WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS – interview with Taika Waititi

by GREG KING

“I think people are desperate for something a little smarter than Twilight,” says writer/director Taika Waititi about his new film, the clever mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows.

Vampires have always held some sort of fascination for writers and filmmakers, and this new comedy from New Zealand of all places skewers many of the familiar tropes and stereotypes of the genre. What We Do In The Shadows is the brainchild of writer/director Taika Waititi (the superb coming of age tale Boy, Eagle Vs Shark, etc) and Jemaine Clement, one of the creators of cult favourite musical comedy duo The Flight Of The Conchords. The film is an offbeat, faux, fly-on-the-wall style documentary that looks at three centuries old socially awkward vampires sharing a house in Wellington. It sounds like the premise for a quirky tv sitcom but the novelty pays off.

Clement and Waititi wanted to make a vampire film, although they didn’t have any clear idea of what they were trying to achieve, so they just decided to start writing.

“We didn’t quite know what we wanted to do,” elaborates Waititi, who was recently in Australia to promote the film, “but we were also big fans of vampire films growing up. Eventually we came up with the idea of doing it as a mockumentary. The idea was that a camera crew had been invited to follow these guys around and learn more about their community in Wellington. It just sort of started from there really. And we really liked films like Spinal Tap, and those Christopher Guest mockumentaries. I also really like The Office. So there are lots of references to them. It was good to combine the two, and try to make something that was realistic and actually like a proper documentary and that was also very funny and at times a tiny, tiny, tiny bit scary.

“I think that the found footage thing is dead,” he continues. “I think that whole genre has been a bit tarnished by the fact that they just so super violent and there are so many of them at the moment as well. People might think that we are trying to do something like the film Paranormal Activity and those sorts of films, and we didn’t want it to be like a spoof of those things, like Scary Movie or any of those films. So we decided to stay right away from that.”

Waititi jokingly says that he and Clement did about fifteen minutes of research into vampire lore and mythology on Google, and felt that was enough preparation for the film. They also watched films like The Lost Boys and Interview With The Vampire. They also read the back cover of Dracula. “So we were pretty equipped,” he adds with a laugh. “With all that knowledge in hand we set about our task of shooting the film. Now, here in New Zealand, we are the foremost experts on vampirism.”

The main characters here are Viago (played by Waititi himself), a 379 year old vampire; Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) the oversexed bad boy of the house, and Vlad (Clement), who is a vain and narcissistic type who has left his days as a ruthless impaler behind. There’s also the Nosferatu-like elderly vampire Petyr (Ben Fransham) who lives in the basement. As well as dealing with the usual issues and tensions facing flat mates the world over – arguing over the mundane daily chores, going clubbing, having friends over for dinner, etc – the housemates also have to face the usual obstacles of the undead – avoiding sunlight and leaving the curtains closed during the daylight hours, the need for fresh blood, werewolves and vampire hunters, etc.

Waititi drew upon some of his own personal experiences of living in shared houses for some of the characters and weird experiences. “At one point I lived in a house with 16 other people,” Waititi says, “and my rent was something like about $22 a week – it was a big warehouse. And when you live with that many people there are always interesting characters coming in and out of your life, and weird experiences, and filth. And my character, who is obsessed with the cleaning roster, that was lifted straight out of a flat I lived in in the 90s.”

What We Do In The Shadows is a extension of short film the pair originally made in 2005 as a way of testing out the characters and doing interviews, and also to see if it was an idea that could sustain an hour and a half. They shot it over a weekend with a bunch of friends. One of the friends was Waititi’s flatmate at that time, Stuart Rutherford, a computer programmer, who found his character being worked into the final draft of the script. “We just loved having someone supernormal around these larger than life characters,” Waititi adds, “and so we worked him into the script for this feature. He’s become quite a big part of the film.”

Waititi has plenty of experience behind the camera as he directed both the offbeat Eagle Vs Shark, and the charming and endearing coming of age tale Boy. Boy came about because he just wanted to tell a cool story that was set in the 80s. “That was when I grew up,” he explains the genesis of that little film. “And I was watching these kids grow up around me in the 200s, and I thought that what we had when we were growing up back then was pretty special. I thought that someone should do a homage to that lifestyle of growing up in the country.”

When asked about how the on set collaboration between himself and Clement worked, Waititi said that he would primarily work with the crew on the technical stuff, while Jemaine would work with the actors. “I’ve obviously got more experience as a director, just through my stuff,” he elaborates, “but we’ve obviously both been on sets of various things. He knows exactly what’s going on, and knows what he wants. We didn’t give the actors a script, and he would often just describe what was going on in the scene and if there were any particular jokes we wanted he’d say can you do this and work in this joke. So it was quite good working that way.”

They shot for five weeks, with some shooting on the streets of Wellington, and eventually shot about 130 hours of material. The exterior of the house was actually a big scary house in Wellington where Peter Jackson has his offices for his production company, but the interior was built in a studio. And they also had a really great crew who had lots of experience working on The Hobbitt and Jackson’s epic movies. They then spent about 14 months editing the footage, trawling through all the raw footage to get all the best bits and try to reconstruct the original story.

That largely improvised method of working must require a great leap of faith and understanding between Waititi and the actors. “Yes,” he admits, “but we only hired people that we knew, who were funny, and that we loved working with before, that we respected as comedians and actors. We were pretty confident that once they turned up we would be able to get good stuff.”

What We Do In The Shadows has extensively travelled the festival circuit, and the response to the mockumentary has been overwhelmingly positive. “I think people just love the idea of how absurd this all is,” Waititi says. “But there’s also those quite cool narrative arcs and character arcs within the film. It’s not like it’s just a couple of guys dressing up as vampires and goofing around. We tried to make it interesting and smart as well. And I think people appreciate that especially when faced with the alternative, which is something like Twilight. I think people are desperate for something a little smarter than that.”

What We Do In The Shadows is currently on release in cinemas.

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