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Shakespeare in A 12-Day Shoot: Joss Whedon’s Monochrome, Modern-Day ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

After completing production on the tentpole blockbuster The Avengers in 2011, director Joss Whedon decided to take a very different route on his next project, gathering a small group of actors and crew in his house to shoot a small-scope feature quickly and cheaply. As if that weren’t enough of a departure for the mind behind such genre favorites as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse, he also planned to use a Shakespeare comedy as his script.

Sparring lovers Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker). Photo by Elsa Guillet-Chapuis.

Cinematographer Jay Hunter, who’d worked as second unit on Firefly (for main unit DP Lisa Wiegand), remembers the phone call he got from Whedon regarding Much Ado About Nothing. “He said, ‘I’m doing this movie. I want to shoot very quickly. It’s totally self-financed. Do you want to talk about it?’ Of course I did!”

Hunter visited Whedon’s house. Over breakfast the director laid out his general plan, which involved shooting for ten days (ultimately two days of pickups were added), doing a completely faithful rendition of the play but in modern dress, and making the film in black and white.

In terms of pages per day, the pace “would be like a very heavy episodic TV schedule,” Hunter explains. “And add to that [the fact that] a page of Shakespeare is like three pages of normal dialogue. So we knew it would be a mountain of work.”

The cinematographer was game to take on the challenge Whedon laid out and was delighted about the black and white aspect. “I’m thinking, This is awesome! When do you get a chance to do that?” But he had to ask Whedon why he was thinking about black and white. “Not that I’m going to argue against it, but I was curious what the reasoning was,” Hunter says.

Director Joss Whedon and cinematographer Jay Hunter. Photo by Elsa Guillet-Chapuis.

“He had some practical, logistical ideas,” Hunter continues. “It would simplify issues having to do with the color of walls and wardrobe. And we both felt it would help to bring the audience out of the contemporary world and into a more stylized environment that could help bridge the gap to the point where the Shakespearian dialogue wouldn’t seem out of place.”

A fan of French New Wave cinema, Hunter imagined an approach to lighting similar to the look of those mid-century films—with more reflected, naturalistic lighting than one would find in movies that took a noir thriller approach to black and white photography. “I started mentioning Godard and Truffaut and Chabrol,” the cinematographer recalls. “I just wanted to see, does his face kind of scrunch up? Should I quickly start talking about Casablanca? But he was on the same page. He knows those movies and likes them a lot, and we were able to refer to them throughout the planning and shooting.”

Hunter shot with RED EPIC cameras, lamenting, “What a bummer the Monochrome wasn’t out at the time! It’s like that camera was made for our film!” He shot with a single set of Panavision Primo prime lenses, no zooms, on the two EPICs used to cover most of the scenes. Camera placement was generally along the same axis, with one camera using a wide lens and the other a significantly longer optic for tight shots—a common setup, but it was necessary here because of the single set of primes.

“My gaffer, George Maxwell, and I both own small lighting companies,” Hunter notes. “The budget only had enough money for a small handful of units, but we brought whatever we thought we needed. The biggest lights were some 4K HMIs and some ARRI M18 HMIs. We didn’t use a lot of trucks. Instead of a five-ton truck, we had Joss Whedon’s garage. The art department brought extra resources too. Everyone brought their best game because we wanted to make the best movie possible.”

For day interiors, Hunter pounded the big lights through windows. Inside he used a lot of smaller tungsten units bounced into cards and diffused with light grid cloth or silks for a non-directional source. Night exteriors were motivated by a few practicals or candles, and the general illumination was brought up with a large number of smaller units. “We had Jem Balls and China balls hidden behind pretty much every column and tree to give us this very soft light coming up from below the actors,” he elaborates.

In foreground, Verges (Tom Lenk) and Dogberry (Nathan Fillion). Photo by Elsa Guillet-Chapuis.

Hunter rated the EPIC at EI 800 primarily for interiors and night exteriors and dialed it back to 320 for day exteriors. Even at the slower speed he used extensive ND filtration to keep stops as wide as T4 or 5.6. “I didn’t want too deep a stop, but I also didn’t want something so shallow that the ACs would jump off a cliff after work.”

In keeping with the French New Wave style of filmmaking, Hunter made use of as much handheld camera work as possible, allowing operators to get in close to the actors and move freely through the scene. “When I see Shakespeare brought to the screen,” he observes, “it tends to be with long lenses and dollies in a formal, proscenium arch type of way where you’re distanced from the action. When I see that approach, I think, Why don’t I just go see the play in a theater? Joss and I thought, What if we get in there close with the camera, where we can move with them or whip pan from one to the other? It’s not documentary style so much as a first-person narrative approach.”

Jay Hunter. Photo by Elsa Guillet-Chapuis.

Hunter recalls being very pleased when he saw the finished film at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. “People who might normally be turned off by Shakespeare really responded,” he says.

He stresses that making the film was hard work. The effort was successful because of Whedon’s ability to visualize exactly what he wanted and stick to the plan during the long, strenuous shooting days.

“I read somewhere that the production was like ‘a big party,’ he notes. “It was, in the sense that we had a blast doing it, but it was a very focused work environment. Joss creates a lighthearted, pleasant atmosphere on set, but he keeps everyone focused. It was the kind of environment where people would laugh a lot but work as hard as they’ve ever worked. The rumors that people were just drinking and having fun throughout the shoot are ridiculous. Everything was meticulously planned. If we’d just shown up and tried to figure out blocking on the day, we’d never have finished.”