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."
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."