JOSS WHEDON was in a grump after the gruelling process of shooting last year’s superhero mega-blockbuster Avengers Assemble. Drained and exhausted, the writer-director faced the prospect of losing some of his favourite scenes in the editing suite.
“I was not in a great place,” he confesses. “It was the beginning of post-production and the movie was too long so I had to take out all this stuff I loved.
“I really felt, ‘This is anonymous work, it’s not about me’,”
His wife Kai, an architect, knew just the cure for his low spirits. In the few days he had off between the end of filming and the start of editing he should… take a vacation? Not exactly.
She suggested he realise a personal ambition and shoot a contemporary movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. In their Beverly Hills home. In 12 days. Funded out of their own pockets.
“I had one month and two days to adapt the script, cast it and prep it. Then we shot it,” says a genial but bleary-eyed Whedon, currently deep in preparation for Avengers 2 and a pilot for a Marvel television series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The result is a delightfully performed, jazzy, modern production, shot in black and white, that exudes charm but also captures some of the play’s darker undertones.
“I’d seen a lot of great productions of it and I loved the Kenneth Branagh film but they were very sunny. It wasn’t until I really poked around in the dark side that I realised, this is why I need to make the film. It’s not all joy and crushing grapes.”
Making it, with a cast of close friends and collaborators from his many hit television shows, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, gave Whedon his mojo back.
“Not only did I have the best time of my life but I came back to Avengers Assemble completely cured and ready to move on to the next step. I realised that even if I took out everything that I thought was the most important thing in the movie, it’s still going to be my movie. It was really interesting to me how Much Ado had helped.”
A monster blockbuster (the third highest grossing film of all time) and a micro-budget home movie: these two pictures are perfect examples of the current wildly divergent business models in modern Hollywood.
“Studios would rather spend $200 million on one film than $40million on five films,” says Whedon. “Or they’ll make a found footage horror film for peanuts. There is nothing in between.”
Aided by technology that means movie making is cheaper and easier than ever, the “home movie” model enabled Whedon to pull off Much Ado without any financial backing.
“We made Much Ado with our own money and our own studio, that my wife and I created for exactly this reason,” he says.
“We didn’t even know if we’d get a theatrical release for the film. But not having the burden of making back somebody’s coin, and just doing it because we loved it, was wonderfully liberating.”
But for independent producers trying to make great dramas and the kind of award-worthy projects that were the staple of studios in years past, “their lives are much rougher now”, admits Whedon.
Television has stolen their thunder. “TV provides a great venue for classy drama and so the studios have decided they don’t want to go there. Nobody’s chasing an Oscar. Nobody’s going to make Lawrence of Arabia.”
David Lean’s magnificent epic is far too nuanced and subtle for today’s world, he says. “I love Braveheart, I saw it twice in one day,” he says of Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winner about Scottish rebel William Wallace.
“But you stack that up against Lawrence and there’s no comparison. There’s no complexity in Braveheart. That’s partly why it hits so emotionally. It’s like Star Wars.”
So how would Shakespeare be earning a crust today? Whedon, 48, shoots down the popular theory that he’d be coining it in writing Hollywood screenplays.
“He’s too smart for that. I think he’d be writing for television, for HBO. TV is where the best writers are now and understandably.”
Introduced to Shakespeare as a child by his history teacher mother and TV writer father (the couple split when he was eight), Whedon’s love of the Bard began early.
I wonder how the playwright has influenced him as a dramatist. “He’s all-out all the time,” he says. “The most intense of everything. This is the worst possible version of this guy, the most pain you can be in, the lowest gag, the most beautiful image. He wants it all and very often in the same play and sometimes the same scene. He’s not afraid to change it up.”
After Whedon’s parents split, his mother came to England on sabbatical and the future creator of some of US pop culture’s most iconic characters found himself studying at a British public school, Winchester College (above).
“It was nuts. I wouldn’t wish it on a dog,” he remembers. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I was not a very good student. I had many problems that they have acronyms for now that they didn’t then. So that was a struggle. Also I was a disaffected, alienated teen who just wanted to make movies.
“But even while I was utterly miserable I knew what a wonderful school it was. I would be like,‘I am miserable in the most beautiful place’,” he says.
His appreciation of Shakespeare deepened there too.
“I had great teachers, including my English A-level teachers who really gave me Shakespeare as nobody ever had.”
Whedon found his voice and made his name in TV with his cult classic, genre-bending shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the space western Firefly but it was the movies that have given him his biggest hits.
He co-wrote Pixar’s Toy Story and following the success of Avengers Assemble, he is advising on all Marvel Comics’ upcoming projects including Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier.
“I had an incredible time writing the characters in Avengers but a lot of it was introductions. Now I get to dig deeper,” he says of the upcoming sequel.
It’s set to shoot in the UK next February. Whedon should feel right at home, especially if Benny Hill is on the telly.
“You can see the influence of Benny Hill in Much Ado,” he deadpans. “Except that our jokes aren’t as subtle.”