collars and pantaloons," he said. "I wanted to get the elegance without the formality."

He also wasn't interested in changing the language, he said, because it would dilute the original text.

For their part, the "Much Ado" actors all described a convivial atmosphere where there was hanging out, joking and even, for some of the performers with fewer lines, some drinking as they hashed out the Bard.

"It was fast and fun and loose," Denisof told The Times. "It was high-risk but low expectations, because it wasn't like there was really any money in it."

But there was also some pressure thanks to the pace of the project. Actors had two weeks to learn all their lines and, frequently, only one or two takes on set to get them right.

Others noted how Whedon was willing to blend veterans and rookies as though at an informal jam session.

"Nathan [Fillion] said to me, 'I've never done Shakespeare before,'" Morgese recalled. "And I'm like, 'I've never done a movie before.'"

"Much Ado" is seeking theatrical distribution, and though it's an odd hybrid, the comedy and the Whedon factor give it some appeal. (The project does come a year after another unlikely director, Roland Emmerich, made a Shakespeare-themed movie in "Anonymous.")

Although sonnets and superheroes might not seem like they go together, Whedon, who calls Shakespeare one of his "great teachers," believes the Bard fits nicely with much of his previous work.

"Shakespeare worked so much in fantasy. He was never afraid to flip from one mood to another, one genre to another," Whedon said, adding that he even cribbed Shakespearean language for his hit show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "He was a populist, he was shameless, but he was always in service of the truth."

Whedon said he had no immediate plans to shoot another Shakespearean adaptation but acknowledged that he wanted to work in another passion project between his other upcoming obligations, which include writing and directing "The Avengers 2" and developing a television pilot based on Marvel's ensemble of S.H.I.E.L.D characters.

"I think I just like making it hard for myself," he said.

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