I had a chance to sit down with co-writer/director and star Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and actor Stu Rutherford to discuss their fantastic new vampiric-comedy What We Do in the Shadows – a mockumentary that centres on a handful of New Zealand flatmates who just so happen to be centuries-old vampires from different historical eras.
Clement spearheaded the film with longtime friend and collaborator, Taika Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark, Boy), delivering what is easily the best horror-comedy the vampire genre has seen in several years. Jemaine and Stu discuss several aspects of the film’s creation, offering hilarious insights into the development of the characters, concepts, and special effects that are seen in the film.
What We Do in the Shadows is currently playing in theatres nationwide. Feel free to check out my full review of the film here.
So this film is based on a short that you and Taika made back in 2005…
JEMAINE: Yeah, we always knew we wanted to make a feature, and we made a short film as like a test, and as a funding application. Usually when you go for funding with government bodies like in Canada and New Zealand, you write down your idea and you send it off, and then you get a response several months later, which always seems to be “no”. But this time we filmed it instead, and we actually got the funding, but we didn’t intend for anyone to see that short film – it was just a test for the idea in general. But then I did Flight of the Conchords with Bret McKenzie and we got an offer to do a special for HBO at that same time – it was like the same week that we finally got our film funding. So I went with the one that paid money, and this film was put off for a long time.
One thing I really love is how you’ve peppered in some references to classic vampire figures, both historical and fictional. You’ve got Vlad the Impaler who is an obvious inspiration for your character Vladislav the Poker, and then you’ve got a sort of Nosferatu figure with your flatmate Petyr. Were there any additional vampire figures that influenced the other characters?
JEMAINE: The way I thought of my character really was that there were a lot of torturers at the time; there’s Vlad the Impaler, Vladislav the Poker, and then there might be, you know, Thomas the Slicer or something. There might be lots of different ones who each had their thing. Mine was poking…Vlad the Impaler went a bit further with it. Taika’s character he sees as based on his mum, who’s not a vampire. And then when we filmed the first one, Jonny Brugh – who plays Deacon – he was always very tired because he’d been working all day doing a play, and he just has this way about him that’s quite commanding. We’d do an interview with him and he’d just sit like this (slumps in chair like a rockstar). So he’s kind of based on himself.
And that also reminds me of your character, Stu. This is your first feature film, and you’re essentially playing yourself.
STU: Yeah, it’s like the 2005 version of me, because at that moment in time…what I was doing then was my job in the film. And I was just trying to react in a way that was I guess kind of minimalistic. But at the same time knowing that there was a big bunch of unearthly people – a bunch of beings – and really trying to see the good side of them.
It seems as though in this film everybody just loves Stu; you’re everyone’s favourite human. What’s your secret?
STU: It’s just the way they wrote it. (Laughs) You can do that in a film, you can be like “everyone loves this character” and then all of a sudden, everyone does love that character.
JEMAINE: That’s true, but we do love Stu. When we describe Stu in the film, we’re just describing him, you know. One thing about Stu is when you try to think like, “Who’ll go to this weird movie? No one wants to come to this movie!”…Stu. Stu will come. Stu’s always like “Yep, I’ll give it a try.” No matter what you’re doing, Stu will come and Stu will give it a try. You know, a lot of people are reticent, like “aw that doesn’t really sound like me” but Stu has this attitude of “I’ll see what it’s like and then decide” and we wanted that quality in the character. It’s like “Ok, well, you’re a vampire, so I’m not going to make any judgment, I’m just going to see what vampires are like and then I’ll see if I want to hang out with you.”
Right, and I thought that was one of the funniest dynamics of the film, (to Stu) just the idea that these vampires are literally fighting their urge to eat you because they like hanging out with you, and you’re so casual and unfazed by the whole thing. It’s hilarious.
Jemaine, I want to ask you for a second about your experience directing, because this is the first time you’ve directed a feature film…
JEMAINE: Yeah, I mean I co-directed the short film, but also I’ve directed theatre stuff, and this is kind of like theatre in some ways. It has some advantages because you can do things again if they aren’t working – no audience or whatever, so you can fix things, take bits out that you don’t need, or change the focus.
