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Imagine asking Christopher Guest to film an episode of “Real World: Vampire Mansion,” and you’ve got New Zealand duo Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s bloody fantastic creation, “What We Do in the Shadows.” This is no garden-variety vampire movie: Rife with that particular brand of absurdist humor Clement brought to fruition in “Flight of the Conchords,” the comedy catapults banal circumstances into the realm of the ridiculous by training the camera on some very idiosyncratic vampires.
Waititi, whose 2010 Sundance entry “Boy” became the top-grossing film in New Zealand, first worked with Clement in college where they formed the comedy group Humourbeast. Waititi sat down with us to discuss the balancing act of comedy and drama, what he hates about indie film, and, of course, blood-sucking creatures that roam the night.
It seems like we’re oversaturated with vampire movies these days. Yours is certainly a welcome breath of fresh air. Why vampires?
Well, when Jemaine and I came up with this, it was 2005, and there weren’t many vampire films that had been made. It wasn’t a popular genre again. It was only “Blade” and “Underworld” that were the popular vampire things going on. But “American Werewolf in London” was a big influence for us. It’s scary and had some jokes in it, whereas ours is not scary but still has jokes.
How did the mockumentary concept come about?
I was really interested in making a documentary on something you couldn’t document in real life, and just have everyone treat it like it’s real. So we slowly pieced together this idea of following the mundane existence of some vampires in a really shitty, boring town. We slowly started writing it, and it took us seven years to write because we got distracted by other things – Jemaine had [Flight of the Conchords] and I had a bunch of movies that I made. It was sort of like a side project along the way that we would write over the years. It wasn’t until 2012 that we got to shooting it.
Did you write directly to that mockumentary style?
We didn’t have a full script until a month before we started shooting. We were writing scenes and sending them to each other. Eventually, in early 2012, we were in New York for a couple months so we got together and tried to cobble together all these ideas to make a script. It turned out to be 150 pages of jokes, and then we just spent the most of the next months trying to shape it into a narrative. We always knew if we shot the whole thing we could piece together the story, much like a documentary shoot. Shoot way too much stuff and then find the story after that. So that’s what we did.
And how much of it was improvised?
I’d say that 95% of it was improvised. We wrote the script, but because we wanted the documentary aspect to feel real, we didn’t show any of the actors the script. They would turn up and we would explain to them what they needed to do to get from A to B, the information we wanted. The crew had read the script, but we were the only ones who knew what was going on. That was good for the actors because it meant that their performances would be very natural. There’s a lot of people talking over each other and stumbling, so it made it feel more real and immediate.
If I had to define your style of comedy, I’d call it absurdist. What would you call it?
Absurdist is definitely right. We’re really into tangents, spinning off. That’s one thing that would define a lot of stuff we’ve done. We’ve coined this term in New Zealand called “the comedy of the mundane”: taking boring subjects and talking about them until they’re funny. There’s definitely a lot of surreal stuff we like exploring as well. We’ve always been known to be quite dark and weird. It’s definitely New Zealand-style to make things dark. We’re not very good at straight-up broad comedy. In this film, there are some tragic moments, things with Stu and my girlfriend. People end up feeling things, which is kind of what you want. I’m not sure we could ever make a [straight] comedy.
What’s the weirdest thing that happened on set?
Just trying to have conversations with your crew or authority figures when you’ve got your long boots and fake teeth on and when you’re walking around like a foppish dandy. At one point we were having some difficulty with one crew member and we had to have a really serious talk with him on set, but you feel so ridiculous when you’re hanging on a wire, dressed like a vampire, trying to explain to this guy what you want.
What’s the one thing you would want aspiring writers to know?
For writing in general, the thing that really helped me a lot was taking advantage of time. In filmmaking, from when you start shooting you’re basically just up against the clock. There’s a deadline and you never have enough time. You only have enough time when you’re writing. People rush it because you just want to get it made, but taking time to think it through is valuable. If I write a script, I’ll often take a few months off from writing it. With my second film, I wrote the first draft and then didn’t look at it for a year and a half and then re-wrote it. I was like a completely different person. Having time and distance from your work is very helpful because it provides a perspective. You realize that you change; you become a different person over time. You can look back objectively, whereas when you just write it, you think you’re the greatest writer ever.
You oscillate between comedy and drama quite smoothly in your career. What’s the biggest challenge in doing that?
The challenge is always balance. I made this film called “Boy,” and it was set in the 1980s and was a light-hearted, whimsical tale about a really terrible dad trying to reconnect with his sons. On the surface, it seems like a drama, but in New Zealand it played like a comedy because we find child neglect funny. So with films like that, sometimes I’d put too many jokes in and it would undermine the seriousness. In this one, a lot of the problems in the edit was that if we just crammed the film full of jokes, then no one would care about the characters or know what was going on. No one would be invested. Conversely, if we only concentrated on the story, then it wouldn’t be funny and we’d lose a lot of the jokes. It’s mainly trial and error, going through the film about 100 times to try and figure out where to keep jokes or where to move things. Doing lots and lots of test screenings. Being in an audience and listening to when they’re laughing, noticing all the quiet bits. If it’s quiet for too long, you know you need another joke there. It’s like a science.
Which do you feel more at home in?
I think both. Jermaine and I have known each other for about 20 years now. We’ve made comedy for that entire time. Comedy is probably the thing I’m most known for back in New Zealand, and the thing I do most regularly, but I really enjoy films that have a little more pathos as well. I think it’s a bit more like life when there’s a balance of comedy and drama. People really like that. Some of my favorite comedies have that dark undertone. A film I’ve always loved is “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” and that’s got such darkness in it but it’s also so funny and hilarious.
You started out wanting to be a painter. How did you wind up making films?
I did start out painting, but at the same time I was doing a lot of theater. When Jemaine and I met, we would write our own plays because no one else would hire us, so we would branch off and start different theater groups. For 10 years we’d write our own stuff and perform. I had been in a couple films and television shows during that time as an actor. Painting and illustration were the main things I wanted to do, but in the end I made a short film, just to see what it was like. I had done many of these other things—writing and acting—and then I did the short film, and it was really successful [the Oscar-nominated “Two Cars, One Night”]. At the time, I was unemployed and had no money. People were so encouraging about the film thing that I thought I might as well keep doing it for a little longer. I thought I’d do another short and than a feature, and I kind of fell into it. It was not intentional at all. I never wanted to be a filmmaker. I made that short when I was 27 or 28, so it was pretty late into it.
You just finished serving on the World Cinema Jury at Sundance. What did that experience tell you about the state of indie film right now?
I think it’s exciting because there are always fresh voices. The issue I have now is that there are so many indie films. I hate studio indie films; they’re not indie. They’re just a studio’s indie branch. It’s still an $8 million indie film. I hate that part where it’s like, indie is a “cool brand.” It’s like buying jeans where the knees are pre-ripped. I’d like to see more experimentation and more experimental stuff with indie film because the low budget enables you to do that, to be more poetic and weird. I think it’s a quite safe world in the moment. It feels like the trend in cinema at the moment is that someone’s on hiatus from their TV show, has five weeks to shoot their film, and wants to be taken seriously as an actor, so they did this indie film. It’s like, “Oh, another celebrity walking around the woods!” There are so many of those that it’s hard to find something special.