Back in 2014, Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and Flight Of The Conchords comedian Jemaine Clement wrote and starred in What We Do In The Shadows, an absolutely hilarious mockumentary about three vampire roommates living in modern times. It is undoubtedly one of the funniest movies of the last 20 years. When it first premiered, they were approached by various producers about bringing the story to television, which they politely refused.
"For a while after we did the film, we were just like, ugh," Waititi told Vulture. "Also, we didn’t want to be in it. It’s fun to play a vampire once or twice, but then having to play that character again and again in a TV version, I think would be too much for us. We decided to trick other actors into doing that."
So now, almost five years later, that is happening: the FX adaptation of the movie, which premieres tonight (March 27th) at 10 p.m., moves the story from New Zealand to Staten Island. It retains the same sensibility as the original, but also includes an all-new cast, including new vampire roommates (Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak and standout Natasia Demetriou), new forms of vampires (Mark Proksch plays the energy vampire Colin Robinson, Vanessa Bayer guest stars as an emotional vampire), up-and-coming star Beanie Feldstein, and the occasional cameo from the likes of Nick Kroll and other comedians.
After taking three flights from New Zealand to NYC, we spoke to Clement about the movie gaining a cult following, why it was set on Staten Island, the original concept for the films, whether we might see Clement or Waititi cameo in the shows, and what it was like living in the city while making Flight Of The Conchords.
So, I saw What We Do in the Shadows, the movie, back in 2014 when it came out. And basically all I've been doing ever since is recommending it to people. That's all you've been doing? [Laughs]
Literally, I don't have much to do in my life, so I spend a lot of time asking people, "Do you want to spend 87 minutes watching a perfect comedy? Then this is what you should do with your time." Oh, thank you, thank you.
I really do think it's one of the funniest movies of the last decade. So my first question is: why the heck did you wanna continue doing it, when it already was so perfect? You know what [Laughs], when we were approached about doing the show, we didn't know what kind of fan base it had really. It's only been in the last year that I've kind of realized how many people have seen it now. To us, it seemed like not that many people saw it, but it's spread a lot since then, especially being on Netflix, or Amazon, or whatever it's on. People found it later.
I'm certainly being facetious when I say "why would you do this?" Because, of course it makes total sense: the movie's central concept is elastic, and could be expanded and taken in so many different directions. But why did you decide to do a TV show, and not a sequel, or other movies, or anything like that? At the time, when I was called up about it, I wanted to write something, in particular. And this seemed ready to go, as in, we knew it could happen.
And so, I didn't know I would work on the whole first season. I thought I'd write the pilot, and then maybe hand it to someone else. But then it was too difficult to let it go, once it started. [Laughs]
Why did you decide to set the show on Staten Island of all places? It seemed like it should be in America. Just because it's, you know, an American TV show. And we had joked while we were filming [the movie] that you could do different houses in different places, like with the Housewives shows. [The Real Housewives has now had nine spin-offs in the last 15 years.] But we didn't really imagine we'd do the other ones. You know, you throw around a lot of ideas when you're coming up with things. You throw out a lot that you don't think you'll use.
But then we're called up about it, and it didn't seem crazy. I knew I didn't want to be in a show that I was writing at the same time, because I've done that with Flight of the Conchords, and it just meant no days off. At least this way, I get two days off a week, like a normal person. [Laughs]
So I knew I wouldn't be able to do it. I knew that Taika [Waititi] wouldn't be able to do it, because he was doing movies, so it would mean a new cast. Might as well have it all be new, start everything new.
Staten Island is, for a lot of people, the forgotten borough. New Yorkers don't necessarily travel there, out of their way, unless they have family or work obligations. So what did you know about Staten Island? Had you been there before? Yeah, I have worked there. In particular, I'd been working there a lot on a movie called Humor Me. We shot there a lot. So I saw a lot of old mansions that I could imagine vampires living in.
And because it's a little quieter than the rest of New York, I thought it might be a good place to hide. And also, as is mentioned in the pilot, those vampires may not have gotten very far after arriving to America in the 1800s. They might not've gone very far from there.
[As executive producer Phil Simms added, "We also found it funny the vampires were so lazy that Staten Island is where the boat dropped them off and they never ventured any further — and just assumed that Staten Island was the center of America."]
Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, Matt Berry as Laszlo (Byron Cohen/FX)
Do you view this is as an extension of the same universe as the film, or is it something entirely different? It's the same [universe]. I mean, in as far as you take that seriously. Yeah, sure. [Laughs]
Is there a chance that some of the other characters from the movie might appear at some point? It's possible. In this universe, it's certainly possible.
How much did you want to establish the rules of the movie over again, versus expanding it with new concepts? For example, I loved the additions like the energy vampire, and the emotional vampire. What was the genesis behind things like that? You know, that's a term I'd heard, an "energy vampire," for a certain kind of person who tires you out when you have a conversation with them. And it was just imagining the next step, that not only do they deplete your energy, but they absorb that energy, and they can store it. And that's the way they survive, rather than eating. And, emotional vampire, of course, was the next term like that.
A lot of filming the pilot informed the rest of the series. So as soon as I saw Colin Robinson [as the energy vampire], I was thinking there had to be an emotional vampire that he meets. It was one of the first things that I pitched after we put together a writer's room.
I've heard from other showrunners that the pilots are often filmed so ahead of the rest of the season, it's almost like proof of concept. So once you got into the writer's room, after the pilot, did anything change about the show? Or, did anything develop based on watching the pilot, watching how people became their characters and everything? Yeah, I think the actors developed and relaxed into their parts, watching a few in a row. But, for example, I knew there was gonna be a kind of love story [for Natasia Demetriou] with an ex-boyfriend from centuries ago. So we were able to watch that and see what we enjoyed in the relationship, and then take it that way. A pilot's good for that.
