Vampires, Gangs, and Avian Puns with Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame) and Taika Waititi (director of Eagle vs Shark and Boy) have been friends since their college days. Despite initial reservations toward one another, the two became great friends through performing and continued together down the creative path. In 2005, they hatched the idea for a short about a group of vampires who share a house in Wellington, New Zealand. After filming the initial short, they spent the next eight years fleshing out the plot and the script in order to create the new and hilarious What We Do in the Shadows, slated for release this Friday in US theaters.

The film is truly unique – like a cross between the awkward, deflated characters from the Flight of the Conchords TV show and a Christopher Guest mockumentary – yet it addresses an age-old question: ‘What would you do if you could live forever?’ The answer to that question, as Clement and Waititi would have it, is ‘probably nothing much.’ What We Do in the Shadows is perhaps a more honest (though still comedic) look at what it would take to be a vampire in our modern world, from quarrels over dishes to finding ways to just kill time.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Clement and Waititi to chat about the movie. I entered the room to find Jemaine curled up under a blanket on the couch, with Taika sitting nearby.

Jemaine: I was pretending not to be sick for everyone else, but I’ve given up.

Taika: Don’t worry, man. You New Yorkers are a hardy bunch; you don’t catch stuff from New Zealanders. We come here and we instantly get sick.

You infect the entire nation. That’s the actual plan, right?

Taika: With a cold, a common cold.

Jemaine: It’s what brought America down.

Taika: Jemaine’s cold.

Jemaine: Those years of Russia trying, Afghanistan…

So you guys have been friends since college, right? Was What We Do in the Shadows something you guys have had in mind since you met?

Jemaine: We used to do shows back in University.

Taika: We used to pretend we were vampires, quite a lot, in theater shows and stuff. Just ‘cause we enjoyed playing good, melodramatic characters. And then years later – it wasn’t until 2005 – we thought maybe we’d just do a movie together.

Is that what appealed to you about vampires?

Taika: Yeah, well, like, just the, our friend Jon [Brugh], who plays Deacon, he’s really good at delivering all his lines as if he’s in a classic vampire movie.

Jemaine, you said elsewhere that when you were a kid you had a “gang” of friends that called itself “The Vampires”?

Jemaine: Yeah. Actually, that conversation came up last night, ‘cause we were at dinner with some New Zealand friends who live here. We were talking about our, like, different gangs, and they all had themes. So there was the…

Taika: Wildcats! And then another friend was in the “ATNC,” which is the “All-Terrain Ninja Commandos.”

All-terrain? They must have been invincible.

Taika: Yeah, no matter where you are, what battleground we meet on… I guess they probably decided it was “All-Terrain Commandos,” and then threw “Ninja” in.

Jemaine: So yeah, my group was “The Vampires.” It was a different school, though, but, when I was ten I remember we had this meeting, and my friend had a barn, and we met in the barn, and I remember saying, “Okay, when we go to our parents, tell them it’s a vampire club, not a vampire gang.” I was really worried that they were gonna be freaked out that we were in a “gang.” That was a pretty harmless gang. We’d run around with plastic, hinged vampire teeth.

Taika: [Eastern European Accent] “I vant to drink your blood!”

Jemaine: The other thing we did in that gang of vampires – and this is an exclusive – is we had those sticky toy spiders that would roll down glass and we would throw those up so they’d fall on kids’ heads. “Boom! A spider!” Sometimes it worked. And then you knew the vampires were out.

In the movie, there’s a kind of school-yard rivalry between the vampires and the werewolves.  When you guys wrote that into the script, did you kind of have all that in mind?

Jemaine: My gang days?

Yeah, because it’s kind of childish.

Taika: How’d you get out of the gang? ‘Cause once you’re in, you know, you’re in it for life, you know?

Jemaine: Some of the guys lost their fangs, so…

Taika:Right. “Nigel, where’s your fangs?” “I’ve lost them.” “Well now you’re not in the vampires.”

Jemaine: [laughs] So, right, I don’t think it actually had anything to do with it, but… You know, I used to have lots of nightmares about vampires as well as, you know, drawing them, and drawing demons and stuff… I remember this woman who came to the school, a school nurse, had seen my drawings and she bought me some marker pens and said “Will you draw me a drawing?” My drawing was like… a demon in an army uniform, with a whole lot of demons behind him, saying, “The army of demons will never die!” She was probably expecting me to draw a cat.

