What We Do in the Shadows Showrunner Interview

What We Do In the Shadows was a funny vampire comedy that Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement made in New Zealand, but it made a splash worldwide. They hooked up with Flight of the Conchords writer/producer Paul Simms to bring the series to American television. Now, FX’s What We Do In The Shows introduces a new house of vampires living in New York. The series maintains the film’s mockumentary style, which makes What We Do In The Shadows a spoof of reality TV as well as vampire lore.

Simms spoke with /Film by phone out of Austin, where he was about to premiere the first episodes of the series at SXSW. What We Do In The Shadows premieres March 27 on FX.

Is What We Do In the Shadows different in sense of humor from Flight of the Conchords?

Obviously, a few things. It’s documentary style and since it’s about vampires, that’s a little different but I think their New Zealand sense of humor still bleeds through for everything. I would say people who’ve never seen Flight of the Conchords still love the show. People have seen Flight of the Conchords have been able to detect little bits of their style in it.

The newest addition to Shadows is the energy vampire. Do we find out in episode 3 that even he has a weakness?

Yes, that’s a really fun one. He definitely meets his match in episode 3 in terms of people who drain energy without drawing blood.

We all know energy vampires in real life but they’re usually not self-aware like Colin, are they?

No, that’s true. We were talking about that the other day. So many people who see the show go, “Oh, I know someone who’s an energy vampire.” There must be some people who actually are energy vampires themselves that I doubt that they’re aware. Colin’s probably the only energy vampire who knows he’s an energy vampires. One of the hallmarks of being a real life energy vampire is not knowing that you’re an energy vampire probably. I could be one right now from the way I’m going on and on without really giving you good answers, so who knows?

There are werewolves in episode 3 also. Are there any other creatures who’ll appear on the show?

There are. There’s an episode in the second half of this season where our vampire characters have their turn to host the bi-annual vampire orgy where all the vampires who live in the Tristate area have an orgy. We see all sorts of variety. There are not only vampires but other sort of creatures in that one. Then there’s a really good episode in the middle of the season where we meet other characters from the What We Do In The Shadows universe that might not be in the show all the time. That’s my mysterious way of putting it.

I was going to ask if these vampires will ever hear about the New Zealand vampires? Or have they even seen the movie that came out about those New Zealand vampires?

I would direct my answer to my previous answer. I’m sorry to be so crazy about it but it is a really good surprise. I’d say if you’re a fan of the movie, by the end of season one of this show, you’ll be very satisfied that the links between the universe of the movie and the universe of the show are the same thing. I guess the way you’d say it these days is there might a bit of a crossover.

At TCA you compared Shadows to the Real Housewives reality shows. Was The Real World an influence because it was the original roommate show?

I think all those shows. You can definitely look at the way those shows are edited. In a real reality show like The Real World and Housewives, they’re walking a line between capturing dramatic events and manufacturing dramatic events. That was one thing that Jemaine talked about a lot is really adhering strictly to documentary rules the way those shows do. Sometimes a moment won’t be perfectly on camera the way it would be if it was a real movie, but it just feels more real if it’s a little more sloppy the way the Housewives are. Although I feel like back in The Real World, they hadn’t quite perfected it the way they have with the Housewives. Housewives almost seems written. They never miss a moment. Nothing ever happens off camera. Back in the Real World days, there’d be moments where this just happened and I have to tell you what just happened because the cameras weren’t around. All those reality shows about, when it comes down to it, the sort of mundane situations, Jersey Shore and The Real World and all those, they’re just about a bunch of people hanging around and that’s what this show is except the people who are all hanging around being roommates just happen to be vampires.

Does FX have any limitations on language or violence?

