SEATTLE — You’re the star of a long-running TV drama with a grueling production schedule and little free time. Or you’re a key actor in a series of blockbuster comic-book-based films, fresh off shooting the biggest installment yet. A friend calls with a proposition: “Hey, I want you to be in my next movie. It’s 12 days of shooting. At my house. And, oh yeah, it’ll be black and white. And, um, it’s Shakespeare.”
What do you say?
If that friend is Joss Whedon, apparently, you move heaven and Earth to say yes.
Whedon, for those in the know, is the creator of such cult-beloved TV shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly,” and “Dollhouse,” the trailblazing Web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog” and the “Firefly” movie spinoff “Serenity.” To the rest of the world he’s best known as writer-director of the third-biggest box-office hit of all time, “The Avengers.”
In the fall of 2011, Whedon had just finished principal production on “The Avengers” and was contractually obligated to take time off before editing began. He and wife Kai Cole talked about vacationing in Venice, but jettisoned those plans in favor of hanging out at their Mediterranean-style home in Santa Monica, filming Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” In keeping with this all-in-the-extended-family production, Cole coproduced the movie – and even designed the house, which sits on villa-like grounds that border a country club.
The cast will be familiar to Whedon’s followers, and many of the actors were regulars at the director’s house for Sunday Shakespeare reading parties. But Whedon, in an interview at the recent Seattle International Film Festival, was quick to point out that no one got a role in the film just for palling around with him.
“I’m pretty strict about not going into every project [thinking] it’s a party for my friends,” he said. “But when you have people you turn to again and again and again because they are wonderful at their jobs, and they are people that you love in your life, then it makes sense.”
Besides, with the short time he had to pull the movie together, Whedon was not in a position to take a risk on any unknowns. “I needed to know that my people could get it done, and to some extent the way they would get it done, because this doesn’t shoot in 12 days unless everyone is completely on top of their game.”
One of those who got the call was Nathan Fillion, star of TV’s “Castle” but best-loved by the Whedonverse — even Fillion uses the word — for his role as Captain Malcolm Reynolds in “Firefly,” the preacher in the last season of “Buffy,” and Captain Hammer (yes, the name refers to the character’s manhood) in “Dr. Horrible.” Here he steals scenes as Dogberry, an agent of comic relief who also helps resolve the dilemma that keeps one set of lovers apart in what has been called the original rom-com. He was a bit daunted initially by his first real brush with Shakespeare, but put his faith in Whedon, as he explained during a press day with fellow cast members in Seattle.
“I think if it were anyone else, yeah, that would have been terrifying. If it’s Joss, no problem. What Joss Whedon project have you ever seen when you think, ‘Yeah he phoned that one in’? ”
Clark Gregg was newer to Whedon’s circle, first working with the director when he reprised his role as Agent Phil Coulson from earlier Marvel movies in the “The Avengers.” When he was asked to play Don Pedro in “Much Ado,” he thought Whedon might be kidding, and then thought he’d have to pass because of scheduling conflicts.
“When I realized he was serious [about the movie], I wanted to cut my wrists because I realized I had just said ‘yes’ to do this beautiful Ethan Cohen play in New York,” Gregg said. “Then they pushed the play a couple of weeks – which you wouldn’t think would leave you time to do a film.”
Seasoned Whedon veterans may be used to the adoration expressed by his fervent fan base at comic conventions and other events, but Gregg got his first taste when “Much Ado” made its public debut last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival to the delight of a raucous crowd that had waited in line for hours. Whedon and several cast members attended the screening, where standing ovations ensued. The movie has been selling out festival stops ever since and will open in Boston on Friday.
Even with enthusiasm from Whedon fans and a generally warm critical reception thus far, the film is not going to threaten the $1.5-billion international box-office haul for “The Avengers.” Which raises a question that Whedon has been hearing a lot lately: Why not hang out by the pool for a couple weeks when you’ve got down time from a big blockbuster?
“Oh God, that sounds just awful. I understand nothing of what you just said,” answered the 48-year-old filmmaker, soft-spoken and self-effacing in person. “If I don’t have a purpose, I can’t move, and I always have to move. And that’s been a problem sometimes but in this case it was delightful.”
Though the project had been percolating at the back of Whedon’s mind for years, in the end it came together quickly. That includes cutting Shakespeare’s three hours of text to a movie of less than two hours, while keeping the language intact. “It was really just a question of what I was going to keep, what was I going to cut, and what was I going to bring visually,” he said. “I was looking to capture some of the essence of the performance, so a lot of the prep was the casting and knowing how different people would play against each other.”
Updating the setting from a 16th-century Italian villa to a modern manse and filming in black and white were not just nods to the short shooting schedule and tight budget. Whedon said he always envisioned the story as a noir tale (“there’s so much lying and so much duplicity”) but there were practical considerations as well.
“The modernizing was very simple,” Whedon said. “I didn’t have any money and I knew all my friends had nice clothes.”
So there’s a touch of noir, but also plenty of dazzling repartee, physical comedy, boozy party scenes, and even a touch of sex – a lot of breezy entertainment on a shoestring budget. For the Whedon faithful, though, there are added bonuses.
That includes the casting of Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who anchor the film as Beatrice and Benedick, the closest things to leading roles in this ensemble piece. Acker and Denisof were stars of “Angel” (among other Whedon ventures), where their characters evolved into doomed lovers. Invited to join the “Much Ado” cast just a few weeks before shooting began, Acker said, “I think we both felt pressure in that we wanted to honor the text and honor the great performances of these characters that had been done before. We just wanted to play them as real as possible.”
“Take any quarreling couple that you’ve ever enjoyed on screen and their ancestors are Beatrice and Benedick,” Denisof added.
So, even though it was unclear what, if anything, might come out of the scenes they filmed, Denisof said there was no lack of faith, commitment, or enthusiasm among the company of players. “Joss had mumbled maybe it would be a direct-to-DVD if something came out of it, or possibly a little Internet surprise. That’s how we kind of went into it.”
Whedon has been doing some press and festival appearances in support of “Much Ado,” but plenty of new work waits for him back home. He’s the producer for a new ABC series set in the Marvel universe and debuting in fall, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” in which Gregg stars as Coulson — mysteriously arisen from his “Avengers” death. And the director is preparing for his big sequel, “Avengers 2,” slated for a May 2015 release.
And after that? He was asked that question onstage when a “Much Ado” screening and Q&A anchored the opening gala in Seattle’s 2,900-seat McCaw Hall — which sold out faster than any opening gala in the festival’s 39-year history. Audience members shouted out their suggestions (more “Firefly,” more “Dr. Horrible”) but Whedon gave this answer:
“I don’t know — which may be the three most beautiful words I’ve ever uttered.”