Joss Whedon at the Glasgow Film Festival

On the evening of Sunday 24th February, the ninth Glasgow Film Festival drew to a highly successful close, celebrating over 39,000 ticket sales a 12% increase over the previous year. The closing night gala was a sold out preview screening of the new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon, and starring a roster of actors with whom Whedon has worked on his many previous projects  – Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher and Fran Kranz among them. After the screening, Whedon spoke with Allan Hunter, co-director of the festival and took questions from the audience.

Joss Whedon – Thank you to all of you who didn’t leave. I think they liked the film.

Allan Hunter – Indeed. I’m sure you probably all have a thousand questions, and we will get to as many as we can. Congratulations on a fantastic, romantic, witty, funny –

JW – Script?

AH – Script. And such beautiful music as well. Was there something that first ignited your passion for Shakespeare? Did you see a production somewhere, did you do stuff in college?

JW – I can’t remember ever not being interested. My mother and stepfather would have readings at the house, and I would try to read before I could understand what I was reading, but the productions that really sent me were when I was in high school at Winchester College and I saw, first, Jacobi’s Hamlet, which was on the BBC, I didn’t see the live version. That’s what started everything, then there was a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Regent’s Park open air theatre which I saw three times. That was when I realised how much the plays come to you, how little you have to do to get to them. You just show up, they’re just that good.

AH – Is there an extra trepidation in how a British audience is going to respond?

JW – For sure. But I’m not showing it at all. Some people were like “Let’s open this… what we should do is premiere this at a Shakespeare festival.” No! The harshest critics? Let’s premiere it at ComicCon. There’s always this terrible perception, “Oh, you’re going to tell us how it’s supposed be done? Thanks.” I think the Mormons believe Shakespeare was born in America.

AH – And are the actors intimidated at all? Is it still an Everest to climb for them?

JW – Intimidated? It’s funny you should bring up Nathan Fillion. He was terrified. It just looked horrible. He’d read at the house, but he’d never done any Shakespeare outside of that, and he tried to back out, and I was like, “I love you but you can’t.” And he just never stopped thanking me.

AH – Is that at all clichéd that American actors are intimidated by Shakespeare in the way that maybe British actors are intimidated by [Edward] Albee or [Eugene] O’Neill?

JW – Are they? I think there’s a slight trepidation in people who have been acting for a long time and some of the people in this never really had [performed Shakespeare], but the main body of them, Clark [Gregg] and Reed [Diamond] and Amy and Alexis and Fran, they were all classically trained and all have done a great deal of Shakespeare. I’m told that Fran Kranz was the best high school King Lear ever.

AH – Is there a record of this production?

JW – I wish. But yes, I knew I had a phalanx of people who could absolutely just walk in and get it done no problem, and the rest, it was largely on trust. They were all good. Sean had never done it, I don’t think Tom [Lenk] and Nick [Kocher] had done it.

AH – There’s probably an assumption that it’s very different to do this than it is to do Avenger’s Assemble, etc, but isn’t it kind of similar in more ways than people think? You have characters, you have an ensemble, you have stories to tell…

JW – Yeah, fewer explosions. We had a few, but the movie was long, so… At first you’re working around everybody’s schedule, and everybody’s busy with something else, so it was exactly like Avenger’s Assemble. And at the end of the shoot, someone said this must be so different, and I’m like, amazingly it’s not, because the process of developing a play to a screenplay is – why is everybody here, and what is Margaret’s interior life, which for me is actually kind of beautiful and tragic, and what’s going on with these guys, because I’m not going to invite my friends to come and work for nothing if I haven’t got a good reason for them to be on screen.

How does Leonato’s aide, which was combined from messengers to give Leonato some presence, played by Joshua Zar, who is just always behind him indicating his power, and how does that work out, where is his one moment? And it’s not that different than how does the guy with the bow and arrow matter in an alien invasion.

AH – I can see that.

Audience question – If you could do another Shakespeare, which –

JW Hamlet. And I don’t think I have to explain. This is the man who really encapsulates the human condition and never gets the job done or really complete. There’s also mother issues, but we won’t talk about that.

AQ – You’re responsible for so many characters that everyone knows and loves, and I just wondered what’s the formula, what’s the key for creating a loveable character?

