Much ado about Joss
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Much Ado About Nothing
He changed TV forever with Buffy, Avengers Assemble proved once and for all the primacy of geek pop culture – now Joss Whedon wants us to rediscover Shakespeare’s funny side, he tells DONALD CLARKE
What do you do when, after a few complicated years of cult confusion, you write and direct the third most successful film in cinema history? Well, if you’re Joss Whedon – in town this week for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival – you shuffle your stock company into the living room and shoot a monochrome version of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
If there’s an art to being Joss Whedon, it’s tied up with the ability to put unexpected spins on familiar material. Though he got an Oscar nomination for co-writing Toy Story, Whedon didn’t properly register as a personality until the first airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997. To that point, female heroines in horror had been little more than prettified victims. Whedon’s TV series made a kick-ass (not to mention thump-face) of the title character.
“That was a deliberate attempt to forward a feminist agenda,” he says. “It had to do with my politics and my upbringing. All my stuff is about the same thing. It’s about people who are overlooked or helpless. Because I tend to look upon myself as overlooked and helpless.”
Oh come on, dude! Last year, his take on Marvel’s The Avengers – bringing together Iron Man, Hulk and another mess of superheroes – took in $1.5 billion worldwide. Only Avatar and Titanic have accumulated more loot. Overlooked and helpless? “Oh look at me.”
Now 48, Whedon is a hugely articulate, unstoppably amusing raconteur. He has perfect timing and a good line in heightened comic impersonations. For all his gifts, however, he can’t have imagined that he could ever have generated such a fervent following. Even his flops have evolved into cults. For example, supporters of his fine, hastily cancelled TV space opera Firefly were instrumental in allowing him to make the movie spin-off called Serenity.
Much of the appeal stems from Whedon’s determination to treat pop culture – comics, sci-fi, horror – as high art. Now, with Much Ado About Nothing, he’s flipped the aesthetic and brings pop cultural sensibilities to high art.
Tackling a Shakespearean comedy was a brave move. The tragedies tend to fare better on film: more action, less twisty chatter.
“I never thought about that,” he says. “But I think you are right and the comedies I have seen adapted tend to stress the drama. They seek something else in it. As a result, the comedy falls a little flat. It’s to do with having the right actors. Shakespeare is very funny. But people don’t take comedies seriously – even his.”
That’s right. Just look how poorly comedies fare at the Oscars. “Ha ha! Yes. They’ll say: ‘Is this a meaningful Shakespeare work or is it one of his comedies?’”
Much Ado could hardly be more different to The Avengers. Following that behemoth, he invited a bunch of regular collaborators (Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion) to his Santa Monica house for a furious few weeks of shooting.
“I actually got more sleep that way,” he says. “I’d roll out of bed and find them all there. At one point, my son came down the stairs and said: ‘Where are all the people I know?’”