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Why You Need A Creative Shift Instead Of A Vacation, As Explained By Joss Whedon

Why Joss Whedon followed up one of the biggest blockbusters ever, The Avengers, with a low budget Shakespeare film, and what you can learn from that act of creative recharging.

The Whedonverse faithful--a mob more diverse than you might expect--pull themselves away from Queen Street West’s comic book shops and fill Toronto’s historic Elgin Theatre to the rafters. Even from the back aisle of the theater’s top balcony, they proudly flash their fandom for writer/director Joss Whedon via Firefly T-shirts and Buffy the Vampire Slayer souvenir magazines.

The Whedonverse faithful are also screamers, easily surpassing Bollywood fans as the loudest crowds at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. They’re here on a warm Saturday afternoon because the fantasy mastermind, Joss Whedon himself, the creator of cult TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and Firefly, a longtime comic book scribe and the filmmaker behind the most successful superhero movie to date, the Marvel Studios adventure The Avengers, is on stage talking about his latest and perhaps most unusual, project. Whedon stands before them to introduce the world premiere of his new movie--a movie far removed from superheroes, spaceship crews, or teen vampire hunters. Much Ado About Nothing is a low-budget, black-and-white version of William Shakespeare’s comedy, set in present day and shot over 12 days in Whedon’s Santa Monica home.

Joss Whedon

“Boy, I hope you feel this way two hours from now,” Whedon says with a nervous smile. “I was in this theater last night watching Anna Karenina and now I don’t want to show my movie.”

In Much Ado, Whedon puts a contemporary spin on the Shakespeare comedy. He worked with his wife, the producer and designer Kai Cole, on the film, which was shot last fall during his brief break between principal photography on The Avengers and his long stint in post-production.

A Shakespeare purist like Kenneth Branagh, who directed and starred in his own version of Much Ado, would likely not be amused by Whedon’s version despite the Comic-Con superstar’s adherence to Shakespeare’s original text. Instead of an earnest extravaganza filled with gorgeous costumes and elaborate cinematography, Whedon films Much Ado like a Mumblecore, indie art-house film minus Greta Gerwig, intentionally low-fi with handheld camerawork.

But not long into the movie, Much Ado takes off at a fast pace and becomes as fun and as clever as one hopes Shakespeare to be. There are plenty of surprises on-screen but the biggest jolt occurs in the theater. The fans love it; they really, really love it.

“You make a strong man cry,” Whedon adds after the movie ends, forming a long, Rockettes-worthy line on stage with his massive ensemble.

The following afternoon, at a downtown nightclub turned pop-up interview suite, away from the frenzy of the previous day’s premiere, Whedon sinks into a sofa and sighs with relief for the first time.

He confesses to not knowing whether his fans, no matter how devoted they might be, would like the movie or if they would even have the chance to see it. The 48-year-old filmmaker and father of two admits that Much Ado came about at the insistence of his wife, Kai, who saw firsthand his physical exhaustion after shooting The Avengers. He didn’t need a “vacation,” he needed a working vacation complete with catering, costumes, and a film crew before returning to The Avengers. He needed an entirely different ensemble project.

The Avengers was a job and a really tough job,” Whedon says, leaning forward. “I can’t say that about Much Ado. That was a gift, a gift from my wife who said, this is what you want to do. You don’t want to travel. You want to do this. I remember thinking: Have I gone completely mad? Then, I’m shooting and I feel all the tension release from my body. It was amazing. When you work at something really hard, then working at something else is a vacation. I remember returning to work on The Avengers with a clearer eye and being more invested not because I have my art and this is my commerce but because the joy of storytelling is back.”

Some of his Much Ado team members are longtime Shakespeare veterans and others are experiencing the Bard for the first time. Still, none of them hesitated to roll up their sleeves and dive into Whedon’s Shakespeare experiment, despite the pages of script to memorize and the frantic pace of this home movie.

They did it, says Avengers cast member Clark Gregg, because the actors share one key thing with the army of fans in the seats. They all love Whedon and his work.

“The reason those people are there with their Buffy books is that Joss is such a formidable writer in his own right and he carries this kind of writer’s love for Shakespeare and with communicating," says Gregg. "I marvel at how effortlessly he was able to make that text communicate with people in a universal way and in a timeless way and to communicate his intention to actors in a very short amount of time. I think it is love. He has this tremendous love for the story that comes out of his pores and a love for the actors he brought to do this.”

There are stipulations, restrictions, and severe deadlines that come with directing a big-budget superhero movie despite all the technological resources at one’s disposal. There are also challenges to be cohesive with other movies in the Marvel universe.

