For a small yet significant number of people, Joss Whedon isn’t just a writer, director and sometime performer of the Dance of Joy, he’s – what was it Quentin Travers said about Glory in the Checkpoint cliff-hanger? – “a god”.
As such, staring directly into his face was problematic. For fifteen minutes in a room in Soho this February, the struggle between my desire to appear professional, worldly and urbane, and urge to leap into Whedon’s lap sobbing ‘You made the horror of being a teenage girl okay’ was fierce. Angel’s battle between good and evil? A picnic compared to having to compose myself, sit nicely, and ask Joss Whedon sensible, grown-up questions about Shakespeare.
Professional and urbane then. Did I manage it? Er, no. But I did achieve something ultimately more rewarding.
Reader, I hugged him…
I could be wrong, but I expect you’ve spent almost as much time talking about Much Ado on this press circuit as you have fielding questions about your Marvel work. In the knowledge you can’t really answer them yet, will you humour us by answering a quick-fire round to get the geeky Marvel stuff out of the way before we get a bit nerdy about Shakespeare?
Absolutely. I can do both of those things because I am both of those things.
Okay, so just one or two word answers, as fast as you can. First question: when are you bringing back Firefly?
[Laughs] When the studio calls.
How are you resurrecting Coulson for Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D?
Umm, tune in and find out.
Who dies in The Avengers 2?
All of them. And oddly enough, the Justice League. It’s weird.
Are you on board for The Avengers 3?
That is the most terrifying thought I can imagine, but I used to say that about Avengers 2.
Finally then, when are you bringing back Firefly?
Er, a week Wednesday.
Thank you very much. So now that’s all out of the way, we can get down to Much Ado. As… (okay, I’m going to try and maintain a level of professionalism during these next fifteen minutes, if I don’t achieve it then I apologise in advance) … as someone whose adolescence was made infinitely more bearable by your work and the people I shared it with, I came out of Much Ado feeling as if I’d been invited to a Whedon wrap party. That intimacy was part of the treat for me. What do you think is the film’s treat for audiences unfamiliar with your cast and work?
Well, hopefully their treat would be to see a great play by the greatest writer in our language performed excellently by talented and beautiful people. I mean it’s a production of Much Ado, there’s never no reason to see a production of Much Ado.
If I thought… [adopts over-the-top thespy voice] ‘Well, the star wattage of this is going to carry it into the stratosphere and it will make more than The Avengers!’ Then you know, they would lock me up next to the guy who thinks he’s Napoleon, who turns out to be Bryan Singer, lovely man…
But with a Napoleon complex…
And he’s not even short, it’s weird.
Your cast with Much Ado included some experienced Shakespearian actors and others for whom it was a new challenge. Who was scared?
I’ll never get tired of telling this: Nathan Fillion tried to get out of it. He was terrified. And overworked. His show [Castle] is a really tough job actually, and he was very nervous about his ability to pull it off, and, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know he’s hilarious. I just told him, ‘I’ll trim stuff, I’ll work the schedule, but you’re going nowhere’.
This should have been one of my quick-fire questions: when’s Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry spin-off coming out?
Dogberry and Verges: the great love story of the film! Those two are… yeah, they didn’t make it more sombre.
Did any of the cast require a bit of coaching with the text? Were they like [mimes reading] “hang my bugle in an invisible what now?”
Well, certainly not that. I’m still not even sure what that means [laughs].
I think it’s rude…
[Nods] Alexis [Denisof, Buffy, Angel, The Avengers] is much more of a Shakespearean scholar than I am. He studied – and not just as an actor – for years and years. There was at least one time when Ashley Johnson, who plays Margaret, was asking about a scene and wasn’t sure she understood something and he went into like this long, ‘Well, you know, Shakespeare used to phrase things like this, and he’d always put the emphasis here, and this is actually a pun and in Elizabethan times and ra ra rah…’, and he goes on for about ten minutes. Afterwards, I’m like [speaking deliberately slowly and stupidly] ‘She should be sad. I’m helpful too.’
So people would find things and say, ‘What is it that’s going on here?’ but in general, they’d look it up, they’d do the work.
They’re not stupid people, your actors.
Not at all.
That should be a DVD extra, ‘Shakespeare lessons with Alexis’…
Oh it should. And Reed Diamond doing his fop impression, which is timeless and beautiful.
Your backyard Shakespeare readings have fallen into Whedon legend amongst your fans. Can you give us a rundown of who you’ve had reading what in the past? Have you ever heard James Marsters’ Hamlet, or Alyson Hannigan’s Rosalind?
Aly doesn’t like to do it as much. I did, in fact, only recruit her once when my wife wanted to do The Merry Wives Of Windsor with her and they did that and it was very fun. James was obsessed with Macbeth, so that was going to be the first thing for him.