JW – Hire Amy Acker. If there’s a formula, please don’t tell anyone, because then I won’t matter at all. The only thing I can say is, you’re always writing yourself and you’re always looking at your own experience, and my interpretation of this play is based on the fact that I’m wildly cynical and sort of pathetically romantic at the same time. And if you’re not drawing from that, and I’ve done at times, I’ve absolutely had no idea what I was doing, but if you need a guy who just fits a slot, then there’s no life there. If you don’t know why somebody is doing something, then nobody else will actually care why. And so it’s just be incredibly solipsistic. Just care about yourself and put that on the page. Apparently I must be loveable because I’m several loveable characters.

AQ – As someone who is very pop culture literate, is there anything in recent years that has blown you away in the way that Night of the Comet did when you were creating Buffy?

JW – I don’t know. I can’t look at anything and go, “well, there it is.” The last time I said I gotta stop and put down my pen and re-learn how to write was when I saw The Matrix. And then I saw the other ones.

The things that intrigue me are like Paul Thomas Anderson, where I have no idea how you do that, no idea how you accomplish that, but it’s not like that inspires me to go and do something like him, it just makes me go someone out there has a secret that I will never formulate, that I will never mix, and that’s what upsets me.

AQ – Congratulations on such a warm, romantic version. It was lovely, thank you. As a filmmaker, you start from a scriptwriting standpoint, and this week I saw Terence Malick’s To The Wonder. It works, but it doesn’t have a clear script, and I wondered if you would had any aspirations to make a movie that depended on the cast’s performances and what you can do visually as a director rather than starting from the script which is the fundamental strength of your process.

AH – I think the question is, would you make a film that people don’t understand? Something abstract that doesn’t have script and structure and meaning…

JW – It’s my weakest link, I think. I am very pedantic. I like to know exactly what I’m trying to make people feel at all times, which is useful, but the play is about twice as long as what we shot, so I’m not the only one who goes on too much. But when you’re trying to be very certain about meaning it’s very easy to shave away any moment that isn’t somebody explaining the meaning.

More and more I’ve started to want to work without any of the support, and I’ve done it in small increments when I did an episode of TV without so much dialogue, without so much music, I tried to take the crutches away. But on a grander scale I would like to evolve as a visual artist to the point where nobody has to say anything.

AQ – This is kind of a simple question, but I really want to know, why did you choose to shoot this in black and white. Yes, there’s the very dark moments with Hero and Claudio, but then there’s also the really light and funny and comedic and romantic parts as well.

JW – There are light and funny and comedic black and white movies. When we conceived this, when I finally figured out why I wanted to shoot this particular play, it was really as a noir comedy, and I talked about this with Kai [Cole, Whedon’s wife] and when I said it feels like maybe it should be in black and white, and she was like “No that’s dumb, it’s got to be in black and white.” She was very firm on that because it led to the visual coherence. And the influences that I was thinking of, like I said, noir comedy, except I couldn’t think of one, and then I sort of went through, and the first two that popped in my head were The Apartment and Unfaithfully Yours by Preston Sturgess, which are both very dark movies, when most films weren’t at that point, but both very funny and both very romantic, and I thought, well, it feels like this will help.

And then we got to the practical considerations. One, our lighting package went behind the Earth every night at five, so we had to augment it, not having to worry about the colour temperatures match helped a huge deal. Not having to worry about somebody’s costume being a hideous colour, considering most people were bringing their own, was a huge deal. And also the walls of the house are quite light, sort of a cream colour, and I couldn’t really paint the entire house to fix that, and the way people’s faces stand out against it was different in black and white, so those things would all crowd in there as well to make me decide to be an artiste.

AQ – You’ve developed a reputation for effectively killing off many of your beloved characters. I was just wondering if you ever considered putting your name up on the whiteboard in Cabin in the Woods next to Merman or Redneck Zombie Torture Family as a potential killer?

JW – I’m never going to dodge the death thing. And neither are any of you… Drew [Goddard, co-writer and director] has never said it, perhaps Kevin was based upon me.

AQ – Good evening. Thank you so much for being here. It’s quite a few years since we last saw you in Edinburgh for the premiere of Serenity. I know I’ve connected with this film, I’ve adored this film, partially because I know so many of the cast and I’ve loved them, and it’s so good to see them together, obviously having an absolute ball, and Amy Acker particularly, I cannot comprehend why she is not a household name, because she can do anything. How do you think this will travel beyond those  who automatically know these faces?

