Why did Joss Whedon choose Much Ado About Nothing?

Feature Louisa Mellor 7 Feb 2013 - 16:05

Of all the post-Avengers projects available to him, why did Joss Whedon choose an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing?

In September 2011, Joss Whedon was days from finishing principal photography on The Avengers and planning an anniversary trip to Italy with his producer wife, Kai Cole. As he tells it, Cole suggested they ditch the holiday and use the time to finally make the Much Ado About Nothing adaptation Whedon had been planning since he’d heard Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as Beatrice and Benedick at one of the regular Shakespeare readings Whedon and Cole held at their California home.

With the means (Cole and Whedon’s Bellwether production company was set up for just such micro-budget projects), the location (the couple’s Santa Monica house, designed by Cole), the cast (plucked from his regular Whedonverse troupe), and the will (Whedon’s never been shy about his love of Shakespeare), the film was in the can a month later.

The first the outside world heard about it was via a nineteen character tweet from Nathan Fillion linking to the film’s press release (Whedon joked that the Castle and Firefly actor needed physical restraint to stop him leaking the news on Twitter any earlier). The minimalist release featured a list of cast names followed by the title, a black and white image of Fran Kranz in a swimming pool, and the legend “A film by Joss Whedon. Based on a play”. Moments later, Fillion followed up the link with the additional message: “Oh it’s real. Very. Very. Real.”

While the fun of the secrecy must have been irresistible to Whedon, on whom the movie press was keeping a watchful eye thanks to the Marvel blockbuster, part of the clandestine approach was due to the fact that nobody was quite sure what they were making. Was it a passion project, or a marketable film? A three-week party between friends, or something for a wider audience? All of the above, as it turns out. 

Amy Acker (Beatrice) recalls her “oh, this is a real film” surprise at turning up to the Whedon/Cole home on the first day of shooting to see catering, lighting rigs, and crew. Whedon admits to having the same realisation only after the applause of Much Ado’s first screening, thinking to himself, “Wow, so this is really a movie”.

While speed-adapting Shakespeare in the midst of your highest-pressure project yet wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a good time, the choice to follow up a Goliath of a writing/directing job with a micro-budget David requires little explanation. Much Ado could be Whedon’s palate cleanser, a tiny chink of back-to-basics film-making in the imposing multi-million dollar Marvel edifice. The question we’re left with then, isn’t why he opted to make a fast-turnaround, low-budget picture, but why he opted to make Much Ado About Nothing.

Well, with the play’s genre defining (and defying – though we’ll come to that) story, strong ensemble, quick-witted banter, and Shakespeare’s brightest, most combative and pun-happy heroine, Much Ado is such an obvious fit for Joss Whedon that perhaps the real question is: what took him so long?

The story

Much Ado About Nothing is a single-location story, taking place in a bucolic estate in Sicily in the original, and a well-appointed Californian home in Whedon’s adaptation. It follows the fates of two pairs of lovers, ostensible leads Claudio and Hero, and the whip-smart pair we’re actually rooting for: Benedick and Beatrice. 

On their return from war, a group of aristocratic soldiers and their hangers-on arrive at wealthy Leonarto’s home to drink, let off steam, and make merry. Amongst them is the Prince, the dastardly half-brother he has in custody, the soon-to-be-lovesick Claudio, and Benedick, a confirmed bachelor (not in the euphemistic ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ sense, though academic papers have doubtless been written on the subject).

Young Hero is Leonarto’s daughter, and soon agrees to wed Claudio. Her cousin Beatrice is Benedick’s opposite number, and like him, the possessor of a quick wit and an even quicker tongue. Sworn off husbands as steadfastly as Benedick is sworn off wives, Beatrice is the last women in the world who’d ever fall for him, and thus a million rom-com plots are born… 

Dissecting genre

As ever in Shakespearian comedy, disguise, plotting, and subterfuge drive Much Ado’s story towards a wedding, but not before events take a grave turn. The tonal shift in Act IV prompts Whedon to describe Much Ado as a “dark drama”, more noir at times than “straight-up romantic comedy”. The combination of levity and gravity is an established Whedon speciality - his characters routinely defeat apocalypses and muse about shoe shopping in the same breath - but it’s Much Ado’s dissection of genre that makes it particularly Whedonesque.