Whedon admits to being tempted to make The Avengers more like Glengarry Glen Ross; a dialogue-driven drama, and when he realized couldn’t, he found an outlet in Shakespeare instead. Sometimes, after months of using the latest digital technology, all you want are words on a page and pointing a handheld camera at the actors speaking the dialogue. It’s risky, but that’s also part of the appeal to tackling a low-budget Shakespeare movie.

“I’m a huge proponent of the no budget movie,” Whedon says. “I love working on location. It makes you a better filmmaker. You don’t have everything conveniently placed for you. People are using the environment and it spices things up. I think of myself as a classical storyteller, which is why the digital era excites me. Classical storytelling is about getting a story told. It started with cave people around a campfire saying, that wooly mammoth was enormous, you should have been there! For me, that’s all that matters. It’s why I love writing comic books and I love writing prose. I love all mediums.”

One expects that anything Whedon touches post-Avengers is a hot commodity but he has no illusions about any perceived Hollywood clout accruing to his unusual new project. (Lionsgate did buy the film for theatrical release a couple of days after our conversation.) Maybe he’s heard enough showbiz stories from his father and grandfather, both successful sitcom writers for classic series like The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and The Golden Girls, as well as experiencing his own career setbacks like Fox canceling Dollhouse after only two seasons and his planned Wonder Woman movie falling apart at Warner Bros.

Whedon laughs when reminded that he single-handedly put the Hollywood industry in the black this year and proved that even in the era of streaming movies, young people will go see an event movie over and over again. He’s in a tough business, by his own choice, he says, and he does not expect anyone to do him any favors.

“Gratitude does not exist,” he says with complete seriousness. “There is no such thing as a track record. There is no such thing as true respect. There are good people out there and good companies but I would never ask any of them to take something sight unseen. They are running a business and I respect that because they are paying me to do what I do. I understand that sometimes people make blind deals, but not blind deals for black-and-white Shakespeare movies.”

With his Shakespeare non-vacation over and his love for storytelling replenished, Whedon returns to a full slate of projects. ABC picks up his S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, and the supernatural romance In Your Eyes starring Mad Men actress Abigail Spencer is underway with Cole co-producing. And Whedon will also be working on the web series Wastelanders and the sequel to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along blog in 2013.

He’s also back to work prepping for Avengers 2, despite admitting multiple times that the pace of the first Avengers movie almost killed him.

Why jump back into the fire understanding one can only cheat death so many times? Well, it goes back to storytelling.

“There’s a business aspect to it and I would be disingenuous not to say that, but the question for me is, Do I have another story to tell about these people? So we worked on the business side of it and I didn’t think it was going to happen--I was like 'I’m never going to do this again.' But once they worked on the business aspect of it I thought that seems fair and cool, so, the question was, Do I have another thing to say? I was in London and I went to a pub and had some fish and chips and a pint and started writing in my notebook. I’m writing if I was going to do this what would I say and 40 minutes later I filled the notebook. So I text my agent and said to make the deal. I’m so in love with that universe and the characters and the way they were played and I have so much more I want to do with them. I know I can’t match the success of the first one but I can try to make a better film and that’s what I’m excited about, that’s the new room of fear I’m entering now.”

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12 Comments

  • Terrence Sutherland

    help is one the way!

    "characters and they way they were played"

    i think you meant "the" 

    i personally have thousands of typing errors, so i mask my mistakes in little or no punctuation :D

  • M H

    Not to rain on your parade but the remark on Branagh is wrong. He is not quite as stodgy or as much of a purist when it comes to Shakespeare as you make it seem. Branagh made a version of Love's Labour's Lost that was set in the 1930's and a musical at that. And his beginning to Henry V was fairly controversial to some when that film was released. I would imagine he would find Whedon's take on Shakespeare quite amusing.

  • enteecee

    I think he'd like it, too.  Remember how he ended his Hamlet.  Frankly, I've seen all the "great versions, and even with it's considerable mis-steps, his idea that Hamlet was an action hero caught in a no-win situation as things go from awful to even worse was the only version fo the character that I've been able to really engage with for more than an hr.
    Anyway, his presentation of Fortinbras's entrance is... pretty damn far from stodgy.

  • M H

     To Merdoc,

    It was controversial to some, not all, in the sense that it gave a modern setting to the beginning of the play, something which is generally a no-no thing to do, if you are truly a Shakespeare purist (i.e. people who want a historical context for the play).

  • Jill T

    Joss is truly an inspiration and proof that hard work and persistence will get you far in life. Not only is he one of the most talented people in Hollywood, but he's also a passionate person with a knack for rallying fans around him. Thanks so much for this article!

  • Mandy Kilinskis

    Excellent interview and article! 

    I love taking a break as much as the next person, but Joss' suggestion for a creative shift is really spot on. I can't match Joss' success, but when I focused on writing a draft of my novel, it re-energized my focus at my day job. I get it, definitely.