Joss Whedon’s marvelous Shakespeare house party in modern dress, “Much Ado About Nothing,” is part of a mini black-and-white resurgence this year that also includes Noah Baumbach’s screwball “Frances Ha,” Alexander Payne’s chilly “Nebraska,” and Godfrey Reggio’s counter-intuitive “Visitors.” Maybe it’s “The Artist” factor, or else it’s just time to go monochromatic again as a retro exercise in naturalism. For “Much Ado” cinematographer Jay Hunter (who previously worked with Whedon on the “Dollhouse” TV series), shooting in black-and-white was nirvana — a mixture of film noir and the French New Wave. (See trailer and Whedon’s NYT Anatomy of a Scene below.)
“I showed up at his house on a Sunday morning while Joss was still in post on ‘The Avengers’ and he told me what play he wanted to shoot, and the second sentence out of his mouth was it’s gonna be in black-and-white,” Hunter recalls. “And as a cinematographer, it’s a very rare blessing to shoot anything in black-and-white these days. I told him I’m on board but I was curious to know why. It was an instinctual thing for him. Not only aesthetically but it’s one less thing to worry about logistically with the color of the wardrobe and what you see on the walls. Deep down, he felt like it had a noir quality to it and transposing it to the modern day and shooting it in black-and-white would help bridge the gap between the language and the contemporary setting.”
Shot in 12 days at his Spanish Colonial house in Santa Monica with members of his loyal acting troupe (led by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof as the bitter rivals Beatrice and Benedick), Whedon re-imagined Shakespeare’s popular comedy about love and slander with Italian suits and cell phones. With Elizabethan wit and timeless wisdom, it’s modern yet musical and plays like a smart, accessible rom-com. (Whedon even credits this Shakespeare play with providing the template for the genre.) And its emphasis on female empowerment is right in Whedon’s thematic wheelhouse. In fact, Whedon’s wife, Kai Cole, insisted they forgo their 20th anniversary in Venice so he could reconnect with his house, family, and friends by making this passion project.
Of course, Shakespeare in black-and-white is nothing new: Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” and Orson Welles’ “Macbeth,” “Othello,” and “Chimes at Midnight” are monochromatic masterpieces ranging from Expressionism to neo-realism to a new kind of hybrid.
“I remember we talked about ‘Othello’ right off the bat,” Hunter continues. “He also wanted it hand-held and so I started thinking about Goddard and Truffaut. Here’s a way to adapt the material visually in a way that’s never been done before. Don’t use dollies and get the cameras very close to the actors [with loose blocking] and be immersed in the scene. We wanted the camera to be moving around and panning back and forth and almost improvising a little bit to give it a fresh, vibrant feel. I also wanted to add a little hand-held Herzog in there and Joss was smiling and nodding and, ‘Yes, yes, yes — all this! I want to do all this!”
Hunter shot digitally with the Red Epic in color and then converted to black-and-white in post. On set, however, they switched the chroma off the monitors. It’s not the purest way to shoot black-and-white, but the new Red Epic Monochrome moves a step closer by allowing you to switch off the color with the touch of a button. Yet Hunter had enough latitude to get both soft and hard light depending on the mood. The hardest part was staying in focus with so much hand-held. Considering there was only a day of rehearsal and it was shot fast and loose like TV, “Much Ado” went pretty smoothly.
“We needed to give Joss as much time with the camera as possible,” Hunter suggests. “My trying to get a light that was 20 minutes away to make the scene a little better was going to take away four takes or lose a close-up. And so we tried not to slow down the process with any technical elements. But I knew if the film looked like crap, Joss would at least get the takes and performances he needed.”
The exterior party scene in the backyard was logistically nerve racking, shooting quickly as soon as the sun went down and into the night with 100 extras. But with the Epic very sensitive to low light, all they had to do was spread china balls on the ground and behind bushes and columns to get some soft spot lighting. When Cole jumps into the water playing an overexcited party goer, the sense of submersion was enhanced with the aid of a $10 fish tank.
By contrast, the wedding scene gone awry was an instance of Hunter forgoing ideal light to capture Clark Gregg’s big moment as the outraged father, Leonata, who believes the slander about his daughter’s infidelity. “It was his key scene where he gets to show off his acting chops,” Hunter explains. “But the sun was in this horrible position overhead and what I needed to do was take 20 minutes to move the overhead diffusion so he was in better light. And so we got one or two takes on Clark and he’s emotional and covered in sweat. And Joss wanted to stop for lunch to give us all a break, but Clark wanted to keep going.
“And I so I walked up to him and said, ‘Joss, screw it — let’s just push on. Everyone’s going to be fine and we’ll eat a little late.’ But he said, ‘What about the light? Doesn’t it look horrible?’ ‘Fuck the light — look at Clark, he’s in the zone. I think that was the best answer he could’ve heard and Clark was relieved and we powered through.”
The after party scene with the sun rising out of the windows was full of hard shadows that actually works better in black-and-white, according to the cinematographer. But while shooting it, he thought it was going to ruin his career because it looked cheap or raw in color. But then he was relieved when checking it out on the monitor. “There’s something about black-and-white that loves the crisp, hard shadows,” he explains.”It really captured the early morning vibe.”
One of Whedon’s slight alterations was changing Conrade’s gender from male to female by casting Riki Lindhome, which added a new sexual dynamic in bed with the villainous Don John (Sean Maher). But even though the dark scene lacks back light separation on the walls, it works in a naturalistic way, just as “Breathless” did with the soft light wrapping around Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the bedroom. “It was just this cool, gentle mood, as they fool around while hatching the plot.”
There’s talk of Whedon wanting to take on “Hamlet” at some point. Maybe the break between production and post on “The Avengers 2” will provide another Shakespeare house party with the same troupe. Hunter says he’ll march into battle anytime with Whedon.
Our TOH! review of “Much Ado About Nothing” is here.