Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, well known for their remarkable acting within the many works of storytelling mastermind Joss Whedon, take center stage in the director’s intimate retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale Much Ado About Nothing. Playing the respective roles of Beatrice and Benedick, the pair move with an electrifying and gorgeous chemistry that helps to shape the world around them. We caught up with the duo after the premiere showing of the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and got some delightful insights into the creative process behind this moving, marvelously graceful and wonderfully funny film.
Most of the time that you guys worked with Joss it was on TV show sets, and this was… it was a different production because it was something that he didn’t write, and it was a movie instead of a TV show and it was in this really short period of time. So, did it feel different because you were doing a movie as opposed to a TV show, and did it feel different… because it was like, “we’ve got to do this in about 2 weeks” and “we have to shoot these scenes this way”–how did it feel on the set of either Dollhouse or Angel vs. the set of this movie?
Amy Acker: Well this one was… we were in his house so there was, you know, we’re like, all sitting on their couch and opening their fridge and grabbing, you know, some ranch dip out or whatever [laughs]. But this… I think, we were both thinking earlier, this really… [it’s] not as much a difference between a film and TV show, as much as a play and anything on film, whether it be TV or a movie. We had the advantage, even though it was quick, of getting to rehearse, and to figure things out in advance, and to, you know… When we were shooting Dollhouse or Angel, it’s quick, too.
Alexis Denisof: Yeah. I mean, in that regard, it was very similar to an Angel episode where you’ve got too much to shoot in too few days. We were doing those episodes in 8 days, and really needed 10 or 11 for everything that they were hoping to get, and we shot this movie in 12 and probably needed–would have loved to have 20 or 30 or more days. So, the time constraint was there, not dissimilar, and of course we were all kind of reunited, either as old castmates or friends at least, so we had that familiarity from TV to film. And I think this was a light crew… it wasn’t a crew on the scale of The Avengers or Oblivion. This was a quick, fast, mobile crew that could knock out a scene in a few takes and then move into a room and be shooting it 15 or 20 minutes later. So, it was a high turnover rate.
Amy Acker: For Joss, and Clark and you, who were on The Avengers and shooting a scene, or half of a scene, in a day, it probably felt drastically different.
Alexis Denisof: Yeah. So, it wasn’t so much that this movie and TV were different, it’s that this movie and BIG movies are different.
That’s true. The scale is so dramatically different; a lot of those, the duration of the movie is longer, there are a lot more scenes, and this was done in a kind of guerilla-style where “we have basically one set to work with”.
Alexis Denisof: And Amy’s point is well-made that where this departs from most TVs and films is that we were bringing a play to life. So the requirements there were to bring these long scenes and monologues to life in a way that had flow and fun and life. TV [shows] and films are typically chopped up into very small pieces that are shot completely out of order, and then the whole thing is reconstructed later. And there’s an enormous amount of footage that you never even saw or were part of, and there’s music and all sorts of things that come in that tell that story. Whereas, in this case it was, you know, the story was in the hands of the actors and the director to try to bring to life in that room, in that take. There weren’t that many angles; he tried to keep it pretty loose and wide so that the audience could kind of come into the room and sit with you and almost feel that they were a voyeur at a party that they had been lucky enough to sneak into. I think that’s where this leaves the realms of cinema and verges more into what might be the “alive” experience.
There are a lot of shots, like the shot of Franz in the pool holding his martini glass, shot through a glass where he is blurred and out of the way; or the scene where Beatrice is coming to a realization, she’s framed by the window inside of the door. Was that a conscious decision to put that angle there, either because of the “voyeur” element, or because there’s an element of obscurity and hiding things that goes through the story?
Amy Acker: Joss had, from the first time we read the play, I think, especially with the scenes you’re talking about, he said “I want to start the scene here, because I want to do this”. So, it was planned as part of what you’re saying, and I think that’s true.
