Joss Whedon makes a Shakespeare film in 12 days

MIAMI — If man is indeed a giddy thing — as William Shakespeare suggests in “Much Ado About Nothing,” insinuating we are impulsive beyond all reason — then Joss Whedon may be the giddiest man of all. After all, he’s the director who decided to make a quick movie in his down time between shooting his first big-budget film and editing it; the screenwriter who dared to adapt a play from the greatest wordsmith in the English language; the optimist who thought: Hey, yeah, let’s shoot a Shakespearean comedy at my house; it’ll be fun.

And fun it was. But Whedon says making his inspired contemporary version of “Much Ado About Nothing” served another purpose, too.

“It made editing ‘The Avengers’ much easier,” says Whedon, creator of the cult hits “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly,” “Dollhouse” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” “It took me through the most difficult phase of editing, when you’re pulling out all the things you love very much. I was thinking, ‘I’ve lost control of the movie I want to make!’ Shooting ‘Much Ado’ made me remember you have to remove parts of yourself because the movie isn’t about you. You have to strip away the self-indulgent bits. … It sort of gave me perspective.”

Whatever cuts he made to the superhero epic seem to have worked out just fine: “The Avengers” went on to become a blockbuster last summer, earning a whopping $1.5 billion worldwide and becoming the No. 3 top-grossing movie of all time, behind “Avatar” and “Titanic.”

But on a more modest arthouse scale, “Much Ado About Nothing” — which Whedon frames as a romantic screwball comedy taking place over a weekend in which everybody drinks a little too much and “everything is running at fever temperature” — has been packing a powerful punch all its own. The critically praised film opened in five theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and took in an impressive $171,941 on its opening weekend, with a $34,388 per-screen average, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

The film, co-produced by Whedon’s wife Kai Cole and shot at their Santa Monica home over 12 days, is packed with Whedon veterans including Amy Acker (“Angel,” “Dollhouse” and the Whedon penned- and produced horror satire “The Cabin in the Woods”) and Alexis Denisoff (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Dollhouse,” “The Avengers”) as the sparring, would-be lovers Beatrice and Benedick as well as Nathan Fillion (“Buffy,” “Firefly,” “Dr. Horrible”) as the malaprop-spouting constable Dogberry. The film also features Fran Kranz (“Dollhouse,” “Cabin in the Woods”), Reed Diamond (“Dollhouse”) and Tom Lenk (“Buffy,” “Angel,” “Cabin in the Woods”).

“It was very much an all-star Whedon cast,” says Clark Gregg, who plays party host Leonato in “Much Ado” and Agent Coulson in “The Avengers” and the upcoming “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” “I was very much the new guy. I think there are just people Joss gravitates to who are like-minded. He loves the work. … There’s so much trust and support and a kind of safety that it gives him room to try things. And he makes people keep coming back. He gives people opportunities that others don’t. Nobody else would have taken Agent Coulson and put him at the center of the story.”

His friends, of course, were Whedon’s main inspiration for tackling “Much Ado About Nothing.” Famous for inviting his pals over for wine and play readings, Whedon had Acker and Denisoff read the parts of Beatrice and Benedick at a gathering almost 10 years ago, and their chemistry wowed him.

“They were the reason I made the movie as much as anything. I had always said if we filmed something it should be ‘Much Ado,’ and they should be in it,” Whedon says of the actors, who played a darker sort of star-crossed lovers on “Angel.” (“I was watching one of the screenings, and I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to see them kissing and one of them isn’t bleeding out,’” Whedon laughs.)

A longtime Shakespeare fan, Whedon has seen Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 “Much Ado” more than once.

“There are things about it that are indelible.” he says of the film, which starred the then-married Branagh and Emma Thompson as well as Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves and Kate Beckinsale. “He knocked it out of the park . … But the great thing about loving Shakespeare is that you can see several productions and even if you see a great one, you have that urge: ‘I have something to say.’ The text is what it is; you’re not going to change it. You’re not going to outsmart Shakespeare. Writing it becomes about yourself. What does it mean to me in particular? If you look at the two of these movies, it’s obvious Kenneth Branagh is a much happier person than me.”

Whedon’s version is set in the present, though it keeps almost all of Shakespeare’s original dialogue. Still, anachronisms in custom and behavior crop up, in particular the rejection of the ingenue Hero by her callow fiance Claudio because he believes she was unfaithful. (“Give not this rotten orange to your friend!” is how Shakespeare puts it.)

“You need to find an emotional reality that is modern that will bridge the gap,” Whedon explains. “You want to make sure it’s human and modern and relatable. You can’t shy away from the fact that Claudio is an unbelievable idiot. He’s a jock, a soldier, built to be impulsive. He’s clearly unversed in love, and he’s gonna get it wrong. … What some people get upset about is the ‘Is Hero a virgin?’ plot. Well, that’s archaic and awful, but you don’t have to get strict about was she a virgin or not. You ask, ‘Did she just cheat on her fiance the night before her wedding?’ Even in the modern day that’s considered bad form.”

The only real difficulty of the speedy shoot — which Gregg likens to a high dive: “The longer you stand there the smaller the odds you’ll jump, so you spring up the ladder and hurl yourself off” — was the issue of exterior sound.

“We live near the airport, and we live near a lot of dog lovers,” Whedon says. “And there’s a golf course nearby that apparently has to be mowed 24 hours a day. Oh, and the house next door began demolition three days before we started shooting. It gave me enormous stress, but then everything else ran smoothly. The best part of moving at that speed, besides the joy of accomplishment, is you leave each day having laid down one or two big, important scenes, not a little portion of a scene. Moving that quickly, we had to capture a little bit of that energy.”

With “The Avengers 2” due out in 2015, Whedon will soon be back to the big-budget movie grind. But the lessons of Shakespeare may linger.

“I feel like I want to take the passion I had while making ‘Much Ado’ and apply it,” Whedon says. “With ‘The Avengers,’ we were under the gun. It went well, but I did not get to sit back and say, ‘This was great fun.’ With the second one I feel that with enough lead time I can enter that world in a more immersive way.”