One of the funniest films of 2014 is finally coming to North America, as the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows is getting a limited theatrical release this Friday. The long-in-development comedy from Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement is a labor of love that was well worth the wait: despite vampires being yesterday’s news, no movie at 2014’s Toronto International Film Festival could match What We Do in the Shadows for pure hilarity, thanks to its dry and creative vision of undead life in the modern day.
While at the festival back in the Fall, we caught up with Clement (who co-stars, co-wrote, and co-directed the film with Taika Waititi), and his newcomer co-star, Stu Rutherford, a former IT worker who got involved in the project through most unusual circumstances. We chatted with the guys about the long road What We Do in the Shadows took from conception to release, what “improvised” comedy really entails, and how Stu’s handling being New Zealand’s most famous IT worker.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
What We Do in the Shadows has been gestating for a while. What were the origins of the project?
Jemaine Clement: The other director, Taika Waititi, and I we…once, at a bar we did a sketch as vampires. Two vampires, ancient rivals, and we’d been battling for hundreds of years and keep meeting up. This time it was at this bar in Wellington, and we’d talk about times in history, like, “last time I battled you it was in ancient Rome, and you did this!” “Yeah, but you did this!”
So we only did that once, and then we kept the costumes and went to a party dressed up as those guys. It was a Halloween party at my friends house, and he said “everyone’s dressing up, dress up.” So we got on our vampire costumes, and we turned up, and no one was in costumes except us. [Laughs]. So, we’re two vampires at this party of normal people, and that just seemed funny. Usually that would embarrass me, usually I’d feel like, “I feel like such a nerd that I’ve dressed up like a vampire and come to this party.” But we actually felt like the cool guys while everyone else was just normal people.
It came from there, the idea. I was kind of obsessed with vampires. I keep saying this in interviews but it might be interesting: I started a gang when I was ten at my elementary school.
What was the name of your gang?
JC: The Vampires. I made everyone go to the toy store and buy plastic vampire teeth and wear them. And we’d ride around on our bikes trying to scare kids who were smaller than us. Only until dark, when we’d have to go home.
[Laughs] So it’s been a life-long obsession then?
JC: Yeah. I saw this vampire movie on TV when I was about five. I woke up, and I went to see what my mum was watching on TV, and I think it just gave me nightmares for the next ten years. And I would see anything with vampires with it when it came out, so through the ‘80s, when I grew up, there was a lot. There were a lot of vampire films.
And so this eventually led to you and Taikia making the short film version?
JC: Actually, we wanted to make a feature film out of the idea. But just to make sure that it wasn’t a totally crap idea, we made a short version first. It didn’t really come out, we made it just purely to get funding. We didn’t release it; we let it play at one tiny film festival in Wellington.
So no chance we’re going to see it again?
JC: We will put it on the DVD, but I don’t even want to see it again [Laughs].
And Stu, that’s where you made your acting debut. How did you get involved?
Stu Rutherford: Yes, well I was flatting with Taika at the time, along with three others in a big Victorian-style house. He came home and he was like “oh, do you mind if I store a coffin in your room.” And I said, “yeah, well that’s a bit weird, but okay.”
JC: Stu is exactly like his character: always helpful, always willing to lend a hand. That’s how it started.
He’s the straight man to the whole thing.
SR: Well, it was more like I was helping out on the film.
JC: Taika didn’t ask him if he wanted to be in the movie –he asked him if he could store a coffin in his room. And then we went out, we went into town and we didn’t have a crew, we just had two people, a couple. And the guy, actually, who was filming it, ended up working in special effects, so he’s our special effects supervisor in this, and he’s really good. But we saw Stu texting and he was texting someone on his phone while he was waiting, and we thought, “Stu’s kinda funny, why don’t we make him Cori’s friend, a human friend?”
Cori’s character, in the original, had been a vampire for a couple years, so he still had human connections, whereas the rest of us, all our human friends had died centuries ago. Stu kind of stood out from the vampires; in a world where everything’s not normal, the one normal thing stands out.
Was it hard to sit on the project for so long after making the short?
JC: If we go through our email histories, there are so many like “we’re going to do it this year!”
SR: “2009 or never!”
JC: [Laughs] Yeah, “2007, this is the one! We’re going to do it now, we can do it now! 2009, 2010.”
So what was the holdup?
JC: I started going to the States, and doing Conchords stuff, and we got offered a series, and things like that. So I went and did that, Taika started doing his own features.
What were you up to while this was happening, Stu?
SR: I actually worked on a couple of Taika’s films, I was a runner on Eagle vs. Shark.
JC: Think they call that a production assistant here.
SR: And then I was a production assistant on Boy, and I was briefly in that for four seconds on camera. I was still kind of working in IT, but was doing auditions for acting just so if this film ever got made I wouldn’t freak out if I was on camera.
And now that it has been made, is that cause to maybe freak out a little bit?
SR: Well, at one point they were like, “Stu, look at the camera nervously,” so I was like, “oh no.” So I kind of needed to act like I was freaking out.
SR: That was the great thing, the easy thing about it. The cameras were allowed to be present, because it’s a documentary. It made it easier, because if you did accidentally look at the camera it was fine.
JC: Stu is the person we probably gave the least direction to, because we wanted him to be –even though he comes in late for this role, he’s like the audience, looking out at how weird things are around him. Yeah, so we didn’t tell Stu very much of what he had to do. It was just, “we’re doing this, you’re doing this, you’re doing this, and [Stu] just sit there,” [Laughs].