Filling the Oxford Union debating chamber, Joss Whedon, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof walked in with genuine smiles and some waves, as well as a few glances around at the impressive room. On tour for Whedon’s newest film, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, first released at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2012, the trio has been traveling together for some time now. They were at the Union for a Q&A session, and the questions came quickly, both about the new film, which had just been screened, and about the director/writer and actors’ previous work. The answers, despite the tour’s grueling schedule, were graceful, enthusiastic, and often hilarious.
On the subject of why Whedon decided to shoot Much Ado in black and white (it was filmed entirely in his Santa Monica home, on a low budget, produced by his and his wife’s joint company), Whedon quipped that, contrary to popular belief, “most Shakespearian theatre was in colour!” He added that he wanted to create “a feeling of wanting something a little old-fashioned”, of evoking “just enough of a remove from your daily life”. He added that if it had just been “a home movie, the cognitive dissonance would’ve been too far.”
Acker and Denisof clearly have high opinions of their director, who’s worked with them before, on projects such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dollhouse. When asked about her ability to play a range of difficult and emotionally charged characters, Acker gave credit to Whedon’s scripts and to his direction: “He gives you opportunities for things you think you’re not capable of doing, and this sounds cheesy, but makes you find new parts of yourself.” Denisof said that ‘visionary’ wouldn’t be “too strong a word” for describing Whedon. He went on: “Collaboration with Joss and Amy has a kind of magic that defies description. It’s not a complicated process for us. He’ll take a scene that’s pretty good and he’ll make it amazing.” Whedon looked up at the ceiling and called out: “You’re welcome, Shakespeare!”
Denisof discussed the process of working with Whedon and Acker in such intense scenes – both in previous work and in Much Ado: “We’ve found this trust that’s allowed us to go to difficult places that has deepened our relationship even off screen.” He also sympathised with Whedon’s process: “Writing is a lonely job, part of its payoff is being realised, and what are we without him going through that lonely process?” He seemed alarmed by his serious tone, though, and surely the jet-lag began to kick in, since he cut himself short, saying: “God, this room…. Who am I right now? Yeah, dude, it was awesome!”
Joking aside, Whedon appears to feel just as strongly about his actors. Asked about the parallel between previous roles that Acker and Denisof have played – Fred and Wesley, in Angel – which also found them lip-locked, much like their newest roles as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado, Whedon said: “I’ve been throwing them into each other’s arms for some time now… They are my stars, they are my thesps.” Denisof added: “Or meat puppets, as he sometimes calls us.” Acker confessed, though: “We never made the connection of Wes and Fred until after the movie was finished, which seems kind of stupid.”
Another question from the audience was about Whedon’s transition from the peak of pop-culture in writing and filming The Avengers, to what may be considered ‘high’ culture with the making of Much Ado. Whedon didn’t see the negation: “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were stealing from Shakespeare almost as baldly as I do. Shakespeare is popular culture.” He pointed out Shakespeare’s plays’ popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries: “He wasn’t esoteric back then.”
However, there was a big difference in the filmmaking process – Much Ado was already written when he approached it. “Writing is my first and greatest love,” he said, “but I love telling stories on all different levels. To have the script done meant I could just work with that I had. After The Avengers, which was extraordinarily hard to piece together, it was nice to have something already there.”
Whedon’s first writing job was writing for the sitcom Roseanne. “I was 24, the whole staff had just been fired. […] I was thrown into the fire, and I wrote six scripts, four of which they filmed.” But he ended up quitting, he explained, after an episode he’d written dealing with an abortion was changed in order to smooth out the politics. The character who was going to have the abortion had a miscarriage instead, and Whedon said the episode ended up not being about anything of substance at all. His excitement waned: “We’re not going to tell the truth here – this is America.”
“Yes, I would call myself a feminist,” he said. But he also hedged that once “you declare yourself as anything, everything you do is defined by that.” He went on: “I do have a very strong feminist bent, and a political bent. You can’t deny who you are while you’re making something; neither can you be trapped by it.”
With regards to Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon said that he didn’t choose the play specifically because of its strong female lead, Beatrice. He explained that the choice was broader, having more to do with Shakespeare’s anticipation of a genre that, in essence, didn’t exist until he made it up: “The idea that Shakespeare was inventing the romantic comedy and deconstructing it at the same time blows my mind.”
Exiting to loud claps and some cheers, it’s safe to say that Whedon blew our minds, too.
Click here for a further interview with the director and cast.