Lydia Jenkin

Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi: Bloody hilarious

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement tell Lydia Jenkin how their love of vampires and 20-year friendship inspired a movie about a bunch of bloodsucking mates flatting together in Wellington.
Blood brothers? Well, flatmates at least. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.
Blood brothers? Well, flatmates at least. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

As TimeOut sits down in a dimly lit room underneath the Civic Theatre with Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, the small talk turns to how appropriate the location feels for an interview with vampires. But it's not long before the pair are bouncing off each other with an easy comic rapport.

These two have been friends for years, and their latest film What We Do In The Shadows, which they co-wrote, co-directed, and co-star in, is not just a grand celebration of ordinary vampires, but of a fruitful creative relationship. They have made their names separately with Flight of the Conchords and Boy, but some of their first steps in the entertainment world were made together, at Victoria University in the 1990s.

Watch - Jemaine Clement: 'What We Do In The Shadows'

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"I don't remember the moment when we actually met, but I remember the moment I first saw Jemaine," Waititi recalls. "It was in the library at Victoria University. I remember looking across and going, 'Ugh. Man, look at that dick!' because he had this colourful Samoan shirt on, and I remember thinking, 'Oh, he's probably one of those snooty arty types.'

"And that night there were auditions for a university show, and I saw him there and thought, 'Oh no, not that guy again'."

Jemaine laughs: "I remember that same moment seeing Taika and thinking, 'What a dick!' because he had a reggae hat on, one of those big red, yellow and green crocheted hats. So both of us based our instant dislike on each other's clothes. Both of us were sending misleading messages about our ethnicities!"

Fortunately, they both got through the auditions for the show, and started hanging out, which quickly changed their initial judgments.

"I think when I saw Taika do his audition bits, he was actually one of the few people who made me laugh."

Watch - Trailer: What We Do in the Shadows

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They went on to form comedy acts, So You're A Man (which included Bret McKenzie), and The Humourbeasts, and have since collaborated on episodes of Flight of the Conchords, and Radiradirah, as well as Eagle vs Shark - Waititi's first feature in which he had Clement as the lead.

But pretty much throughout their entire relationship, they've been thinking of making a vampire movie together - they've both been keen on the genre since they were young.

"I've loved vampires since I was a kid, or loved a lot of the vampire movies that I saw. Anything with sharp teeth really," Waititi explains. "I remember you could get those fake vampire teeth, and I remember just keeping them in all the time."

"Me too! They were these plastic ones with hinges," Clement adds.

"They were the classic ones," Waititi agrees, "and they made your gums bleed because they were quite sharp."

Clement even started a gang of 10-year-old schoolboys called The Vampires.

"The only rule was that everyone had to wear those fake teeth. And then we would ride around the streets of Masterton on bikes, yelling out to girls: 'I vant to drink your blood!'"

They didn't actually ever give the blood drinking thing a go though.

"No, we were only 10! We'd stay on the bikes."

Waititi completed his fang-teeth look with a coat his mum found.

"I was a big fan of The Lost Boys, and I asked my mum to help me get a trenchcoat like the one Corey Haim wears. I think it was a women's one 'cos it had these big shoulder pads."

They remember first creating vampire characters together as part of a skit they did for a fundraising show in 2000.

"I think that's where it started," Clement muses.

"Did we do a song?" Waititi wonders.

"Yeah, I think we did a song. And me, you, and Bret did a song about being werewolves too."

"Vampires singing a song about werewolves? Oh man."

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi took an instant dislike to each other but then decided to make a vampire film. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi took an instant dislike to each other but then decided to make a vampire film. Photo / Sarah Ivey

That was obviously a prescient performance though, as six years later, they decided to test out the idea of making a vampire mockumentary together, and created a short film centred around a bunch of vampire flatmates in Wellington. It was part funding application, part testing the water, part distillation of ideas.

They asked friends and family if they wanted to be involved, and shot a bunch of documentary-style interviews with whoever turned up.

"We didn't plan any of the characters, who they would be, or what they would be like," Waititi explains. "I wanted to try out the obsession with cleanliness, and whatever we tried out back then, we just kind of stuck with it really, so cleanliness became one of Viago's traits as an 18th-century dandy. Johnny Brugh, who plays Deacon, was really sick at the time, and he just spent his whole interview lying down on the couch, so that became the thing that Deacon did - he's always lying around, being the lazy, cool, vampire who didn't give a shit."

Their Eastern European accents were a given though - the pair wanted their vampire characters to have an air of being quite foreign, and old school.

"One of the things we were hoping that would come through thematically was xenophobia - the idea that these guys were still very foreign in New Zealand, and the idea that they've been chased right round the world down to Wellington, so they've had this life of constantly running, kind of in exile," Clement nods. His character Vladislav seems to have had a particularly tough time in centuries gone past, and has become a bit of a pervert as a consequence - a benevolent pervert though.

The short film/pitch turned out well, so they decided to go for the feature length version, and then, well, they both got busy.

"We're actually pretty embarrassed, because we must've been mentioning this movie in interviews for about seven years," Clement laughs.

"I found these old emails between us from 2007 saying things like, "We've gotta make this vampire movie man! We've gotta stop messing around and do it."

"And it was five years before we got around to it," Waititi adds.