Alexis Denisof: Yeah, I think it was true. And your point is well made that it was partly that he wanted to allow you to peer into this world. It was also the advantage of the location, which was this beautiful house that his artist-architect-wife Kai had designed and built, a reconstruction from the ground up. I think he wanted to do justice to that house; it’s almost like a character in the play that he wanted to have interacting as well. So I think that it gave all of this language, it rooted all in a real place. So you felt that these people were having this problem in an actual room or on a real staircase or wherever it was. The sets weren’t just an excuse to give us a place to play the scene, but the house actually created a contour, a shape for what the scene was. He was including that in his vision.
You were talking earlier about the long soliloquies that Benedick and Beatrice have in the story. One big motif in Shakespeare is to have those long speeches that explain the characters’ thoughts and feelings. In popular TV shows and films, you just have shots that explore the characters’ emotions. How do you feel about doing soliloquies, as opposed to displaying the emotions of the character on your face?
Alexis Denisof: Well, traditionally, cinema has moved towards “rather than say it, shoot it” — we’d rather not have it spoken, we’d rather have it revealed, almost a sign of being within the internal life of the actor, and you the audience are joining with that. That’s the intimacy that filmmaking affords. But, on the other hand, we’re dealing with the master storyteller, Shakespeare, and this is essentially a language-based storytelling format. So the task with these monologues is to take what is a theatrical convention, of the inner life of the character being explained to you by the person, in real time, directly to the audience, which is an odd convention now. We try to find a way of doing that that feels natural within the film that we’re making. So, we made some choices about how to handle those monologues so that they’re not QUITE as direct as “my eyes locked on the lens talking to the viewer”. We didn’t go quite THAT far, but we stayed true to the intentions of the playwright, which are “for whatever reason, this man is talking out loud to himself about what his dilemma is”. I think if you commit to it, and you find the journey through a monologue, I think that it can be as exciting and as relevant and as poignant as the silent revealed moment you’re talking about, in a more classic cinematic way in which there would be no dialogue. But in this case, we had the advantage that there is dialogue.
People do wonder about the soliloquies and long passages, but there are enough pauses and movements, and you have that whole house to work with. Having that works well with it.
Alexis Denisof: Yeah. I mean, a soliloquy isn’t just THERE; frankly, there are some technical reasons in the play that they’re there. Usually it’s so that costume changes and set changes can happen behind the actor while he’s doing a soliloquy. That’s one of the reasons that they’re in the play, for Shakespeare, because there are some technical things that need to happen; people are playing two or three characters, and they’ve got to change clothes in order to come on for the next scene, and a day scene has to be transformed into a night scene, and so candles have to be lit. There’s a lot of stuff that was going on behind the scenes, probably; that’s our best guess. So the soliloquy gives a chance to keep the story alive, and the action going, while that’s going on technically. But the other wonderful reason for a soliloquy, from the actor’s point of view, is that you start with a character at point A and you take it to point B by the end of the soliloquy, so that both the character and the audience can move through some internal transitions that the character is making, and be able to pick up the story at the point of that character’s evolution and continue with the story by then.
One more question I had: Joss wrote all of the music in this film. Do you happen to know if he wanted to do this right away, or was there talk of having the character of Balthazar, who has the songs in the play, performing the songs?
Amy Acker: When we did the reading of this a long time ago, he wrote a version of “Sigh No More” that he surprised us all with, when we were at his house five years ago, drinking wine on a sunny afternoon. He had all of his brothers there, and they’re all, you know, ridiculously talented musicians, so they all started playing the song. His original plan was that he wanted his brother Jed to do all of the music, but he was so busy that he couldn’t do it, and Joss just, one night was just like “I’ll just try it myself” and, of course…
Alexis Denisof: Yeah, that didn’t work out at all [laughter] It’s not, just, the most beautiful score ever written. No, no, not another piece of genius out of the brain of Joss Whedon… We went into the shoot with that song, because, as Amy said, it was already there, although they retooled it a little, but he didn’t go into photography knowing that he was going to do the score. He got into the shooting of it and realized that, he could already see that it was coming together, in a much more extraordinary way than even he thought or expected.
Much Ado About Nothing is now in theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, with a wide release to follow on June 21st.