Over the past 20 years, writer-director Joss Whedon has established himself as a champion of the outsider, and for a long time that's exactly what he was in Hollywood. He traveled in his own orbit, collaborating with the same group of under-the-radar actors while amassing a large-yet-fringy fan base for smartly written sci-fi television shows, such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly."
So when Whedon landed directing duties on 2012's "The Avengers," a surefire hit with a budget in the hundreds of millions, his devotees celebrated the real-life underdog success story. But there was some fear, too. Would Whedon get absorbed into the mainstream and lose touch with his nonconformist roots?
A little over a year after "The Avengers" became the highest-grossing film of 2012 (and third-highest grossing movie ever worldwide), the answer seems to be a resolute no. Whedon's latest is anything but conventional. The black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" follows Whedon's prototypical approach to directing: It's a passion project that began with no clear goal, a minimal budget and a close-knit cast that made do with what was available, including an implausibly short window of time to shoot the film.
"Twelve days," Whedon said on the phone from New York. "That's the number of days we had. We dreamed of 14 days. Oh, how we dreamed."
The limited time was all Whedon could spare between shooting "The Avengers" and editing the film. It turns out, he wasn't entirely at home in the blockbuster business where big budgets come with attendant oversight and pressure. Amid the frenzy, he had reminisced about simpler times — leisurely days when he would assemble his friends for impromptu readings of Shakespeare's plays.
"A little light brunch, a glass of wine and [we'd] read a play," recalled Alexis Denisof, known for his role as Wesley on "Buffy" and "Angel," who plays Benedick in "Much Ado."
With what little downtime Whedon had, he decided to decompress by recapturing that merriment. Except this time he was going to get it on film and use his home in Santa Monica, Calif., as the set. The words would be Shakespeare's, but the dress and setting would be modern.
Whedon and friends had read "Much Ado About Nothing" years earlier, and it struck the director as a good option for this project. Practically speaking, the story takes place in a single location. But it's also irrepressibly buoyant.
"It talks about love in a way that few texts do, or I should say few really funny texts do," Whedon said. "It really sets forth the idea that so much of what we consider love and romance is programmed into us by those around us. That you know it is this sort of construct, this dance, and that is in some cases delightful and in some cases genuinely tragic. And for it to open it up like that, to actually deconstruct the idea of romantic comedy while pretty much inventing it, for me is kind of dazzling."
Whedon even knew who he wanted to play his leads, recalling the chemistry when Denisof and Amy Acker ("Angel," "Dollhouse") had read the parts of Benedick and Beatrice years before. The quick-witted, hot-tempered characters despise each other — until, of course, they fall for each other.
"I knew that they were my stars," Whedon said. "I wanted other people to see what I had seen."
Adds Denisof: "Thank goodness he said [that] after we shot the movie. . . . Had I known that, I probably would have been shaking in my boots."
Instead, the filmmaking process felt like a family reunion. The narrative unfolds as a series of get-togethers, each character perpetually toting a glass of wine, and there's some sense that when the director yelled for a cut, the vibe remained lively, if not entirely relaxing.
"While it was enormously good fun, it was also a great deal of hard work," Denisof said. "It didn't feel like hard work because we were enjoying ourselves so much and, quite frankly, didn't have high expectations. No fancy studio had laid down hundreds of millions of dollars on this project and was expecting to get it back. It was just Joss calling a bunch of his old friends and colleagues to come over and do it one more time."
The usual crew, including Acker, Denisof and Nathan Fillion, was joined by a few newcomers, and Whedon took care when selecting additions. One fresh face was Jillian Morgese, whose only other feature credit was a bit role in "The Avengers." She plays Beatrice's cousin, Hero.
"Coming in, I was just a bit nervous — obviously nervous about the acting portion, but also coming into this close-knit group of people," Morgese said. "But the minute I got there, it all went away. . . . [Whedon] just has this way of surrounding himself with very good people. So that definitely takes the pressure off."
The director credits not just Morgese's talent and good looks for landing her the role but also her humility. She is beautiful without entitlement or arrogance, he said.
"I'm not a young man, and I got no time for crazy," joked Whedon, who turns 49 on Sunday. "I wouldn't bring anyone who I thought would be toxic or difficult or unable to mesh."
The closeness fostered an atmosphere that sounds more like a party than a workplace. When shooting ran late, Whedon and his wife, Kai Cole, invited people to crash on the couch; in the absence of trailers, the actors hung around, chatting.
"Everyone would just sit on the couch between scenes or go sit out on the grass in the back yard," Acker said. "It was like a family, and it just felt like everyone was doing what they wanted to do."
Filming at Whedon's house kept things casual, although the locale wasn't free of complications.
"You think you live in a quiet neighborhood until you're rolling sound," Whedon said. "Everybody's mowing or leaf-blowing and dog-owning and renovating, and it's a nightmare. We kind of had to walk between the raindrops."
But there was never pressure from anyone (other than himself) to make the movie perfect. With no studio clamoring for a cut, the director wasn't entirely sure what he would do with the film once it was completed.
"We didn't even know how we were going to distribute it," Whedon said. "We talked about putting it up on iTunes the way we did" with comedic miniseries "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog."
Ultimately, Whedon and the cast took the film out on the festival circuit, and the results were heartening. Critics applauded and audiences rejoiced. Filmgoers who hadn't been Shakespeare fans were professing their love for the Bard.
"When we went to Toronto, it was overwhelming, the response that we got," Morgese said. "We were all onstage and looking at each other like, oh my gosh, people like this. This is going to be a real movie."
Whedon nailed down a distributor, and his home movie became more than a stress reliever. After he works on "The Avengers 2," which is set for a 2015 release, some may wonder what he'll do to unwind. If the past is any indication, it will be some unpredictable new cinematic challenge. The cast, however, will likely be familiar.
"Everybody's rooting for everybody else," Whedon said of his acting family. "That's what makes an ensemble, and that's what makes a group of friends."
"Much Ado About Nothing" (109 minutes) is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief drug use.