Did he do a Scottish accent?
He did not. Every now and then somebody would put on an accent. Every now and then I would too. At least once I remember doing Feste [from Twelfth Night], and doing a Father Topaz that caused Tim Minear [Buffy and Angel writer] to shriek in the middle [shouts] “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?!” I was like, ‘I’m from the Italian part of Norway’.
Do you still have ambitions to film Hamlet?
Yes, yes I still do.
And you have a Hamlet in mind?
I don’t, that’s the problem. I know a lot of great actors, but by the time I get in gear it’s twenty years down the line, and they’re playing Lear and cursing my name.
So I’m guessing your plan isn’t now to work through the remaining 35-odd plays…
No. No I mean, there’s definitely some that I would love to film, but part of this was doing something that I’ve not done before, and now, I’ve done before.
Can we talk about the slight changes that you made to the text. The scene between Beatrice and Benedick at the beginning, and Hero and Beatrice watching Hero’s funeral procession, cleared up some of the questions modern audiences might have about the play.
That’s exactly what they’re for.
So your approach to changing the text was to sort out potential problems for a modern audience then?
With that first scene, starting with the idea that Beatrice and Benedick had been intimate years before and clearly neither of them were able to deal with that, that’s something that Alexis and Amy [Acker, Angel, Dollhouse] and I decided. We realised that the play works with that interpretation. It works perfectly well without it and probably originally did not have it, but we were going for something that was a little more painful and intimate than just witty and barbed.
It’s sexier that way too.
Sexier is always good. The idea of ‘Oh, they have a one night stand’ and then we see a brief glimpse later and it’s clearly very passionate, it’s like something was exposed that night that neither of them could be comfortable with afterwards, and so that changes the texture of how they behave towards each other. It gets a little rawer. When Alexis was calling her a harpy, he was worried. He was like ‘I’m going pretty far with this’, and I was like ‘Yeah, you are, but the way Amy’s looking at you, the way she’s just challenging you, like ‘What have you got?’ and she’s just putting you down in front of everybody, I think it’s going to play.
It changes the text in useful ways too, like when Beatrice tells Benedick “I know you of old”, now she’s not just saying ‘I’ve got your number’.
Yes. Yes, that’s it.
The funeral procession you added also offers a sound emotional explanation that the original text doesn’t to the question of why Hero would accept a man who’s humiliated her and turned his feelings on a dime like that?
Yeah, I mean, they send Hero off and then she disappears from the narrative entirely. One of the things when you’re really looking at the text, and you ask yourself whether or not you’re going to show it, is ‘What is this person doing in between the times that I see them?’ and because it’s always a bit of a buy that Hero and Claudio are going for it at the end, I thought, if she sees him, if she really watches him mourn and sees that he’s sincere about it, then her forgiveness doesn’t feel as distasteful.
Did you think much about changing things to fit the social mores of the different contexts? You obviously changed the “Then I am a Jew” line, but got a great laugh out of the ‘Ethiope’ line…
Well yeah. “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” that’s not going to fly, because there’s no context wherein you can deal with it, whereas Claudio, you know, Fran [Kranz] and I were in lockstep about the fact that his character is kind of a dick [laughs]. You know, he’s a soldier?
Well, he’s a jock.
He’s a jock. Exactly. Kind of a frat boy. He believes everything he hears and it always makes him angry. I mean, he’s the guy who defeated Don John, there’s something in there that’s a little powerful. Although Fran is a very gentle presence, he’s also super buff and very good at conveying that sort of mixture of wide-eyed innocence and completely wrought tension. So we got to that line, he loved it, I was like ‘I really want to do this’, and the extra who was in frame when he says it, I just went up to her and said ‘This is what we’re going to do’ and I had a way of explaining it, and she said ‘Oh, so just like a moment from The Office?’
Yes! That’s just what it’s like.
And that was exactly what I was about to say to her.
This next thing I wanted to say has a really long preamble and probably not even a question mark at the end of it, so again, excuse me. The more I reflected on your Much Ado and then your previous work, the more it became obvious to me how Shakespearean your earlier characters are because of their self-awareness. Shakespeare writes people who can’t come on stage without commenting on who they are, or who they’re supposed to be, and what they’re doing. You could see the similarities between Don John in custody declaring ‘I’m a villain! I’m a villain’, but the extent of his villainy is just spreading a few lies, and Buffy‘s season four Spike, who’s all ‘I’m the big bad’ but unable to do any actual evil because of the chip in his head…
[Joss Whedon is nodding slowly and looking slightly worried]
Beatrice and Benedick too, spend most of Much Ado defining themselves, they’re all ‘I wasn’t born under this’, ‘I was born to do that’. I suppose if I have a question it’s this: were you aware of the Shakespearean qualities of those earlier characters when you were writing them?
