Interview: Joss Whedon


16th June 2013

It is with no exaggeration when I say that this interview might be the peak of my professional career as a sometime two-bit blogger. It probably even beats that time I wrote a feature making fun of Mark Wahlberg's face.

I've had the good fortune to interview a few famous faces before, but whenever I have been asked in the past who I would most like to interview, my answer has always been the same: Joss Whedon. Thanks to spending many years hoovering up his TV output, I have not only grown to be an obsessive fan of his work, but I also feel like his brand of dry comedy and his ability to achieve epic levels of poignancy have shaped my own tastes and sense of humour. In short, I was convinced that, if I ever met him, he would instantly see that we are kindred spirits and welcome me as a beloved friend.

Luckily, with Mr Whedon doing press tours for his rather brilliant low-budget adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing - filmed in his own home during a 12-day break from Avengers duties and starring a cast of well-known Whedonverse alumni - I had the opportunity to finally speak to the great man himself. Needless to say, he was warm, friendly and very funny. No, we didn't become friends. But when people ask me NOW who I would most like to interview, my answer is: Joss Whedon again. We definitely will be best buddies one day.

Here's what he said when I asked him the things that I asked him.

: Fitting Much Ado About Nothing into your busy Avengers schedule must have been tough. Why was it important for you to do it?

Joss Whedon: Well you know, I am fond of Shakespeare and I thought it's time people got to know this obscure writer... I am just a fan of the dumbest things to be a fan of. Everything I love is just like "Oh I love Shakespeare! I love Dickens!" and it's like "Wow – how obscure!"

It's just something that excites me to no end, and I've wanted to film a play. Not necessarily Much Ado, but after Amy [Acker] and Alexis [Denisof] read it in my home, I thought, "Well, now it's Much Ado!" Finally, my wife said to me: "What if you stopped talking about it? It's time. This is what you need. You've just come off a 93-day shoot and what you need is a vacation – i.e. work – and something that is just yours – i.e. something that is someone else's...

: Did the film end up the way you always wanted it to, or were you aware that you had to adapt the play for an audience that may be unfamiliar with Shakespeare?

JW: I have the same problem with everything I do. With The Avengers, you have to make it for people who absolutely love that sort of thing, and for people who would never approach it. It's the same thing with this. It's all about making it emotionally accessible. I was just talking to somebody who said he enjoyed the film even though he didn't understand half of what they were saying. I said: "But you knew what they were going through?" And he said, "Yeah, that wasn't a problem". I love to think of it as a gateway drug. I've had a few people say to me that they didn't usually like Shakespeare but this one really got them. That's the best you can ask for.

At the same time though, you want someone who has really studied it and really cares about it to know that you have a legitimate take on it. Somebody else said when they heard that I had done it: "Ah, Joss Whedon. He's fond of boxing above his weight class". I don’t think they meant it as a compliment, but I actually think it's the best one I've had.

: You've populated the film with familiar faces from your films and shows, but you also cast Avengers extra Jillian Morgese in a main role as Hero. It must be a bit of a fairytale for her?

JW: It is, and I'm not unaware of that. I noticed her when I was forming the idea of Much Ado About Nothing, and she actually introduced herself in the Marvel office when they were casting for extras. She's not unmemorable, but she was just one of the waitresses. I just kept throwing more and more stuff at her. I'd go: "OK, now you're terrified, now you're running over here." She ended up having a stunt double on The Avengers because I kept blowing things up around her, but a lot of the waitress stuff got cut. But she could really bring it. She has extraordinary poise and this was her first real job, but I felt like that she could really be Amy Acker's cousin. They both have this regal strength and they're both tall, gorgeous brunettes with great noses. People underestimate the importance of a good nose.

So, I thought I should investigate this and asked Disney to read her, but they wouldn't get around to it. I don't think they realised how fast my schedule was. So, I auditioned her on Skype. I asked her to prepare something from Romeo & Juliet and said "In two days, we're going to Skype". And when we did, I thought: "Yep, I'm right. You're coming out to LA!" Which is fun. I wanted Hero to have strength. I don't like the sort of weak 'Boo-hoo, what's happening to me?' version of Hero. I think there's more there. Jillian was the right girl for that.

: Was it tough to complete the film within your 12-day window?

