Forget about contemporary depictions of sparkling vampires and soft-focus neck-sucking: Vampire lore is filled with horror and violence. It is also, as filmmakers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement note, filled with comic possibilities.
What We Do in the Shadows, opening Friday, is a feisty, funny blend of the familiar and the fantastical. Independent New Zealand-based filmmakers/actors/writers Clement and Waititi have created a world that is simultaneously recognizable, especially to those who've had roommates, and filled with the kind of supernatural touches that would make any fan of traditional vampire tales happy.
While the film makes no secret of its decidedly human themes, there's a notable and refreshing commitment to the Stoker/Rice/LeFanu brand of vampiric depictions in all their original gory, goth-heavy glory. Twilight vamps, step aside: This is a sparkle-free zone.
The premise: Four vampires, the medieval Vladislav (Clement), foppish Viago (Waititi), rebel Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and cranky Petyr (Ben Fransham) share a house in Wellington, New Zealand. Complications arise when newly created vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) and human friend Stu (Stu Rutherford) come into the fold. The movie takes a pseudo-documentary style — a "New Zealand Documentary Board" logo appears at the start — with the flatmates arguing over household chores, entertaining visitors and showing the challenges of getting into clubs. (You have to be invited, natch.)
As the film builds to the "Unholy Masquerade," an annual event that brings together Wellington's supernatural community, including ravenous zombies, viewers watch the vampires attempt to balance the demands of a unique, sometimes difficult-to-sustain diet while distancing themselves from the local werewolf population (lead by Anton, played by Rhys Darby, best known to American audiences as Murray the Manager in Flight of the Conchords), sighing over old lovers and working out the nature of a burgeoning friendship with a human they just can't bring themselves to feast upon.
There is a scintillating mix of the absurd and the familiar in What We Do in the Shadows. You laugh at the vampires as they argue, hissing and flying, over who should do the dishes, even as you wince at your own memories of slobbish roommates. You smile seeing them observe a sunrise on YouTube and recall your own wonder watching online video for the first time. Much of what powers the movie is this delicious tension between the mundane world of humans and the fantastical realm of vampires. The notion of the outsider is one that strongly resonates throughout the work, offering a rich, and occasionally bloody, palette on which to examine ideas of community and belonging.
Acting as an anchor amidst the fantastical elements is Stu (played by real-life friend Stu Rutherford), the unassuming human friend who assumes an Everyman role amid a raft of clever gags and loving references to old vampire films. Watchful moviegoers will spot scenes, characters and looks from The Lost Boys, Fright Night, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nosferatu and numerous Hammer horror films, alongside the obvious mockumentary-style nods to Spinal Tap and the comedic-horror style trappings of Shaun of the Dead.
That love of old vampire movies has its roots in the childhoods of Clement and Waititi, both of whom are longtime fans of the genre. Waititi told the New Zealand Herald in June 2014 that "I've loved vampires since I was a kid, or loved a lot of the vampire movies that I saw. Anything with sharp teeth, really."
Clement saw Scars of Dracula as a child and was fascinated by it; he later formed a neighborhood "vampire gang," which involved him and his friends wearing capes and fake teeth and riding around on bicycles scaring other kids.
"The only rule was that everyone had to wear those fake teeth," Clement told the New Zealand Herald last year. "And then we would ride around the streets of Masterton on bikes, yelling out to girls: 'I vant to drink your blood!'"
The pair met in college in the 1990s and went on to form comedy troupe So You're a Man (which featured Clement's future Flight of the Conchords partner Bret McKenzie) and the Humourbeasts. Clement was a lead in Waititi's first full-length feature, 2007's Eagle vs. Shark, and the pair subsequently collaborated on various episodes of Flight of the Conchords.
What We Do in the Shadows was a long time coming. After making the low-budget short film Some Interviews With Some Vampires in 2005, the project was put on the back burner after the careers of its respective creators took off. Waititi was nominated for an Oscar for his short film, Two Cars, One Night, and went on to write, direct and appear in a number of large and small features, including his award-winning 2010 film Boy and 2011's The Green Lantern (as Tom Kalmaku). Clement went on the TV show (and to subsequently tour) as one half of the popular comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Clement was also behind a number of dastardly movie villains, including Boris the Animal in Men in Black 3 and Nigel the nefarious parrot in Rio and Rio 2.
