THURSDAY PM: Joss Whedon is making a much anticipated appearance at SXSW to present his indie modern retelling of the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing. That’s the microbudgeted pic he shot in 12 days in secret under his Bellwether Pictures banner while working on Marvel‘s The Avengers. Picked up after its Toronto debut, the film screens in Austin with a panel on Saturday in front of his rabid fanbase – then hits theaters June 7 via Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions. (The film releases June 14 in the UK via Kaleidoscope, which is also handling international sales.)
Whedon recently wrapped his pilot for Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. series and is set to work on The Avengers 2 for a 2015 release. He’s also contracted for three years as a creative consultant to Marvel, helping studio head Kevin Feige develop the sprawling superhero universe. Whedon admits the Marvel commitments may not leave time anymore for passion projects like Much Ado because he’s “in constant danger of burning out”. He also talks to Deadline’s Jen Yamato and contributor Joe Utichi about what could have been – Wonder Woman, Star Wars – and what might still be for The Hulk:
DEADLINE: Most directors helming a giant summer blockbuster wouldn’t choose to use their 2-week break to make a small Shakespeare film.
WHEDON: Making The Avengers was very important to me, but it was also extremely arduous. I missed my friends and I missed my home, so I decided to throw them all on camera which is the only way I seem to know to relate to people. But I was blissfully happy when we were shooting Much Ado About Nothing – and it was actually one week and three weekends – and then I went back to cutting Avengers much better. I was in the very early process – my first assembly was very long. When I came back from Much Ado, without any rancor or confusion, I was able to cut the film down to length and readily focus on the things that mattered. I think I would have come to that one way or another, but Much Ado sped it up. Here I was making absolute giddy ridiculous art with no expectations, and nothing but joy – and wishing that my neighbors’ dogs would shut up.
DEADLINE: You shot Much Ado secretly from the press. Did you keep it from Marvel as well?
WHEDON: No, I absolutely told them because if that got out and they hadn’t known, I think that would have caused some concern. I told them I was going to do this and I snuck out for a few afternoons to rehearse, and I took one extra day after Monday. But it really didn’t interfere with the schedule much at all. And I had boundless energy when I returned. I think it worried them! Kevin [Feige] and Jeremy [Latcham], their faces were kind of pasty and their mouths were dry but they said, ‘It’s good, you’ll have a good time… we support you’. I think they found out and I found out what that this was the only way to relax me.
DEADLINE: You need relaxing?
WHEDON: I’m in constant danger of burning out. Look, this is not a healthy person talking to you. ‘I’m going to make a sequel to the biggest movie I’ve ever made!’ … ‘Perhaps a TV show would go along nicely with that…’ I always order the entire left side of the menu and then wonder why I’m full. With Much Ado it was different because it was truly contained. The script had been written. There were things that took a lot of time to edit. I didn’t know how to work Final Cut Pro — Danny [Kaminsky] my assistant had to teach me. He’s also a producer on the movie and edited it with me. And of course when I couldn’t afford a composer I said, let’s do even more work! But that I could do on our own time around the Avengers schedule.
DEADLINE: Did you worry about repeating Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado?
WHEDON: I saw his Much Ado many times and was very surprised to realize when we were filming that it had been 18 years since it had come out. I was shocked. It was so present. I didn’t watch it again, because it’s hard for me to distance myself. What I wanted to do was something very different, but not different because of him. Different just to be different. There are certain things he did, particularly with Beatrice and Benedick, that are indelible and you can’t get away from them. Of course there’s the Patrick Doyle score, which is a classic. I didn’t think about music at all during the shoot, except for the songs. And then we were filming the kiss – where they admit they love each other – and as we were doing the two-shot of them coming together, his love theme exploded in my head as if somebody had thrown it on speaker.
DEADLINE: What are you hoping to get out of bringing Much Ado and your cast to SXSW?
WHEDON: Playing SXSW came from Lionsgate and Roadside. It’s about building word of mouth and some momentum instead of just dropping it into theaters. It’s not a movie that’s going to blow you through the back wall of the theater. We just wanted to keep that feeling rolling along so by the time it does hit we could make a dent in the specialty box office, as you guys would say.
DEADLINE: You’ve just wrapped the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, another part of the Marvel universe.
WHEDON: That was fun to do, but again, too much work. The idea of the Little Guy is something that I am very fierce about, and there has never been a better Little Guy than Clark Gregg. That intrigued me, this world around the superhero community. It’s the people whose shop windows get blown up when the Destroyer shows up. It’s the more intimate stories that belong on television that we can really tap into the visual style and ethos, and even some of the mythology, of the Marvel movies. I think we’ve put together another really great ensemble headed by Clark. And how much it’s actually seeding or hinting or reacting to what’s going on in the movies is something we’ll let play out as we go. For me the most important thing is that people fall in love with it on its own merits, rather than constantly asking, “Is there gonna be an Avenger?” Well, there’s not gonna be a Hulk because that guy’s too expensive.
