Interview with Much Ado About Nothing director Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon shot his modern-day Much Ado About Nothing in his own home over 12 days with a cast composed largely of friends (who also happened to be actors). The project was a welcome change of pace after the super-sized production of The Avengers, and a natural outgrowth of the Shakespeare readings he had been hosting with his wife. It's not quite a "one for them, one for me" picture, if only because The Avengers didn't feel like "one for them." But it has a fun and casual "let's put on a show" character while still managing to remain polished and sharp.
Matthew Lickona: Why black and white?
Joss Whedon: Because this text, to me, is a very old, elegant sort of comedy-noir, and the ones that I grew up loving were the older ones, the black and white movies. [Films by] Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks. They were not afraid to be very silly and then very dark. They didn't treat the romantic structure as a formula, because they were busy devising the formula - in much the same way as Shakespeare was with this play.
ML: Speaking of very silly and very dark, you've said that it took you a while to figure out how the frothy stuff fit together with the darker, harsher bits. Could you elaborate on that?
JW: Well, the play is so funny that I missed the meaning. I'm the one who has always said that comedies contain great meaning, and that we have to stop pretending that there's either art or comedy. And yet I myself didn't understand that the darker parts of this text - the more painful and dramatic parts - are as important to its meaning as the hilarious, frothy bits. It was until I not only examined those darker parts but also really understood how they went together that I realized, "Oh, this text is important to me."
ML: Well, at the risk of asking you to be too bald about it, how would you characterize the meaning of the play?
JW: I don't think it's one of those things where you can say, "The message is..." But for me, the idea that we are all being manipulated - that romantic behaviors are something we are taught and that are imposed upon us, as opposed to something that natural, mature people would do - is kind of in interesting concept to run with. We see a hilarious version of it, and a very dark version of it.
ML: Based on that reading, does what happens at the end of the play constitute a happy ending?
JW: It does. I think what Shakespeare says is just that our understanding of how love is supposed to work is kind of constructed. But mature love means, basically this: people who can stop lying or sort of behaving, and just admit that they have decided to need each other. The mature union that Benedick and Beatrice come to is one that I don't think anybody doubts will last. People sometimes wonder about Claudio and Hero. We try to shore them up as much as possible without lying. Claudio does terrible things, but at least we can understand him.
ML: Would you say there's a turning point for Beatrice and Benedick, the point where they come to that mature admission after sparring for so much of the story?
JW: They have a lot of moments of turning...but it really does come at the end, which is a good place for it in a romantic comedy. What's interesting is that earlier on, they decide, just instantly and baldly, that they are going to be madly in love with each other after disparaging love for half the play. But even after they declare it, they're still not communicating at all. It really isn't until they've resolved everything - and even then they're still trying to back out of it until the last second. Then, finally, at the end, they realize that that was the old behavior, and they're past it.
ML: I watched the movie with a friend who is very familiar with the play. At the end, she said she admired the way the movie opens and closes with the two motormouths, Beatrice and Benedick, wordless.
JW: Well, it wasn't like, "Oh, I'll shut them up." What you could say is that at the beginning, they don't know what to say - that's why they duck out on each other. And at the end, they don't have to say it any more. And in the middle, they say everything.
ML: You cast this movie with friends. How did that work? Did you ask them if there was a part they were interested in?
JW: I'm specific about putting the right person with the right role. In this case, I was very specific about not asking five guys if they wanted to play a part and then finding out that four of them do, and can. Because that would be dumb, and I'd have no friends left. I knew who I wanted to get, and I started buzzing around people, saying, "Yeah, so, what's up? What are you doing? What dates, exactly?" I was cagey with people. I actually got exactly who I wanted to play everybody, so that worked out perfectly.
ML: You said in your interview with The Atlantic that this is a very modern play. I can see how that's true in some aspects more easily than in others. Take the villain, Don John. We have a modern tendency to give our villains some motivation other than, "We're bad guys." They've got some wound or something. How did you go about developing Don John as a character?
JW: Shakespeare loves his villains to just be villains. They're constantly declaring, "I'm just bad." Edgar, Iago, Richard III, and Don John - they all stand up and say, "I'm a terrible person; let's move on." The work that we did was not so much backstory as it was, "Who are you now?" With Don John, it was, "You're defeated. You're just as privileged and capricious as Don Pedro, but you're also furious." That's as far as we wanted to go with it. We weren't like, "Well, when you were a boy, you had a ball, but then Don Pedro got the ball." Shakespeare's tendency to let the villains declaim meant that we could just sort of find Don John in Sean Maher's skin and not overthink. There wasn't anything that was going to inform the action or make it make more sense.
