‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Star Alexis Denisof Talks Joss Whedon Genius
After Joss Whedon finished filming his $ 220 million mega-blockbuster “The Avengers,” he knew he had to do something to unwind. And while most people would take a well-earned vacation after a massive project like that, Whedon instead chose to make another movie. Filmed in 12 days. At his household. Because of course he did.
Inspired by informal Shakespeare readings he and his friends had been holding for years, Whedon assembled his filmmaking family and frequent collaborators like Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker to help recreate that fun, relaxed atmosphere. The result is “Much Ado About Nothing,” a low-budget and lighthearted modern retelling of one of the Bard’s most beloved comedies.
And with the film rolling out in theatres, Moviefone spoke to Denisof, who plays the movie’s Benedick, about reuniting with his old friends for the unlikely passion project and how they managed to pull it all off in under two weeks.
Moviefone: Is it surreal at all that this movie that you shot in 12 days at a friend’s household is now coming to theatres?
Alexis Denisof: [Laughs] It’s incredible. It’s certainly not what any of us anticipated, nor expected. This had low or perhaps even no expectations from all of us going in. Additional than that, we would have a lot of fun together because we all delight in Shakespeare and we’re all friends. But that was really the boundary of our hopes for it. And how much could you really expect from a movie that’s shot in 12 days? But miraculously, something about that 12 days, we all came together in an extraordinary way. And the speed at which it was made has almost become one of its virtues. It’s given it a very raw, live feel and a very natural, accessible style. And of course, Joss is a crazy genius, so that helps too.
When you’re effective on a compressed shooting schedule like this, how does that affect your approach as an actor? Is there any extra pressure on you to nail every take?
Before we started, the last thing Joss said to me when he proposed this thought of shooting the movie at his household in a 12 day span, he said, “Learn your lines, ‘produce you won’t have many takes.” [Laughs] And that was right, we didn’t have many takes, and they were long, the takes. It was pretty much the whole scene all in one go. So in one sense, it does put a pressure on you if you’ve become accustomed to the minutiae of TV or the usual film technique of parsing things into very small bits and shooting them, and then somewhere in an editing room far away it all gets pieced back together.
This felt more like theatre, where you put together larger and larger chunks of the play in anticipation of over usually about a six-week period, you can do the whole thing all the way through in a convincing fashion that’s ready for people to watch. We didn’t have six weeks and we weren’t doing the entire play start to end, but it did feel like theater in a sense that you had a little bit of time to get a scene ready from start to end and we just ran it. And there weren’t many takes, so as an actor you commit to your choices, and stick to them. And if they’re not effective, you quickly toss them out and solve the problem. And if they are effective, try to get them to work as well as they can. So while at the time, I found the constraints of 12 days to be a little bit frightening, as we progressed I really found it to be liberating.
Were you able to get in much dry run time beforehand with Amy Acker?
Not in a formal way, but we immediately telephoned each other and said, “How soon can you get together, and is Joss available?” I think we had about a two-plus week period where if we could catch each other in an afternoon or in a morning, we would get together and start to read scenes and talk about scenes and characters, and as much as Joss could, he would join us. Otherwise we would just march forward on our own. I don’t think the entire cast ever got together in one go to read the whole thing, even before we started shooting. It just didn’t pan out; schedules didn’t pan out that way. The key was that people could be there when it was time to shoot their scene, so rehearsals were on the glide. And Joss knows the household because he lives there, so he had a pretty good thought of where things would take place. That helps a lot. And we would work it out pretty quickly, in advance preferably, but some things we did work out on the glide while we were shooting.
And that left a lot of room for experimenting and making on the spot. It really lent it a very electric, in-the-moment feel for the film, and I think people are responding to that sense of both enjoyment but also nearness that’s on-screen.
You and Amy had read as Benedick and Beatrice before, right? When you were doing those informal Shakespeare readings at Joss’ household?
Yes, “Much Ado About Nothing” was one of the plays that we read in a casual fashion at one of his gatherings. And Amy and I read in those roles and didn’t know it at the time, but evidently, Joss has subsequently said that a seed was planted in his mind that if he were gonna attempt to shoot one of the plays that that would be the one to shoot, and preferably with us in those roles. I don’t know exactly why, but I’m certainly glad. [Laughs] My favorite combination of workmates is Joss and Amy and myself. So this was a marvel come right really.
So it could’ve have come completely out of left field when he approached you with this.
Well, really it did come out of left field, because while the thought of shooting a Shakespeare reading had surfaced before in a casual way, there was never a clear thought from anyone about what it would be or how it would look. Just Joss or a bigwig saying, “Gosh, it’d be cool if we could film one of these readings.” But I don’t think anyone knew what that meant exactly, not even Joss at the time. At the time we read “Much Ado About Nothing” at his household, he didn’t know how he wanted to shoot it, or if he wanted to shoot it, he just plotting if he were to do it, that maybe that would be a good candidate.
But then years went by and technology changed enormously, both in how you can shoot a film, what’s possible with cameras today, and also how material can be distributed direct to market. So those two elements evolved so rapidly that it suddenly occurred I think maybe first to his producing wife Kai Cole that, “Wait a minute, why don’t you make that Shakespeare movie you’ve been talking about? It’s possible to really do it now.” And of course, by then he’d had the success of “Dr. Horrible,” and by success, I mean he’d experienced making something on a grassroots level for himself and distributing it directly to the audience. So in some ways, that was the inspiration.
What did you think when he first came to you with the thought?
I plotting he was nuts. I plotting, “Well, God, 12 days sounds crazy, and you just shot one of the largest movies of all-time, and you were supposed to go on vacation, shouldn’t you do that?” I mean, it seemed crazy to me. But I know Joss well enough to know that he’s crazy in the best possible way, and I also knew that it would be the best thing for him.
Do you think this was more relaxing for him than taking a vacation would’ve been?
I do. He has a fertile creative brain, and for him, it’s more relaxing for that brain to be busy doing what it likes to do rather than sitting stationary somewhere not able to make or refine something that he’s already made. [Laughs] He’s just that guy, he’s just that smarter than the average bear.
Both you and Amy play the corporal comedy so well in this. How much did Joss encourage you guys to really dial that up?
Well, Joss is a goofball himself, and he’ll be the first to delight in a little bit of ancient-fashioned slapstick. I think it was a case of, where could we go, and finding out what the limits were, and even pushing the limits a small. He knows us as actors and what our tastes and proclivities are, so I’m sure it wasn’t a bolt from the blue that we would find some of the more comic elements and try to bring them out. It was just, feel free to have fun here, and if he had a silly thought, we tried it. And if Amy had a silly thought, we would try it, and if Alexis had a silly thought, we would try it. And if any of us felt that it wasn’t right or it was too much or it wasn’t effective, then we would tone it down or try something else. But we just kept finding ourselves giggling and thinking, “Well, what the hell? Let’s just do it.” And because we went in without any of the pressure of a studio to make pleased or doing this for anything other than our own gratification, then it left us free to really do with it what we felt we wanted to do. And that can be the best situation for making a creative leap.
We all knew going in that this was a project that was funded by and intended for the like of it, not the financial gain of it. So it was a joyful experiment and with that in mind, you just work as hard as you can and have as much fun as you can while you’re doing it, and try to make it work.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is now screening.