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Jemaine Clement on Vampire Obsession, ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ and His ‘Flight of the Conchords’ Legacy

Jemaine Clement on Vampire Obsession, 'What We Do in the Shadows' and His 'Flight of the Conchords' Legacy

If you asked Christopher Guest to shoot an episode of “Real World: Vampire Mansion,” you’d have New Zealand duo Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s “What We Do in the Shadows.” The comedy, which can only be described as an absurdist vampire mockumentary, derives its particular brand of humor from the marriage of the extraordinary and the mundane: Four blood-sucking roommates coexist as roommates are wont to do, with their idiosyncrasies, growing pains, werewolf adventures, dirty dishes and all. Committing themselves entirely to the authentic creation of these characters, Clement and Waititi capitalize on the tropes of the vampire genre while subverting it entirely. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a uniquely smart, zany and hilarious film that’s sure to quickly amass a cult following.

What’s innovative about the film isn’t limited to its sharp sense of humor. To avoid being denied a theatrical release, Clement and Waititi harnessed the power of their respective fan bases and decided to take distribution into their own hands. The duo raised nearly $500,000 dollars via Kickstarter to bring the film to theaters.

“‘What We Do in the Shadows’ is by far the largest raise we’ve had for theatrical distribution thus far,” said Dan Schoenbrun of Kickstarter. “They were active, making videos almost every day to keep fans involved. Some videos were them, and some were character vampires in the movie.” Clement and Waititi galvanized both fundraising and publicity by expanding the story of the film to their Kickstarter campaign. “It wasn’t just promotion, but part of humor and fun of the movie,” said Schoenbrum.

Indiewire sat down with Clement to discuss the inner workings of his comedy, his “Flight of the Conchords” legacy, and his unique partnership with Waititi.

Where does this movie fit into the pantheon of vampire movies?

I was obsessed with vampires as a kid, so we’re very respectful to vampire mythology. We don’t try to break any rules; we try to keep vampire characters. It’s not another “Scary Movie” parody of vampires. We’ve tried to make them actual characters and stay true to a lot of the folklore and movie-lore about vampires. 

Taika told me that you conceived of this idea 12 years ago. (Sort of like the vampire “Boyhood.”) How did the project evolve over time?

When we first thought of it, we applied for funding in New Zealand by shooting a short film that was 20 minutes. We didn’t really play it to anyone because we wanted to hold on to the idea and we thought if someone saw it they would try to do a similar idea. And since then there have been other documentaries like “Troll Hunter” and a Belgian film called “Vampires,” which is actually a documentary about vampires. We both avoided watching that. But a lot of stuff in the short, like putting Stu in it, who was just a guy helping us… he’s an IT guy in real life and he really stood out. He just looks different than the rest of us and has a different energy because he’s not super aware of the camera, and if he is it makes him super more inhibited in a charming way and not stunted way. We really fleshed out his character a lot.  We added things too, like the character of Peter and a bit more scares.

You’ve been branded as a face of New Zealand comedy. Do you see yourself that way? Who inspired you?

One of our biggest influences was this duo called Sugar and Spice. They did a lot of stuff that was dramatic and surreal. When we first started, we wanted to be different than New Zealand comedy, but now we are New Zealand comedy. New Zealand comedy when we first started was very old-fashioned.  

I noticed a lot of theatrical comedy devices being used, such as the joke call-back. Were these intentional?

Taika used to do stage shows with call-backs, but not a lot of comedy movies do it. I love to do it because it’s more satisfying to the audience to refer to something they’ve seen before. This film is very theatrical with its costumes and accents. We could remake this into a theater show. It would be cool. It’s hard to get TV made in New Zealand, so sometimes people do sitcoms, but on stage. 

I’m a huge “Flight of the Conchords” fan. Obviously, that show launched your career. Can you tell me how it all started?

Bret and I were living together and we both quit college. He was doing music and I was doing film, and we had a lot of time and we both wanted to learn guitar. We tried to learn songs together but sometimes it was too difficult, so we made up our own songs. He was in lots of bands playing keyboards and drums, and a friend called up saying he had a comedy gig and I told him I’d do it. That was our first gig. “Flight of the Conchords” has allowed me to do everything since. Certainly everything I’ve done in the states and England. 

And how did you get noticed?

We played in New Zealand a lot. There was only one comedy bar in Wellington that was only one night a week, but when we had enough songs we went to Canadian Fringe and that’s where people in the States saw us, like NBC and FOX. They brought us over and we did an HBO special. That went really well so they asked us to write a pilot. But before we just did little gigs to travel and leave the cold in New Zealand. Just like the show!

Read More: Taika Waititi on the Art of the Absurdist Vampire Mockumentary

How is working with Taika different from working with Bret [McKenzie]?

Both Bret and Taika are quite different in the way they work. Bret is very picky while Taika will do anything, so I have to be the one in control with him. It was good because the cameras were rolling all the time, so we could try things.

This film was heavily improvised. How do you edit under those circumstances?

I did the first edit, which took about a month, and then I handed it off to Taika. We’d have other jobs and we’d go away, so we’d have a month on and a month off. By the end, we worked together with a final editor. 

What are you most thankful for in your career?

To be here at all! I remember watching “Men in Black,” and being on set for “Men in Black 3” was surreal to me. To be transplanted into that movie that I had seen years earlier. Crazy!

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