Generally, the "how" of how a movie gets made is ultimately irrelevant to how good or bad a movie is; there's even an old movie biz belief that if a movie was too much fun to make, the result will be a dud. On the other hand, here’s Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. From all reports, this was a busman’s holiday, and it’s yielded what plays like a holiday on film.
Buoyantly free of any element that feels overworked, Much Ado is that rare thing: a movie that really does seem to mirror its making. The project came about organically (Whedon had been gathering friends at his home to read Shakespeare for quite some time), was literally homemade (Whedon used his home in Santa Monica as the set), and, using mostly-TV actors he'd worked with before, as well as non-actor real-life friends as extras, was shot quickly – done during the vacation that Whedon had lobbied to get into his contract, for a week between the shooting of The Avengers and its post-production (the actual shoot took 12 days).
Funnily enough, the result both feels like what you might expect – it’s got an open, casual, caught-on-the-fly vibe that’s marvelously fresh and unpretentious – and is simultaneously such a smart, considered and well-crafted piece of work that critical acclaim has been near-unanimous: Take that, you snooty Brits, has been the general consensus – we can do Shakespeare and we can do it right. Which in this case means a version of “the granddaddy of romantic comedy,” as Whedon terms it in a video interview, that’s genuinely funny and fun.
It’s filmed in glorious black and white, which is making a comeback not unlike the resurgence of vinyl in our digital music age. Makes perfect sense: amidst this summer of screaming CGI-crazed super-blockbuster 3D monstrosities, who wouldn’t want to revel in the small pleasures of a simpler, sparser medium? It’s a tonic for our frazzled senses.
Whedon’s Much Ado comes on the heels of another gorgeously-photographed black-and-whiter, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s collaboration, Frances Ha. Frances isn’t a rom-com; it’s largely a platonic love story between two women, but it’s steeped in the traditions of French romantic comedies from the New Wave era, and the earlier peak works of Woody Allen (e.g. Manhattan). Its cinematography is even more luminous and sumptuous than Whedon’s, but its aesthetic is cut from the same cinematic stone.
A tiny, barely-plotted movie that’s more a love song from Baumbach to his muse, mate, and star, Frances Ha presents a panoply of lovely moments, and – mostly due to Gerwig – does exert a poignant emotional pull. It also makes an interesting making-of contrast.
In a NY Times video piece about how he shot a scene in the movie, Baumbach makes a groan-worthy fool of himself talking about the 30 takes he required to attain perfection in this fairly simple, straightforward scene, blathering on about balancing the blocking and the performances. As Laurence Olivier once famously suggested to Dustin Hoffman, when the younger actor was torturously agonizing over how to “find his role” before a take in Marathon Man, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?” A Hollywood workhorse like say, Howard Hawks could’ve expertly staged and wrapped Baumbach’s scene in one or two takes, tops – and would probably have shot himself before he’d have puked and mewled about the ostensible difficulties of it all to a newspaper reporter.
But we all of us have our methods. Whedon’s are what fascinate me. The fact that he managed to pull off Much Ado on a breather from making the world’s biggest money-making blockbuster to date makes me smile – again, recalling the heyday of a Hollywood where Victor Fleming, a director who no one deemed a genius, stepped in to simultaneously shoot the better part of Gone With the Wind while he was finishing a little project called The Wizard of Oz.
I wouldn’t assume for a moment that for the famously workaholic Whedon, a picture like Much Ado was all a day at the beach (when talking about scoring the movie, he noted, “When I’m terrified, I know I’m having fun”). So I was fascinated to read this Q & A with the director (How To Be Prolific), which specifically addresses Joss Whedon’s methodology, and his philosophy about working. For anyone trying to sustain a creative career, it’s an inspiring required read.
And get thee to a multiplex, to experience the acoustic, analog-like joys of both Ado and Ha before they’re buried beneath all that Attack of the Mega-Million Android debris.