Written By — April | May 2013
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The Job
Lisa Rosen

Try This AT home

Much Ado About A set visit With joss Whedon’s family And friends.

In fall 2011, I received a funny invitation from Joss Whedon. We’d first met in college a couple of decades ago and had seen each other in Los Angeles occasionally throughout the years, either at alumni events or for interviews. When his beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired its series finale, I wrote a eulogy for the local paper. Before Doll house premiered, I visited the set. After Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog made Internet history, I covered it for this magazine. Suffice to say, I’m a fan of the guy’s oeuvre. So when he decided to put on a show in his backyard, I was happy to hear about it. He and his wife, Kai Cole, wrote thusly:

Dear Friends,

Next Saturday night, October 15th, we are throwing a film! It’s very similar to a party, except people film you, you occasionally have to do the same thing more than once, and sometimes you have to mime instead of actually talking. THIS IS BETTER THAN A REAL PARTY. Because it lives forever on film, and miming means not having to come up with witty bon-mots all night, which can be pretty stressful.

Here’s the actual scoop, if you’re not yet in the know: We are making a film of Much Ado About Nothing at our house over the next couple of weeks. There is a big party scene at night, and rather than fill the house with strangers, we’d like to feature actual friends. If this sounds like a cheesy attempt to get free extras...Look over there at the shiny thing! Anyway, it WILL be dope. When you’re not being immortalized on film, we’ll host a secondary (actual) party down in the front of the house, which will not be filmed.Delicious food and drink will be provided, provided you know your limitations and don’t party so hard you can’t replicate your actions later on. AND...There’s a conga line!
YES! Life CAN be that wonderful.

The party starts between six and seven (all are welcome at six, all need be present by seven) and ends (for those called upon to stick It to the end) around two. The dress is formal but hip, and your interpretation of that is yours. (The movie is modern-day, the concept sort of a very classy—but just as drinky verion of the Kennedy Compound.) In general, the principals will have men in suit and tie, women in unassumingly elegant sum- mer dresses, though going too far (tuxes and gowns) would only enrich the film. There will be masks for some, and costumes for a few. If you have a beloved costume, (Geisha, Fop, Roman Senator) (Nothing copyWrited—sorry, all you Batmen!) Please let us know. But if you have clothes at all, I hope you’ll join us in this mad, lovely venture. (If you don’t have clothes at all, please contact one of us about the pool scene.)

If you are getting this, it’s because we love you and think you’d look great on film, or at least one of those. If you are one of a couple, assume your honey is invited as well. There is no expectation on our part, unless you say yes, in which case punctuality and perseverance are a must. We hope you’ll come. Please RSVP as soon as possible.

Best to all, Kai and Joss.PS one final note: All of this is being done On the qt, as we’d like to roll out publicity in a timely fashion, so mum’s the word. Bye-ee!

Never one to miss the chance to wear an inordinately fancy gown, I said yes.Since then, the film made a splash at the Toronto Film Festival, was purchased by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, and is set to hit theaters June 7. I realized in retrospect that my evening as an extra was really a surreptitious set visit. An embedding, even. Here’s how it went.

The new Globe troupe

Tricked out in layers of swirling white and green silk chiffon, I arrive at their Santa Monica house and sign in at a folding table on the front patio. Some- one hands me a glass of wine. So far so good. Then I check out the house. A marvel (no pun, I swear) of a Mediterranean revival, it was designed by Kai, who’s an architect. Joss has since called the film a love letter to the house, and it’s easy to see why. Practically a character in itself, it sets an inviting stage for all the play’s machinations.

Inside, a front living room makes way down a few stairs to a back living room, which looks out glass accordion doors to the terraced backyard and infinity pool. A grand piano anchors the left corner. To the right, a rustic wooden dining table is piled high with hats, masks, and fake drinks (for the actors).The furnishings are an eclectic mix of styles, textures, and colors. Rooms open onto other rooms like surprises.The ceilings have exposed beams, the floors reclaimed wood and tile. The whole place has a kind of timeless, friendly -gothic feel to it.

