Here are the things you should know about how Whedon’s, Much Ado About Nothing, came about:
– Joss Whedon hosts Shakespeare readings at his house.
– Whedon adapted the William Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, for this production.
– During his short vacation from working on The Avengers, he decided to make this film.
– It was shot in 12 days at his house.
– The cast is made up of his friends, mostly actors he has worked with in the past (Firefly, The Avengers, Dollhouse, Angel). Most had attended Whedon’s Shakespeare readings previously.
– It is in black and white. (But do not be daunted! The black and white removes the film one step from our reality, existing in a world that is both modern and Shakespearean at the same time. Also, it looks pretty.)
This kind of hasty and somewhat limited production resulted in a film that feels anything but hasty and limited. For what Whedon and co. faced in terms of material and time restrictions they gained in artistic freedom to interpret Shakespeare’s words and play with his characters. The result is a natural, hilarious, and understandable telling of Much Ado, which will undoubtedly be one of the most engaging performances of Shakespeare you have ever seen on film.
Lets talk setting: by staging the play in his modern house the setting has a natural and familiar quality that immediately grounds the audience, even as Shakespeare’s alien words challenge the audience to actively participate in understanding what is happening (something we are not always accustomed to doing). Whedon makes use of windows, nooks, and hallways to clearly (but not in a patronizing or pretentious way) show the audience how characters are relating and watching each other. Instead of relying heavily on editing, Whedon uses effective staging in both the house and the yard to show character relations and guide the audience. The house and yard are used to create contrasting intimate moments inside and big active scenes outside, often with a window in the frame linking the interior and exterior and reminding the audience of who is, or is not, supposed to be hearing or seeing the conversation that is going on (whether a character or the audience themselves).
In this short clip from The New York Times, Whedon comments on a scene from the film and explains how since Benedict’s (Alexis Denisof) very physically comical scene was staged outside, in order not to have Beatrice’s (Amy Acker) following scene of equal importance overshadowed, her scene was staged inside, resulting in an equally hilarious but slightly more intimate scene. Note that in that scene, when Beatrice is listening from the stairs she is looking through the bars of the railing–Whedon uses railings, windows, and other such architectural oddities to indicate that a person is watching something they are supposedly not supposed to see (though in this case we know that this scene is a set up and Beatrice IS supposed to be watching).
Camera movement: There are few camera movements in this film, but one of them you can see in the above clip of Beatrice’s scene: the very high tech “blanky cam” is mentioned by Whedon around 2:40, but overall camera movement is minimal throughout the film, and what movement is there feels like the planned spontaneity of a documentary. No big crane shots, no super close ups, just clever glances over balconies, through windows, and easy strolls down halls, which allow the audience to stay with characters and helps break up long monologues or extensive conversations. Whedon also provides small visual treats in the background of many scenes so that even in long scenes of dialogue the plot never seems to slow down, but feels active and the audience laughter (as well as the actors) seems to energize the film. Racking focus nudges us where to look and medium close-ups more directly show us what we need to see. But the standards for this film are the longer shots with multiple people in the frame, which creates a sense of the community and allows the audience to chose where to look, and give the engaging feeling of watching a play. It is clear that the scenes are composed to best capture the actors’ performance and to best guide the viewer to a rich and new understanding of the play.
Performance: The best part of Whedon’s Much Ado are the performances, not just because they are brilliant, but because of how they make you as the audience feel about Shakespeare. After the first few minutes you are no longer desperately trying to understand ever word, or feeling lost in the language, determined to overcome the somewhat intimidating fact that this is not watered down Shakespeare, this is the real deal. Whedon will not let you get lost in all the “high thee hence!” that is happening. Through the performances, shot compositions, and some subtle yet pointed editing, you understand the characters and why they do what they do. Whether you love them or hate them, you know why, and it is not just because Shakespeare had them act a certain way. This makes the characters incredibly relatable, even if they are not particularly likable. Amy Acker is charming and feisty. Alexis Denisof is roguish and hilarious. Clark Gregg is everything you want in a father. And Nathan Fillion is, well, his Nathan Fillion best. Whether you know these actors from the previous Whedon works or they are new to you, you will love them, even as they will gleefully tie you into emotional knots (in classic Whedon fashion).
And now you know the much ado about Whedon.
For more reading on the making of Much Ado and Alexis, Amy, and Joss being silly, read this!