They really don’t and I was just with Kayvan Novak who plays Nandor and I was looking at an e-mail I’d gotten from the standards department, just noting for us how many bad words we’d used in an episode. But they’re very good about [recognizing] this show would probably be more for grownups than for kids. Also in an interesting way, one of the first things John Landgraf said when we started talking about this show and the other people there was that they really didn’t want to shy away from the violence in it. Not just for comedic effect but it is part of the show that these people are scary, violent, murdering predators. They didn’t want it to be too much of a comedic spoof and more of a “these are real vampires who just happen to live in the real world.” If they’re real vampires, to see them doing real vampires things and let’s do it in a way that’s cool and looks real but the way documentary would capture it.

Is it hard to coordinate the VFX with comedy?

It’s interesting because we shot in Canada and we had a fantastic VFX Crew who would tell us as we were going what we needed to get. I think an interesting thing about this that we discovered in editing was that, unlike in a regular movie, where you have your big VFX shot of someone flying or getting pulled up in the air, in a real movie they would really focus on that so you’d get all your money’s worth of seeing what happens. We really found that in documentary style, all the special effects and stunts feel somehow realer that the camera crew is a step behind and you see things in the corner of the frame, not perfectly framed up so it somehow feels more real than the usual way you use effects. And the other thing was we wanted the visual effects to be as real as possible and not make it making fun of old vampire movies or anything. You really set out to say if this were a real life situation, what would this look like? What would it look like when someone turns into a bat? Sometimes there have been other shows that made fun of old vampire movies where you can tell it’s a bat on a string, but we really wanted to do everything we could to see what it would look like if it was a real thing.

We do see vampires flying on camera and that’s wire removal, right?

Yeah, there’s all that stuff. There’s wire removal. There’s no fully digital characters or anything like that. One of the movies we really talked about a lot when we were conceiving the show was Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula where he went back to really doing as many effects as possible in camera and figuring out ways to do that. One of my favorite supernatural moments is completely in camera. It’s where Beanie Feldstein’s character is walking along in the part and Nadja appears walking next to her. That was all just done completely the old fashioned way where Natasia was hiding behind a tree and the camera was tracking a long and at the right moment, she walked out from behind a tree. I think there’s something about that old fashioned way that makes things more interesting than when you can tell it’s digital and rubbery and fake looking.

When you were coming up with a new cast of vampires, did the characters go through different iterations before the versions we see?

Jemaine had always had Matt Berry in mind to play Laszlo so that character from the very start was written in that Matt Berry big, booming, grandiose British sort of voice. With the other characters, we just weren’t sure who the actors were going to be. Then as we found people that we really liked, like Kayvan and Natasia, you just started writing the characters more the way they actually were in their auditions, they way they conceived those characters. The other example is Harvey Guillen’s character, Guillermo, was originally supposed to be a much older guy that had been working for Nandor for 30 years or something. But Harvey was so funny doing it that we liked the sweetness he brought to it. And then Jemaine had thought of the energy vampire but without a real idea of who could play it. Then we started talking about Mark Proksch who I saw on Tim and Eric and On Cinema and those shows. I don’t mean it in a negative way but he was really made to play that character. He so fitted it and he’s so brilliant, he’s so good at ad libbing and improvising boring stuff, stuff that’s not too funny but he can just go forever and ever with boring stuff. That’s a really hard thing to doubt he’s so funny doing it.

Did the setting in New York give you any new opportunities for comedy that the film didn’t have in New Zealand?

Yes, part of it was we wanted it to be New York City but not the best part of New York City. That’s how we came around to thinking that Staten Island would be a funny place for a bunch of vampires who had gotten off a ship. They always thought that was the center of New York. There’s a good episode coming up where they go into Manhattan to meet up with an old friend who’s now the king of the cool Manhattan vampires, which was a fun one because they get to Staten Island and never went any further. Just to see them in New York with the big glitzy vampires that are more like the ones you’d see in a movie like Blade, basically any modern vampire movie there’s always vampires in a nightclub and they’re all supposed to be terribly cool. In this one, many vampires are half cool, half a total jerk to them but that’s fun.

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