Q&A: Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi on What We Do in the Shadows

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We’re in the middle of a vampire renaissance, one which has taken us to Detroit, Tangier, Martha’s Vineyard, Iran and New Zealand. It’s been lush, it’s been romantic, it’s been visceral, it’s been violent and in the case of What We Do in the Shadows, it’s been very, very funny. 

There aren’t many truly great vampire comedies—maybe this it—but What We Do in the Shadows’ status as one is both quickly realized and hard to argue. Co-writers, co-directors and co-stars Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement have crafted something physically hilarious across many styles and subsets. It’s witty, it’s silly, it’s a great comedy, a great horror-comedy and a great mock doc all at once. The filmmakers and ensemble richly bring their characters to life in both performance and design, the latter of which is captured in terrific faux doc style. Shadows doesn’t simply use the mock doc for confessional quips, but nicely choreographed, immediate sequences capturing straight lightning.

Shock spoke with the filmmakers about the film, its aesthetics and a lot of what we didn’t end up seeing at all.

Shock Till You Drop:  I’d love to start with the chase sequence in the house. It’s very dynamic, with a funhouse atmosphere.

Taika Waititi: We actually ended up doing this really boring thing [laughs], which is we made a list of all the ideas we wanted to do in this chase scene. A lot of stuff didn’t make it into the sequence because it looked really cheap. With every shot or little gag, we’d just try—because we had a really small set and low budget, so we had to find sneaky little ways to transition and make things feel like one shot or longer pieces. So whip pans, I’d use that as a cutting point.

Jemaine Clement: So it looks fluid, but it’s actually just a shot here and then edited together.

Waititi:  A lot of the time, it actually looks quite good, like when he falls down the stairs. That’s inside the studio and then we’d do these quick little pans and stuff. Then, we’d cut to he’s running outside and gets bitten. We kind of didn’t storyboard at all, but we knew that we had to piece these little bits together somehow.

Clement: Then we added stuff for the reshoot, like the cat with my face.

Waititi: Originally it was going to be three cats with our faces, but I think we could only just get one cat [laughs].

Shock: Was there anything else in the film that you felt as dynamic about?

Waititi: I think all of those technical things were really fun, like the revolving room. We spent a lot of time shooting that. We had it built especially for this one tiny little piece of the film.

Clement: We had a few set pieces, but then as we went on, we ran out of time to do them as we imagined them. So, like the ball, we wanted that to be full of—

Waititi: Freaky, grotesque-

Clement: Vampires, and be really threatening.

Waititi: In the end, it just looks like people go, “big box of costumes, and put on whatever you can and we’ll just shoot this!” [laughs]

Clement: And so we had to go for a different way. We’ll play up how parochial it is, rather than how scary it is.

Shock: So you had a desire to make it physically scarier as a film? Would you like to make something even more “horror”?

Clement: One of the other film ideas we talked about at the same time we came up with this was more a monster, American Werewolf in London, being really scary with some jokes. We’ve become really silly with some scares.

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Shock: It seems like a more even balance of comedy and fright is something you could pull off.

Clement: Yeah, and now that we know a little bit about FX. Neither have us had worked with FX before.

Waititi:  We were really learning as we went.

Shock: How difficult was that?

Clement: Our Visual FX Supervisor, Stan Alley was really great. He would just say, “can’t do it,” or “easy.” That’s how we would choose what we did. The bat fight, originally we had written that as them running up the wall of buildings, like 30 feet high and throwing each other around. He’s like, “Can’t do it.” What if they turn into bats? “Easy.”

Shock: Were there similar conversations with the werewolves?

Clement: Now that I know how to do those FX, like whip pans, we could’ve had some really cool transformation stuff. We didn’t know until editing it. We ran out of time.

Shock:  It seems you’re very endeared to the characters and the archetypes they recall. What was your own affinity for vampire cinema or horror?

Waititi: I’m not a huge horror fan. I don’t know all the films, but definitely films like An American Werewolf in London. And The Thing is one of my favorite films.

Clement: The guy who did our werewolf prosthetics, he had just done a few werewolves before and we were using bits he had used before. If we had it made, we would’ve had the motors and things.

Waititi: He had one motor.

Clement: It was very useful! We could mix some things. We put digital eyes in our werewolves so their eyes moved, which I had seen in a making-of of Lord of the Rings. Sometimes we’ve talked about doing a werewolves one, but it would probably be more expensive, because werewolves are harder than vampires.  

Shock: It seems there was so much unused, do you want to continue on with these characters?

Clement: We’ve had maybe two ideas. One, of them going back to Europe and seeing how it’s changed. One, of following the werewolves and seeing their story. I was thinking that, you know in this movie Scars of Dracula which I’ve talked about a lot because it’s my first vampire movie, they resurrect Dracula. We’re talking about maybe doing that with Petyr. They have to go back to Europe and resurrect Petyr and then fall in trouble with the really serious vampires of Europe and it’s a whole different scene.

Shock: What did you learn from engaging with the mock doc?

Waititi: I didn’t anticipate how long it would take. We edited for 14 months. And then we played at Sundance, and then went and did some more editing, and did some more shooting. You could just keep going. It’s really fun, but to make it really satisfying, you have to create quite a deep world for the characters; give them backstory and history. So many little moments are only onscreen for a couple of seconds, but they all help. One example is, there’s a photo of Petyr on a boat journey to New Zealand, which is probably on screen for one second. And the set that we built, the deck of this boat and all the rope and stuff of this old sailing ship. It was this huge thing that was built for a photo that was gonna be in the opening credits for two seconds. Usually, you’d make the deck or the boat, you’d just shoot a whole scene there.

Clement: Imagine, before Photoshop, with Zelig. What it would have been like to doctor all those photos by hand. I think it’s good for subtlety. When you’re not subtle, it stands out. It’s good for capturing tiny reactions and things like that.

Shock: You had wanted a running gag with the opening of Vlad’s door. What else was there?

Waititi: We shot a bit that I really like, which is I open the door and Jemaine’s go these eye—instead of nipples, he’s got eyes on his chest.

Shock: Like in Gothic?

Clement: Exactly, but no one got that.

Waititi: I think it just weirded people out. We had this conversation about being concerned about Deacon, this whole conversation at the door and the whole time he’s got these eyes looking around. It’s really odd, but I really loved it.

What We Do in the Shadows is now playingFor those in NYC, Jemaine Clement will be at the Landmark Sunshine for Q&A’s after the 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. shows on Friday, February 20th and Saturday, February 21st. For more, see Shock’s Kalyn Corrigan review the film here

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Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

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