If there’s one distinguishing, shared feature of movie vampires, it’s that they’re cool. From Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Robert Pattinson’s Edward and all points in between, the bloodsuckers of the silver screen are sullen, brooding, and seductive. The modern-day vampires played by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark) in What We Do in the Shadows, which they also wrote and directed, are deeply, deeply uncool. They have trouble clubbing — since, as vampires, they must be invited in. They frequently fumble their attempts to pick up mortals; blood-sucking rituals are often messy, leaving lots of problematic laundry. They share a flat with two other vampires, and must occasionally chastise each other for not pulling their weight, chores-wise (“Vampires don’t do dishes!” one insists).
And they spend centuries on petty, jealous rivalries with other immortals — which was, in fact, the root of the idea, many years ago when they were doing theater and live comedy. “Once, in a stand-up comedy club, we did some vampire characters,” Clement recalls. “I started telling my jokes, my story, saying ‘Welcome to the unholy masquerade,’ or whatever it was. And then Taika gets up and starts booing me, and he’s dressed as a vampire too, talking about, ‘You’ve been following me for centuries, you’re always heckling me,’ and that was the first time we did the–”
“Vampire rivals,” Taika interjects.
“Yeah,” Clement agrees. “That old ‘Vampire Rival’ type thing.”
The approach of What We Do is fairly basic comedy construction: taking something extraordinary, and approaching it as something quite ordinary. But it also positions the film within an interesting moment in our undead narratives — “second-wave” vampire films, if you will. Pictures like Shadows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night , and Only Lovers Left Alive move beyond the iconography of vampires and instead focus on practical matters, politics, logistics, and the mood and feel of living that life.
Clement and Waititi were particularly struck by the parallels to Only Lovers. “I was surprised to see how many things address the same things that we thought we were the first to talk about,” he says.
“How they pay for stuff,” Waititi agrees.
“How they live.”
“How they get blood.”
“That too,” Clement says. “One of the characters is a rival to Shakespeare, and this ongoing rivalry that he still thinks about, and you still think about these things and hold on to them, even if it’s for centuries.”
Waititi pinpoints another touchstone. “The thing I love about Let the Right One In is how you spend time with the ‘familiar,’ with that guy, and it’s the hassle of trying to find victims for his master, who’s this kid. I never had seen that, how much effort you’d have to go [to], to actually lure someone in and track them, and as a human trying to do that for your vampire.”
But one thing that sets their film apart from not only those pictures but traditional vampire films is its style. What We Do in Shadows is presented as a production of the New Zealand Documentary Board, and is thus done in a “mockumentary” style — frankly, a risky move at this point, as the once-novel construct has been a bit overdone recently, especially on television. But Clement and Waititi pull it off by finding a new angle: the idea that “you could make a documentary about something that wasn’t possible in real life.”
“A lot of mockumentaries are about stuff that is really realistic,” Waititi explains. “Even though I love Best in Show, I’m sure you’d make something equally as funny and interesting and find equally weird characters if you were to go to one of those dog shows. It just seems like they’re full of weird characters.”
“It’s not that we thought we could improve on those movies,” Clement says. “It’s more than thinking of what they haven’t done. A comedy documentary about something you couldn’t really document.”
As with the Guest films that are its key inspiration, most of the dialogue is improvised — though they did have a script as a starting point. “I don’t think they had a script, they had a guide,” Clement says. “I think we could have maybe done it, but we maybe weren’t confident enough — and we had special effects.”
Those effects are rather wonderful; they’re convincing, yet they serve the documentary form by appearing casually, without much flourish. “If we had more money there would have been more attention,” Clement laughs. “I think we would have had some big werewolf transformations and things like that.” But Waititi thinks it works: “That’s probably the key word for this whole thing, casual. Casual vampires, casual effects, really casual scary.”
Unsurprisingly, they’re also casual about what’s next, now that Shadows is finally unreeling in American cinemas (after playing the festival circuit for over a year, since last January’s Sundance Film Festival). “We’re writing some stuff together, you know, some more things,” Waititi says. “A little bit of TV, stuff that we’re trying to do.” Proximity’s not much of an issue; while writing Shadows, he says, “A lot of the time we were in different countries. Jermaine was (in New York) doing Conchords and I was making films, and now and then we’d be in the same town and we’d talk about it a little, but often we’d do it through email.”
And here they are again, starting a new script as Jemaine prepares for a fall tour of the US with Conchords bandmate Bret McKenzie. That tour, he says, will combine old and new material — “a mix. We always try to do a mix.” And that’s a good description of the movie, too, which subtly threads its broad comic tone with themes of jealousy and loneliness. “What happens if you don’t turn the camera off,” Clement asks, “and film the moments that you’re not being this dark and alluring figure at the window? You’re just someone that’s really not as successful?”
What We Do in the Shadows is out Friday in limited release.