Jemaine Clement rose to international acclaim with his work on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, which he co-created and co-starred in. Since that hit show, Clement has taken roles in many comedic films, both in New Zealand and America, including Gentlemen Broncos, Men in Black 3, and Dinner for Schmucks. He also lent his voice to the animated films Rio and Rio 2. Clement's newest work, What We Do in the Shadows, finds him on both sides of the camera, as he tackles a older, darker, and bloodier subject than what he’s pursued in the past: vampires.
The movie was co-directed and co-written by and co-stars Clement and fellow New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi. The duo play Vladislav (Clement) and Viago (Waititi), two of four vampiric flatmates who are, as Clement puts it, “forced together by circumstances and kept together by immortality.” However, the two did not attempt to re-create your standard vampire movie. What We Do in the Shadows employs a mockumentary aesthetic, complete with character interviews, archival material, and an ever-present sense of a film crew infiltrating the vampires’ immortal lives. Clement took no departure from his well-known straight-faced silliness as the “film crew” witnesses the comedic incongruities between the vampires and the contemporary society of Wellington, New Zealand, they find themselves living in.
FilmLinc spoke with Clement about the process of juxtaposing documentary conventions with supernatural characters for comedy, the modern popularity of vampires in film, and collaborating with Waititi. As seen in the film, vampires aren’t always as naturally suave as they may seem.
FilmLinc: To start things off, where did the inspiration for this vampire mockumentary come from?
Jemaine Clement: Well, I myself was obsessed with vampire movies as a kid. Maybe not obsessed, but I used to watch a lot of horror movies. Taika [Waititi] and I, we used to do live shows as a comedy duo and we decided we wanted to do film instead of theater, this was about nine or 10 years ago, and I was pushing for a character comedy with vampire characters. It was quite a different idea. It spanned hundreds of years and you’d keep seeing them over the years. He wanted to do a mockumentary. I suggested that this might be a good subject for a mockumentary because you don’t often see mockumentaries about things you can’t see in real life. Often mockumentaries are about real-life things, and we wanted to be a bit different because it’s been done so well with those subjects. We wanted to try something supernatural, people who you couldn’t follow in real life.
FL: The film has all different kinds of vampire tropes and uses different interpretations of how vampires have been portrayed in film in the past. How did you address the style of the film, taking into account the variety of vampires it has?
JC: We made a short in 2005, and with that we all basically dressed the same. We were just generic vampires. But since then we had so long to think about it, we added more details and realized that the characters mostly had similarities to other characters in movies, rather than folklore.
FL: A lot of the humor of the film comes from new twists on these tropes in one way or another. What was your approach to the comedy in the film, especially with this mockumentary form?
JC: There were different stages. In the script stage we put in a lot of references and things like that, but when we were filming it was more about the characters. You’re thinking about the characters as you write it too, but because we knew we were improvising a lot of it, you’re not quite sure how the characters are going to turn out. That’s one thing you give up a little when you let people improvise. We wrote a script, but all the actors are improvising. We didn’t show them the script. We just gave them a guideline and the idea was if the improv wasn’t working and we weren’t getting what we wanted, we could use the script. But, we barely ever used it.
FL: So you co-directed the film with Taika and co-starred with him as well. What was it like working together, both behind and in front of the camera? What was the process for the two of you?
JC: We would do theater shows together and we’d direct those together, so it was similar to that, but here it could be tricky when we were both in a big scene. The one thing in particular is when we’re both in it and we’re both overacting so horrendously. I think that’s because neither of us were watching it. Usually the other one can tell the person in the scene to tone it down. Often what you’re going for in a mockumentary is subtlety, even though it’s more fun to do the hammy acting. So it was only difficult when we were both in the scene, which actually doesn’t happen that often.
FL: What, in particular, were some of your influences from the comedy or vampire genres?
JC: It’s probably got bits from most vampire movies, things like Salem’s Lot, Nosferatu, and obviously Dracula. I feel like it’s all through it, but we’ve made it all ordinary. At the time when we thought of the film, it was back in 2004 or 2005, there were a lot of Christopher Guest films we were watching, as well as The Office, and there’s a New Zealand guy named John Clarke who made this mockumentary in the ’70s that I love about this farmer, called Fred Dagg. He made probably the first mockumentary that I saw and it’s very deadpan, talking about ridiculous things. It’s about farming, and it’s got this mixture of silliness and deadpan. I think one of my greatest influences would be him.
FL: Talking more about the documentary style of the movie, what was your approach to creating a movie that could be convincing as a doc? Using old photographs, pictures, interviews, etc….
JC: When we were writing it we were excited that we could put in these things, these archival references and photos and stuff, but we knew that we would probably make them up later. We’d improvise interviews, and then if anything struck us as being a good section, we’d see if we could make a good picture later, so all the references came when we were editing. A lot of those Taika and I made up ourselves whilst we sat next to the editor late at night.
FL: The film looks great from a production design standpoint. How closely did you work with the set designer? Were you particular with the space, as much of the film takes place within the characters’ house?
JC: We had a great set designer and costume designer. We didn’t have a big budget, but we let them do what they wanted to do within the budget and they were on a similar wavelength. The sets had to be a mixture of things. It’s a vampire movie, but it’s also set in Wellington, so it had to be a believable house you’d find there. The set is made so that it has no ceiling. You can’t see that, but there were no ceilings so we could put wires in there and fly around. We didn’t give them too many instructions and in general, as far as the look, that’s more what Taika was concerned with. I mostly would talk to the actors about what they would say. We would often split up where he would work on a technical level and I’d work with the actors, but we’d discuss it first. We tried to communicate what we both want to different people. I’d go talk to the actors immediately and Taika would talk to the camera, for instance.
FL: Some of the funniest moments in the film are when the characters tried to rise to the expectations humans have of them. One of them compares himself to the characters of Twilight as a way to seem sexy, for instance. With the current vampire craze going on in our world, how did that influence the film?
JC: In the script, it’s in there a little bit more. We’d have discussions about the popularity of vampires rising and falling throughout time. In the script they talk about Bram Stoker and how good that was for them, and then it went too far. They’re a lot more subtle here. There’s one point where a character starts to dislike being a vampire and we wanted to have him going past a movie theater as they were taking down the poster for Twilight. We didn’t time it right to film them taking it down. It seemed unfortunate, the timing, because it’s an idea that’s been with us for a long time. It was before any of the Twilight movies, when we started thinking about this. I don’t know how many there are, seven? It seemed like a lot of movies at the time… It makes you see where the trend is by watching what people’s reactions are. People thought it was an unusual idea when we first thought of it, and then after a while, they started to think of it as a “hot” idea, like very cool at the moment. Then by the time we were filming it, people would unanimously roll their eyes when we mentioned we were doing vampires. And now it’s fine again. It’s been long enough that people want to laugh about it.
FL: Biting right into somebody’s neck might be a little more awkward than it’s typically portrayed in movies.
JC: [Laughs] Yeah. There are things in the script that aren’t actually in the film, things like you can hypnotize someone, but they have to be willing to be hypnotized. They don’t do anything they don’t want to do. We’re trying to apply some real-world rules to this otherworldly film.
What We Do in the Shadows is the Opening Night film of the Film Society’s Scary Movies series, which runs today through November 6. Clement will be present for a post-screening Q&A.