TIFF Interview: Joss Whedon on Much Ado About Nothing and ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’
So we got an exclusive interview with Joss Whedon. Of course we talked about the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” TV series, Avengers 2 and Dr. Horrible 2. I even mentioned my story on the 3D glasses disaster at the Avengers screening. But Whedon was in Toronto to premiere Much Ado About Nothing, the Shakespeare adaptation he filmed at his house with a cast of Whedon company regulars. If you want a sense of the Toronto International Film Festival atmosphere, Joss Whedon presenting a masters course in William Shakespeare kind of nails it.
CraveOnline: If we like your dialogue, do we have Shakespeare to thank for that?
Joss Whedon: A lot of it. Shakespeare can probably stand first in line to take any credit and some people would say, “Oh, is that why your dialogue is so florid and annoying?” But I find his rhythms coming back to me over and over. His pose is poetry and vice versa. That’s something that you can’t shake once it’s in you.
Do you get it aurally without studying it? Because to many, like me, it takes study.
I do study. I studied extensively in school. I did my English A level in England and we studied Shakespeare. I had great, great high school teachers and we parsed the text within an inch of its life. I loved performing as well and seeing it. My life has included a study of Shakespeare and to me it’s very natural but I know that it’s not always accessible to other people. Part of the mission of the movie was to make a Shakespeare movie for people who don’t watch a lot of Shakespeare.
Talk about the adaptation. You took out the messengers, Bennedick is there at the beginning, there’s no duel. How did you come to those decisions?
You know, I had to streamline the thing. It’s a very long play, surprisingly long. There were certain characters that weren’t really bringing that much to the party, particularly the brother Antonio, Leonato’s brother. And then, because Leonato was a politician and also the master of this house, I just imagined he would always have a retinue, and it made sense to take the two messengers, make them one and have him be always trailing behind Leonato. Joshua Zar who plays his aide, which is a character that we created, he also took a couple of lines that belonged to others, but without hurting the text game them to him so that you’d always feel his presence because it enhances Leonato’s. It was about keeping everything we needed and nothing else.
Are you worried about people casing your house through this movie for a robbery?
No, I don’t own a lot of stuff. Just some very lovely furniture, and we did take the number off the door in post. But I’m proud of that house. Kai designed it and when we started Bellwether [Productions], it was to make micro budget movies, to keep our hand in things that were very personal and different. We always talked about filming in that house because creating a house is like creating a movie. You’re designing a series of moments that form a whole and we think of it as a whole but you actually experience it as a series of moments. She had done such an extraordinary job with that house, I wanted to use it. I wanted to write a movie about it.
Did you blueprint the house for all the slapstick opportunities you could generate?
I did walk around going, “Well, how can I po – -? Where…? Oh, you know…” And then, “And Amy [Acker] will fall down the stairs,” which, never not funny.
Did you ever talk about using British accents? You know Alexis Denisof can do one.
No, you know what, Shakespeare’s language does not require a British accent. It requires a facility with language and that’s all. When we would do readings at the house, people would only use a British accent if they had one or if they were doing a character, if they were trying to become a character or something.The naturalism and feeling lived in and approachable is very important. Obviously the friar has a British accent because he is a British man, Paul M. Meston who’s great. Apart from that, if I had had Brits, I would not have told them not to use their accents and somebody fighting his accent is a lot more noticeable than somebody speaking Elizabethan.
And you gave Sean Maher the Keanu Reeves role?
I believe Keanu Reeves was holding the place for the Sean Maher role. Sean was just so excited to play a villain for once. I was like, “How can you never have played a villain. You’re far too beautiful not to have been a bad guy.”
I must admit, I am someone who needs to study Shakespeare to understand the dialogue. What is the threshold that one can cross to get a deeper appreciation of the language?
There’s two ways. One is you really pick a play apart and you go over it and you understand all of the references and the intent. Just everything that he’s doing in terms of character, in terms of talking about humanity, in terms of even punning, the rhythms. The more you get into it and learning his basic vocabulary, that’s really useful. However, it pales beyond seeing a good production, because a good production of a play or a good movie of it will give you something that all the study in the world can’t. It will give you the humanity of it. When you access that, the language almost becomes secondary. You can understand it without necessarily understanding what it is exactly is being said. If you understand that the person who’s saying it is really f***ing angry at the other guy and you know why, then you’re in the story. Then gradually the language seeps in.
Did black and white make things harder or easier?