The duo agreed, after writing a script for What We Do in the Shadows, to have the film be made up of entirely improvised performances. Even the issues they aimed to address had to have an unscripted realism, in both delivery and reaction. As Clement noted in an interview last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Whether it's about senility, aging, maturing, getting over things, outsiders, homophobia, racism ... all these things we'd talk about at some stage. And we actually did end up thinking about these things, and serious themes, for this movie."
Rutherford, a non-actor, noted in the same interview that "I would've been terrible if I'd known" about the script.
This brand of cinematic naturalism powers the film in terms of providing a kind of charming comic verité, but it proved a challenge when it came to editing. Close to 150 hours of footage had to be whittled down to a manageable 90 minutes, a task that took the better part of a year, with help from Park Road Post, a post-production facility owned by director Peter Jackson's WingNut Films.
All the effort, it seems, was worth it. What We Do in the Shadows has garnered praise and accolades from many quarters. After making its debut at Sundance in 2014, it went on to screen at a number of international festivals (including the 2014 Berlinale and South by Southwest) and collect a variety of awards, including the Grolsch People's Choice Award at TIFF. The Guardian went on to call it "the best comedy of the year."
Mic: How did What We Do in the Shadows start life?
Jemaine Clement (JC): We made the film to be a funding proposal, for a feature film, but we didn't do the feature until recently. We wanted to make a short film. We didn't have a story, it was just following around the characters and asking them questions and just to see what it would be like.
Mic: At what point did you both sit down and say, "OK, we're doing this NOW"?
JC: Part of it was that The Hobbit filming in Wellington, and they were finishing in August of the year we filmed it, and we could get the whole crew ...
Taika Waititi (TW): ... and it was also it was a rare time where Jemaine wasn't working on something. He had this spare four months, and we wanted to take advantage of that ...
JC: ... but it ended up taking a year. (laughs)
Mic: How did you go about writing the script?
JC: The script didn't take too long. Over 10 years we would send each other ideas whenever we thought (the filming) was coming up, and then the year would pass. We had a lot of these scenes and characters, then I'd be in New York shooting something, Taika would come over, and we'd worked on it there [...] finally, we spent three days really logging it off.
Mic: You apparently were able to finish the script because you didn't have access to the Internet.
JC: That was coincidence, but I think it was a really big part of us getting it finished quickly. It was at our friends', at a beach — they had a satellite system and it didn't work. It's really easy to get distracted doing a thing like this that has historical references in it. You end up looking up things all the time, old vampire movies ... stuff about Transylvania and folklore.
Mic: There are so many neat visual elements in the film that underline that vampire folklore. Why did you include them?
TW: When we were editing we decided that we were going to have this big montage of stuff, just to explain the history a little bit more and give it a little bit of depth.
JC: But we had always had the idea of using that kind of footage — archival woodcuts and prints and stuff like that — but in the editing we added a lot more than we'd imagined.
TW: It took a long time, and a lot of effort.
Mic: The movie has a really unique soundtrack, with the Norma Tanega song "You're Dead" as a kind of theme for your vampires. How did you find the music?
TW: We stumbled across that. Our editors had a big list, like a big drive full of music.
JC: They were things for our film. One guy would bring Eastern European music or other stuff, and he'd put it all in a big folder and we would listen through it all. We didn't have any other music to listen to when we were doing other jobs.
Mic: Considering how adamant you were about the movie being improvised, how difficult was it to work in the bits that are clearly references to other vampire movies?
JC: We'd just make sure the actors had a very certain direction for what was coming up.
TW: And I would look at the themes every day, but the actors wouldn't. And we would just made sure they talked about whatever it was they needed to talk about. We had to explain that by the end of the scene we had to get this information out or that they needed to get something from another character; they had to make certain jokes. If they didn't come out the first couple of takes, we just told them, "Oh, just say this line," or, "Make this line go because it's a good joke."
