If you’re a fan of Flight of the Conchords, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about the “hilarious” (quoted from nearly every review) vampire “mockumentary” What We Do in the Shadows. Written and produced by (and starring) Taika Waititi and Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement, the film premieres in NYC today — Friday the 13th — following successful runs overseas, and an equally successful Kickstarter campaign for US distribution.
If you haven’t heard about it, the prospect of a vampire comedy with no context likely raises some questions. For example, “How many times can we tell the same vampire jokes and still have them be funny?” Sure, it’s easy to get a film or TV show about vampires greenlit these days (see: True Blood, Twilight, Dark Shadows, etc.), but there’s only so much of that story that can be told.
That’s why Clement and Waititi’s idea of having a few vampires living together under one roof like a twisted sitcom family is so refreshing. What We Do in the Shadows is a tale about vampires, young and old, who, despite being technically “dead,” reveal that there’s more to their existence than just sucking blood and wreaking havoc.
“They don’t all live in castles by themselves. Some of them have social lives. They have parties and friends,” Clement says of the premise during a visit to NYC with Waititi to promote the local release. And the film speaks to that idea — the opening scene (below) is almost entirely focused on the day-to-day issues that roommates encounter. Sure, they live together out of convenience, but they also function as a de facto family. They give each other fashion advice, behave as unbiased mirrors for each other (see: vampires, invisiblity), support each other’s passions, and get excited to have nights out on the town together. (Even if the ultimate goal is to find a virgin’s blood to suck.)
“I think ‘monster’ implies something that doesn’t have any feelings, or doesn’t feel regret,” says Waititi. “What we’re trying to do is dispel the idea that these guys are monsters. There’s still a little smidge of humanity in them.” Despite the fact that the film constantly reminds viewers of its subjects’ vampiric nature, it does also tell that story about humanized monsters who suffer heartbreak and challenges much like the rest of us. At one point, Waititi’s Viago even says something along the lines of, “Sure, my heart may be dead, but I think I still feel things.”
The concept for the story originally developed in 2005, leading to a short film, but both parties found themselves too busy with other projects and work to actually make anything happen with the full-length until 2012. That was the first time they had a few months to really sit down and put a script together. However, that seven-year gap actually wound up benefiting the story and overall feel of the film.
“Back in 2005, ‘vampire’ wasn’t a popular genre,” says Waititi. “Not many people were doing it and it was still considered kind of tacky. I think that’s what appealed to me — it seemed like such a dated thing that it would be funny to modernize. The idea fit quite well with vampires who are out of date and out of touch.” And with the success of franchises like Twilight and True Blood now on the wane, the timing for the parody couldn’t really be better.
Once they got down to business, the crew shot more than 130 hours of footage, which was then edited for 14 months before the film was complete. Clement and Waititi took turns editing, along with a few other editors, all of whom possessed different expertise — if one person was good with concision, another was good with music, and so on.
The final product: a highly improvised film loosely based on a script about five hilarious characters who each possess a different quirk. There’s Petyr, the 8,000-year-old vampire who lives in the basement; Nick, the 20-something hipster-esque new convert who struggles to keep his identity a secret; Deacon, the established “bad boy” of the house, also relatively young; Viago, the adorably sweet and charming, slightly neurotic, 379-year-old caretaker of the other flatmates (played by Waititi); and Vladislav, the second oldest, manly man of the bunch (played by Clement). “Now that we’re older, we’re a bit more tired, a bit more over it,” says Waititi of the time it took to bring the film to reality. “Which is perfect for those characters. It’s like we’ve seen it all over the course of ten years.”
“I think another advantage of us being a little bit older when we actually made the film was that it wound up a little bit sadder than it would have been initially,” adds Clement. And a few things contribute to that sad humor: There’s the dark subject matter of death that hangs over the storyline throughout, but there are also the non-actors who were cast in the film to play mostly small, but pivotal roles. They brought a natural hilarity that didn’t feel forced.
“They’re often the best, because they’re playing themselves,” explains Clement. “Both of the cops were non-actors. The male cop is an actor now — the other cop is a kindergarten teacher. She actually teaches Bret’s kids [Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie]. Stu [Rutherford, who plays himself] had also never really acted, but we knew him as a performer. He’d done some stage acting, but he was also a natural on-screen actor.”
The duo also employed some stock imagery to help paint a better picture of the vampires’ past lives. Along with creating woodcut portraits of Viago and Vladislav (drawn by Clement and Waititi), they Photoshopped the characters into old photos from the 1930s, which feature prominently at the beginning of the story to help set the tone of the film. They also gathered inspiration for the visual storytelling from a song by Norma Tanega called “You’re Dead.”
Since we spoke, the Kickstarter campaign Clement started in an effort to help raise money for the film’s wider distribution in North America has hit it’s goal. With hours left to go, the campaign surpassed the $400,000 mark, which means that if you’re in the US, you’ll get to catch the film for yourself at a theater near you sometime in 2015. For fans in other countries, check in at the official website for more info on how you can see What We Do in the Shadows.
Header image by Shutterstock designer Jordan Roland, created with Abstract Watercolor Background by DrObjektiff