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Creating What We Do in the Shadows Is ‘All Panic and Desperation’

Photo: Chantal Anderson

For five seasons, What We Do in the Shadows has luxuriated in the freedom of vampiric immortality and the comedic possibilities endless life provides. How do you pass the time when you might live forever and when you’re so old that contemporaneous culture feels inexplicable and foreign? The series took the premise of the same-named 2014 film from co-writers and directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi and adapted it with increasing vulgarity and silliness, building both a dense, lore-filled world and a series of recognizable relationships between vampire Nandor (Kayvan Novak), his familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), married couple Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and Laszlo (Matt Berry), and energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). Like all roommates, they bicker and banter; like some roommates, they’re constantly sleeping with each other; and like probably not that many roommates, their house is often filled with dead bodies, fantastical artifacts, and odd supernatural beings.

The series’ sitcom structure means that while each season has various long-running arcs, not much permanently changes. The core story of the latest group of ten episodes centered on Guillermo, whose status as Nandor’s familiar was predicated on the promise that Nandor would one day turn him into a vampire, too. After years of Nandor’s refusal, Guillermo asks a former friend to bite him instead, but his transformation goes wrong. Guillermo’s act of infidelity spreads outward throughout the group, leading to a web of lies, murderous vows of revenge, and the accidental in-series death of Patton Oswalt. But the finale, “Exit Interview,” ends with a bit of a reset, as Nandor figures out a way to turn Guillermo back into a human — without a kiss, to the disappointment of some shipping fans in the Vulture Festival audience.

In a conversation at Vulture Festival, What We Do in the Shadows executive producer–showrunner Paul Simms, executive producer Sam Johnson, supervising producer Sarah Naftalis, and executive story editors Jeremy Levick and Rajat Suresh spoke about breaking down this season’s episodes, writing for this cast’s unique line deliveries, and why the Nandor and Guillermo pairing is a love story, although one with a problematic power structure.

How does the writers’ room start each season? There are long-running story lines throughout the season, there are episodic high jinks that happen; how do you guys start that work?

Paul Simms: We start every season just by spitting out every idea we can think of and putting it on a three-by-five index card and taping it to a wall. And if there’s any point I want to make tonight, because I hate it when people talk about comedy and that kind of thing but here we are — don’t use whiteboards. Use index cards. That’s it. That’s my big point.


Simms: Because then you can take it and move that there, you can move that there, etc., and then when the season ends, the ones that you didn’t use for stories, you put them in a little cardboard box, and then the next season when you’re like, “Oh God, I can’t think of anything,” you go through the old box.

I love that. Okay. So then what are some of the things on the index cards? 

Simms: Smart ideas and stupid ideas. Everything gets written down and put up there. There was one card that was up there for four writing seasons that I wrote down because I thought it was the stupidest idea ever, that just says, “Nandor goes to outer space.” And it was up there as a joke, and then if you saw last season, we actually did “Nandor goes to outer space.” Sam, what else did we put on the cards?

Sam Johnson: I think there was “cool guy.” “Vampires meet cool guy.” We haven’t done that one yet.

Simms: Stay tuned.

Sarah Naftalis: “Vampire vapes blood.” That made it into the show.

Simms: “Vampire vapes blood” sat around for a while before it actually got done, that’s right!

Each season operates a little bit as a reset by the end, right? So I’m curious how you guys find that line of how much permanent change you incorporate into each season.

Simms: Well, because they’re vampires and they’ve been alive forever and they never really change, there’s not too much permanent change or growth, except for maybe Guillermo. But what happens is we write the end of the season with some kind of cliffhanger and we have no idea how we’re going to get out of it, but it’s the end and we’ll deal with that next year. So a big part of starting every writers’ season is “How we get out of this hole we dug ourselves into and what do we do about that?”

Compared to some of the many, many impressive shows you all have worked on, I feel What We Do in the Shadows has a lot more freedom because they’re vampires. There’s supernatural stuff. You can do odd things, bizarre things. I would assume it’s easier to write that, but I’m wondering if that assumption is wrong, if the freedom is actually difficult.

Simms: The freedom is difficult, but there’s built-in rules, which we argue about. “What can vampires do versus what can’t they do? Do they have to invite them into a house? Can you see their breath when it’s cold outside because they’re already dead? Can you see their reflections in a bus window or do we need to pay thousands of dollars to remove that digitally in post?” But we spend a lot of time arguing about the rules, which of course are all made up anyway, but that gives us some sort of structure where it’s not just absolute chaos and anything can happen.

There are so many lines and phrases from this series that have taken on lives of their own, like Nandor’s “fucking guy” or Laszlo’s “bat!” or Colin’s “Guess what?” or “New York City,” which I won’t even attempt to do. Do you write with an anticipation of how actors will say certain lines, or are those the things that are happening on set and that’s what’s helpful about you guys being there?

Simms: That’s a combination. Nandor saying “fucking guy” was written, but the way he said it was so funny we started doing it more. Anything Matt Berry says in that voice is funny, so “New York Cit-ay …” was funny, of course. “Bat!” was scripted, but he’s made a lot of that and that was fun. And Baby Colin saying “Guess what?” was based on my own kids and the fact that children are — we love them, but they can be energy vampires in their own way.

