When architect Kai Cole began designing her Mediterranean-style Santa Monica home, she weighed all the usual concerns — space, light, flow — along with one quite specific to her family's needs: where to hold the Shakespeare readings.
Cole and her husband, "The Avengers" director Joss Whedon, have hosted impromptu Sunday afternoon gatherings of friends to perform the Bard's plays since the late 1990s, when Whedon was producing the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and he and his cast craved a creative outlet far removed from the program's fantasy world of demon-killing high school students.
So when she was trying to figure out what to do with a pitched corner of the backyard that overlooks a country club, Cole envisioned it as an open-air performance space and set rock slab seats in a few tiers around a semi-circular grass stage, a la Sophocles.
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"I came back from being away on a movie and Kai was like, 'I built an amphitheater. Is that OK?'" Whedon said. "When she designed the house we talked about having people come and paint. There's a potting wheel, a sprung dance floor. We were always wanting to invite creativity into and through the house."
Whedon's new movie takes that domestic impulse a step further — he shot the film, a black-and-white contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," at home.
A tart romantic comedy chronicling two pairs of lovers, Whedon's "Much Ado" retains the 16th century language but places its characters in a modern world of iPods and cupcake towers. There are multiple steamy love scenes, a few stolen puffs of marijuana and, as befits a Shakespeare adaptation from a man who made a teenage girl an action star, a slyly feminist take on a plot line that revolves around one character's virginity.
"We wanted to make it accessible and fun and hip and approachable for a modern viewer," said Alexis Denisof, a "Buffy" alumnus who plays the sharp-tongued Benedick and who participated in many of Whedon's backyard readings over the years. "We're not standing around in tights and ruffled shirts. We're telling a cool sexy story with guys in sharp suits."
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Filmed in secret over 12 days while Whedon was on a break from "Avengers," the movie is homemade in a multitude of ways. The crew shot in Whedon and Cole's kitchen and children's bedrooms, and cast and crew members often spent the night during production. Family friends cooked for the movie's big party scene, and dirty wine glasses from a real party supplied the props for the fictional morning after.
Nearly every actor in "Much Ado" has at least two credits from the so-called Whedonverse — Denisof ("Buffy," "Angel," "Avengers") and Amy Acker ("Angel," "Dollhouse," "The Cabin in the Woods") play Benedick and Beatrice, the play's wry, sparring couple; Fran Kranz ("Dollhouse," "The Cabin in the Woods") and newcomer Jillian Morgese are its wide-eyed lovers Claudio and Hero; and Nathan Fillion ("Buffy," "Firefly," "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") and Tom Lenk ("Buffy," "Angel," "The Cabin in the Woods") are the comically incompetent constable Dogberry and his loyal sidekick Verges.
Making a film as a break from making a bigger film might seem peculiar, but not in this household. "I relate to my friends usually through work," Whedon said. "I'm a workaholic. Part of making the movie wasn't just reconnecting with my artistic roots, it was reconnecting with my house and my friends. It was a true homecoming. It was the best way to get them all to spend 12 days with me."
On their terms
The idea for "Much Ado" came from Cole, a producer on the film. A graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, she has designed her family's last three houses and run a small textile company while raising the couple's 8-year-old daughter, Squire, and 10-year-old son, Arden. Tall, warm, with a faint Massachusetts accent, Cole has a habit of collecting artistic people — after she met a couple of Cirque du Soleil performers at a party one night, she had them over to her house to teach her and her son trapeze.
As an architect, Cole works for family and friends; a special interest of hers is how to lend a new house the character of an old one. The "Much Ado" house was built in the 1920s, but Cole gutted it to the studs and rebuilt it using reclaimed French wood and tiles, graceful arched doorways and leaded glass windows and antique furniture from yard sales in Cape Cod, where she grew up.
"I don't believe there was a moment where Kai said, 'Well, I'd better do this in case we shoot in here,'" Whedon said. "But that is a big damn kitchen and when you're in the little alley by the stove and realize, 'Wow, there's enough room to get a camera in here,' you're very grateful. The house informs what the movie is. It has a combination of sunny spaciousness and dark labyrinthine intrigue."