Here we go! Last week when news broke about Joss Whedon‘s no-longer-secret Much Ado Movie, I jumped on the chance to get in some questions with Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher, two members of the cast (and better known as the comedy duo BriTANicK). The announcement of that pending interview was the most popular post ever here on Shakespeare Geek! (Take *that*, Bob Dylan!) Special thanks for the link love to Whedonesque, who was clearly responsible for most of that traffic :). And while you’re here, why not show a little love for JuliaGiolzetti who initially played connect-the-Twitter-dots and made this whole thing happen? Thanks Julia!
Without much further ado (ha! see what I did there?), here are Brian and Nick’s answers. I did my best to group questions into larger, more general topics that they could speak to rather than hitting them with dozens of little yes/no questions. My questions are in bold, their answers in italics.
First off, how did you two get involved with a Joss Whedon project? It’s pretty well known that he’s got a cast of regulars that show up in all his projects, and I personally have this picture of everybody getting together at his house for a regular Sunday dinner thing when one week everybody shows up and he’s got scripts for them. Am I close? 🙂 How did you get the call, and how was the project pitched to you?
It was very lucky and a little bizarre how we got involved with this film. Joss had been a fan of our sketch comedy duo, “BriTANicK”, on YouTube. He had mentioned us in a blog post he wrote back in the Spring, but had never reached out directly until his assistant offered us these parts out of the blue about a month ago. Basically it was just “Joss is making ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and wants you to play these small roles. You in?” And we tried to play it really cool and said we maybe could be interested in that (inside we were screaming like little girls). So without any audition, Joss basically offered the Watchmen to us. Within a week we were on a flight to Los Angeles.
Tell us a bit about your involvement in the process. You’re playing two watchmen. Did you come in, do a scene or two, and then done? Or was this more of a close-knit effort, where everybody in the cast was part of all aspects of the movie?
One of the best parts about this movie was that it was filmed literally IN Joss’s house, and everybody was encouraged to meet, hang out, drink wine, and relax on “set” even when we weren’t shooting. Both of us have been on other sets where we’ve had more lines and spent way less time on them, just because Joss’ house was such a great environment to exist in. Everyone was incredibly close-knit(most everyone besides us had known each other for a long time), and it definitely felt like we were all a bunch of excited kids making a project we all loved rather than working on a rigid film set.
Probably the most obvious question is how in the world did you all keep this a secret? It’s not like the announcement came out that he wants to do Shakespeare, or is doing Shakespeare. Instead we got, “Here’s our movie,” and the world said, “Wait, what?” Surely you saw the buzz – for those first few hours everybody assumed it had to be a joke. How long was this in the works? Was this a typical movie just done in a hurry, or was this really more a case of a bunch of friends getting together for a do-it-yourself effort? To put it bluntly, since somebody did ask — did you get paid?
To be honest, I think it was so easy because it all happened so fast. Joss casted it really a week or two before we started shooting and asked everyone to be quiet about it. Once we were on set, he promised that right when the shoot ended(which was only 12 days), he would reveal to the world what we had done. So I think the fact that it happened so quickly and that we knew there was this cool launch plan at the end, we were all really on board with just shutting up and not tweeting for a bit.
The movie definitely wasn’t done like a typical film. Joss had stated from the get-go that it was to be more like a “filmed performance” rather than making a film. We shot on three cameras and moved through scenes like the wind. Lighting was minimal, if any sometimes, and all the actors wore their own clothes. It definitely felt like a DIY project, but because everyone is so talented and such a professional, it was like a very very polished DIY project. As for money, a little but really not much at all. But we’re pretty certain that everyone there would have done this completely for free if they were asked.
How intimidating was it for you to tackle Shakespeare? Did you (or any of the cast) have previous Shakespeare experience going into this? I see from IMDB that Alexis Denisof played Tybalt in a tv movie (with Jenny Agutter, who I see is in The Avengers. Small world!). How did everybody else handle the challenge? A number of people specifically asked me about how Nathan Fillion tackled the role of Dogberry, in case you’ve got any good stories you can share 🙂 Does anyone have stage experience? It’s certainly got to be different doing a live performance versus putting your efforts onto film for people to critique for decades to come!
Everyone was at varying levels of Shakespeare knowledge and experience, which was so exciting. People like Alexis had done a ton of it and were very well versed, where as a number of people were tackling it, literally, for the very first time. Brian had done some plays in high school, and Nick was classically trained and had performed Shakespeare in high school and college, but neither of us had ever really tackled it professionally.
As for Nathan… What can we say? The man is a power-house. He moves and speaks as Dogberry with such hilarious gusto it was almost impossible to keep a straight face. When he tells stories it’s like listening to Gandalf explain the rings, everyone just shuts up and listens in awe. He’s a lot funnier than Gandalf though.
On a similar note, can you tell us a bit about the project’s overall approach to Shakespeare? Did Whedon know that he wanted to do *something* Shakespeare, an eventually settled on Much Ado, or did he always know that this was the exact play he wanted? Is this a period piece, or more modern? I am assuming (ok, hoping) that we’ll be hearing Shakespeare’s original text – how much attention was paid toward getting that correct? By that I mean, getting both the pronunication and the …what’s the word, pacing? timing? … as you might experience when going to see a Shakespeare play? It’s not enough to just say the words, after all. There’s a way to say them. When it comes to Shakespeare, you know that there are going to be people in the audience who hear and feel every beat between every word, and when something doesn’t sit right it’s going to stick out like a sort thumb. If the cast and crew themselves were not highly experienced in Shakespeare, were coaches and other experts brought in to help in these areas?