STU: And the house was kind of set up like a stage, right, where you can just go and shoot wherever…
JEMAINE: Yeah, it was all lit so we could just wander anywhere. But in film, you’re also directing the audience, you’re showing them what to look at, you know? So it’s even more control over what you’re doing. It didn’t seem that different to me from other things. I guess there’s more to carry, but then Taika was there too, so I wasn’t too worried about it. You know, it’s the same in stage, if you’re by yourself and you fail, it’s terrible, and if you’re with a friend and you fail, it’s hilarious.
I’m curious to hear more about the improvisational approach that you and Taika used in making this film. From what I understand you had kind of a loose script coming into the shoot…
JEMAINE: No, it wasn’t loose, we did it completely, but we didn’t show people. You could read the script and think that’s going to be the movie, but what we wanted was a naturalism from people, we didn’t want them to memorize lines and then pretend that they were coming up with it like in an interview, for instance. Sometimes when people are pretending that they’re coming up with stuff, you’re just suspicious, you know.
How much control did you give the actors with their roles?
JEMAINE: A lot. Yeah. I mean it doesn’t really work when we write them lines, because sometimes I would try to get Cory Gonzalez, for instance – who plays Nick – sometimes I would tell him exactly what to say, and then he’d say it, and then it’s like “ugh, he sounds like me,” you know, it doesn’t sound quite like the character that he’s developed. And he’s very much like himself, he’s sarcastic and he’s really quick, Cory. He’s not as much of a dick, but he has some similarities, and I think it would have come out different if we would have written it like that.
With that in mind I want to talk about the special effects for a second, because I was really impressed with the way you integrated them so seamlessly. With such an improvisational approach to the material, how did you plan those out?
JEMAINE: Depends on the effect. Some of them were simple from a shooting point of view – say when someone jumps and turns into a bat, we just film them, they jump, and then film without them, and the supervisor does some kind of measurement that I don’t understand and some very bright people work for many many hours, and then we get it back and it’s like “whoa he’s turned into a bat!” For us it’s really easy, for them I’m not so sure. The “rolling room” effect, where the guys are running around the walls, we wanted the camera to look handheld still because it’s supposed to be just in the room, you know. So it’s a combination of the camera man getting in the room – and Taika did it himself sometimes – rolling the camera the other way to try and keep it straight, and then we’d stabilize the image later until it looks like a handheld camera moving around. But he’s actually going and moving around this rotating room and trying to move the camera…it’s pretty crazy. And being in this room, it’s like being in a slow tumble dryer, you have to keep walking on the surface which is on the bottom, but they can improvise, you know, they can say whatever they want while they’re doing it.
I thought you guys pulled it off quite well, it reminds me of Inception where they had a similar effect, but like you said it’s different having more of a handheld shooting-style – that definitely complicates things.
JEMAINE: Yeah, it’s quite an old effect, since Singing in the Rain as well, and we always wanted to have that. We used to do a few theatre shows where we’d do film tricks in the theatre, and we wanted to fit that effect but there’s no way you’d be able to fit it in, that thing’s huge.
STU: I kind of miss it now.
JEMAINE: It’s on this big wheel, and inside the wheel is our little hallway, and then there’s like 8 guys pulling it going “and stop stop stop, now the other way!”
STU: It was loads of fun at the wrap party as well, because everyone got to have a turn inside it. I think it was good because people realized how bruised you get.
JEMAINE: Yeah, you get bruised. Me and Taika were the first people to test it out when they got it going and they put the walls in. So it was like… we can at least tell the other actors that we’ve tried it and it’s ok. But we were covered in bruises. Everywhere.
I read an article where someone had been quoted saying this film would work as an amazing pilot for a series. I certainly think it would lend itself well to that genre, the film ended and it felt like it could have just kept going. Would you ever think about doing something that?
JEMAINE: Yeah, some TV people have started to talk to us about that, and we’re thinking about it.
Final question, and I’m sorry but I have to ask, I’m sure you get it all the time…
JEMAINE: Flight of the Conchords? What are we doing?
JEMAINE: Well, we still tour, it’s been a while since we were in Canada though, you know, a good few years since we were here. We’re talking about touring this year. And we are thinking about doing some recording…I’ve got to be so careful, because, you know, we’ve often said we’re thinking about doing a film, and we just haven’t done that, obviously. And then people get excited and we go “Oh yeah, no, I just just said we were thinking about it”.
Well, just know that your fans all remain hopeful, but we definitely understand that it needs to be the right time.
Thank you very much guys, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.