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'Much Ado About Nothing': A DIY film project at Joss Whedon's home

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.

PHOTOS: Kai Cole's/Joss Whedon's home

"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 of iPods and cupcake towers. There are multiple steamy love scenes, a few stolen puffs of marijuana and, as befits a Shakespeare adaptation from a man who made a teenage girl an action star, a slyly feminist take on a plot line that revolves around one character's virginity.

"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."

PHOTOS: Alexis Denisof's favorite Shakespeare adaptations

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."

On their terms

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.

As an architect, Cole works for family and friends; a special interest of hers is how to lend a new house the character of an old one. The "Much Ado" house was built in the 1920s, but Cole gutted it to the studs and rebuilt it using reclaimed French wood and tiles, graceful arched doorways and leaded glass windows and antique furniture from yard sales in Cape Cod, where she grew up.

"I don't believe there was a moment where Kai said, 'Well, I'd better do this in case we shoot in here,'" Whedon said. "But that is a big damn kitchen and when you're in the little alley by the stove and realize, 'Wow, there's enough room to get a camera in here,' you're very grateful. The house informs what the movie is. It has a combination of sunny spaciousness and dark labyrinthine intrigue."

PHOTOS: Shakespeare 2.0 - The bard on the screen

Cole and Whedon, who have been together for 22 years, hatched the "Much Ado" plan while at a bar in New York in 2011 contemplating how to spend a break he had in between shooting "The Avengers" and beginning its intensive post-production. After years of frustration with a planned "Wonder Woman" movie that never happened and other film projects that languished in development, "The Avengers," which Whedon also wrote, was his first big-budget movie as a director, an effects-laden comic book picture with a huge cast and a complex story meant to incorporate various plot strands from other Marvel movies.

Instead of taking a planned trip to Europe, Whedon told Cole what would really help him decompress from the set was a Shakespeare reading.

"I saw this opportunity for 'Much Ado,'" Cole said. "We could just really, quickly sneakily film it. I just hounded Joss, 'How could we do this?' I was very big on, 'Don't tell anyone, 'cause they're going to tell you it's a bad idea.' It was what I always dreamt we could do — make a movie without the normal Hollywood barriers. I hear so often, 'Kai, this is just how it's done.' I don't believe that in construction, and I don't believe that with making movies."

Whedon and Cole had been looking for such an opportunity — a $200,000 Internet musical Whedon wrote and directed to keep busy during the 2007-08 Hollywood writers strike, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," became a surprise sensation and inspired the couple to start a production company, Bellwether Pictures, for inexpensive, personal projects. A second Bellwether film that Whedon wrote and Cole produced, a paranormal romance called "In Your Eyes," will be out this year.

It's not unheard of for a director of a big-budget action movie to pivot to a more modest, creatively motivated project — after circling the globe for the thriller "The Da Vinci Code," for example, Ron Howard made the smaller budget historical drama "Frost/Nixon."

PHOTOS: Scenes from 'Much Ado About Nothing'

But the transition from directing the Hulk and Thor saving New York City to shooting a black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation in your home is more dramatic than most. Whedon and Cole put up the budget for "Much Ado" themselves (they declined to disclose it) and cast the film — largely with people who had been playing make-believe at their house for years.

"I kind of thought we might show up and it would be Joss filming with his iPhone," Acker said. "We'd all been at their house before. You'd walk in at 6 in the morning to shoot, and you'd see Arden and Squire coming down for their breakfast. Nobody seemed fazed by it."

Whedon shot in black and white to lend the film a classic, noir feeling and to distinguish it from Kenneth Branagh's sunny 1993 adaptation of the same play. "Black and white gives you a timeless elegance even if there's a giant lawn mower you can't get to move," Whedon explained.

Even within the controlled environment of the 9,600-square-foot house, there were production problems — a demolition crew started noisy work on the house next door until Cole persuaded them to pause when cameras were rolling.

During the party scene, Cole plays a woman who jumps into the pool. Because of the timing of the shoot, she ended up filming that sequence at the beginning of the evening — and spending the rest of the night as hostess-producer in wet clothes.

Refreshed for 'Avengers'

After shooting wrapped, Whedon and his assistant, Daniel Kaminsky, edited the film on their laptops while Whedon finished the postproduction work on "Avengers." "It was a great way to wind down after a day of micro-editing explosions," Whedon said. "It helped 'The Avengers' enormously. I came back not just rejuvenated but with a much clearer eye towards what I needed to do in the editing room."

"Avengers," a kind of superhero supergroup movie, was a critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing movie of last year and propelling Whedon into a new stratosphere as a director. He is writing an "Avengers" sequel and producing a new TV series, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D," set in the Marvel universe.

Eventually Whedon and Cole told people about their secret movie shoot — including Whedon's representatives at the Creative Artists Agency. "I was so excited by the question, 'What were you thinking?'" Cole said, of that meeting. "I was like, 'We weren't!'"

"Much Ado" has played to strong reviews at the Toronto and South by Southwest film festivals — New York Magazine called the movie "the smoothest and most enjoyable of all Shakespeare comedies on film" — and distributor Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions will open it in five theaters June 7 — a much more modest bow than Whedon's big superhero film.

"What is success?" Cole said. "For us, success is making the movie in the first place, doing it ourselves in our home with our friends. If it doesn't make any money, it isn't going to kill us. Our expectations were already met."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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