Since Welcome to the Hellmouth’s pre-credits scene turned horror cliché upside down by showing the blonde, sexually active schoolgirl to be the monster and not the victim, Whedon’s taste for inverting tropes and subverting genres was laid down. 2012’s The Cabin In The Woods was a master class in precisely that, a film that pointed out the puppet strings of the horror genre while still whole-heartedly adoring the puppet show. It’s little wonder then, that his choice of Shakespeare play, in his own words, pulls apart the whole idea of romance and then lovingly tapes it back together. 

Says Whedon of Much Ado. “I feel that the text is credited for being the classic romantic-comedy because it really is the mother of them all, but at the same time not credited for the cold and incisive intelligence with which it deconstructs the romantic comedies that would even come after.” As Whedon sees it, defying genre by taking structures his audience were familiar with then turning them “on their ass” is Shakespeare’s shtick. “Hamlet is a revenge story about a guy who’s incapable of committing revenge. Much Ado is a love story that pretty much spits in the face of the idea of romantic love”.

He’s not wrong. A Midsummer Night’s Dream needed a naughty sprite with a love potion to ridicule romantic love, but Much Ado achieves the same result using only words. It sees two great talkers talk themselves into a facsimile of love. It shows lovers being manipulated and tricked, their will bent on the whim of others. It shows a man agreeing to a marriage that’s purely contractual obligation, and a lover’s devotion turn instantly to disgust. Even its title declares love to be “nothing”. Much Ado doesn’t so much spit in romantic love’s face as drench it cold.

And yet.

It’s an undoubtedly romantic story. Whedon leaves us in no doubt that by the curtain call, his wooing foursome are legitimately, compulsively, sexily head over heels in love. Just as The Cabin in the Woods was both a horror movie and an autopsy of the same, Much Ado is a love story and its own critique. As Ian McCulloch might have it, it’s about the back of love. 

Whedon actually makes Shakespeare’s story more romantic, by taking one or two liberties in his otherwise faithful adaptation. The first is a silent opening scene - a prequel moment if you like - which confirms to the audience that there’s a very good reason for Beatrice and Benedick’s public acrimony once the play proper begins. The second is a scene of Claudio grieving for Hero, watched unbeknownst to him by the lady herself. Both are emotionally intelligent additions, shoring up a modern audience’s answers to Much Ado’s two nagging questions: is Beatrice and Benedick’s love real? And, why does Hero accept Claudio after the way he treats her?

Whedon’s version is also sexier than Shakespeare wrote it, to us twenty-first century lot anyhow. The text may be Elizabethan, but men in ruffs and hose have been swapped for chisel-jawed types in expensive suits, and other men in hoop skirts and painted faces replaced with Whedon’s preferred choice of beautiful, slight women with long hair and intelligent faces wearing cotton dresses and Brigitte Bardot stripes. I’m also fairly sure that GCSE classes around the country would be livened up no end by Don John bringing Conrade to the point of climax in Act II, scene ii…

Shakespeare

The pre-university years Joss Whedon spent living in England as a student of Winchester College, and the English Literature A Level he took there could be seen as the genesis of Much Ado. He cites the experience as kick-starting his love of Shakespeare, and especially of Hamlet, Whedon’s favourite of the playwright’s tales. It was the tragic story of the indecisive prince that Whedon wanted to adapt for the big screen over twenty years ago, back when he was a jobbing TV writer who couldn’t dream of securing the funding for such a project.

Part of Whedon’s mission with Much Ado, he says, “was to make a Shakespeare movie for people who don’t watch a lot of Shakespeare”. It’s the same mission Baz Luhrmann achieved so spectacularly with his 1996 Romeo + Juliet, a film so successful in its goal that an entire generation is now unable to hear the Queen Mab speech without picturing a gorgeous six-foot transvestite strutting around in platforms, or conceive of the balcony scene without a pair of costume-shop angel wings. 

Can Whedon’s Much Ado reach as wide an audience as Luhrmann’s kitsch masterpiece? In all honesty, no, it’s a very different sort of film. Intimate where Luhrmann’s was expansive, comic where Luhrmann’s was tragic, and black and white where Luhrmann’s was as colourful as a peacock’s tail on Mardi Gras. What it’s sure to do though, is delight Whedon’s hard-core fans (especially the Venn diagram overlap of Whedon fans with Lit degrees).

The production’s intimacy lends Much Ado a wrap party feel. That’s part of what makes it a treat for lovers of the Whedonverse, much of whose fandom is about belonging to Whedon’s gang of seductively clever, funny characters and actors. Not that the film is sealed-off to outsiders either. How could it be, when its jokes have been in the public domain for over five centuries.

