The newest vampire movie to take film festivals by storm, “What We Do in the Shadows,” is the work of two New Zealanders: actor Jemaine Clement (“Flight of the Conchords”) and actor/director Taika Waititi (“Boy”). Together they wrote, directed and star in a movie that was made on a small budget — “a very short shoestring; I mean, really short,” Clement tells The Japan Times. “But we’re used to not having a big budget, it’s OK — we can deal with it. That’s part of what’s so great about being an indie filmmaker.”
Clement and Waititi met while they were students at Victoria University of Wellington, and went on to form the legendary comedy troupe the Humourbeasts. According to Clement, he and Waititi share a common love for the wacky and supernatural, and both of them “love monsters.” (Clement played Boris the Animal in “Men in Black 3.”)
“We’re always looking for things that will take us out of the ordinary, or make life a bit more outrageous than it is.”
Clement says that his earliest encounter with vampires was watching “Scars of Dracula” on late-night New Zealand TV when he was a 5-year-old.
“I woke up, wandered into the living room and saw this really fascinating movie on TV. I couldn’t quite tell what was going on but I did know that it was cool — and I was hooked.”
“What We Do in the Shadows,” a homey, hilarious mockumentary that depicts the everyday lives of vampire flatmates, shows how far the vampire genre has evolved since the days when Clement was glued to his parents’ TV.
“The vampire genre is now very diverse,” he says. “Before, it was a monoculture, I think. You know, there was only one type of vampire: He had the cape, the fangs and the heavy make-up. Vampires of old were designed to scare, and the more the audience screamed, the better. But now, vampires have a lot more on their agenda than just wandering through graveyards and biting the necks of beautiful women. They’ve got to live and work and be a part of society. And maybe go on Facebook.”
That’s certainly true of “What We Do.” Vampires Viago (played by Waititi), Vladislav (Clement) and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) hold meetings to discuss the rent and chores, and they worry about what to wear to go clubbing. They also have a centuries-old feud going on with a pack of werewolves, who are nasty, snarky and perfectly polite in a British, public school kind of way.
The film is set in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital — the home turf of Clement and Waititi — which is “a nondescript, peaceful and peace-loving place,” according to Clement. It’s definitely not famed for hosting hordes of blood-sucking undead.
“When we were writing the script, we imagined that vampires were chased all over the world and finally wound up in Wellington, which is really the very far end of the globe,” says Clement. “Like seeking political asylum, in a way.”
According to Clement, New Zealand is actually well suited to vampires.
“It’s not like in sunny Aussie where the sunlight can do catastrophic harm. Our country is full of rain and it’s cloudy and gloomy a whole lot of the time — the perfect climate for vampires.” In the winter, he says, the country can feel like northern Alaska. “Interestingly, a brilliant vampire movie is set in Alaska: ’30 Days of Night.’ One of our cast members, Ben Fresham (who portrays 8,000-year-old vampire Petyr), appears in it.”
Clement’s favorite film in the genre is “Let the Right One In” (2008), a Swedish vampire-horror later remade by Hollywood as “Let Me In” (2010).
“I think that ‘Let the Right One In’ really changed the vampiric landscape. That was a film that offered a window into how vampires lived and what they did to eat and what their living arrangements were like. Of course, there was ‘Interview with the Vampire’ before that, which is a classic now, but it is too aesthetic, and not mundane enough.”
Clement and Waititi’s movie has “plenty of the mundane stuff,” which is what makes it fun. There’s also a spontaneous, patched-together quality to the whole thing that the film doesn’t try to hide.
“We kept rewriting and revising as we went along,” says Clement. “And we didn’t let the other actors see the entire script. Each day, we would explain the scenes we were doing and give everyone their lines, but that was it. We wanted this to look like a real documentary so the visuals are rough and raw and the lines don’t seem rehearsed. It’s amazing how much work goes into making a fictional movie look like a documentary.”
Clement added that, in that sense, working in New Zealand was a huge point in their favor.
“This is where everyone comes to make fictional movies so there’s no lack of backdrops. I mean, everyone’s coming here, presenting New Zealand as an enchanted or magical place so we thought that, as Kiwis, we had better stay put. Like Peter Jackson. In our movie, the scene where the vampires square off with the werewolves — that hill was the same as the one in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.’ If I were a vampire, I wouldn’t mind living here. Rents are cheaper than in Europe, anyway.”