In the Shadows with Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s new comedy is not the first-ever funny movie about vampires, but it clearly is the best such film ever to present itself as a documentary portrait of immortal maladjusted parasites sharing a house in Wellington, New Zealand.

A sort of unreal reality show, and a deadpan sendup of the undead, What We Do in the Shadows was co-written and co-directed by the duo, who, along with several of Clement’s fellow Flight of the Conchords alumni, also co-star. The other day, they called to chat about it.

Where did What We Do in the Shadows come from? 

Jemaine Clement: We used to do a comedy duo, and in one of the sketches I was playing a vampire comedian. Taika would also be a vampire, in the audience, and he always heckled me. We’d wind up having this big conversation, like about gigs he’d been to of mine over hundreds of years. So there was that. A little while later we talked about making a movie. We had a few ideas. I said: What about those vampire characters? And Taika had an idea to make a documentary about something you couldn’t really document. So we put these together. All of this was about 10 years ago. Then we both got really busy, but it stuck around. I never really lost enthusiasm for the idea.

Taika Waititi: The characters came later. It was more about the world of vampires, and asking them questions. Hours and hours of questions. Interviewing them about their lives, and things like, “What happens to your clothes when you turn into a bat?”

You’re both in it, you both wrote it, and you both directed it. How did that work? 

TW: With the writing, often we wouldn’t be in the same town. We’d email. With the directing, sometimes Jemaine would communicate with the actors and I would take care of the crew stuff. Sometimes we’d also split into two different units as well.

JC: There were two of us, so that helped. Most times we agreed.

TW: We learned a lot about vampires. We already knew about movie-lore vampires, but we learned the actual folklore, which is quite different.

JC: We also allowed ourselves to slightly make our own rules. Like that the werewolves could become werewolves from getting angry. That’s more an Incredible Hulk thing than a werewolf thing.

TW: They’re like a Christian men’s group trying to be on their best behavior.

How did you achieve what seems like an almost perfect balance of the well planned and the spontaneous?

TW: We had a script, it was totally structured, but we let the actors choose their own way. They’re writers too, so they’re used to it.

JC: We made a bunch of reference material and gave that to wardrobe and makeup department. It was about getting the right shade of dead. For the clothes they found all these old patterns from the 17th and 18th centuries and made things from scratch. They went way too far with that. I would’ve just went to a costume shop. There’s a version in 2005 that we just filmed ourselves. You can tell the difference. We did our own makeup. This time the interior of the house is all a set — we had a guy who’d done a lot of Peter Jackson’s films, and we let him do his thing. In the short film we had like two effects, and neither of them are very believable.

And how have you been received by the vampire community? Or at least the vampire-movie community?

TW: We went to the Transylvanian Horror Festival, which is quite small, but I’ve never seen such an enthusiastic crowd.

JC: We’ve played in a lot of other countries, and it’s done well everywhere. It’s always been an independent release. It may even be the top comedy in New Zealand, but that may not mean much.