Audiences at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas are infamously enthusiastic, but the night Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement premiered the American TV adaptation of their hit 2014 film What We Do In The Shadows, the crowds were positively feverish.
Flicks was in attendance as Waititi and Clement (who will henceforth be referred to as Taika and Jemaine, reflecting our rights as New Zealanders) presented the show’s first episode and spoke about it afterwards.
With its healthy arts scene and bohemian vibe, Austin is in many ways the Wellington of America. Despite being in Texas. The main cinema there even shares its name with the New Zealand capital’s recently-shuttered signature picture house—the Paramount Theatre.
So it makes a certain amount of sense that when Taika and Jemaine come out at the Paramount to introduce What We Do In the Shadows, they are welcomed like hometown heroes. The repartee that follows makes everyone present wish they could watch this double act riff off each other for hours. The campaign starts here for Taika and Jemaine: Oscar co-hosts.
“So amped,” says Taika, as deadpan as a pan that is no longer alive. “I couldn’t be more excited showing this spin-off of a thing we did almost ten years ago.”
Jemaine: Five years ago, we made a film that blew the coffin lid off the vampire community in New Zealand. And a lot of people were shocked, they were saying ‘It’s too honest guys. It’s too real. We’re not ready.’
Taika: Nobody was doing this at the time. No one was brave enough to delve into the world. It’s the most bravest thing we’ve ever done. You try doing a reality-based show about murderers. Nobody’s doing that.
Jemaine: People get murdered all the time. So it was very brave of us.
Taika: You’re the bravest filmmaker I’ve ever met.
Jemaine: You’re the most honest that I’ve ever met.
Taika: And together, it’s that kind of teamwork that you need: bravery and honesty. When you’re documentarians, when you’re truth seekers.
It goes on like this for several minutes, the crowd absolutely lapping it up. Then a late-comer attempts to take his seat.
Taika: Okay, we’ll start again for him. We’re documentarians, we’re truth tellers. Years ago we decided to delve into a world that no one had delved into before.
Jemaine: It was so brave.
Taika then notices a small empty section in the theatre.
Taika: Hang on, nine empty seats! Nope. We’re not gonna do it. We’re not screening it. Cancel the whole thing, cancel it!
Jemaine: It’s nine people who are afraid of the truth.
Jemaine goes on to explain the nature of the American TV spin-off—which is set in Staten Island, New York, and features all new characters—all the while maintaining the idea that this mockumentary is, you know, an actual documentary.
Jemaine: It’s taken us five years to get back into the vampire world. We were very lucky to find a house in America—this country—of vampires. Very similar situation [to the movie] but slightly different. We’ve been following some American-based vampires out in Staten Island, which is also very brave. And you get to see the results.
Taika: You’re gonna see Staten Island in a way you’ve never… I’ve never been there so this a big deal for me as well. I’ve never seen Staten Island depicted in a way that looks exactly like Toronto [where the show was shot]. Weirdly, they look exactly the same.
After several more zingers and a round of compliments for each other’s sartorial selections, Taika and Jemaine get off stage and the episode plays out. It is extremely well-received.
Where the film spaced the dry humour throughout a laid back 86 minutes, the show crams arguably an equal amount of jokes into 22.
The central vampire trio of the series comprises Laszlo (Matt Berry from Toast of London and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), his partner Nadja (Natasia Demetriou, who popped up in the 2018 comedy The Festival alongside Jemaine Clement) and Nandor (Kayvan Novak, who is the voice of Brains in the Richard Taylor-produced Thunderbirds TV show).
Also featured prominently are Harvey Guillén (The Internship) as Guillermo, Nandor’s “familiar” (i.e. assistant) who wishes to be a vampire, and Mark Proksch (Better Call Saul, On Cinema At The Cinema) as the scene-stealing “energy vampire” Colin Robinson, the fourth flatmate.
All five actors came out on stage after the screening, along with writers/producers Paul Simms (the American TV comedy legend who also worked on Flight of the Conchords) and Stefani Robinson (who collaborated with Simms on the award-winning Atlanta). Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird), who plays a virgin LARPing enthusiast who gets mixed up with the vamps, was also present.
But once again, it was Taika and Jemaine’s show, with barely anyone else getting a word in.
On deciding to go back to this creative well:
Taika: We got tricked into doing this. We thought we were finished with this thing, then this up-and-coming producer called Scott Rudin called us up and said, ‘Hey you guys should do this thing’, and we… well, I, said yes, without asking you [Jemaine]. Then I tricked Jemaine into doing it and then [American cable networ] FX said yes and as soon as it was all set up, I went and did Thor, and left you to do it by yourself.
On why the TV version was set in America:
Jemaine: Because the people who are paying us to make it are from America. So we thought, wow, that would be a good place.
On how making this show in America has impacted the storytelling:
Jemaine: You just have to explain things a lot more.
On Colin Robinson, Energy Vampire, one of the funniest parts of the show:
Jemaine: That’s just a way I’ve heard people described. “She’s a real energy vampire, watch out for her”. Just taking it to the next step: what if that’s a supernatural feature? That type of person, and we don’t know but they’re amongst us, just sapping our energy. And the energy that you lose, they gain it.
Mark Proksch [who plays Colin]: I know you look at this bald guy in a popped collar, and you think to yourself: oh there’s like a David Bowie type, a Trent Reznor type, but I’m actually pretty boring. [At this point, Taika is acting like Mark’s droning on is sapping his will to live]. So I drew on my own life. Also, I used to temp. For a long time. And we have a lot of really boring people in my office. This isn’t a hard role. I don’t know what to tell you.
Jemaine: He can do that for an hour. Mark has an amazing ability to improvise nonsense facts.
On what they instructed the cast to watch to prep for playing vampires:
Taika: I made you all watch Manchester By The Sea. Just to get into it. To get into that mindset.
On how different making the show was to making the film:
Jemaine: In the movie, we didn’t show anyone a script. This time we thought, it’s probably a good idea if we show people. Good lesson.
Taika: That’s a good lesson for you filmmakers, show your actors the script, don’t just keep it to yourself.
Jemaine: This one, we had money. But we also had bosses.
On why it’s set in Staten Island:
Jemaine: Travelling around, I’ve worked a little in Staten Island and there are lots of mansions, but also, if someone came to America, immigrated here two hundred years ago, they’d be around the area, and the thinking was that they kind of settled there. Also, we wanted to film it in New York. But we filmed it in Toronto.
As the Q&A wraps up, an attendee gets up with a query about what advice the pair would have for an aspiring filmmaker who’s starting a new project, just putting pen to paper:
Taika: Get a computer.
Jemaine: You can get intimidated trying to find the best thing. Maybe like start three documents, and so none of them intimidate you. Because you’re trying to make a perfect thing, and you think ‘This has gotta be everything, it’s gotta be good’. Try a few, start them all at once, and then one will motivate you to finish.
What We Do In the Shadows streams on NEON from 28 March.