SXSW: Joss Whedon Brings 'Much Ado' to the Marvel-Loving Masses

Much Ado About Nothing Still - H 2012

Much Ado About Nothing Still - H 2012

The "Avengers" director says all romantic comedies owe something to Shakespeare's classic.

AUSTIN -- Joss Whedon and a cast of thousands (actually, closer to about a dozen) held court Saturday at the Austin Convention Center for the U.S. premiere of Much Ado About Nothing at South by Southwest.

Shot in striking black-and-white in and around his own Santa Monica home -- in a whiplash-inducing 12 days, no less -- the film is a remarkable feat of ingenuity from the writer-director best associated with thoughtful genre fare like TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and last summer's superhero bonanza, Marvel's The Avengers.

The project began as a Shakespeare reading group attended by his inner circle of friends -- many of whom are professional actors who Whedon, a loyalist, employs again and again.

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So Whedon diehards -- and there were many in attendance at the enthusiastic screening and panel that followed -- will delight in seeing Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) as the fiercely independent Beatrice squaring off against Alexis Denisof (Buffy) as Benedick, her reluctant suitor, while fan-favorite Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Serenity) steals scenes as bumbling police constable Dogberry. 

"I have this amazing ensemble," Whedon, 48, told The Hollywood Reporter shortly before the screening. "But I never wanted to make the movie. I just talked about it idly, until I looked at the text again, and thought: 'Oh. This is about the way that we’re alone and in pain and manipulated. The way that society expects certain things from us.'"

He adds that much of the brilliance of Much Ado is in how a play from the early 1600s manages somehow to offer a postmodern take on one of Hollywood's most time-tested genres.

"It’s a deconstruction of the romantic comedy that it is inventing, which is to me staggering," Whedon said. "I think all of the romantic comedies owe something to Much Ado, and Shakespeare is critiquing Much Ado as he’s writing it."

A later addition to the Whedon repertory is Clark Gregg, who next stars as the resurrected Agent Phil Coulson in Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D., the hugely anticipated ABC pilot created and directed by Whedon. But here he plays Leonato, proud dad to Hero, the young woman whose alleged infidelities are the "nothing" about which much ado is made.

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The 50-year-old actor's participation in Much Ado was practically premonitory ("I had this weird dream that I was doing Shakespeare, and then I got a call from Joss," he said). And once work began, Gregg -- father of an 11-year-old daughter with wife Jennifer Grey -- found it startling how easily the part got under his skin.

"I got in there doing it and thought, 'This makes me mad as hell! These guys, despoiling my daughter’s name.' I wanted to start taking people out. The stuff that was coming up in me was protective, enraged and gangster," Gregg said.

For Whedon, coaxing those kinds of intense feelings out of his players  -- who, unlike their Shakespearean counterparts, managed to avoid frictions and only bond closer during the cozy shoot -- is all part of the work.

"Like everything I do, even when I try not to, it’s about the group," he said. "There’s this party, and it just goes on and on. It curdles. Beautiful things are revealed, horrible things. It’s this little hot house of humanity.

"That’s what I’m always trying to get to in my work, one way or another," he added.

Acquired by Lionsgate at the Toronto International Film Festival, Much Ado About Nothing opens June 7 in limited release.