What did you do during your last vacation? Between the production and post-production of The Avengers, Joss Whedon decided to direct an adaptation of the Shakespearian rom-com-dram Much Ado About Nothing. Using a hand-picked cast from nearly every production he has ever been a part of, such as TV shows Dollhouse, Firefly, and Angel to name a few, he invited everyone over to his home, picked up a digital camera and some local cupcakes, and made a film. When we asked him about his Five Favorite Films, their influence on his work added another nuance to his numerous projects.
The Matrix (Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, 1999; 87% Tomatometer)
It is storytelling that is so unexpected and brilliant as to seem inevitable, and that’s the best kind. I wanted to put down my pencil and back away until I learned how to write when I saw this movie. Structurally, it’s insanely sound. Everything that they’re doing is visually ecstatic, and philosophically it could be studied for centuries. It contains every aspect of modern life and religion and philosophy and knows it, and they’re doing something that is very deliberately very heady. But at the same time, when asked what is this movie about, their answer was “It’s about kung fu versus robots.” If it was just that, it would be on this list. But it’s that and everything else.
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968; 98% Tomatometer)
This one had beat out a couple contenders who were dueling for a long time on my list. It is as ecstatically cinematic as any western ever got. We’re talking about a movie where the hero is so badass, he plays his own theme song. And not only that, he plays his own theme song for a reason that is devastating, that’s revealed in flashback before the final gunfight. I mean, come on. The camera moves, the music, the utter ballsiness of it, the pace. The western exploded with this one. This came out the same year as The Wild Bunch, and they kind of put a stake in it — that was it, we have gone as far as we can go in two very different directions. One is a lyrical opera, the other is an insane shoot em’ up kind of nihilistic orgy. For me, the operatic is gonna win out, as you will see in the other films I am going to mention.
I happen to have had a perfect experience in my life, and that was this movie. I was in college, and I was a projectionist and I was on the film council.
So you were really popular with the ladies, then?
Oh yeah, absolutely. “You wanna stroll downstairs and watch Soldier Blue at two in the morning? You don’t? OK, bye.” So I had to return a bunch of movies and take them to the post office. I realized I had a couple hours to kill, and I had never heard of the Bad and the Beautiful somehow, even by my senior year. I put it up and it was a brand new print. Not a scratch on it. When the opening credits rolled, and everybody who ever mattered in film is in this movie, and it’s directed by Vincent Minelli, I’m like “What’s going on?” It is so florid and so completely over the top and old Hollywood in its presentation, but it’s a frickin’ documentary. It’s so true and real and uncompromising and bitter and lovely and beautifully structured, it’s just everything. It’s even funny. It’s the movie Kirk Douglas was born to make. When it was over, I stumbled out into the sunshine and somebody said, “What are you doing underground on a beautiful spring day like this?” And I was like, “God never made a day as beautiful as what I just saw.”
We’re back to opera, we haven’t left it — because Magnolia. If you think about the moment Keanu wakes up as a battery, the moment Lana Turner loses it in traffic and is in this insane hysteria of flashing lights that is completely unrealistic, and then you look at the moment where it’s raining frogs. I saw it, and was like, “Is this going to be one of those movies that I don’t like where he looks down on every one?” I think Alexander Payne and Todd Solondz are super talented, but sometimes I don’t want to sit through their movies because the bile is just unbearable. I didn’t really know PT Anderson’s work that well, or what was going to happen. And then, it turns out he loves people so hard that it rains frogs. There is actual opera in this one. Oh, and BT-dubs, there is a musical number. The license and the observation and the amount that he went for it. The craft and his ability to sustain that much — any one of these movies could have fallen into a puddle of pretension, but the mastery behind them meant that they never could. Jason Robards, who happens to be in two of the movies on this list, him actually dying of actual cancer playing a guy dying of cancer, giving that speech. And Tom Cruise giving the best performance he’ll ever give. It just felt so achingly, weirdly logical to me.
This is tough because they are a lot of guys in here, but you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to go with The Court Jester. I feel that it’s a perfect movie and contains some of the best sword fighting ever. I’m not always on the Danny Kaye boat, but this is the one where it threads the needle. He’s genius in this movie, and the plot is gorgeous, and everybody in it is funny. It’s so beautifully constructed, and they’re singing, and the world’s greatest sword fight between him and Basil Rathbone. It’s utterly committed to being as silly as it can be and it works like gangbusters.
Next, Whedon talks about his goals in tackling the work of The Bard.
RT: I see so many elements of these movies in your films.
Joss Whedon: Probably, it’s not like I’m not trying to steal from everybody all the time.
RT: You mentioned opera, and particularly in the spirit of your stuff, Firefly goes in movements too, kind of like Once Upon a Time in the West.
JW: Right. And even the fact that Fonda’s theme and Bronson’s theme come together at the end, that they all meld, it’s something they’re doing deliberately and gorgeously.
RT: It happens in Avengers too, and even Much Ado, where you handle a lot of characters at once but it ends up feeling like one big coherent thing. It feels like one thing that makes sense.
JW: Thank god. Much Ado being a romantic comedy drama, in a way, it’s the least florid of my movies, including any episodes of TV I’ve ever done. But the confidence I have in the people I’m working with and the text I am working from all calm me. Shakespeare is someone that I believe lived by a motto that I strive for, which is “subtlety is for little men.” There’s tons of subtlety for texture, but he’s go big or go home. If you’re gonna cry, you’re gonna cry hard, if you’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna laugh hard, and if I want you to do both of them at once, I’ll do that too. He’s got the control of a master. So in his hands, my job is so much easier.
RT: But it’s big language and big emotions set against the simple backdrop of your house. As someone who isn’t well-versed in Shakespeare — sorry about that pun — it helped me focus in better and pick it up.
JW: That was the idea. The intimacy and the casual sort of identifiability of the readings that we did were a big part of our mission statement. This doesn’t have to be something the audience isn’t in on. I want it to feel like, “Oh, Clark [Gregg] came to the house and did this,” and not [in his best classical Shakespeare voice] “And now he enters.” It is not a stately home movie.
RT: But it was nice to see some Sprinkles cupcakes at the wedding reception.
JW: Oh good.
Much Ado About Nothing opens in wide release this week.