Earlier in the week, Joss Whedon dropped a minor bombshell on his fans: while taking a break after directing The Avengers, he got together with some pals and shot a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The project was put together in the space of a month, with filming lasting just 12 days. How did he manage such a feat? We spoke with his Director of Photography, Jay Hunter about shooting the secret movie and how it was put together.
Whedonverse Network: How did you get involved on Much Ado?
Jay Hunter: Well, I guess you could go back to the Dollhouse days. I worked on Dollhouse as the second unit DP, on the second season, which was the first time I had worked with Joss.
The first day I worked on the show was with Joss, we were filming some of the apocalypse stuff that was supposed to be in the first episode of season 2, and ended up being pushed, I think until the final episode. So yeah, we worked a lot on that show together and got to know each other. And I got to know his brother Jed pretty well. After he wrapped Dollhouse, and got The Avengers job, he went off to mega-movieland for a while. And I think when he emerged, he wanted to cleanse his palette and sort of do this project that he’d been wanting to do for years.
I believe Jed, actually, reminded Joss of me. He was looking for a DP and had to get the project up and running really fast. So he was just brainstorming and Jed said, “Hey, why don’t you call Jay?” He called me up, and I went over to his house. We talked about the project, and he hired me that night. We literally, I think, shot the movie four or five days later.
So it was very fast inception for me. I usually get on a feature film at least 3 weeks of prep— time that we can actually prepare the film and do tests. We did this lightning fast. I was hired, and then we were on set filming it in the blink of an eye
WN: What’s the process in such a compressed timeline, of deciding what the look of the film is going to be, what you’re going to be shooting? I understand, for instance, that it’s in black & white, how did that come about?
JH: Joss had intended the movie to be black and white from the get-go, so that was sort of a done deal. That’s how he sort of envisioned the film. And as a cinematographer, you don’t get that many opportunities to shoot in black and white, so I wasn’t going to argue too much about that.
So that was really his ideal, and I first heard about it in the initial interview for the project. He told me, I want this film to be very hand held and I want to shoot it in this sort of, not exactly running gun fashion, but he didn’t want to have these time-consuming dolly shot type set up. Part of that was an aesthetic choice, and part of it was we only had 12 days to shoot the movie. Hand held, you tend to be able to work rather fast. You can make small adjustments in the blink of an eye.
And the black and white lends itself to more of an abstract atmosphere that it kind of grants the whole project. It takes away the distraction of color and allows you to just really focus on the tonality of the image and also the acting itself. You aren’t distracted by pretty colors and golden backlight and all that business. It really strips it away of that, so you can focus on the essense of the work.
I think the hand held element of it was one of the more intriguing parts of the approach. Personally, I love Shakespeare. I’ve seen Shakespeare many, many times, and many different plays, live in the theatre, and I love that experience. I’ve never really been a big fan of seeing Shakespeare on film. Mainly, because I feel like it typically ends up being a Merchant-Ivory-type experience, where everything is bathed in golden light and everything is a dolly shot and they shoot in this sort of standoffish manner, where they’re using long-lenses, the camera is far away, framing things up in wide-shots. As soon as you start doing that, I think, “This is so similar to the theatre experience. Why am I not in the theatre watching this?”
There are some examples where people have done something differently, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where he’s really trying to use the film to tell the story in a really unique manner.
But the hand held raw aesthetic that we were going for, really, I’d never seen anyone do that prior. We’ve seen black and white Shakespeare before. [Orson] Welles has done it, and countless others, but I’ve never really seen this approach. As opposed to watching it from a distance, we’re inside the scene. The camera is several feet away from the actors, and the actors are twirling around the camera. It felt like it embedded us within the material.
That was one of the more unique visual things we did on the film, and something that really got my juices flowing, so to speak.
WN: Your background also came out of reality shows. How did that influence the way you shot this as a hand-held-type of production?
A brief history of my past: I started off mainly in feature films and commericals. Eight or nine years ago, I did a reality show, which lead to another one, which lead to another one. Ever since then, it’s sort of been half and half; half scripted, narrative work, and half reality, documentary work. It’s not something when I’m on a feature film that I go tell everybody about, but that gave me a massive amount experience with hand held camera work, working very, very quickly, with limited means and trying to make things look good.
My whole thing in the reality world, my selling point when I go in for a job, is I’m the movie guy who can bring in cinematic quality and experience to a show like that— which is very difficult, because the odds are all stacked against you. My little saying is that it’s easy to make a reality show look bad; it’s extremely difficult to make it look mediocre; and it’s almost impossible to make it look excellent. And I was always trying to make it look excellent. You learn a lot of techniques: how to movie fast; how to work with the available light and shoot in certain directions at certain times of the day to get a certain look.
We shot the film at Joss’s house, and he invited me over, to spend an entire day, watching the light, observing how the light changed throughout his estate, so to speak. And that was invaluable. I was there from 6 in the morning and stayed until probably 7:30 at night, and looked at all the different places that we were going to shoot the scenes, and worked with Maileen [Williams] who was our first AD in scheduling the film, so we could shoot certain scenes at certain times of the day, which would benefit us with the available light. We didn’t shoot everything in available light; we augmented the light quite a bit. But I made sure we shot [for example] Scene A, in the downstairs bedroom at 3PM, rather than at 9 in the morning [when] the light is coming in at a weird angle.
