by Doctor Science
Last Saturday I went up to New York City to meet some fans I've known online for years. After dinner, we all went to the new movie of Much Ado About Nothing. The movie was put together by Joss Whedon basically to reboot his brain between filming and post-production on The Avengers. The actors are from Whedon's Usual Suspects, the shooting schedule was 12 days, the only location was his house, and it was shot in black-and-white with static cameras. I haven't been able to find out how much it cost, but the expression people are using is "micro-budget".
But the thing is, it's a *really good movie*, this is no micro-film. Seeing it really makes you recognize that there are other ways to make good movies than how Hollywood usually does, and to see that there might be different options for structuring the business.
The crucial factor that makes this a first-rate film is a script everyone involved -- including the audience -- can absolutely commit to. I confess that I came pre-committed: "Much Ado" is my favorite Shakespeare comedy. I was involved in a college production decades ago, and I still know pretty much every line. I've seen movie and TV versions, pro and amateur theater, reading groups, the works.
Whedon's restricted format really makes you listen to the words, to the flow of Shakespeare's language. Filming in black-and-white creates enough of a sense of distance and unreality that you can accept the artificial and antiquated way the characters are speaking -- helped by the fact that they're all *really good* at speaking Shakespeare's lines naturalistically, so it sounds like human speech and not a studied recitation.
All the actors are good-to-excellent, but I have to single out Nathan Fillion for his portrayal of Dogberry. As I said, I've seen many productions of "Much Ado", and Dogberry is the hardest role for modern actors to do well; William Kempe's style of comedy doesn't translate easily to modern times. Fillion actually got the audience to laugh: he does funny things while appearing perfectly unconscious that he's being funny. His performance finally buries the horror that was Michael Keaton in the Branaugh "Much Ado", who was always smirking at the audience, conscious that he's a *comedian*.
I do think there's something "off" about the editing of the trailer, because it made me very doubtful about Clark Gregg's performance as Leonato, though he turns out to be excellent. It's less of an achievement than Fillion's Dogberry, though, because Leonato is an easier role to get right.
"Much Ado" has had a very limited release so far, but it's already set some box office records for take per screen. Probably a lot of this is indeed due to Whedon (and the cast's) popularity with genre and TV fans, but another part is, I think, because this is a feel-good movie for grownups -- and there are damn few of those.
The exact circumstances under which "Much Ado" was made aren't going to be duplicated for other films, but I see some factors that could go in to making other first-rate movies on very small budgets.
- A great script. A script, especially one heavy on dialogue, doesn't have to "scale" with a movie's budget. That is, you don't necessarily get a better script by spending more money, not the way you get better cinematography or costumes or special effects.
On the contrary, what I've noticed is that the quality of the script often seems to go *down* as a movie becomes more expensive. I believe this is because FX are so very expensive that they tend to drive the script instead of vice versa -- because there's nothing worse than spending money on FX and not using them. Better to cut character development and plotting, which you haven't paid extra for in the same way.
- Actors from TV. TV actors are used to working quickly, which is helpful when you have a limited shooting schedule. That's necessary because the cost per day of making a movie is very high. Whedon's "Much Ado" is much more polished and professional than most "indie" movies, which I guess comes from keeping to expensive, professional standards -- but for only a brief period.
- Some kind of visual restriction. In the case of "Much Ado", there's the limitation of setting, the use of black-&-white, and the static cameras. Basically, visual complexity costs money, whether that's in the form of locations, sets, costumes, cinematography, or effects.
This is where there's a lot of room for cleverness. For instance, Paranormal Activity was made on a micro-mini-budget, using only a few static video cameras. It's an *extremely* effective horror movie in large measure *because* of those limitations, not in spite of them.
I don't know if there are a lot of actors and directors in Hollywood who'd like to do small but good movies ... hold on, who am I kidding. "Out of work" and "actor" are about 90% synonymous. *Of course* there are plenty of actors -- and probably directors and support staff too -- who'd like the chance to do quality work in small movies. The real question is what it will take for such projects to become normal, not just a single remarkable film.