As we understand it, Joss had been toying with doing this play for a while. But as he always said, he had a hard time getting over the fact that the play essentially “was about nothing”. Once he finally wrapped his head around what he really loved about the play, which seemed to be the exploration of what mature love really is, it felt like he was just ready to roll. He wrote a screenplay using all original text, only cut down a bit, and decided to set Leonato’s estate in his present day house, where the characters use iPads and swim in his pool. Joss was a stickler for lines and pronunciation, and had a very clear sense of the timing he wanted in every scene. There weren’t Shakespeare coaches on set, but it felt like Joss intentionally really wanted the actors to bring parts of themselves into the roles. We were directed to play it very down-to-earth and real, much less theatrically than you would see on stage, and I think that let a lot of the actors explore Shakespeare in a totally new way. Some archaic references were cut, but others are played up to hilarious results.
Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film version of this play is still fresh in people’s minds (then again, I hang out with Shakespeare geeks). Did that help or hinder this production in any way? Do Amy and Alexis expect to be compared to Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson? How about Nathan versus Michael Keaton as Dogberry?
It was definitely part of the decision to film the movie in black and white. Along with a few other reasons, Joss felt that filming in black and white would help differentiate the two films. In terms of the performances, to our knowledge, it was never really discussed. The overall feeling was that we were doing something that felt so interesting and our own, that nobody seemed to be worried about it.
Some general Shakespeare questions: What’s your personal favorite Shakespeare play? Villain? Having now had him as a director, in what Shakespearean role do you see Joss Whedon?
Brian: I love Twelfth Night and Midsummer very much, and have become a Much Ado fan through this process. I’m definitely into the less “villainous” of the plays, so I’m not sure I could answer that with enough confidence.
Nick: I’m a huge Shakespeare fan, it’s really hard to narrow it down. I’m a big fan of Julius Caesar (I really want to play Marc Antony someday) and Othello, but my favorite scenes are in King Lear and Henry IV pt. 1. My favorite Shakespeare villain is Richard III.
Joss’s Shakespeare character: Henry V, he’s charming, fearless, and having worked with him once we would happily follow him into war with France. If Henry V was alive today, Firefly never would have been cancelled.
Many people want to know about distribution. The press release says that it will be ready for festival season, but what we want to know is how and when will we be able to see it? Is this going to be some sort of web release? Straight to DVD? Where can a Shakespeare Geek put my name to get on the list for a review copy??
Your guess is as good as ours. This whole thing is an experiment, even for Joss, but we recommend checking back with muchadothemovie.com for updates.
How much does the weight of Buffy/Angel/Dollhouse/Firefly weigh on a production like this? When Amy and Alexis are cast in the romantic leads like this, do their previous roles together alter how they play it? Or do the actors go out of their way to make every role independent, even though they know fans will make the comparison?
The tension of past work was definitely there and exciting, but with a play like this we really wanted to respect the characters and the text before any thought of how the fans view the actors from past roles. That being said, it was really fun just knowing how much the fans would love all the connections in the Whedon universe, and putting people like Alexis and Amy together again.
I got a few questions about general back stage
hilarity, bloopers, and other such antics. What was the work environment like? A constant struggle to keep a straight face?
Yeah, it was an absolute blast. Filming the party scene turned into an actual, raging dance party by the end of the night. Nathan Fillion kept showing us magic tricks with his iPhone and verbally sparring with Tom Lenk. Riki from Garfunkel and Oates would pick up guitars and just start singing weird little songs. Joss and his wife had a bottle of Chardonnay that was comically oversized that we all popped the last night, only to have Joss drink it from a wine glass that was comically undersized. People would sleep at the house, jump on the trampoline, slide around in their socks… It was work when it was work, but it was definitely play when it was play.
Let me see if I can phrase this question so it makes sense. It’s always been my mission to take the fear out of Shakespeare, and to demonstrate through a wide variety of means that Shakespeare is for everybody. Bringing Shakespeare to people, rather than trying to bring them to Shakespeare. I’m wondering if this is Joss’ way of doing something similar. Did you get the feeling while filming this movie that everybody was “rising up to the challenge of Shakespeare”, or was it more a case of “Hey, let’s use this as a way of bringing Shakespeare to everybody.” Does that make sense? Many actors and filmmakers will express a desire to do Shakespeare as if it is a legitimizing moment, like “once you do Shakespeare you can do anything.” I don’t see this crew as doing that, which is one of the reasons I’m so pleasantly surprised that this project just came out of nowhere.
We definitely wanted to show how Shakespeare had such a universal and wonderful story that was so easily accessible to all of us, well studied or not, younger or older. It seemed to be one of the reasons why Joss wanted to cast people from all across the spectrum of Shakespearean experience, and put it in a modern light. The idea that we could all have fun with this text, understand it, connect with it, and gain something from our understanding, and it feels like everyone surprised themselves with how true that turned out to be.
What do you know about future plans for Bellwether Pictures? Can we expect to see more Shakespeare? Are there other projects already in the works (or possibly complete and ready to be sprung on an unsuspecting audience)?
Your guess is again as good as ours!
Before we go, tell us a bit about BriTANicK? What can I plug for you?
You can see our sketches online at www.BriTANicK.com. We perform sketch/stand-up/improv monthly at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in New York City(ucbtheatre.com). We are also the voices of Cartoon Network, the ones who tell you what’s coming up next. We will come perform near you if you’d like… E-mail our manager, Brad Petrigala, and promise him something nice (firstname.lastname@example.org). Check out Nick in the upcoming MTV series “I Just Want My Pants Back” and Brian in his tiny role in Jason Reitman’s upcoming “Young Adult”.
A big thank you to Brian and Nick for doing this! Go see BriTANicK!