I hadn't thought of where all the storylines would go—you just start these problems for characters. And then, when you see the characters on film, it's easier to see what's interesting about those relationships and their problems, and how they might solve them, or they might get worse.
My understanding is that Beanie Feldstein, who is in the pilot as a small guest role, actually became a main character since then? Yeah, she's a main character in a couple of episodes. We wanted her in a lot more. [Laughs] But, that's another thing that didn't work out. We wanted her more, but she's becoming really successful.
She's blowing up right now with Booksmart and other things. Yes, it was really difficult to get her on. But when we did, she's always brilliant.
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (Russ Martin/FX)
You guys filmed most of the show in Toronto, but you were able to capture the feeling of a Staten Island city council meeting so well, I was convinced that you were actually there. We shot the first season in Toronto, I don't know where the next one will be, if there's another one, but the guidelines were, "What looks like New York that's in Toronto?" [Laughs]
The art department, and a lot of the cast, are from New York. So are the main two council members, they both live in New York. So little things like that, subtle accents and things, sometimes can show a place. We went to some New York council meetings, though.
Oh, what were those like? They're quite dull. With occasional passive-aggression. [Laughs]
Is there any specific key to keeping the comedy grounded with the mockumentary format? I guess subtlety. For this show, we try and do a range from very, very subtle to ridiculous and huge. I guess what we always tell actors is to keep it emotionally real, just as you would in a drama.
And, technically, we try not to break any rules—like, have cameras where they couldn't really be, and things like that. But, it strains credulity sometimes. [Laughs] The main things are the jokes, but we try hard to keep the rules of a crew that's following these people around.
My understanding is that the original idea for Shadows was an anthology series of mockumentaries. What was that about? The original idea was a film, but we made a short film a long time ago, 13 or 14 years ago, something like that. It was a half-hour thing which we just improvised with that group of friends. Basically, the same people who are in the movie.
We got a little bit of cash for it, but it wasn't quite enough, and we hadn't made a film before, so we weren't really sure if we should go into it. And then, all of a sudden, Taika got nominated for an Oscar for a short film [ Two Cars, One Night], and myself and Bret McKenzie were offered a comedy special. So, we both got busy. One week, well maybe a month before, we were both barely employed, and then almost immediately, things took off at the same time. So we put that on the back burner.
But we did pitch it to a New Zealand television station as an idea, later after that short film, saying, "We'll give you this and five more of these," which would make this a very similar idea to Documentary Now!, but they were impossible documentaries.
What were the other subjects besides vampires? There was one about an alien invasion of Earth, and the difficulties involved with that. There was an interview of a alien captain of a spaceship leading this invasion, and it's very frustrated.
Like bureaucracy and stuff? Yeah, that kind of thing, and also, communicating when you don't have the same language. This was a while ago, though, so it's hard to remember. But I do remember that being one of them.
While most of this was filmed in Toronto, you were living in the city and filming here for Flight Of The Conchords. So you've spent a good amount of time in the city over the last 20 years. What was the craziest or weirdest thing you've seen on the subway? Well, I don't know if it's crazy, but you do see some amazing dancing. Which, in New Zealand, it's not that expressive like that. You hardly see people dancing at a street fair. Sometimes. [Laughs] It's not as bad now, but it used to be. I was always really impressed by these guys spinning round the poles.
The Showtime dancers. Yeah, rhere's an incredible talent pool on the subway cars, and in the stations. That's what amazed me and impressed me when I first came here.
Do you think New Yorkers are suckers for punishment? Do you have to be kind of crazy, or tough, to make it here, and to stay here for all your life? Well, the winters are tough. But I loved living here. I was talking about it last night, because a lot of people from LA were at our premiere party that we had last night. And they were saying that the difference between New York and LA is, there's so much to do in New York that you feel weird doing something like watching TV.
It seems weird to stay home and watch TV when there's so many things to do. You almost feel pressured not to relax. You should go out. You should go to dinner. Just 'cause you're here. You should go to openings, parties, or shows, or, at least go out to dinner. There's always stuff going on.
Did you get recognized a lot, or have strange run-ins, back when you were living here? Oh, yeah. Even like, I remember going to a beach in New Jersey, and people were like, "Hey, Bret, Jemaine! You guys doin' a season three?" [Laughs] "Oh, we don't think so." "What?!" Just people you wouldn't expect to really like the Conchords show. Hot dog vendors, and stuff: "Hey, Jemaine!" It sounds really weird, but I liked it. Very friendly.
One thing about doing the Conchords was that we didn't know about New York at all. We'd never lived here, but we'd made a pilot here, and we knew it looked good. Just being here, filming here, helped a lot. Because you could tell it was real. In this show, they're kind of hidden away anyway, they're hiding from people. So I think we get away with it, just with them being hidden away all the time. You're in alleyways and parks a lot more with them.
Do you have any utopian idea on how to improve life in New York City? Well, maybe shorten the winter by two months. Couple of months is good. It really gets into your bones by the third one. [Laughs]
Do you miss living in the city at all, or are you glad you had the experience, and now it's done? I'm always excited to come back here. It's one of the only places where it's exciting to go over the bridge after you land at JFK, and see it again. Yeah, I do miss it. We had writer's room in New York, so it wasn't all away from New York. We did write the show here.
Are there any places you'd be devastated to find out have closed forever when you return? There's been a few. There was a restaurant called The Pink Pony that closed down. Another one called Earth Matters. These are all Lower East Side places. Café Habana's one of my favorite restaurants. I would be pretty sad if that was gone. It seems to all be about food for me.