Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon directed this in his own house in just twelve days. Whedon, who directed Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel used to host readings of Shakespeare on Sundays with the casts, and Much Ado was his favourite play. It was shot in black and white as a labour of love. Was Love’s Labour Lost or Gained?
Twelve days? 108 minutes? Nine minutes a day? We’ve done that on educational comedy video, but that’s a very long day, and with the weather being kind, and no hang-ups between locations. Eight was always said to be the maximum amount for light comedy on TV. Film is more often two. Why I’m so surprised is the black and white film is beautifully filmed and lit throughout. You can admire the reflected shots in mirrors, shots through glass, classy angles, even shadows on walls and shadows of door handles make it look like 1930s to 1950s carefully-lit film quality. If he can work that fast at that quality, Joss Whedon deserves all the praise you can lavish. There are enough night scenes and interiors without windows to explain it as twelve very long days without union rules about time and a half and double time for the crew causing ructions. I’d assume the actors had been well-rehearsed without cameras outside the shooting schedule (i.e. like a stage play), and maybe the enormous work schedule of his TV series has made him decisive and able to work that fast.
Claudio, “masked” in the pool
So, the filming is first rate. The B&W has a significance. Beatrice and Benedict are the original love-hate relationship, which became such a stand-by of classic American film comedy, epitomised by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. The costumes are 2013 ( late 30s to mid 50s would have tempted me), but it works because they’re all smartly-suited for the extended house party setting and subsequent nuptials. Dogberry’s suit and tie would have fitted an earlier era, and Dogberry is the template for the fictional comically dumb policeman. Much Ado About Nothing should work in a 21st century setting and does.
The acting is filmic and up-close but makes perfect sense of Shakesperean lines, and the jarring of modern house / Shakespeare speech lasts only moments … after all the RSC and National Theatre do modern dress more often than they don’t. A review in a British Sunday newspaper expressed mild surprise that the reviewer had not had any trouble with hearing Shakespeare in American accents. I’m not surprised at all. American accents are the default for us on a screen, and I’ve sat through performances at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and National Theatre in Britain, where some of the cast used near-incomprehensible Glaswegian, Irish, Ulster, Jamaican, and African accents. Much Ado About Nothing in light American was a model of clarity. The point is that British directors use accents as a (lazy) way of establishing character or attitude. I’m getting tired of Glasgow and Ulster being automatically applied to aggressive characters.
There were a couple of setting possibilities that struck me afterwards, and that is … it takes place in Messina … Sicily … honour of daughter impinged … rage, duel … Sopranos. They didn’t go for that, and Messina would been a random choice by Shakespeare. It was smooth California house-party with no trace of New Jersey. I sense a British director would have given the Duke the full Tony Soprano … gangland boss fits modernized Shakesperean dukes, and I’ve seen three in recent years done that way. No, this is Messina, CA. The view from Whedon’s house over trees and lush parkland looks exactly like the view from our balcony over a golf course in Rancho Bernado, San Diego last year. They also only contextualize the beginning, where the Duke, Claudio and Benedick have returned from war with a couple of stretch black limos and security guards. They’re all in civilian clothing. I might have had them arrive in dress uniform and then change. The house party point was given a humorous touch where Claudio and Benedick are shown to their room, which is clearly a room for two little girls with dolls and teddy bears … emphasizing that they’re staying in someone’s house.
Beatrice overhears Hero and maid talking about Benedick’s love for her
The cast comes partly from Angel and Whedon’s other series, Dollhouse, Amy Acker is Beatrice, and we both thought her face seemed very familiar, though the IMDB’s long list of her roles didn’t ring bells. Like Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Amy Acker was in both TV shows. The American look of the actors is important. Nathan Fillion is a perplexed Dogberry, the head of the watchmen, (or here, the security staff at the gated compound) and those endless malapropisms are hard to do convincingly, and he does them all convincingly. The threat of a duel, and the revelation when the tricked Claudio accuses his bride-to-be, Hero, of infidelity, are very Elizabethan in tone, and you’d expect them to jar, but they make them fit here.
Dogberry (right) and watchman
None of the actors are Hollywood A-list, all are highly experienced working actors in film and TV. You’ve seen many of them before and know faces but you couldn’t put names to them. Well, I couldn’t, but then I had to ask ‘Is that Brad Pitt last year?’ so I’m not a reliable source of actors’ names. They are a handpicked selection of people Whedon has worked with. If you take a small part like the Friar who marries the couples, Paul Meston (who is British) does the part with subtlety so that even on this minor role, I was thinking ‘Incredibly natural and believable friar.’ There’s detail like the punkish female wedding photographer, non-speaking, but I’ve seen her double at weddings.
No Hollywood stars, in direct contrast to his megabucks all-star 2012 production of Avengers Assemble. You never notice the lack of film stars either.
Benedick & Beatrice
Excellent. I was left wondering what other Shakespeare Whedon had been reading aloud with actors for pleasure. This could be a series … but the unity of place in Much Ado About Nothing is a requirement if he’s going to do it at home.
I had a chuckle at the IMDB’s “FAQs” section. At the top was “Is it based on a book?” Every day I delete SPAM from this blog, and some try to make it look real. A favourite referenced a review of Hamlet and asked “Will there be a sequel?”