Black and white made life ten times easier. It was ultimately a creative decision but also practically it saved our lives because we didn’t have to worry about painting things or the color of something clashing with something else. It made everybody look absolutely elegant which I very much wanted, and it’s a noir. It’s not a straight up romantic comedy. It’s a dark drama with ridiculously silly moments in it. I feel that the text is credited for being the classic romantic-comedy because it really is the mother of them all, but at the same time not credited for the cold and incisive intelligence with which it deconstructs the romantic comedies that would even come after. Our whole idea of romance is pulled apart in this movie, and then very lovingly taped back together.
That we hate each other and then love each other?
And also that what we consider to be romantic behavior is imposed upon us by the expectations of others. Claudio believes everything he hears and acts accordingly. He acts like a guy in a romantic comedy. Beatrice and Bennedick, the smartest people in the room, also believe everything they hear and completely change their life goals and decisions based on a bit of rumor. It’s a weirdly, I don’t want to say cold, but it is a weirdly analytical view of romance yet at the same time it cannot help but be romantic. That, I think, is what it says about us that I like, that no matter what, no matter whether or not romantic love is something we invented, structurally how we live our lives may be imposed on us by society and we may do things and believe things that we are told to, at the end we do need each other.
We’re excited you’re doing another television series, let alone “S.H.I.E.L.D.” Will there be room for Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Bradford on “S.H.I.E.L.D.” after they were in Item 47?
I honestly don’t think they’re available because I think she’s on another show. We’re building it with a new group of people. They were great and that had a lot to do with why we’re making the show, but we’re starting fresh.
Are you planning to do the season-long story arcs you’re good at rather than the weekly standalone episodic format?
It’s going to be a very standalone show. We’ll do what we always do which is every episode will conclude and you’ll have taken away your story, but there will be a through line running throughout. It will not be in the foreground but as in all of these shows, it will probably take foreground at some point, many seasons down the road God willing.
You didn’t sign on to Avengers 2 right away. How hard a decision was it to sign to write and direct the sequel?
Avengers 2, it wasn’t a tough decision. For a long time I thought, “Well, it’s just not going to happen.” Then when I actually started to consider it, it became so clear that I desperately wanted to say more about these characters, it would’ve been an easy no and it was a spectacularly easy yes. There was no wrestling. Either scenario was delightful. It was a win win but I’m very excited about it.
What do the developments on Avengers 2 and “S.H.I.E.L.D.” mean for Dr. Horrible 2?
Dr. Horrible 2 is still on the slate. It means we’re going to have to stay up a little bit later to get it written but that is what we will do.
Do you have the story in mind?
Oh yeah, we’ve had the story since before we finished Dr. Horrible 1.
Is there still a role for Felicia Day in Dr. Horrible 2?
I will neither confirm nor deny.
I don’t know if you heard when The Avengers screened in L.A. there was a disastrous screening where the 3D glasses broke. It was a great story but I felt bad for you as the filmmaker, that someone messed up the exhibition. What is your reaction to incidents where the technology ruins what you intended to present?
It’s gonna happen. I’ve seen plenty of films where the projector broke. The problems that we have in the digital age are exactly the same as we had. Instead of there’s a hair in the gate, it’s the computer ate the footage. There will always be things like that going on. Nothing is perfect. Enough people got to see it all the way through with their 3D glasses on to satisfy me.
They’re still trying to do Wonder Woman. Even David E. Kelley couldn’t get it aired on TV. Why don’t they know how to do that character?
I don’t think that was a match. I just don’t. I don’t think that he needs to write about superheroes. You need to need to write about superheroes to write about superheroes. If that’s not in your vernacular, you may bring something new and interesting to it, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have that burning desire to talk about these people who have these insane powers, then some other agenda is going to come forward and you might accidentally turn off the dark.
Would you be a film festival goer before you were a participant in them?
You know, I went to one. I went to Telluride years and years ago and did it the way you’re supposed to, which is that I vaguely wandered in to five movies that I never would have seen otherwise and had an amazing time. In fact, I wanted to experience the festival thing and bringing the movie here, that was part of the goal. Then I realized you don’t experience the festival when you have a movie at a festival because you’re too busy with the movie. Next time I’d like to do it just for fun.
For us, you’re the big interview of the festival, so how do you process being that as someone who might have attended festivals before?
The feeling I had when that audience responded the way they did to Much Ado is not a feeling I’ve had since we screened the “Buffy” musical for the very first time. It’s different than we made money, it got renewed or anything else. I put something very, very personal that I wasn’t sure I could pull off in front of people and got the best reward I’ll ever get.