Quite frankly, Don John makes more sense than Don Pedro does. When Don Pedro says to Claudio, "Oh, you love Hero? Well, I'll go and pretend to be you and woo her for you," I mean, we spent weeks trying to figure out a rational explanation for that. Then we just went with, "It's an insane idea, and Claudio knows it, and he just sort of goes, 'Okay, that's great,' which makes us laugh every time."
ML: You also told The Atlantic that a lot of productions of Much Ado About Nothing have treated Benedick and Beatrice as having a sexual backstory. I confess I have never seen it done that way, and I was all set to say that it seemed like a very modern update on your part.
JW: Honestly, I haven't seen many people do that. It's just that when I present it to people, nobody is very surprised. I think a lot of people interpret it that way now who might not have earlier. I've never seen anything like this production, which is a good thing, because then I would be stealing.
ML: You also said that when you saw the play, you didn't get the sense that the big deal in Claudio's accusation was that Hero wasn't a virgin. Rather, the big deal was that she had been unfaithful to him on the night before their wedding. But Leonato's speech at the wedding talks about tainted flesh, and how she is smirched. To me, it sounded like her virginity was a big deal - though that may be in part because of my background growing up. Still, I thought it made the scene very tricky to present in a modern context.
JW: Some people hear more of that than others - depending on their background. You sort of have to make it work either way. I mean, there's a lot of hypocrisy in what's going on, whether or not it's about [virginity]. It doesn't really change the nature of Claudio's pain, or his transgression. For me, it has to accommodate both, because what always registered with me was the very powerful emotion, and not the exact reference. Because the first time I saw the play, I wasn't as fluent.
ML: Staying with that theme of setting the play in a modern context: you've said that Beatrice's "Oh, if I were a man" speech is one of the most important things that Shakespeare ever wrote. But the pain of that speech is that she feels locked into a certain role as a woman. She wants to fight to defend Hero's honor, but she can't, because she's a woman. She says, "I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving." It's odd to hear a modern woman talk like that. You think, "Why doesn't she just grab a gun?"
JW: I've written things where she does grab a gun. But in this case, I do think that even though it's a modern setting, this is a very specific society. It has its strictures. There's a slight element of this wonderful estate being a kind of prison. So it doesn't rub me wrong. I don't need her to be a woman of action in that sense. I mean, that's her instinct...in the beginning of the wedding scene, when Claudio turns on Hero, Beatrice comes at him. But Leonato pushes her away, as if to say, "Let me handle this." We put that in because she doesn't speak to defend her best friend for like four pages. So we had her [physically] move forward, but this is Leonato's deal. It's her awareness of that, and her struggle with that, that is important to me. I know she cares; I don't need her to go, "Hasta la vista, asshole."
ML: You talk in a number of places about finding actors who can make Shakespeare sound like conversation, because that's crucial to the presentation. How much freedom did you give your actors to play around with the language?
JW: There's not a syllable uttered that isn't exactly as printed. It's about what you do with the words, the rhythms and the cadences that you create. Because it's not iambic, it allows for naturalism. But nobody does improv on a Shakespeare shoot on my watch. Now, physically, everybody was doing tons of stuff, trying out lots of different things. But not with his words. His words are why we all showed up in the first place.
ML: Speaking of physical stuff, tell me about Beatrice's big pratfall during the scene where she overhears Hero and Ursula talking about how Benedick loves her.
JW: She's got the second scene. [Benedick has already overheard his friends talking about how Beatrice loves him.] In my experience, the second scene has always fallen a little flat. So I was like, "Let's go further. Let's up the stakes, so that we don't just say, 'Yeah, been there.'"
ML: Last question - why so much drinking? I like to drink, but even I pause at wine for breakfast.
JW: The idea is that part of the modernity is that it's just this hothouse of license. These people live the way they want, do what they want. They can just live this party life, and it backfires on them. It starts to go south. I felt like increasing the intensity of all this helps to give it a vibrancy and keeps it from being very dry. It also explains some of their decision-making.
ML: Like Don Pedro offering to woo in Claudio's place.
JW: Exactly. They're holding drinks in that scene for a reason.
More like this:
- Much Ado about Nothing at the Old Globe — Aug. 29, 2018
- Always competent, sometimes sparkling Much Ado — July 31, 2014
- Interview with Still Mine star James Cromwell — July 18, 2013
- Interview with The Loneliest Planet Writer-Director Julia Loktev — Nov. 7, 2012
- Much Ado About Nothing at Old Globe — July 2, 2011