By Emily Rome
June 30, 2013 at 06:00 PM EDT

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, in theaters now, is a modern, lively, sexy take on the comedy by William Shakespeare. It’s an adaptation that embraces both the light and the dark moments of the play, and one that is accessible for Bardolaters and Shakespeare newbies alike. Performed in a contemporary setting but using Shakespeare’s text, the film stays true to the 16th century play while also delivering some 21st century charm.

Following directors like Julie Taymor, Baz Luhrmann, and many others who have displayed the versatility of Shakespeare’s work with fresh film adaptations, Whedon imbued his own wit and his talent for developing depth for several characters, no matter how large the ensemble, into Much Ado About Nothing, a play about the “merry war” between reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator told EW that as he prepared to shoot the film, he asked himself, “How can I augment and clarify what is in this text, and — occasionally — how can I spin it?”

Here EW delves into Whedon’s creative choices for various aspects of his adaptation, as explained by Alexis Denisof, who plays Benedick, and by Whedon himself.

SPOILER ALERT: Though the story points of Much Ado About Nothing are more than 400 years old, some might consider the ways Whedon interpreted the play to be spoilers, so do not read on if you have yet to see the film and want those to remain a surprise.

Claudio, in the pool, with the snorkel

In a key scene when the film’s villains trick Claudio (Fran Kranz) into believing something that is untrue, Claudio appears in a manner wholly unexpected for a Shakespeare play but that makes sense for a modern guy who has just spent the night partying. So why did Whedon decide to put Claudio in a swimming pool, martini in hand, donning a snorkel for the scene? The answer is quite simple: The director, who shot the film at his own Santa Monica, Calif. home, told EW, “For the love of God, if you have a pool overlooking beautiful mountains and trees and you are doing a party scene in a modern-day Shakespeare, and you don’t have someone in a snorkel and martini, then you should be fired.”

Actually, there was a little more to it than that. Even before Whedon knew that the photo of Claudio in a swimming pool would become a promotional image for the film, he knew that it would set the right tone for his adaptation and for that scene in particular. “It encapsulates so much of the spirit of the thing,” he said. “Ridiculousness with just a hit of darkness.” That carefully measured dose of darkness comes into this scene as a night of partying ends and the morning dawns with the first of multiple times poor Claudio is cruelly tricked by the movie’s antagonists. Whedon sees Claudio in this moment as “a guy who has been partying too much, and there’s that feeling of decadence that’s about to go from charming to damaging in that image.”

A gender reversal for Conrade

The villainous Don John has two henchmen in Shakespeare’s play. In Whedon’s film, one of those henchmen is a henchwoman: Actress and comedienne Riki Lindhome plays Conrade, so the character is not only an aid for Don John’s devious plot but is also his lover. “It was basically nice to have another girl in the play,” Whedon explained, adding, “I’ve seen people play Don John well. I’ve never seen Conrade and Borachio really bring heat to the thing. And I did like the idea that the only actual stable relationship in the movie is between the villains.”

Some history for Benedick and Beatrice

The text of Much Ado About Nothing features only a few lines that suggest Beatrice and Benedick — these two strong-willed people who supposedly hate each other at the start of the play — actually have a romantic history. At one point, Don Pedro says to Beatrice, “You have lost the heart of Signior Benedick,” and Beatrice responds, “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it,” — meaning I paid him interest for it — “a double heart for his single one.” Some performances of the play highlight this apparent past relationship, while others don’t. Whedon chose to run with the interpretation that the two had once been together, opening the film with Benedick walking out on Beatrice (Amy Acker) after what looks like a one night stand.

Whedon said, “For them to just be trading barbs because they’re confirmed bachelors can be charming. For them to be trading barbs because they cannot deal with the way they feel about each other is much more interesting.”

Denisof also embraced that approach to the couple’s interaction. “We wanted to bring something with a little more edge and more layers to it,” Denisof told EW, “and to go to a slightly more aggressive and darker place with each other at times that gives it a counterpoint to the hilarity that follows. And I think that the comedy has a stronger release because [Beatrice and Benedick] have really been hard on each other.”