JW: You know, it was great because one of the things I wanted to capture was a feeling of a live performance, and every scene was accomplished – with one exception – in one day. So, you've got the full experience of going through it with as many cameras rolling as we could manage – three whenever we could do three, two at least. So scenes like "Oh, that I were a man", that’s all one take. It's a couple of different cameras but it's all one take. I wanted that energy. I wanted to cheat as little as possible while still making a cinematic experience.

It's also murder, don't get me wrong. [laughs] That's why I make friends with people who are great actors because I know they can bring it. But until you roll sound in your own home, you have no idea how noisy your neighbours are. And that was stressful. Apart from that, it was fun.

: So would you try it again?

JW: That puts me on a double track. On the one hand, I'd love to do more Shakespeare, but on the other hand I'd love to do something that I've never done before and Shakespeare is no longer in that category. But each play is its own animal. I could do plenty of plays with that exact troupe of actors, but every piece is completely different cinematically so it would have to be a really new enterprise every time.

: How about when you come to the same break in your time during filming of Avengers 2? Would you try something like this again?

JW: I might. I might. But that gap's not going to come for quite some time.

: If you were to adapt another Shakespeare play, which would next be on the list?

JW: I love Hamlet as much as everybody else. I also love Twelfth Night. They'd probably be the two front-runners.

: You obviously used your own house as the main location throughout the film. What was it like to have your home invaded by actors?

JW: Well your home is being invaded but it's being invaded by a film crew, and the crew – some of whom I've worked with, but most I hadn't – it felt like we'd always known each other. Everybody sort of sucked into the ethos of this in a way that is very rare. Basically, if we were shooting the next day, everybody just stayed all night.

: Did the 12-day shoot mean that it was easier for your cast to fit it into their schedules?

JW: No. It was exactly like Avengers. Everybody had another job that they had to get to at such and such a time, so scheduling wise it was tricky. But it worked out rather well. Some people were very gracious about when they were being filmed, but in general we had to work around Nathan [Fillian] being in Castle and that's just part of it. When you're paying them as much as I was, you're just glad they showed up.

: With the cast already knowing each other so well, was there a danger of them making each other laugh during filming?

JW: It happened once. It was a terrible day sound-wise – we really had to walk between the raindrops to get production sound because I have as little ADR as possible in the film, so I was tearing my hair out a bit. And there was a scene where Borachio [Spencer Treat Clark] confesses on the front lawn and then I'm shooting and we're finishing and everyone is just laughing their asses off. I was like: "Guys, what the fuck is wrong with you? You're killing me here!" And then it turned out that, unbeknownst to me, Nathan [Fillion] and Tom [Lenk] were doing the 'We've lost our keys' bit, which they had just come up with and which I didn't know anything about. And so the other guys in the scene were all looking that way and absolutely losing it. So, I was like: "I'm really pissed with you guys, but we have to put that in the movie!"

: Does your work with Marvel prevent you from pursuing other passion projects like this one?

JW: Entirely. [laughs] Especially since the S.H.I.E.L.D. show. I do have, in the contract, certain outs for smaller projects, but unfortunately with doing the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, that was rather all-consuming as well. So, I'm not positive that I'll get another one out before I shoot The Avengers 2. Also, I'm passionately interested about The Avengers and I'm really excited to go back in so I don't want to dilute that. But hopefully very soon after it's done - or possibly before – I'll be able to do something.

I'm not going to do Shakespeare at quite that breakneck speed again. If I was to tackle it again, I think I'd do a slightly more elaborate version or something. But Much Ado is really this weird sort of weekend party that we captured. The other ones, not so much. And I have stuff like Wastelanders and Doctor Horrible 2 that are still in my heart but not on my schedule.

: Do you have any other original scripts or ideas that you can't wait to get started on?

JW: Right now, I'm more intrigued by things that I haven't really conceived of yet. Now I have the luxury of being able to think: "I've never done a ballet or an animated film... myself". There are certain things that I feel I'd love to do. I just want to keep trying new things and seeing if I'm any good at them, and if I'm not, then at least I'm learning that. So, rather than say,"Oh, I'm never going to get to make that thing", those waves crest and then they’re gone, but not totally. I definitely think I'm more interested in what medium I can explore right now rather than any specific story.
And then that was all. Far too quickly, my time with the man was over and I still had about 50 questions written in my notepad that I wanted to ask him. Top of that list was "Would you like to come for brunch with me next Sunday?" Now I'll never know his answer.

Much Ado About Nothing is out in cinemas now and it's pretty great because of course it is.

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