Ilana Masad talks to the director/writer and cast of the new Much Ado About Nothing about combining theatre and film, sex scenes, and getting drunk on set.
The Oxford Union’s Gladstone Room couldn’t be more different than the space I’d just inhabited: the Gladstone is dark, heavily curtained, wood-panelled, reeking of aged books and history; the entire set of Much Ado About Nothing, in whose cinematic coils I’d been captured for the last 108 minutes, is airy, windowed, and sunny, conveying bright colours despite being shot entirely in black and white.
Joss Whedon, director, composer and co-producer of this newest Shakespeare adaptation, was waiting in the Gladstone Room along with Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who, respectively, played Beatrice and Benedick. Much Ado has been opening to mostly enthusiastic and positive reviews, and the trio have been touring with the film for far longer than it took to shoot – a mere 12 days, in Whedon’s house in Santa Monica, California. The house, designed by Whedon’s wife, an architect, was also the setting for casual weekend Shakespeare readings that Whedon had been hosting for some time. Despite Much Ado’s careful cinematic editing, it still has a very theatrical feel.
“We wanted the energy of the readings, the energy of live performance and the spontaneity,” Whedon said. “As for the staging, for me, all I wanted to do was use the space, make it natural. I did use a lot of windows, peering around, because so much of [Much Ado About Nothing] is about perception and misperception.”
He went on: “I realised that the way to capture the theatre of it was to make it more intimate and cinematic [with] the use of close ups and reactions shots.” In much of his previous work, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly to the latest blockbuster superhero ensemble film, The Avengers, Whedon has discussed his “natural bent” towards getting as much physical or emotional action as possible into a single frame and letting the camera roll for as long as it can. “But in this instance,” he said, “the more we used the language of the cinema the more we got inside and captured the electricity of the theatre, which is a paradox which interests me.”
Denisof agreed: “You wouldn’t normally shoot a movie or do a play and feel that it would be successful together, but I think in this case we’ve found a way through where we’ve used some of the techniques and some of the advantages of theatre and likewise some of the techniques and some of the advantages of film. It has an alive quality of theatre but Joss has carefully guided the viewer through his camera, through his shot selection, and everything else that the director does to shape it.”
Acker added: “We also had the most beautiful set, which was Joss’s house. Usually if you’re filming, you walk through a door and there’s nothing there. We had the benefit that when you’d go in the kitchen and you’d open the refrigerator, and…” Acker waved her arm, implying the several scenes in the film in which dialogue is shot in Whedon’s kitchen. Unlike the usual film set, in which the fridge would be a prop, this one to be filled with prop-food – everything was already there, part of Whedon’s real life.
Whedon, Denisof and Acker are clearly very comfortable together. Denisof joked: “You know, we wanted to take advantage of the fact that it was his house, eat as much of his food and sleep in his beds while we could.” Whedon countered: “That got weird.” We all laughed. I ventured to ask whether the (prodigious amount of) wine drunk in the films was real, since I’d heard an interview in which a cast member had claimed as much. The actors and director chuckled and rolled their eyes, saying it was Brian McElhaney (of BriTANick) who had claimed this, and that “he’s very young.” Although the wine bottles were all props, Whedon did admit that “a lot of hard work went into creating those props.” He said he would have been very impressed if anyone had managed the gruelling 12-day filming schedule while inebriated: “Memorise Elizabethan dialogue and you’re drunk: GO.”
On the subject of this Elizabethan dialogue, Whedon, Denisof and Acker all discovered Shakespeare at different times. Acker “grew up going to ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ in Dallas and had teachers all along the way who were passionate and taught it in exciting ways”, but it wasn’t until she went to college and spent a summer at a Shakespeare camp in New Mexico (Whedon broke in to say “Where Shakespeare was from.”) that she really began to love the Bard. Denisof was much younger: “I remember being in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when I was probably 12 or 13; I was pretty young, and that’s a lasting memory. I played First Fairy.” He and Whedon exchanged knowing looks and, alluding to Denisof’s role as Weseley Wyndam-Pryce on Buffy and Angel, Denisof added, laughing: “And nothing has changed!”
Whedon said he couldn’t put a date on his discovery of Shakespeare. “He’s always sort of been around. My parents loved him and read him and I started aping them.” He continued: “It was when I came to high school and I started to really study it and see productions that Shakespeare – I was going to say blew my mind, but that doesn’t sound nearly as intellectual as I would like to come off, so – blew my incredibly intelligent mind. There. That sounds intellectual.”
When asked to choose which Shakespeare character of the opposite gender each of them would choose to play if they could (“Can I be young for this?” Joss asked), Denisof chose Portia from The Merchant of Venice, Whedon chose Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, and Acker chose Hamlet. Whedon had a picture on his phone of her standing theatrically with a Yorrick-skull in hand to prove her worthiness for the part.
Without spoiling the film – do see it if you have the chance – I will say that Whedon made the decision of giving Benedick and Beatrice, Much Ado’s sparring wits, a history, a knowledge of one another that precedes the play’s usual opening scenes. Denisof opined: “Otherwise you just have a Beatrice and Benedick who pontificate, which is amusing for a little while, but we wanted more than that.”
Acker added: “I just really wanted to have a sex scene with Alexis.”
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