Interview: Joss Whedon on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon. Photo: Stuart Crawford for Glasgow Film Festival 2013

From commandeering superheroes in The Avengers to a low-key adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

After commandeering superheroes in The Avengers, Joss Whedon has turned to Shakespeare. Hannah McGill speaks to the writer and director about his low-key adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

To those with knowledge of both Shakespeare and Joss Whedon, it won’t seem like a culture clash for the man behind Firefly, Buffy and The Avengers to take on Much Ado About Nothing. Rapid-fire repartee, gender warfare and even the odd rhyming couplet have long been part of the Whedon oeuvre. Brought up by ‘very theatre-oriented’ parents, he read Shakespeare ‘before I got most of it, because I’m a pretentious little twat. Eventually, the enjoyment overtook the pretension.’

His passion was encouraged when he studied at Winchester College in the UK, and later, he and his wife, Kai Cole, indulged it further by holding Shakespeare readings in their Santa Monica home. The eventual result – a playful sideline while Whedon recovered from the rigours of The Avengers – is Much Ado: a blithe, bracing, modern dress version of a beloved but somewhat problematic play, starring many of his friends and frequent collaborators.

Whedon acknowledges that the film was partly spurred by a desire to change the thinking of those who might hold the Bard in low regard. ‘You do want to say, “look, it’s not all starched collars and ruffles and minuets: it’s alive, and it’s exciting!” But you can’t go in with a mission. And if I was really out to convert high schoolers, I might not have had quite so much drinking in the film … ’
The element of Much Ado that lends itself easily to contemporary interpretation is the blissfully spiky courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, played here by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. More awkward is the parallel story of whether or not bride-to-be Hero (Jillian Morgese) has compromised her virginity. Manipulated by his friends – whom Whedon describes as ‘fratboys’ – her fiancé Claudio (Fran Kranz) is first disturbingly credulous on the matter, and then disturbingly cruel. ‘I don’t think I understood at first how the nasty, dark stuff fitted with the delightful fluffy love and the funny snarky banter,’ Whedon agrees. ‘And I don’t know if I hold out much hope for that relationship. It’s a bit of a buy that it’s all going to be fine.’ But so it often is with Shakespeare’s romances. Was he a cynic when it came to love? ‘Joseph Fiennes notwithstanding, I think he was. He took apart conventions of love that are still part of our culture.’

Having actors who were confident with the language was critical in making sense of the text. Some were experienced Shakespearean performers, others ‘terrified’ newcomers, but Whedon knew what he needed. ‘I made the film because I knew I had the people who could do it,’ he says. ‘Stages, sitcoms and soaps: those are the people that I pursue, because they can learn a lot fast and they have a work ethic.’

One senses that another significant element of making Much Ado was a statement of defiance against Hollywood’s sidelining of the screenwriter. ‘My whole life has been a statement in defiance of that,’ Whedon sighs. ‘You know there are writer jokes in Hollywood? The dumb actress who sleeps with the writer? Here’s one I made up: how many writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?’ He leans in. ‘ONE.’

Much Ado About Nothing is on selected release from Fri 14 Jun.

Much Ado About Nothing (trailer #1)

Much Ado About Nothing

  • 4 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 1h 47min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Joss Whedon
  • Written by: William Shakespeare, Joss Whedon
  • Cast: Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion
  • UK release: 14 June 2013

Shakespeare's spiky, witty, problematic play is the grandparent of the modern romcom, and Whedon's version is no stunt: he's been conducting private readings of it for years. The actors are experienced and adept (with Acker a particular pleasure as Beatrice) and it's realised with simplicity, elegance and emotional…