ABOVE: (LEFT TO RIGHT): JEMAINE CLEMENT, JONATHAN BRUGH, TAIKA WAITITI, AND BEN FRANSHAM AS VLAD, DEACON, VIAGO, AND PETYR IN WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. PHOTO COURTESY OF UNISON FILMS.
What happens when three Eastern European vampires, each drawn from a separate classic film in the bloodsucker genre, share a house together in Wellington, New Zealand? According to old friends Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), who co-wrote, directed, and star in the mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, not a lot. Vladislav, Viago, and Deacon—characters inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview With the Vampire, and The Lost Boys, respectively—fight about doing the dishes, getting blood on the sofa, and what to wear out clubbing. “There’s a wealth of great comedy in observing the stuff other people find boring and milking it for all it’s worth,” explains Waititi. “It’s a mixture of appreciating the ridiculous and the tragic, and sort of squashing them together.”
Before making his first Academy Award-nominated short, Two Cars, One Night, in 2003, Waititi predominantly worked as a painter. Since then, the 39-year-old Wellington-native has written and directed two feature films (2007’s Eagle vs Shark and 2010’s Boy), and worked as a director on episodes of Flight of the Conchords, Super City, and The Imbetweeners.
EMMA BROWN: You first met Jemaine at University in New Zealand—do you remember your first impression of him? Did you become friends straight away?
TAIKA WAITITI: We actually didn’t like-slash-trust each other at first. We were in the library at Victoria University and instantly thought one another looked like a wanker. I was wearing a Rastafarian beanie and he was wearing a Samoan Tapa patterned shirt. He was looking at me, thinking “Look at that idiot, he’s not from Jamaica,” while I was looking at him, thinking “Look at this dick, trying to make some Samoan friends.” In the end though, we were both waiting to audition for a comedy theater show and both got in. I think we were naturally drawn to each other based on our sense of humor and inability to get the dance moves right in the opening number.
BROWN: I know that What We Do In the Shadows is based on a short from 2006, but how did you initially come up with Viago, Vlad, and Deacon? What came first: a particular character or a scenario?
WAITITI: We just fell into those characters. I went first, and I always wanted to see a kind of wimpy, camp vampire who was really anal and hung up on keeping his house clean. Jonny [Jonathan Brugh, who plays Deacon] went next, and because he was really sick that weekend, just lay about on the couch during his interview, which is how he became the lazy, rebellious vampire. Jemaine went last, and I guess because he thinks playing things dramatically is funny, went for the more archetypal vampire. Plus those were the only accents we could come up with.
BROWN: Was the film completely scripted, or were parts improvised? Did you and Jemaine write the script in the same room or did you work via email?
WAITITI: We completely scripted the film. It ended up being about 150 pages long, but in the end we wanted the performances to be more realistic so people could really fall into the “documentary.” So we didn’t show the actors any pages from the script unless absolutely necessary. We ended up shooting over 130 hours of footage—the number varies between 120 and 150 hours with every interview; I suspect it was 119. It was a very freeing process yet also quite burdensome in that we then had to edit all those hours of footage, which took 14 months. I don’t want to do that again. Ever.
BROWN: Do you remember your first interaction with vampire fiction? What was it?
WAITITI: I have early memories of finding Catherine Deneuve quite (ahem) hot when I saw The Hunger as a child. I think I was always obsessed with that film and Cat People—basically weird sexy horrors. Of course I saw Fright Night, Kiss of the Vampire, and some of the old Hammer classics, but I think the one really important vampire film for me growing up was The Lost Boys. I was obsessed with owning a trendy trench coat thing like the one Corey Haim wears in that film, but all I could get my hands on was a ladies one with giant shoulder pads. I ended up looking more like my mum than a funky kid who fights vampires.
BROWN: Who or what makes you laugh in your everyday life? Do you feel like your sense of humor has changed significantly over the years?
WAITITI: I laugh mostly at my daughter, in that “I’m laughing with you, but at you, but with you” kind of way. She’s a great comedian and has awesome timing. She’s only two so there’s still time for her to do something worthwhile like become a top model. I’m not sure my sense of humor has changed that much; it’s still that kind of sophisticated immaturity, or comedy of the mundane. It can be kind of boring growing up in small town New Zealand but if that’s where you come from then it informs your style a bit.
BROWN: You’re also a visual artist, and you’ve said in the past that making films felt like a tangent from painting. Do you still feel that way?
WAITITI: Yes and no. I feel I’ve managed to bring some of what I learned from painting to filmmaking—composition, light, wearing a beret. But it is still a bit of a tangent. I ended up making films because I felt I couldn’t reach a big enough audience with visual art. Plus I didn’t really have anything to say with it. I think that’s the problem with a lot of artists, musicians, and even filmmakers—they don’t really have anything to say. Maybe when I’m older I’ll go back to it, when I can use it to tell a story instead of just drawing naked people and sporting a twisty moustache.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS COMES OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13.