Joss Whedon and Clark Gregg on Their Swinging (Literally) ‘Much Ado’ Shoot

Movie Talk
Clark Gregg and Joss Whedon
Clark Gregg and Joss Whedon

Let's say you were working on a very high-profile project for months on end without a break. So when you finally got a small window of time to yourself, would you (A) go take your spouse on a relaxing vacation, or (B) spend every free minute working on an entirely different thing?

If you answered (A), that's just one of the many reasons why you are not Joss Whedon.

Whedon had a short break in between filming and editing the enormous production that was "Marvel's The Avengers," and he originally intended to take his wife Kai Cole on a vacation to Venice. What they did instead was film a whole different movie: a black-and-white adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing. It was shot in their Santa Monica home in just 12 days with actors from many of Whedon's previous TV projects like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly," plus one member of his "Avengers" crew, Clark Gregg.

Whedon and Gregg sat down with Yahoo! Movies for a long conversation about making a film that's about as far away from a super hero story as you can get -- though to be fair, one character is named "Hero." And they revealed just how similar the lavish, drunken parties in the movie are to the ones Whedon actually throws (hint: it involves women on a trapeze).

You were working on "Avengers" and you were going to take a vacation with your wife to Venice, and then you decided instead to make a movie. Did you ever end up taking your wife to Venice?

Joss Whedon: You know, we have not gone. That’s going to come back to bite me, I’m sure. But we went to Messina, which is in Italy. She was the one who said, “You need to do this. This is going to make you better. This is going to start your engine again. It’s going to make you a better editor on 'Avengers.' It’s going to make you feel at home." Besides getting the crew, building the house, and every other aspect of producing that she did, just knowing not just that I could do this but that I had to. It was pretty spectacular.

Clark, How did you come aboard?

Clark Gregg: [It was] pretty circuitous. I was kind of new to the mix. Joss and I had just really met him and become friends and collaborators on "The Avengers," and I think somebody else wasn’t able to do it and I was supposed to go out of town.

JW: But first you weren’t able to do it.

CG: First, I wasn’t able to do it. I was going out of town to do a play, and so you went to somebody else and they couldn’t do it. And then they pushed the play, and weirdly right after I got off the phone saying, "We’re not going to start for a couple of weeks," Joss called and said, “Well, a couple of weeks is all I need. Can you start the day after tomorrow?”

For me anyway, that was perfect. It was terrifying to try to learn that many lines that fast, but I didn’t have time to get intimidated or think too much about it. I got to that wedding scene and I was surprised as I was learning it the night before. This is an incredibly complicated, dark, dark scene. It’s much different than I’ve ever seen it in what it’s bringing up in me, and I think that’s the kind of stuff that happens when you don’t have a lot of time.

Clark Gregg, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Joss Whedon and Sean Maher
Clark Gregg, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Joss Whedon and Sean Maher

What were the advantages and disadvantages of the 12-day shooting that you had?

JW: I think the disadvantages are obvious. There are things that you don’t get. You’re kind of run and gun. Every now and then you just have to let something go. But the advantage for me really is capturing the energy. If we had a big scene, we never split it in half. Every big scene you get this energy that is almost like watching theater, but without just filming a performance, you know, just like the film of the play. It’s sort of the best of both worlds. There is a momentum and electricity and the discovery that’s going on during shooting that inevitably sort of has to [happen] that keeps it fresh, that keeps us from being stately. The last thing we want to do is make "Shakespeahhhhh" spelled with several H’s.

I would imagine you don’t have time to be precious about anything.

JW: Only the words. And that's the other thing, because we have this bedrock of the text to which not a syllable of which we were going to change. Everybody knows that’s what we’re building off of. Because you have that solid foundation, you have the ability to make all work.

Did you feel staying true the text restricted you at all? Like, you couldn’t kill off any characters halfway through?

JW: Everybody, always with the killing.

CG: I don’t know why they say that to you.

JW: [Laughs] Look, I hate people, but that doesn’t mean I want to kill them all. Sometimes I just want to throw them down the stairs, but in a funny way.

Is that really what a party at Joss’ house is like with the trapeze artists and everything?

CG: It’s not dissimilar.

It seemed like they belong there.

JW: They are actually friends and we set up that trapeze so they could teach Kai some trapeze. So it’s the kids’ swing, but then we can hoist it up. It is actually part of our life.

Nathan Fillion is particularly impressive in his role as Dogberry because he’s got these speeches that are all double-speak and he just flies through them.

JW: He gets to that sort of soulful humanity in what he does. And as soon as he’s done that, he can go as big as any living human, because he’s established that.

CG: It's truly remarkable because he’s one of those guys who was intimidated to show up, he said, because he hadn’t done Shakespeare, and this guy is a natural. It's one of my favorite Shakespeare performances I’ve ever seen on film, or what used to be film. The former film.

