Reality BitesReal-life nocturnal creatures, a fake documentary and 8,000-year-old jokes: the makers of the hilarious What We Do In The Shadows on what they did to make it
The two Transylvanian vampires, the 862-year-old Vladislav and Viago, just 379 years young, live in a suitably dark and damp flat. They share the run of a two-storey house with Deacon, a positively decrepit 8,000-year-old bloodsucker who calls the building’s basement home. Though they’ve been residents in the city fringe suburb for a hundred years or so, they haven’t been able to sink their teeth into emerging technologies and current social mores. We know this because a documentary film crew is recording Vladislav, Viago and Deacon’s every false step as they attempt to keep pace with life in the 21st century.
This is the premise behind What We Do In The Shadows, a co-production between Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, writer-director of Boy. The mockumentary marks the fruition of an idea 14 years in the making, sparked when the duo first performed as vampires on stage. The friends and collaborators met at Wellington’s Victoria University, and joined forces with future Conchords member Bret McKenzie and two others to create the comedy troupe So You’re A Man. Clement and Waititi later paired off to become The Humourbeasts. Since their scarfie beginnings, all three comedians have extended their résumés with international gigs, including Conchords for HBO (all three; Waititi directed and wrote), a guest spot on The Simpsons (Clement and McKenzie), Oscar-winning songs for The Muppets (McKenzie) and a supporting spot in Green Lantern (Waititi). What We Do In The Shadows is a creative enterprise that’s much closer to home, untouched by Hollywood’s cookie-cutter moviemaking. Waititi goes as far to say that this film couldn’t have been produced outside of New Zealand.
“Jemaine and I work a lot overseas and we’ve always saved money. We put some of our savings into the making and distribution of the film,” he says. “Having done stuff in the States and doing advertising and things like that allows me to work on other projects that I can self-finance, and that’s cool because in the old days you were trying to convince people like Creative New Zealand to give you money. It’s a lot easier just to pay for it yourself.”
After sidestepping government agencies, the duo gained powerful support from Peter Jackson, his Park Road Post production facility and the second unit that worked on The Hobbit. “I don’t know what the word is – not a parasite – but we were like a creature hanging off the back of The Hobbit,” says Clement. “We were like a dolphin following a ship.” He and Waititi found themselves with the tantalising prospect of bringing to life their undead dream with creative independence.
“We were in charge of everything, really,” Clement continues. “It was kind of weird in a way because I’ve never really worked on anything where there’s no absolute power above the creators of the project. That was liberating, but also worrying. Usually there’s somebody who’ll say, ‘Change this’, or you’ll have to have an argument at least to get your way. But because we put so much into this, there was no one to tell us we were doing anything wrong.”
There’s been a bloodlust for on-screen vampirism recently, be it the lovelorn saps of The Twilight Saga or True Blood’s more grown-up supernaturalism, and the suburban Kiwi shtick of What We Do In The Shadows is a highly original take on the subject. As well as the laughs, the film resonates at a deeper level. Vladislav, Viago, Deacon and the supporting cast of werewolves and zombies are unconventional personalities doing their best to fit in.
“My films are always about people who are trying to be cool or trying to play by the rules but aren’t able to,” says Waititi. “What struck me when we were shooting was the idea that these characters represent anyone who’s had trouble fitting in, especially into New Zealand society. Immigrants, homosexuals, goths: any subculture that has to compete with the predominantly macho barbecue culture that currently runs the country. These vampires represent anyone who’s living on the margins in Wellington.”
“Wellington is a good balance of being small but big enough that you can still blend in,” adds Clement. “There are people there who dress like… you know, you see people walking around wearing overcoats and top hats. We used some of them as extras.” For all the Wellington-centricity of What We Do In The Shadows, though – be it the real-life goth extras, the familiar lanes of its inner-city, the pubs and clubs Vladislav and Viago crawl in search of kicks and blood donors – Clement is at pains to point out that he and Waititi never saw the film as a parochial movie for a local audience. Indeed, the duo never doubted that its laughs would translate far beyond these shores.
“When we made Flight Of The Conchords, the question from New Zealanders was, ‘Don’t you have to be from here to get it?’” Clement recalls. “I remember a friend of mine, a NewZealander living in London, saying to me, ‘How do New Zealanders get Ali G? They don’t know what Staines is like!’ But you pick it up. Maybe there are more laughs if you’ve been there, but I don’t think it’s any different.”
What We Do In The Shadows has already picked up the Audience Award and Best Film at the Luna Plina Film Festival in Transylvania (Waititi and Clement were there to host a Q&A, in character, naturally). A worldwide release will see their brainchildren writ large on cinema screens far removed from the confines of the Aro Valley. Global ambitions for this self-funded, self-distributed project, the first on which they share writing, acting, producing and directing credit, have been realised.
After that, Waititi and Clement aren’t ruling out a new life for the flatmates in what could be the makings of a Kiwi-made comedy franchise. In fact, their recent visit to the home of vampiric folklore might just have presented them with the premise for a second chapter.“We’ve talked about all sorts of different kinds of sequels, actually,” says Clement. “When we were in Transylvania, people were suggesting a Transylvanian sequel where the vampires come back home. It’s not totally out of the question. The basic story – and it was one that we talked about for the first movie – is that they go back expecting one thing, but it’s actually changed a lot and come into the 21st century. We might not have seen the last of Vladislav and Viago.”