DEADLINE: Is the plan for you to run S.H.I.E.L.D.?
WHEDON: I will be as involved as I can be – mostly on a story level. On the TV show I can say, “No, do it my way.” I’m just trying to keep it exciting and meaningful and surprising.
DEADLINE: At what point did you realize these small passion projects could be marketable?
WHEDON: Dr. Horrible changed everything for me. We started it because of the Writer’s Strike. And I watched other people making other original shows. I tried to partner with various people from Silicon Valley and that never goes anywhere. Finally I was like, let’s just do this. And it was a monster hit. The payback for the amount that we did was absurd.
DEADLINE: After the success of Dr. Horrible you indicated you’d like to focus on online content.
WHEDON: I got to a period where Dollhouse was done, Cabin In The Woods had disappeared, and we said now it’s time to create Bellwether and control not only content but control distribution. Not in every instance. But we can say, is this for iTunes? Is this a miniseries? With Much Ado we wanted to go the festival route because we want people to see this in a theater. But the one caveat to exploding on the scene with Bellwether was, should something come along that is absolutely a dream project with people I trust that has a release date, that might get in the way. And then The Avengers happened. My contract with Marvel has a clause in it allowing me to do smaller internet ventures, should they come up. It’s doubtful that in the time I have before I make Avengers 2 I’ll have time to do anything besides make Avengers 2, because I want it to be better than Avengers.
DEADLINE: What are the parameters of your Marvel consulting gig?
WHEDON: I understand what Kevin is going for and where he’s heading, and I read the scripts and watch cuts and talk to the directors and writers and give my opinion. Occasionally there could be some writing. But I’m not trying to get in anybody’s soup, I’m just trying to be helpful. Every time you work on a project it’s a little vacation from the project you’re working on the other 23 hours. That’s the thing – it replenishes you to do something else. And they’re very aware that if I’m too tired or busy to help with anything, that’s fine. But if I can help and not get in the way of the actual filmmakers, that’s what I’m going to do.
DEADLINE: What about speculation over potential Hulk spin-off stories?
WHEDON: The Hulk is the most difficult Marvel property because it’s always about balance. Is he a monster? Is he a hero? Are you going to root for a protagonist who spends all his time trying to stop the reason you came to the movie from happening? It’s always a dance. I don’t think the first two movies nailed it, but I don’t envy them the task. It was easier to have him in a group than to build everything around him. I don’t think there would be any problem getting a movie together that had enough Banner, even if there was also Hulk. But if he was only Hulk for the entire movie I think Mark [Ruffalo] at some point would go, why am I here? I would be less inclined to pursue a storyline where the Hulk is only ever the Hulk. Mark [Ruffalo] and I loved the Hulk and went over and over the concept of rage and how it should manifest, and that part of it was fascinating to both of us. But when it comes time for the Hulk he has to put on the silliest damn pajamas you ever saw, a tiara made of balls, and a bunch of dots on his face and growl around like an idiot. The real heart of the experience ultimately becomes playing Banner. And people fell in love with Banner because I think Mark has you from the first time he shows up.
DEADLINE: How much do you keep an eye on Warner Bros with their DC properties?
WHEDON: I don’t keep that close an eye on it. But I loved Batman Begins so much and thought Christopher Nolan nailed Batman in a way that nobody ever had. It couldn’t be more different from The Avengers, and the Marvel and DC universes are different animals. If they actually crack the code which has not been done in terms of creating a shared sensibilities where all the movies are interesting and come together, I’m going to be thrilled. I have no fear that we’re going to be stepping on each others’ turf.
DEADLINE: You’ve had a history with DC. Do you think anyone will ever pull off Wonder Woman?
WHEDON: It’s not easy. It’s not a simple trick. The Marvel properties with the exception of Batman who has often been described as the Marvel character in the DC universe are much easier to translate to a modern audience. Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern are so far above us and their powers are amorphous and that makes it 10 times harder. Even when you’re doing a fight, it’s harder to write a fight for Thor than it is for Captain America because he’s that much stronger. I loved what I was doing on Wonder Woman. Clearly I was an excited party of one. I wrote the movie, I felt good about the characters, the structure needed work, I did another outline, they read it and were done. There wasn’t even a phone call.
DEADLINE: You couldn’t do the Star Wars gig. Would you have had a take?
WHEDON: Oh yeah. And it’s not just Star Wars. Everything I see I think, Oh, I’d really love to do one of those. I’ll read something or have an actual idea of my own, and think, I wish I could do something with that. And sometimes you can say, “I think I will”. But I’m trying to be a little more careful in the next few years about budgeting my time than I was in the last two.
DEADLINE: Did you take a meeting with Lucasfilm?
WHEDON: No, all of this happened long after I was committed to The Avengers, so there was never any question. There was just a peep of sadness from me. But I think, in all honesty, that JJ Abrams is the guy for the gig and I couldn’t be happier about that.