Amy Acker and Jillian Morgese
Amy Acker and Jillian Morgese

Where did you find Jillian Morgese, who plays Hero? She’s amazing.

JW: I think so too. I found her cowering from aliens on the set of "The Avengers." She actually introduced herself when she'd been cast as a background artist. I was going in the building, and she was coming over and she said, “I’m going to be in a movie and I'm a background artist. I'm a big fan.”

She was one of the waitresses in a scene that was cut, and then when everything was blowing up and she was running around and I kept incorporating her more. "She was kind of fascinating. I don’t know what it is. Oh, she’s incredibly beautiful." But she also has just this enormous poise and discipline. So I kept giving her more stuff to do -- not all of which are in the movie -- and she kept bringing it. And just that day I had decided, "I'm doing 'Much Ado,'" and the more I watched her I thought, “This girl will stand next to Amy Acker [who plays Beatrice] and you’ll think, ‘Oh they’re cousins.’” This won’t feel like casting.

It was exciting. I got Amy about four months after she moved to L.A. I got Morena [Baccarin, from "Firefly"] six weeks after she moved to L.A. and I used to make fun of her and say, “Amy was in the trenches for four month. You don’t know what it’s like." Now this time with Jillian, I just went to New York and got them. I stopped waiting for them to come to L.A.

I was wondering what did you learn from the giant scope of "Avengers" that you were able to bring to this? And what do you think you picked up on this that you’ll be able to take to "Avengers 2"?

JW: Everybody matters. It’s not like that’s a new lesson for me, but when we were shooting "Much Ado," somebody said, “Oh, it’s so different from 'The Avengers.'" I was like, "I’m not feeling it." I’m feeling like that my interest in Ursula and Margaret, the ladies-in-waiting, is pretty much the same as, "It’s an apocalypse. What does the guy with the bow and arrow do?" Everybody matters, and you have to figure out how, and you have to figure out why they are showing up to your party.

And that kind of “everybody gets their moment” thing works in both sizes. I think the one thing about "Much Ado" that I would take to "Avengers 2," although they’re very different, is Shakespeare is, while a populist, he’s fearless. He doesn’t care. He’ll go there, or he’ll wait. I’m constantly in the process of begging for the audience’s love: “Please, love everything that I do, even this dull part that I did.” And he is like, “You know what, I’m going to say what I have to say. I’m going to use my rhythms. I’m going to entertain the heck out of you, but on my on my terms as an artist,” which I admire. I would love to take some of that with me.

It seems like whether it’s Shakespeare or Stan Lee, the key to getting ridiculousness across is all commitment, right?

JW: Yeah, it’s believing that this world is absolutely genuine. Which on "Avengers" -- it only occurred to me much later -- I was like, "I think this might have worked because it never occurred to me that a Thunder God and Captain America wouldn’t hang out," because I grew up reading it. And Stan Lee steals from Shakespeare almost as blatantly as I do, if not more. I mean, it’s all big themes, big emotions, low comedy, social criticism, relationships, kings and --

CG: Princess and bastard princess, you know what I mean? It’s amazing.

You have a Marvel connection with Kenneth Branagh, who directed "Thor." Did you ever talk to the guy who made the other "Much Ado" movie?

JW: I didn’t. I’d seen it a number of times. I was surprised how long ago it had been, but apparently I'm incredibly old. But I deliberately stayed away from watching it again or listening to the score or anything. I wanted to make sure our movie was ours. And I didn’t (a) copy him, or (b) just try to run away from it. To do something wrong just to do it different. So, I didn’t speak to him, but I'm sure obviously that he will love it. [Laughs]

Part of what made me comfortable with this is, it being Shakespeare, you watch different productions and you learn from them and you love them. You don’t go, “Oh, well I've seen 'Hamlet.' I want to see that again.” No, it’s different every time. So, I feel like we have the right to have a production, and that anybody from the theater would get that. It doesn’t have to be the final word. It can just be this interpretation.

Fran Kranz in 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Fran Kranz in 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Were there moments or scenes that were hard to cut from the text?

JW: Not really. It’s a very long text. I lost to a couple of minor characters or combined them and I think that really helped me. Everything that could be consolidated, everything that could make it more intimate and more of this very small pressure cooker of emotion and alcohol was good.

The libations do seem to be a big factor in the world of the film. Were they are a part of the production as well?

JW: Not as much as people have been saying, okay. I don’t want it on record that --

CG: No, it’s getting over hyped.

JW: The drinks were fake. Occasionally, when we didn’t have to shoot the next day, nobody went home that night.

CG: Never has "martini shot" [the movie industry term for the final shot of the day] been more accurate.

JW: We did have crazy dance parties and pool parties and whatever. A part of it was that energy of [the movie]. We didn’t want to go home, and I already was.

"Much Ado About Nothing" is out in limited release now.