Writers, producers, and family members dot the landscape. Drew Goddard, who co-wrote Cabin in the Woods with Joss, and his wife, Caroline Williams (Modern Family), check out the masks.Actors can be found in little nooks, preparing. Every now and then the two Whedon Kids run through, a few friends in tow.

Joss’ brother, Jed, and his wife, Maurissa Tancharoen, greet new arrivals. (The two are writing partners as well, with Dr. Horrible and Dollhouse among their credits.) One guest looks at Maurissa and exclaims, “I wear your face to bed!” The backstory: Maurissa has lupus, and a group of friends and family had formed “Club Mo” for a walkathon to raise funds to fight the disease. Her face graces the Club shirt, above the motto never surrender. It apparently makes for popular sleepwear.

I run into Bill Nicholas, an old boyfriend I haven’t seen in maybe 20 years, and meet his wife, Sue Budd. He’s decked in the white dinner jacket he wore to his wedding, and she’s wearing a gorgeous white knit mini-dress that her grandmother made. The two are also architects; their kids go to school with Whedon’s kids. Other parents abound. They keep asking me if I, too, have a kid at that school. I keep replying, “Not that I know of.”

Noah Maffitt is busy making snacks at an island in the middle of the huge kitchen. He’s a friend of the family who loves to cook and just wanted to pitch in. I spend quite a bit of free time on a couch nearby.

Joss stops by and says hello, admiring my swirly gown. I ask him how this all came about. He says that when he saw he had a break at the beginning of the Avengers postproduction schedule, he and the family planned to head off to Italy for a couple of weeks. But then Kai realized they wouldn’t have a chance like this again. “We’ve been talking about doing this for years and felt like if we didn’t do it now we never would,” he says. “Italy will always be there.”

Later, Kai fills me in some more. Near the end of Joss’ Avengers shoot, Kai visited him in New York. After nine months on location, he was exhausted. “I asked him what he wanted to do when he got home, and he thought it would be nice to have a Shakespeare reading and reconnect with everyone.” It’s common knowledge among Whedon’s fans that since some- time during Buffy’s reign, schedules perMitting, they’ve held such monthly readings at their home, cast with actor friends.“It suddenly hit me that we should just film it,” Kai recalls. “At first Joss thought it was an insane idea, just like everyone did. But I knew that this was actually exactly what Joss needed to relax, that this would be the gift that would keep on giving. Not only for when he returned to L.A., but in the long tedious months ahead of Avengers post.”

By the end of the weekend, Joss had figured out how to adapt the play. “First, by figuring out why everyone did everything they did in the play,” he explains. “Then by figuring out where.Then by cutting it by at least a third— it’s a really long play. Add some sex and let simmer.”

He saw Much Ado as a sort of noir comedy/drama, “a dark and textured deconstruction of the tropes of romantic behavior that manages to pluck romance from dirt it’s turning.” Hence the black-and-white film. He got the script together in about two weeks. “I didn’t indicate every action or attitude, just the ones I thought would be unexpected. And I wasn’t about to mess with the words, so it was a fairly simple process.”

He and Kai formed a micro studio, Bellwether Productions, financed the film themselves, and produced it together. They started shooting a month later. He gathered actors he’s worked with on everything from Buffy to Avengers. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who first worked together on Angel, play the bickering Beatrice and Benedick. Nathan Fillion, Tom Lenk, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, Fran Kranz, and Reed Diamond fill out the cast.

We few, We happy few,

We Band of extras

Once everyone is assembled, Joss makes a nice speech, telling us we all look wonderful and thanking us profusely for showing up and helping out. “That said, if you’re disruptive, I will yell at you,” he says as sweetly as possible. Nobody there has any idea that the other project he’s working on is going to be one of the most profitable films of all time, and he acts as if he has no idea either. He and his crew start setting up a big party in the backyard, arranging a group of young drunk men here, a few flirting couples there, and general debauchery all around.

Joss points to Bill and then me and directs us upstairs to the balcony off the master bedroom. Sue looks at us in mock dismay. As we head up with our drinks, we pass a secret children’s room on the stair landing. On the balcony, we have a perfect view of the proceedings unfolding below us. We watch as Joss gives direction to a bunch of young male revelers. He mimics a drunk guy staggering up to the bar. In between takes, we discuss the landscaping.