Taika: I used to do drawings for other kids a lot.

Jemaine: He used to draw Robocop.

Taika: I used to draw Robocop quite well.

Is that going to be your next collaboration: New Zealand Robocop?

Taika: [laughs] That sounds good. People often say, oh, “Will you do something like… xyz,” and we’re actually writing an anthology for the TV show, so new ideas like that…

Jemaine:Yeah, any idea –

Taika: It goes into the basket. Like, someone the other day said, “Would you do a silent film, like The Artist?” You know, oh, yeah, that could be an episode. Robocop in New Zealand… Robo Policeman?

Robot Officer.

Jemaine: [laughs] He doesn’t have a gun. That would be the main difference.

Taika: He just has a baton.

How long have you guys been working on it, writing it?

Taika: Very on and off for about six years.

Kind of like collecting scraps?

Jemaine: Yeah, like an occasional scene, or a plot idea.

Taika: And then when we got the money to make it, we stuck all those scraps together. We put some scenes in between to make them make a bit more sense.

You’ve said that you kind of developed around xenophobia as a starting point – is there a good deal of xenophobia in Wellington?

Jemaine: Yeah, because they’d been chased all across Europe, down through the whole world and landed in New Zealand. When we made the short and we walked outside dressed like that, we were shouted at, constantly.

Taika: When we made it, the first one, it was accidentally about that, a lot. We just put everyone abusing us as we walked out, what it was like being dressed like that, walking in town.

Jemaine: This time we had more realistic clothes. We did our own hair and makeup on the first one and we didn’t know what we were doing, so we probably just looked like transvestites. But it was fun. It was a very full-on experience.

I also read that you didn’t show the script to the cast and crew, to keep it fresh?

Jemaine: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we told the crew, because we had to, but we’d say things like, “Don’t tell the actors what we’re going to do,” and then, I remember our wardrobe person going up to someone who was playing a vampire killer. We hadn’t told him he was going to be a vampire killer, he just thought he was a guy in a bar. She told him, like, “Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look!” as she put this belt with crucifixes, and wooden stakes and stuff around him. So, it’s hard to keep secrets. Some people are better at it than others.

One of the other things in the movie that I liked was that every vampire sort of represented a different vampire archetype. You had a Nosferatu, and a medieval devil-beast vampire, a Victorian sort of vampire, all the way through to like… a millennial vampire.

Jemaine:Right, yeah.

Taika: Right, Nick [the millennial vampire] was more of a show-off than, like, keeping it a secret, and thinking it’s an exclusive thing. It’s just like, what it’s like to be a vampire in the selfie generation.

Jemaine: We did have a through line of Nick turning a bunch of people in town into vampires. We edited that out, but that was part of the problem – there were more and more vampires that just turn up at the house as we socially bring them over.

And you also had that modern sort of, concern for pressing social issues. One of the characters, Jackie, had a bit about how there are no female vampires in the community and it’s all sort of homoerotic.

Taika: [laughs] That actually came from a conversation we had with a friend. We showed her some scenes –

Jemaine: It was Kristen Schaal, actually, and she just –

Taika: She just sort of went, this is just… typical… guys hanging out together.

Jemaine: Another friend had just come from working on The Hobbit, again, where it’s all men, you know, and then we said, oh, well have a look at what we’re doing. Then we added that. But because we used those archetypes, there are not many archetypes of the female vampire. You know, and they’re usually, like, you know, the ones that are just sexy without any character.

Taika: And, you know, in those Dracula movies, sometimes you’ll have the succubae, but they don’t have any personality at all. That movie Van Helsing is full of them, you know, these beautiful things that turn up and then do nothing.

Switching topics real quick, Flight of the Conchords is coming back for another tour. I feel like every article I read about that said you were “taking flight again,” or some other avian pun.

Jemaine: We’re used to it. “Conchords grounded,” “Taking flight again,” “Crash and burn,” “Soaring.”

[laughs] I’ll avoid the flight puns.

Vampires, Gangs, and Avian Puns with Jemaine Clement […]