Joss Whedon & co. have an offbeat way of taking a break

By Rebecca Keegan

McClatchy-Tribune

Published: Saturday, June 22 2013 1:30 p.m. MDT

Kai Cole sits in her kitchen. Her husband, Joss Whedon, shot the film "Much Ado About Nothing" in their home.

Kirk Mckoy, Mct

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (MCT) — When architect Kai Cole began designing her Mediterranean-style Santa Monica home, she weighed all the usual concerns — space, light, flow — along with one quite specific to her family's needs: where to hold the Shakespeare readings.

Cole and her husband, "The Avengers" director Joss Whedon, have hosted impromptu Sunday afternoon gatherings of friends to perform the Bard's plays since the late 1990s, when Whedon was producing the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and he and his cast craved a creative outlet far removed from the program's fantasy world of demon-killing high school students.

So when she was trying to figure out what to do with a pitched corner of the backyard that overlooks a country club, Cole envisioned it as an open-air performance space and set rock slab seats in a few tiers around a semi-circular grass stage, a la Sophocles.

"I came back from being away on a movie and Kai was like, 'I built an amphitheater. Is that OK?' " Whedon said. "When she designed the house we talked about having people come and paint. There's a potting wheel, a sprung dance floor. We were always wanting to invite creativity into and through the house."

Whedon's new movie takes that domestic impulse a step further — he shot the film, a black-and-white contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," at home.

A tart romantic comedy chronicling two pairs of lovers, Whedon's "Much Ado" retains the 16th century language but places its characters in a modern world.

"We wanted to make it accessible and fun and hip and approachable for a modern viewer," said Alexis Denisof, a "Buffy" alumnus who plays the sharp-tongued Benedick and who participated in many of Whedon's backyard readings over the years. "We're not standing around in tights and ruffled shirts. We're telling a cool, sexy story with guys in sharp suits."

Filmed in secret over 12 days while Whedon was on a break from "Avengers," the movie is homemade in a multitude of ways. The crew shot in Whedon and Cole's kitchen and children's bedrooms, and cast and crew members often spent the night during production. Family friends cooked for the movie's big party scene, and dirty wine glasses from a real party supplied the props for the fictional morning after.

Nearly every actor in "Much Ado" has at least two credits from the so-called Whedonverse — Denisof ("Buffy," "Angel," "Avengers") and Amy Acker ("Angel," "Dollhouse," "The Cabin in the Woods") play Benedick and Beatrice, the play's wry, sparring couple; Fran Kranz ("Dollhouse," "The Cabin in the Woods") and newcomer Jillian Morgese are its wide-eyed lovers Claudio and Hero; and Nathan Fillion ("Buffy," "Firefly," "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") and Tom Lenk ("Buffy," "Angel," "The Cabin in the Woods") are the comically incompetent constable Dogberry and his loyal sidekick Verges.

Making a film as a break from making a bigger film might seem peculiar, but not in this household. "I relate to my friends usually through work," Whedon said. "I'm a workaholic. Part of making the movie wasn't just reconnecting with my artistic roots, it was reconnecting with my house and my friends. It was a true homecoming. It was the best way to get them all to spend 12 days with me."

The idea for "Much Ado" came from Cole, a producer on the film. A graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, she has designed her family's last three houses and run a small textile company while raising the couple's 8-year-old daughter, Squire, and 10-year-old son, Arden. Tall, warm, with a faint Massachusetts accent, Cole has a habit of collecting artistic people — after she met a couple of Cirque du Soleil performers at a party one night, she had them over to her house to teach her and her son trapeze.

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