JC: My character I thought of as a powerful warlord who's crazy and tried to use his extreme powers in the modern world, and they didn't fit in. As we filmed, he became more of a has-been, as far as a vampire goes. He'd lost his power.
Mic: Vladislav comes off like a big softie by the end.
JC: Yeah, we added that. Also, I was going to try and play my character as unpredictable, but Jonny Brugh's character is actually unpredictable.
TW: My character was ... I imagine he's the most bummed out about being a vampire, but he's also very practical, and he's accepted it a long time ago. He's the one who has the most conscience, especially when it comes to having to take lives.
Mic: Viago is also the most romantic of the all the characters.
TW: Yeah, he is a romantic.
Mic: In that sense, he feels like a continuum of characters from your past movies (Eagle vs. Shark, Boy), which have a real streak of romanticism to them.
TW: Well ... I'm just a hopeless romantic.
Mic: How did you decide on the accents?
TW: I think they're just the accents we could do, basically.
Mic: Did you practice in front of mirrors, or ...?
JC: I was mumbling a lot. Every few years we thought it would be the year we'd film this, I thought I'd find a voice for him amidst the mumbling. We wanted them to feel foreign.
Mic: Was there any concern about Deacon being a Nazi?
JC: Yes, with Americans. Our American producer and one of our editors. They both ...
TW: ... they were worried about it.
JC: They thought it wasn't funny. We'd already played it in New Zealand, where we knew it got big laughs, then when we played it at Sundance (in 2014), that part went silent. In New Zealand, we knew it was going to play there. We didn't know if it was ever going to come here.
Mic: Do you regret not making it with a studio?
JC: It would've been a shame to recut it just because certain people were worried about their money. There were certain people that we wrote it for, and we wanted those people.
TW: Another thing about making this film without a studio is that we didn't have any deadlines, which also might have not been a benefit — we just never really knew when to stop. Usually with studios, as a director, you only ever have about 10 to 12 weeks editing, and then they take over, and I think that would've been quite a bad.
Mic: Any editing tips?
TW: Don't get 150 hours of footage.
Mic: Is it harder or easier to work with your friends?
JC: Sometimes we can get distracted, I guess, in a way that you don't with strangers, but mostly we've got a kind of shorthand because we've worked a lot together and we understand each other.
Mic: Some people have said this is the vampire version of Flight of the Conchords. Do you get put off by that?
JC: I think it might seem like that if you live here and you're not used to that kind of humor. But I could see how someone here would see (the similarities). I don't mind, if it makes them go see it.
Mic: People have compared What We Do in the Shadows to Shaun Of The Dead — but there seems to be a different view of outsiders in each.
JC: Well those guys are outsiders as well — we're the monsters though, and they're the heroes.
Mic: And your characters were chased all the way to New Zealand.
JC: That's right — they're in the last place on earth they can go to. You know, the night when we out, when we filmed the short, we were shouted at for wearing frilly shirts and jackets and boots and all those kinds of things, so many times. It was terrifying. But a lot changed in New Zealand since then, and we couldn't even make anyone say it now. We'd put it in the script, we'd banked on people calling us "fag" or "homo" like they did last time ... which was constant ... we hadn't even imagined, because we lived in what we supposed to be the most cultural city of New Zealand, but then it was just constant and threatening and we felt like we were going to get beaten up.
Mic: And that was 10 years ago?
JC: That was 10 years ago. And then this time, there appears one guy who does it, but it sort of doesn't pay off. We were going to have people yell it out to us, and then someone does it in a bar, and Taika's character, who's the most foppish of them all, smashes him through a wall ... but didn't work out. The kid who we did convince to say it, there was an argument. When we were asking him, "Can you call us this?" he was like, "No man, I couldn't call you guys that!" It was pretty touching. People had changed a lot.
Mic: Things had progressed in a decade?
JC: In Wellington, at least.
Mic: If you had known before what you know now about making this movie, from writing to shooting to editing and distributing — would you still do it?
JC: Yes, definitely we would've done it. We might've taken longer on it.
What We Do in the Shadows will open, appropriately, on Friday the 13th in New York and Los Angeles, with further cities getting a release over the next few weeks.