JW – And the terror strikes again. When we made the film, we didn’t know how we were going to distribute it, or if we were going to distribute it. Our expectations were very small, now, thanks to Kaleidoscope and in the US Lionsgate Roadside, we have actual heavy hitters behind the film, and it kind of makes me nervous because of that question.

I don’t think that this thing is going to blow up. I don’t think it’s a summer tentpole. I do think it’s a franchise. I believe Amy should be a household name. I believe in these performers, and I believe this is the kind of film somebody’s going to watch because they think they ought to, and then find they enjoy it enormously, which is kind of how I started with Shakespeare. “Well, this is what an intellectual would do… wait a moment, I’m having the time of my life.” I don’t expect people to come in droves, but I do expect people to go out going “oh, that was fun,” and not just because “Look – Captain Mal!”

AQ – I really enjoyed the film, and I thought the score was beautiful. You’ve already given us Once More With Feeling and Doctor Horrible, are there going to be any more musicals on the horizon?

JW – Oh, I hope so. I’ve done two musicals, they’re both
about forty two minutes long, so it’s time to put on my big boy pants. That’s something that’s very close to my heart, but I’m slightly busy. Let’s just leave it at that.

AQ – It’s just a question about the adaptation of the play itself. It all seemed very true to what I remember of the text, but I’m curious why you frame it with [Benedick and Beatrice] having been lovers already.

JW – You know, it was kind of fifty/fifty. Amy and Alexis and I discussed it, and we liked that interpretation, we liked that the idea that they had an intimacy that neither of them was comfortable with, and that underscored everything that they did, and it’s a play that absolutely works with that, and we felt that worked right for us. This is a play about people who drink too much, fool around too much, and generally make idiots of themselves.

AQ – Having read the play before, I think one of the things that strikes me about adaptations of it is that it has a lot of ideas about love and marriage that are a bit weird for modern audiences, and I think it came across really well in this one, but I just wanted to hear your opinions on how you approached that.

JW – What would you define as one of the main problems?

AQ – Claudio’s a bit of an arse, isn’t he? When I read it, that’s what I thought, but I actually had a lot of sympathy for him in this.

JW – Well, you know, Fran was dedicated to being a dick. “How can I be stupider?” But he is an enormously sympathetic actor. He’s got those big old eyes that have us all man-crushing on him. But you look at Claudio, and he’s always [makes wishy washy swanning around in love noises], but the guy just won a war. He’s a jock, he’s a frat boy, he’s a soldier, he believes everything he hears and gets really, really angry about it right away. And so went with that, and by the end of the film we’re going to redeem him. He’s romantic, in the way that we’re supposed to be romantic, and it’s a flaw, and that’s one of the things that I love about the play, in that it takes everything we assume to be a romantic comedy and says “this is idiocy, you do know that?”

AQ – I just wanted to know, of everything that you’ve ever written and had aired, what your favourite line was?

JW – My favourite line I’ve ever written? Wow, that’s hard. That’s so mean. I don’t know. What’s your favourite?

AQ – Well, I’ve got “I am a leaf on the wind” on my bracelet, but… I’ve got pages.

JW – You know, I love all my children, and it would be hard for me to say. I think one of my problems I have as a writer is that I tend to over-articulate. I tend to want everyone to step forth and say “This is why I am who I am and why I am the best version of what I am that I could possibly be, and I‘m a garbage man or I’m a vampire or I’m whatever it is, I‘m so good at this, and here‘s exactly what I think,” and so I don’t have a best line, because my best lines are the ones where I explain exactly what’s going on, and those aren’t the best lines. The best ones are the throwaways that show someone who clearly doesn’t understand who they are and what they‘re doing, so I think whatever my favourite line is, I’m wrong.

AQ – You think it would be possible to make a good Hulk film?

JW – Yes. But it would be very, very hard. Hulk is a tricky son of a bitch. He’s the Claudio of superheroes. Because the problem is it’s a very popular character, but it’s not a superhero. Half of it’s a superhero, half of it’s a werewolf. And you can’t structure it like a superhero movie, you can’t light it like a superhero movie. How do you develop that? It would be extremely difficult. The one thing you would have in your favour would be Mark Ruffalo. But right now I don’t know if they have plans to do that or not, because he works so well as part of a greater whole, but by himself, it’s tough. I don’t envy the guys who went before.

AH – Thank you all for your questions.

Much Ado About Nothing is released in the UK on June 14th by Kaleidoscope and is reviewed here



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