(Incidentally, Whedon and Cole’s son is named Arden, as in As You Like It’s forest, Bloomsbury’s play editions, and Shakespeare’s mother’s maiden name. When you baptise your child with the answer to a writer’s internet banking security question, it has to be love…)

The ensemble

There must be a hundred reasons that Much Ado trumped Hamlet as Whedon’s first choice of Shakespeare adaptation, not least the fact that his family home couldn’t easily double up as the seat of the Danish monarchy, and that Much Ado’s text is almost half the length of Hamlet’s. One thing in particular though must have tipped the scale in Much Ado’s favour: Whedon’s cast. 

Whedon’s recycled group of Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Tom Lenk, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg… are his version of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatre company that performed Shakespeare’s plays. Start tracing connecting biro lines between that group and Whedon’s various TV and film projects and you’ll soon have a mass of indecipherable scribbles. To sum up, if Whedon likes an actor, he uses them again. And again. And again.

So when Much Ado became a real prospect, it was simply a case of assembling his Avengers. Up went the Bat Signal (I know, I know, mixed universe metaphors) and three weeks later, in came Whedon’s peeps. Firefly’s Sean Maher was offered the role of Don John with a single-line email: “I need a sexy villain, what sayeth you?”. Unsurprisingly, he sayeth yeth.

So with the cast Whedon wanted ready to roll (well almost. According to Amy Acker, Tony Head wasn’t available to play Leonarto, so Clark Gregg stepped in at the last minute), Much Ado was born.

The banter

“If I was at full Slayer power, I’d be punning right about now”

Much Ado’s backbone is the “kind of merry war” enacted between erstwhile enemies Beatrice and Benedick. It’s a war of words, fought with battalions of puns. The pair loose salvos of insults and innuendoes upon each other, their verbosity and belligerence explained in Whedon’s film by the gallons of expensive booze being sunk at every turn.

Who better to deal in quips and wisecracks than the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Wordplay and wit has ever been Whedon’s stock-in-trade as a writer, so it’s unsurprising that when he and his try on Shakespeare’s badinage for size, it comes up as a very good fit. 

Buffy and Spike's relationship is cut from the Beatrice and Benedick template in more ways than one. The pair trade insults just as furiously as their Elizabethan counterparts, and after five seasons of sarcasm and verbal abuse comes a declaration of love few would have predicted upon their first meeting. To top off the comparison, in season four's Something Blue, the couple is even tricked into infatuation with one another via a love spell, a classic Shakespearean comedy scenario the punch lines of which are very like what befalls Beatrice and Benedick.

Using the sixteenth century text does of course put the kibosh on Whedon’s trademark style. Pop culture references are off limits, though Elizabethan audiences might well have giggled at those whose cultural relevance has since been lost to us. No, there’s not a 'shiny', or a 'jonesing', and nary a 'wiggins', but hearing Shakespearean language spill out of Whedonverse faces creates new and rare pleasures (listen to Nathan Fillion call someone “Thou naughty varlet!” and tell me you don’t agree), after all, we are talking about the man who put a quim in Loki’s mouth. 

Strong women

Joss Whedon’s address to an 2006 Equality Now benefit has become the stuff of feminist legend thanks to his riff on something he’s repeatedly asked in press interviews. Whedon parroted the voices of umpteen journalists asking him “Why do you write such strong women characters?”, then, after delivering a parade of plausible answers, settled on the one that’ll be quoted in his obituaries: “Because you’re still asking me that question”.

Shakespeare didn’t do press junkets. Had he, then of all the clever women he wrote, Rosalind, Portia, Katherine, Cleopatra…, Beatrice’s character may have prompted that same question. John Dover Wilson famously called Much Ado’s heroine “the first woman in our literature, perhaps in the literature of Europe, who not only has a brain, but delights in the constant employment of it”.

Beatrice may not be a vampire slayer, level-five witch, or a government-brainwashed fighting machine, but she’s smart, funny, and runs verbal rings around everyone else. Does that make the play feminist? As ever, Whedon explains it best: “I think it’s often chauvinist, often feminist, often funny. It’s human; it’s Shakespeare, you know? He has a very keen eye for who we are and he’s a little bit merciless with it. That’s where he gets his humour as well as his darkness. I think that’s kind of what makes it art - you can’t just be a political statement one way or the other. It’s got to breathe beyond those boundaries.”

Much Ado About Nothing is out on general release in the UK on the 14th of June and in the US on the 21st of June. Its UK premiere (in the exciting presence of a certain Mr Whedon) will be at the Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday the 24th of February.

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