NEXT: A nod to CSI and Benedick’s desperate attempt to impress Beatrice

John Fleenor/NBC

Image credit: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis[/caption]

Lunges meant to impress

Shortly after Benedick is tricked into believing that Beatrice loves him, she stomps out of her uncle’s house to call Benedick in for the midday meal, an errand she clearly is not pleased to be tasked with. In Whedon’s film, it’s a scene that has provoked a lot of laughter from audiences thanks to Benedick’s display of lunges and crunches, a wild attempt to impress Beatrice when she approaches him just after he’s finished going on a run. Though Denisof and Amy Acker had rehearsed and blocked out the scene with Whedon sans lunges, the idea to add in Benedick’s extra efforts to impress Beatrice happened upon the two actors while shooting.

“I felt that maybe he would go the extra mile to really try to impress Beatrice in a completely absurd and buffoonish way,” Denisof said.

The scene became a key piece of the arc for Denisof’s Benedick, as he journeys from being rather full of himself to learning how to just be real and drop the pompous act.

“He starts out with this image of himself as a stud,” Denisof said. “At this point, as he’s beginning to succumb to the excitement of love, he becomes kind of happy idiot, and he’s still got this idea of himself as being super cool, but the truth is he’s a goofball, and falling in love is undoing him.”

CSI sunglasses

In Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry, the constable played by Nathan Fillion, and his partner Verges (Tom Lenk), are a blumbering comedic duo, a pair of sincere but not-all-that-competent professionals who supply plenty of laughs as they attempt to take down the play’s villains. Whedon recalled thinking, “This stuff reads like a cop show,” when reading their scenes. So he made sure Fillion and Lenk were supplied with the key prop for a CSI: Miami spoofing moment: sunglasses. “Seeing it like that in my head, I was like, ‘There’s no other way to play it. It’s going to kill if we do it like this,'” Whedon said.

Much ado about a gown

Beatrice, the maid Margaret, and Hero get ready for Claudio and Hero’s wedding in a scene that’s often treated as a bit of a throw-away (in fact, in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing, the scene is cut from the film). But Whedon saw in that moment an opportunity to highlight “the domino effect” of Borachio’s actions in the play. Borachio, one of Don John’s henchmen, has sex with Margaret in Hero’s room, so when Don John leads Claudio to the lawn outside Hero’s bedroom window, Claudio is tricked into believing his bride-to-be is cheating on him. In Whedon’s film, Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) has Margaret (Ashley Johnson) wear one of Hero’s dresses in that moment crafted to deceive Claudio. In the scene ahead of the wedding, Hero (Jillian Morgese) pulls that same white dress out of her closet and insists on wearing it for her big day even when Margaret — clearly perturbed by the idea of Hero wearing that dress for her wedding — tries to compel her to wear something else.

To bring in that extra layer of Borachio’s influence into the scene, Whedon had to change one of Shakespeare’s words: Where Margaret traditionally says, “I think your other rebato were better,” Johnson’s Margaret says “gown” instead of “rebato” (an ornamental collar in Shakespeare’s day). It was one of the very few instances where Whedon changed Shakespeare’s text. He also altered some he‘s and him‘s to she‘s and her‘s in service of Conrade’s gender reversal.

The war heroes in the kids’ room

Claudio and Benedick arrive at Leonato’s house as heroes, victorious in a battle they’ve just won against Don John and his men. In Whedon’s movie (where that battle is meant to be more espionage and less all-out military action), though they’re celebrated heroes, Claudio and Benedick get to stay in the kids’ bedroom in the full house, which produces more comedy while Benedick, surrounded by children’s toys, goes on about the foolery of love.

Whedon explains that the issue of making sure all of Leonato’s guests have a bed to sleep in is “a more modern problem,” unlike Leonatos of past interpretations who had grand estates in which to house Don Pedro and his soldiers. “Obviously Leonato’s supposed to be a politician and rich, but you feel the intimacy of the space,” Whedon said. “You feel the homeyness, and you get great moment of Benedick going in all swagger — then they put him in the pink, frilly girls’ room.”

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing continues to roll out in theaters this weekend following an initial limited U.S. release on June 7. The film will continue opening in more countries later this summer, including in Australia, where it will hit theaters on July 11. For a list of theaters currently showing the film, visit Much Ado’s website.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

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