TORONTO – Joss Whedon figures if Shakespeare were alive today, he might be writing superhero stories. Only better ones than Whedon and his colleagues are doing.
Whedon, the writer-director behind this summer's superhero sensation "The Avengers," has unveiled a passion project at the Toronto International Film Festival — his adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."
Considering the fantastic worlds of ghosts, sorcerers and witches of Shakespeare's works, Whedon said the playwright might feel right at home working in a superhero realm such as the Marvel Comics universe of "The Avengers."
"Yeah, I think he very well might. He'd be doing it better than the rest of us. But he was not afraid of the big themes and the bigger-than-life characters," Whedon said in an interview at Toronto, where his "Much Ado" premiered over the weekend. "And his stuff was full of pop-culture references. I'm not comparing myself to him, but I am saying, yeah, I think he would have as much fun in the genre.
"He's not going to crawl out of the grave and write 'Steel Magnolias.' Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that wouldn't be his thing."
Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing" was done for pure love of Shakespeare during whatever spare time he could find while he was he in post-production after the long shoot on "The Avengers." He rounded up friends and family for the low-budget "Much Ado," which was shot at his own home in Los Angeles, with wife Kai Cole as executive producer and a cast filled with close pals.
Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof from Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spinoff "Angel" star as the wily wits Beatrice and Benedick, who devote themselves to mocking each other even as friends and family scheme to make them fall in love during preparations for the wedding of Benedick's pal Claudio and Beatrice's cousin Hero.
The cast also includes Clark Gregg of "The Avengers" and Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher of Whedon's short-lived sci-fi series "Firefly" and its big-screen spinoff "Serenity."
Whedon uses Shakespeare's original language but updates the story to modern times, with the returning soldiers of Shakespeare's play now coming off as classy mobsters in business suits and town cars (Whedon shot in black and white because he wanted a film-noir feel despite the romance and comedy of the story). The characters knock back shots of liquor, crank up music and videos on their smartphones and party by a pool lit with tiki torches, while conversing in Shakespeare's clever, rhythmic dialogue.
Acker and Denisof had participated in a reading of "Much Ado" that Whedon staged at his house years ago. Whedon had long wanted to do a movie version, and when he finished shooting "The Avengers" last year, he substituted the film instead of the family vacation he had planned.
"When we showed up for the first day of filming, everyone was like, oh, a real movie. We weren't sure if it was Joss with a flip camera," Acker said. "And when we got there, there was a crew and craft service and trucks and lights, so it was for real. Luckily, he only gave us about two weeks' notice and he didn't give us enough time to panic and realize, oh, we're playing these majorly important and great parts. We just had to learn the lines and do it."
It still was a do-it-yourself affair, shot in just 12 days, with Whedon also producing and composing the music, as well as editing the film with a colleague during lunch breaks and weekends while he was finishing "The Avengers."
Whedon was shopping the film around at the Toronto festival to find a distributor, hoping for a theatrical release, and by late Tuesday, it had already been sold to Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions for release in North America.
But even before the sale, Whedon counted "Much Ado" as a project that had already paid off.
"It was the best vacation I ever took," Whedon said. "I've literally never been happier. Every day, my best friends that I hadn't seen since I'd been away doing 'Avengers' for so long came to my house to do my two favorite pastimes, film and Shakespeare. And then often dance all night."