That reality and documentary experience teaches you how to deal with unfavorable circumstances and make lemonade out of them.
WN: In thinking about how you were going to shoot Much Ado, what decisions did you go through in terms of modernizing and adapting this play into more of this filmic kind of work?
From the camera work, we didn’t want to do any zooms or anything to give it that modern documentary aesthetic. To me, that’s kind of played out a bit too much, with the snap zooming that you see in The Office. It works in those shows, but I’m kind of sick of that look, and so we shot mostly in prime lenses.
In terms of sources of light, in that respect, I sort of went half-classical/half-modern. At night, I wanted the practical lighting to really light the environment. And I wanted to have a lot of candles and a lot of torches. That sort of rides the line of feeling period-piece-y, so I wouldn’t say we broke the rule in that respect, but we certainly bent it a little bit. These guys have candles. It’s a modern day place, but they’re hanging out in an estate, and they light candles instead of turning on a bunch of lightbulbs everywhere. We went for that sort of look as far as the night lighting goes.
A lot of the modernizing of the play had to do with how Joss blocked it and how he wrote the scene descriptions. All the dialogue is the original dialogue. It was mainly how he reinterpreted the play. Because it’s Shakespeare, obviously it’s just dialogue, there’s no blocking notes or anything. So the director of the play typically adds all that stuff. I don’t want to give away too much, if I start talking too much I’ll give away all the surprises in the film. He definitely spices it up a little bit. It feels like no other rendition of Much Ado that I’ve seen before. I’ve never seen anyone modernize it quite the way he did it.
And dare I say, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do any of Shakespeare’s plays like this. I feel like we’ve really done something unique and special here. The feeling abounded on the set. When the grips are laughing— when you yell “cut” and the grips or the electricians are cracking up at Shakespeare’s dialogue— you know you’re doing something right. You know you’re really appealing to a modern audience. Not to knock on the grips or anything, but they tend not to be the guys who are very much into old English dialect.
WN: Obviously it was a big shock to fans and the film community to hear about the production. How did Joss keep it under wraps— and keep you all in line so that it didn’t leak out?
I kinda thought it was going to leak out at one point, just because he had some scenes with a lot of extras. But all the extras were his friends.
To go back to the reality show analogy, sometimes when you do shows like that, you sign this document that you’ll be sued for $5 million and they’ll take your children away from you. That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but if you leak any information, you’ll be in deep water. I’m sure we signed something like a non-disclosure agreement, but Joss was like, hey guys, don’t talk about it; I want to tell the world when I’m ready about it. And we all respected that. Every single person that came to that set, whether you were an actor, a PA, a cameraman, an extra, everyone came there because they love Joss, because they just wanted to do something fun that he had such a passion for. So I’m not surprised that the secret was kept for so long. But really, the movie happened so quickly that there wasn’t much time for anything to leak. If it had been a two or three month production, something would have gotten out eventually.
It was actually funny, when we finished filming, literally an hour after we stopped shooting, they put the press release out. We were all celebrating, having a glass of wine, high-fiving each other. And we started getting Google Alerts emails that people were blogging about the movie. We had just stopped rolling cameras and already the world found out. It was pretty amusing to have it not even one day old yet and the Internet was on fire.
Joss is the kind of captain that everyone loves. There’s the Machiavellian love and fear dynamic, and I think that everyone follows Joss into battle with a lot of love.
WN: Has there been talk about work on other projects that Joss has been thinking about, with this approach, guerrilla filmmaking at its best?
I don’t know, but certainly hope so. What I would say to his fans is that the reason he is able to make things like this is because of the fans, the fact that he has so many diehard followers that will seek out his material no matter what. Keep on doing that, and the chances of more things like this happening are a lot more likely.
I’m hoping to do this again. I think everyone on this production is, whether it’s a Shakespeare film or something else. We all had so much fun. On independent film, you always bond really heavily with the cast and the crew. And it’s always really sad when everything’s over, because you’ve created this strong bond and this family. This was even more heart-wrenching because it was so short. We had such intense experience for two weeks and then it’s all gone. And I think every single person that set foot on that set is dying to do it all over again. It’s certainly not for money. Everyone was basically doing it for gas money and lunch. [Ed note: Jay was joking.] So no one’s getting rich off this, it was all just for the love, but we can’t wait to come back and do it again. If that happens, he’ll have a staff. But he’ll be able to pull the trigger again really fast like he did on this one, I’m sure.
WN: Thanks so much Jay — and what are you working on now?
I’ve been doing some commercials; I have a couple next month. And I direct a show called Kitchen Nightmares on FOX, and when I get back from my vacation we’re going to finish the season. We’ve got a few more episodes to do. Then after that, you never know. Sometimes my phone rings and it’s something cool like Joss Whedon saying, hey, shoot my no-budget independent version of Much Ado About Nothing, or it’s someone saying come shoot my soda commercial. You never know. That’s the beauty of my job, it’s always unpredictable, always a surprise.
Thanks to Jay Hunter for taking time out from his vacation. Check out his site, which features a montage of his work from Dollhouse at: jayhunter.com
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