Fran Kranz in a scene from Joss Whedon's version of "Much Ado… (SXSW )
AUSTIN, Texas -- “Don’t even get me started. That was the greatest thing that happened for geeks ever.”
Joss Whedon is debating a moment in the history of the sci-fi TV series “Battlestar Galactica” with cast members from his new film, “Much Ado About Nothing.” Huddled in a booth at the Josephine House, a tiny restaurant in Austin’s historic Clarksville neighborhood, the tired but amiable group had been together in tight quarters for a very, very long time.
A dozen of them had traveled by bus from Los Angeles to the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in Austin for the U.S. premiere of their movie earlier that day, in advance of its release in theaters June 7.
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Over the more than 20-hour ride, they slept in narrow bunks, shared a single toilet (“Number two was not permitted,” said Brian McElhaney, who plays a small role as a watchman in the film), ate at IHOP and perfected a complex-sounding drinking game they’d invented called Running Flip Cup Charades.
Now, over fritters, glasses of Red Bull and the restaurant’s bourbon-based cocktail called a Fruit Cup, the group members were decompressing, debating nerd arcana and reflecting on their journey.
Their rustic route to Austin mimics the homespun spirit in which “Much Ado About Nothing” was filmed -- over 12 days at Whedon’s Santa Monica home in 2011, on a two-week break from making his 2012 comic book blockbuster “The Avengers.”
Shakespeare’s play, which Whedon calls “a cynically romantic text,” is an Elizabethan-age romcom set around two problem-plagued couples -- Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese). Shot in black and white, Whedon’s adaptation retains the Bard’s original language, but in a modern world of iPods, cars, cupcake towers and marijuana. There are multiple love scenes, but a central plot point revolves around Hero’s virginity. At a panel at the Austin Convention Center earlier in the day, Whedon had discussed how he reconciled the 16th century morays with his otherwise sexually liberated interpretation by saying, “We stressed the human, not the hymen.”
Several members of the “Much Ado” cast are regulars in Whedon’s film and TV projects, including “The Avengers’ ” Clark Gregg, as the play’s paterfamilias, Leonato; “Firefly’s” Nathan Fillion as bumbling constable Dogberry; and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Tom Lenk as Verges, Dogberry’s deputy.
At the panel, the group had sponged up the fan ardor that comes with being part of Whedon’s cultishly followed oeuvre -- one tearful young woman said that she had waited in line since 1 a.m. to thank Whedon “for giving me Buffy.”
Whedon said he made “Much Ado” as a kind of respite from the meticulously planned world of his big-budget Marvel production.
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“Doing work in that compressed, let's-put-on-a-show hothouse was … therapeutic,” he said.
But the actors, many of whom came aboard the project on just a few days' notice and were making their first attempt at Shakespearean dialogue, found the production more intimidating.
Fillion said he first agreed to do “Much Ado,” then backed out, then returned.
“[The lines] do start to make sense after a while,” Fillion said. “Oooh, they’re flowery … and sound like Yoda. Once you work that out, you’re golden.”
Filming at their director’s home -- which had been designed by Whedon’s wife, architect and producer Kai Cole -- was, if anything, perhaps, “too comfortable,” said Kranz. The crew shot in nearly every room, including the kitchen, a child’s bedroom and a basement ballet studio, and slept the night at the house when days went long.
After the familial production and the long bus ride, cast members had shed any inhibitions with one another and seemingly run through all possible conversational topics by the time they found themselves around the table in Austin. At least until someone brought up the horror movie “Evil Dead.” And an improvisational Shakespeare troupe. And an arcade in Brooklyn that still has a Donkey Kong machine.