One of the season standouts is “Hybrid Creatures,” in which mad-scientist Laszlo has created a series of animal-Guillermo hybrids. Prosthetics designer Paul Jones said elsewhere that the frog hybrid was scripted, but the other animals were not. Can you talk about that process? 

Simms: Paul Jones was great. Any time you see a monster or a creature on there, he’s done the prosthetics. I said The Island of Dr. Moreau movie — not the original good one, the remake one with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando — that’s our example. I said to him, “We want miniature Guillermos,” and he came up with all these ideas of a pig one, a dog one, and that particular kind of dog he thought would have a good Guillermo look. I think the rat one was also scripted, the weird little rat.

Jeremy Levick: We also scripted a bunch of options.

Simms: I sent them off with very little guidance. I think there were like, 12 different hybrids, and at some point I may have been like, “Guys, let’s narrow this down.” That’s when we said to Paul Jones, “What’s doable and what will look best?” The other funny thing that really made us feel like we were in show business was someone was walking down a hallway between takes and saw the tiny little lamb smoking a cigarette, which just felt like an old-timey movie.

What were some of the other hybrid ideas?

Levick: There was one idea that was a mouse that looked like Guillermo, but the mouse had curly hair. The idea was that it came from one of Guillermo’s pubes.

Jeremey and Rajat, “Hybrid Creatures” is your first writing credit for the series. How did this become your guys’ first episode?

Suresh: So basically those index cards were on the wall and Paul pointed to a column and was like, “That is going to be your episode.”

Levick: That is actually pretty much what happened. The index cards take shape over the course of the room, you combine stories together, and Paul pointed at that one and said, “You guys like fucked-up stuff; take that one.”

To go back to the box of ideas, the series has so much dense lore. Like, we’re talking about Laszlo’s cursed witch’s hat, the fact that witches use vampire semen for youth potions, Nadja appearing in all this art throughout the years, Colin being 100 years old before he resets — I’m wondering if there is a system for when you decide to bring those items back into the fold, or if it’s more organic.

Simms: No, it’s all panic and desperation. And even with most of those initial ideas, it wasn’t like, “We’ll start this and this will be part of the lore of the show!” It’s more like “Okay, we need something here, that would be funny.” And then when it works later it’ll be like, “Okay, that thing we did that was funny before, we can use that instead of thinking of something new!” No, like I said, there’s so much less forethought and planning that goes into it, but then when you do things that are funny, you naturally reach back to them, I guess.

Naftalis: We also try to resist reaching. Sometimes it’s the type of thing where we’re like, “Well, we could bring back Simon the Devious here, but maybe we rest him.”

Simms: That’s true, yes. Everyone’s like, “When’s Jackie Daytona coming back?” and we’re like, “It’s not. We’re not gonna beat that episode. You think you want it, and then as soon as he comes in, you’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, this wasn’t as good as the first time,’” so no.

Is Jackie Daytona the most requested?

Simms: I would say so, yeah, as far as “When is he coming back?” Definitely.

Johnson: There’s a lot about Guillermo and Nandor making out.

Should we talk about Nandor and Guillermo kissing? People want it, right?

Simms: Define “people.”

I think certain people want it, but we’ve asked you about this before and you gave this answer, which we’ll talk about: “Guillermo and Nandor is the greatest story in modern TV; it’s just different than the way some people want it to be.” And I ask this because in the last two episodes, the Derek/Nandor/Guillermo relationship is written as if this was a moment of infidelity, but it’s not sexual. How do you write that in a way that nods to those themes about it being a love story, but it’s not explicitly romantic?

Simms: I think all the other people on this panel have had an experience of having a boss that they worship and adore and love, and that’s what we’re exploring here. [Laughter.] No, there’s a very small subset of vocal people on Twitter who are like, “We want to see Nandor and Guillermo hook up!” and we’re like, their love is bigger and more profound than that. And also, do you really want to see that? The times we’ve talked about it and explored it, we’re like, “The power dynamic seems so problematic. That’s his boss!”

That dynamic is part of the end of the season: Nandor kills Derek, which reverts Guillermo back into being human. Was there ever really an ending explored where Guillermo would stay a vampire, or does that break what the show currently is?

Simms: Oh, yeah, we explored every, every possible ending, but the one we used was the best one. Guillermo has this thing he wanted for five years, he finally got a taste of it for two hours, and then realized that he didn’t want to actually kill people, that it was too painful for him, and he’s back into a human. That left us in a deep hole for what the next season is, which before the strike happened we spent three months figuring out, and actually it’s very fun and exciting and we’re gonna start shooting it in January.

Johnson: I will say, having written on Frasier, where there was always this long “will they or won’t they” between Niles and Daphne, I remember the show creators were always saying, “Well, if they get together, you’re killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. You should just tease that for as long as possible and when people are sick of it, keep teasing it some more.” And I think there’s some truth to that, that you take a certain amount of energy out if you get them together. It is kind of like, “What do you want the story to be and how does it make you feel?”

Simms: The biggest challenge of the upcoming season was, if Guillermo finally got what he wanted and realized that he didn’t really want it, what does he want now? It’s gonna be good.

the vulture spot

Another Vulture Festival Moment

While at Vulture Festival, the WWITS gang joined Jay Jurden in the video studio to talk about how much they love Jeremy and Rajat, and how Vulture was right about them all along.

What We Do in the Shadows Is ‘All Panic and Desperation’