AUSTIN, TX: Director Joss Whedon and most of the large ensemble cast for his new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing turned up at the SXSW Film Festival for the picture’s first screening Saturday afternoon, participating in a panel discussion and Q&A that ran a full hour and touched on everything from the film’s sexiness to drinking on set to its director’s previous, sharply different gig directing a certain superhero blockbuster.
But first, a few words about the film itself, which plays like a great party to which we’re all invited. “Out of question, you were born in a merry hour,” proclaims Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), and though he’s saying it of Beatrice (Amy Acker), it applies to the film as well. It was done as a lark, a quickie that Whedon and his actor pals dashed off in a few days after he finished The Avengers, when he and his wife were supposed to go on vacation. Instead, they made what is quite literally a home movie—it was shot in Whedon’s house (designed by his wife, architect Kai Cole, who is also one of the film’s producers).
The mood of the picture’s making translates effortlessly to the final product, which is loose, enjoyable, and sparkling; it’s a movie that lives for the sound of clinking wine glasses and snappy patter. Put simply, you want to go hang out with these people. Whedon keeps Shakespeare’s language intact, though he filters it through not only modern dress but a modern sensibility. His staging is inventive, incongruently placing scenes in a small child’s bedroom, or playing out a particularly compelling bit of dialogue as (literally) sexual foreplay. There is a sense, occasionally, of these bits of blocking and little comic flourishes upstaging the words, but only a fuddy-duddy would air such concerns; he makes this very old play feel very fresh and new, finding laughs in the pauses and pain buried in the subtext.
The happy playing doesn’t undercut the story’s serious turns, however (even if the sexual morality beats aren’t exactly a snug fit with the modernized interpretation), nor the sweetness of its romantic payoffs. And the acting is terrific. Alexis Denisof is a smashing Benedick; he lets the words drip off his tongue like bile, and pulls off his many soliloquies merely by seeming like the kind of guy who loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice. The luminous Acker’s line readings are delicious—nearly good enough to erase the memory of Emma Thompson in the 1993 Branagh version (almost). She gets the character’s edge as well; her “O, that I were a man” speech is magnificent. And it’s impossible to convey the comic wonder of Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk, who play Dogberry and Verges as rent-a-cops who’ve spent a lot of time watching David Caruso dramatically remove his sunglasses.
A couple of minor quibbles can be voiced—Whedon never figures out how to deal with the inevitable drag that is villainous Don Jon, so he veers uncomfortably in and out of self-parody in those scenes–but to what end? Whedon’s Much Ado is sweet, coy, and mischievous, much like its characters. It’s a delightful charmer, bubbly and fizzy and airy as a good nightcap.
In the post-movie Q&A, Whedon’s cast revealed that few of them (surprisingly) had ever done Shakespeare before. How was it? “Intimidating, terrifying, frightening,” said Whedonverse fave Nathan Fillion. “I peed a little.”
“I peed a lot,” chimed in Clark Gregg, who also came to the film fresh off The Avengers, where he played Agent Phil Coulson. How did the two experiences compare? On The Avengers, according to Gregg, “everything was so massively prepared, and they could show you digital renderings on their iPads of what everything around you was going to look like as you did the scene, and what this guy was going to turn into when he became a rage monster. And this was very, very not like that.” Gregg initially had a conflict and turned the film down, but by the time another actor dropped out, he was free again. “I’m abundantly available,” he says he told his director, “’but don’t you start tomorrow?” To which Whedon replied, “Yeah, you’re in.”
That “sure, whatever” atmosphere was, for Whedon, “therapeutic” after the experience of shouldering a giant franchise movie. “To be with people I love, doing work not just that I love, but doing it in that sort of compressed, let’s put on a show, we only have this much time hothouse, you just walked away every day having accomplished an enormous amount… as opposed to something like The Avengers where you’re shooting 1/10th of an explosion for a week.”
But he’s careful not to sound like he prefers one way of working to another, studio vs. independent, blockbuster vs. low-budget. “They’re not that different,” he insists. “Ultimately, you’re just trying to convey something, if it’s a joke, if it’s a moment.” But he encountered the same challenges on both films: “We were working around everybody’s schedules because everybody was working, same thing on Avengers… and the biggest of all is, I need a reason for everybody to be here. I cannot ask people to come on to this set, or any set, unless I know exactly who they are, what they’re doing, what their purpose is, what their through-line is. Everybody has to matter equally in the ensemble. So big and little, both are great, I’m enormously privileged to do them, but in the end I’m only ever doing one thing.”
Much Ado About Nothing screens again today and Wednesday at SXSW. It opens June 7th in limited release.