Behind us, Maurissa rests in the master bed. She’s suffering a flare-up of lupus nephritis, which is affecting her kidneys and causing terrible pain, but she doesn’t show it. Kai checks in on her to see if she needs anything.

The shot completed, we’re called back down to the living room, and I return Bill to Sue, unmolested. Joss grabs another group of us and sets us up around the piano to listen to a chanteuse, played by Maurissa. He directs us to be enchanted by her number, which is an easy job. She sings like an angel and smiles at us as if She hasn’t a care in the world. It might be the best acting of the night. The song is called “Sigh No More,” lyrics by Shakespeare, music by Joss. Jed Whedon accompanies his wife on the piano.

Dinner is set up on the front lawn.Arguably the most important element on any set is good catering. Actually, I don’t know anyone who would argue with this. Sated, we await further direction. A young slip of a thing is curled up on the corner of a couch. Jillian Morgese is our Hero and Joss’s latest discovery. She was an extra on Avengers, in one of the many “reacting in terror as the city is destroyed in battle” scenes. When it came time for casting Much Ado, Joss thought of her resemblance to Acker, who would be playing Hero’s cousin. He auditioned her by Skype, hired her, and flew her out from New York. Joss stops by to see how she’s holding up, and they talk quietly for a moment before he moves on to set up the next scene. She mentions that he and Kai have put her up in their home for the duration of the shoot.

A while later, the whole group is asked outside and positioned in various spots around a huge oak tree. Up in the branches, a pair of insanely strong twin trapeze artists, Karyne and Sarah Steben, lift and twirl and intertwine each other in risqué fashion, take after take. Kai met them several years ago, and they subsequently became her trapeze instructors, so the rigging was already set up. Our job as audience is, again, rather simple. Watch with delight.

Between shots, we’re left to our own devices. It’s late. I hear rumors that coffee can be found in the basement and head downstairs. Said basement goes on and on. I come upon a screening room, with a couple of rows of couches full of extras gone AWOL. Bill is among them. The Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski is playing. I reluctantly tear myself away and wander past a guest room transformed into the wardrobe department. A gym is now hair and make-up; a music room has a sewing table for the costumer; a dance studio under the pool is the set for Dogberry’s Office. Craft services is on a patio out- side a guest room. With coffee!

Back in the living room, I take a seat on one of the couches and admire a beautiful abstract painting over the mantle. As it happens, the woman seated next to me, Kate Register, is the artist. Nearby, a young woman dressed as a maid tells me she’s in college, studying world affairs. A friend invited her along and she thought sure, what the hell.

Sometime after midnight, a bunch of us are gathered outside in a row through the middle of the party. Turns out it’s a conga line. Yes, it was in the invitation, but I thought that was just an example of Joss’ Whedonesque wit. None of us knows how to actually conga, so the rehearsal process is a little pitiful. My high heels long gone, I have to gather up the miles of chiffon into a knot at my knees to keep it from getting stepped on by the congaer behind me. The cold ground is a balm on sore feet.

We get a close-up glimpse of the ac- tors at work. Sitting by a fire pit, Beatrice unknowingly cuts Benedick to size before cutting into the conga line and dancing with us out of frame. The scene is from Act II, Scene 1, as she describes Benedick to his masked face. “Why he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool...” The lines are Shakespeare’s, but the style is contemporary, flirtatious, and flinty.No heightened enunciation or British accents needed.

At 2 a.m. on the bleary dot, as promised, Joss cuts us loose. Some of us anyway. I wave a cheery goodbye to Bill through a window as I gather my things to leave. He’s still working background outside, as Kai dives into the pool, and flips me a slightly less friendly reply. The knave.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the early reviews are pretty glowing. A few weeks back I had to interview Joss about something else. The first thing he says is, “You’re in it.” It takes me a minute to understand what he’s talking about. Apparently our balcony scene is onscreen, at least in the distance. It’s a nice coda, but really the experience was enough. As films go, it was quite a party.