I always thought it was a flaw of mine that I loved people to be so articulate about themselves. I’ve seen great drama when people can’t express what it is they are or what they’re going through and you know, they get to a place that is devastating, and I always think, ‘Oh, I just have them speechify and understand everything about themselves’ and it wasn’t until just after making this that really after talking about it for a while, I was like ‘Oh! I think I know where I got that…’
The light-bulb moment.
Yeah. It wasn’t just from Spider-Man…
In terms of your language too – and this is getting somewhat nerdy – that thing Shakespeare does when he shifts around word classes, using nouns as verbs and verbs as adjectives etc., is what I’ve been hearing in your work for the past sixteen years. When Buffy says she’s been “Single White Femaled”, that’s Shakespearean. Even when – and I don’t know if this is your line or not – but Willow’s “I do doodle, you too, you do doodle too”
That sounds like Jane Espenson to me! [laughs]
And the Buffy writers said they got all that from you.
They imitated the way you speak. So my question is, how come you speak like that?
[Laughs] You mean, what’s wrong with you?
For me, language is this sort of sacred thing. It’s a temple that you have to tear down, it’s hard to explain, I love it so much, and I’m very… I hate it when people misuse words, but at the same time, if you’ve spent a lot of time either reading Elizabethan drama or listening to any teenager, you realise that language is completely liquid all the time and it is changing. Of course Shakespeare was making up words. I read that he made up about a tenth of the words he used. I’m not quite that bold, but there is, first of all a desperate desire not to say exactly the way things are said all the time. Sometimes the language can get too florid, it can eat itself, it can be a little bit much, but to me, the poetry of the thing is part of the great joy.
When I get to a character like, not ironically, Illyria [Amy Acker’s second Angel character, named for the setting of Twelfth Night], when I was writing her, there were bits that I would write that were just in verse. She’s describing worlds that she’s seen and there are two lines that are basically meant to… they have the exact same cadence, they’re meant to be a couplet. And also you can do either of them to the tune of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds or My Favourite Things.
Can you tell us the lines?
I’m not going to remember them well enough, but I think one of them is “Glaciers that rippled with insensate lust”.
[Illyria’s next line, one I kick myself for only remembering on the bus journey home, is “And one world with nothing but shrimp. I tired of that one quickly” Joss Whedon ladies and gentlemen; sublime and ridiculous]
The pleasure of the language itself is part of what makes it fun to do as long as it doesn’t become off-putting. I know a lot of people don’t like the way I write, and I don’t always go that far, but you know, spending some time doing this, it definitely showed me, ‘Oh, so there is a link…’
They say there’s a neurological explanation for our enjoyment of that kind of playing with language. I don’t know if you’ve heard of ‘The Shakespeared Brain’ research?
I have not heard about that.
I probably shouldn’t waste our remaining minutes talking about it with you…
No, do. I’m excited about that.
So, some scientists hooked some people up to a brain monitor thing and read them a bunch of Shakespearean quotes and whenever the word classes were shifted it kind of – forgive my Arts student understanding of all this – the brain just kind of went ‘Wow!’, like lit up with ‘Ping! Pleasure!’. I think that’s what happens with your writing, there are moments hearing your language when people’s brains just go ‘Ping!”.
Sorry. I’m becoming less and less articulate.
No, no. We aim to “Ping”.
One of the questions I wanted to ask, and have to try and fit in now as they’re turfing me out is, if you had just fifteen minutes with the person who created your adolescent heroes, what would you ask them?
Umm, ‘How did I get here? What’s happening?’ [laughs].
I had a lot of adolescent heroes, and I’ve spent time with the people who created them. Possibly the best day of my life, certainly in the top five, was the day I spent on the set of Titanic with James Cameron, because he was interested in getting me to write Avatar. He said ‘It’s going to be about a year before we have the technology’, and it was like ten years before… and eventually I had to turn it down because it was the first season of Buffy and I was like ‘I have to do this instead’ but I asked him everything.
And then of course, I spent time with Stan Lee and Steven Sondheim so I pretty much covered the waterfront, and what I asked them was as much as you could fit into fifteen minutes [laughs].
Finally, – my editor is forcing me to ask this – do you have a favourite Jason Statham film?
Favourite Jason Statham film… I’ve seen a few, I like him. I’m trying to think, I can’t think of a favourite film. Probably my least favourite film has my favourite sequence, that would be Crank 2 because it has the Godzilla sequence, which, in the middle of an appalling mess is a masterpiece.
Joss Whedon, thank you very much!
Much Ado About Nothing comes out in the UK on Friday the 14th of June. See the first trailer, here.
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