Needless to say, the vampire craze found a whole new level of crazy in that period - i, Blade, and Underworld had been and gone, but Twilight, i, and i rose up in their place, not to mention Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Byzantium, Let The Right One In, 30 Days Of Night, and countless others. It did give them pause for thought.

"I was always scared that people would have reached the point of going 'I never want to see another vampire movie again' by now," Waititi explains.

But the recent obsession with the genre has made it ripe for mocking in many ways, and reviewers have been very quick to understand that WWDITS is a fresh, Wellington-inspired version of the well-trodden storylines, and mostly harks back to old school vampire mythology. Plus, it's funny as hell.

"We did want to film the character of Nick, who is the new guy who's excited about becoming a vampire, we wanted to have him see the poster for Twilight Breaking Dawn Part II being pulled down, just as a message to say, 'Sorry bro, it's not cool any more, nobody cares'. But we didn't manage to pull that off," Clement laughs. "Otherwise most of the genre references are pretty old. Our vampires are pretty traditional - they burst into flames rather than sparkle. They turn into bats, which I'm pretty sure modern vampires don't do."

"I guess they thought it wasn't all that cool anymore," Waititi smiles. "It's like turning into a big black butterfly."

The pair wrote the script together, initially going back and forward via email, sending each other scenes, and ideas for twists, or jokes.

Then they got together for three days in a house to fill in all the holes, and finally took it in turns doing re-writes. By the time they were finished, they had 150 pages of polished, precise material. And then they took the unusual route of not showing it to anyone - that's right, the crew and the cast didn't get to see the script.

"Basically we were trying to keep things spontaneous, and for the actors to be surprised when things happened," Clement explains.

"Actors are terrible at overthinking things before they turn up to work, and they decide on a way they're going to do it and then it's hard to break them out of it," Waititi adds.

"It was also about getting a documentary feel - you want people to say things their own way, naturally, and for it to look like they're thinking of it right then."

So the film was largely improvised, with Clement and Waititi pointing cast and crew in the right direction when they turned up each day, gently nudging the action along through their own characters as well as from the directors' chairs.

"We were doing a lot of improvising, but a lot of the time, for Jemaine and myself, we were saying lines we'd written into the script because we'd want to make sure someone else would respond in a certain way - we were trying to direct the story while also making stuff up," Waititi explains.

"That was interesting sometimes because people would be riffing off each other, and maybe going down a totally different path, and we'd be standing there going "Yeeeeessss, but what about the spaghetti?'"

(The importance of the spaghetti will become clear once you see the film.)

"Sometimes they assumed because they hadn't seen a story or a script that we were totally making it up, and they would go off on completely different tangents, and then keep pushing them."

The unconventional shooting style had its challenges (including creating more than 150 hours of footage which took 15 months to edit), but it clearly brought out the best in the cast, too - aside from the wonderful banter between the core vampire crew, look out particularly for the excellent scenes with the cops, the werewolf encounters, and Jackie Van Beek playing Jackie, a mum who's slightly obsessed with the idea of becoming a vampire herself.

It's a unique film - one injected with plenty of zany humour, physical and spoken, and a general penchant for preposterous situations, but also a poignancy and heart that allows some more philosophical contemplations to peek through occasionally.

"We just thought there hadn't really been anything like this before, about vampires being very normal, geeky, uncool. And just how boring it is. It's interesting to think about what you would do if you could live forever, and realising there's so many exciting things you could do, but you'd probably just be lazy. A few people would do the exciting stuff, but most would just be like, 'Ah well, maybe I'll learn to play the violin tomorrow'," Waititi explains.

"It's probably good that we waited this long to make the film, because we're older," Clement laughs, "because you always think you're going to be more mature when you're older, but then when you're older but you don't feel any different. And what if that was multiplied by 20 or 30 or whatever it takes to get to 800 years. Would you be any wiser? You assume so, but maybe not. Maybe you'd still have the same issues."

It seems that even if you get to live eternally, there's a good possibility you'll still end up flatting with a bunch of people who sometimes annoy you, having arguments about dishes, or cleaning up blood splatter in the living room, wondering how to capture the attention of the object of your affection, trying to figure out where you belong, and protecting your friends from being attacked by werewolves.

Charred corpse yet to show up

Filming a mockumentary about mythical creatures in Wellington is bound to be a memorable affair.

Here are some of Waititi and Clement's favourite trivia titbits.

• They lost a charred, polystyrene skeleton/body during the shoot, after throwing it in the harbour for a funeral scene (the scene didn't end up in the film), and not realising it was drifting away. "It was quite realistic looking, so we had to put a press release out saying that if anyone finds this charred body washed up on a beach, don't be alarmed, it's just a prop," Waititi explains.

It still hasn't surfaced as far as they know.

• When they filmed the Courtenay Place nightclubbing scenes for the short film in 2006, they encountered a torrent of abuse, but when filming the feature in 2012, they couldn't get anyone to yell at them, even when asked.

"When we made the original, people abused us constantly, all night, with homophobic slurs -- we were just in leather pants and frills and furs and stuff. But this time, filming the movie, we couldn't even get someone to do it when we asked.

"One kid we asked was really reluctant, like 'Nah man, I don't wanna call you guys homos. I wouldn't call anyone that'."

• There are several "non-actors" in the film, including Stu, played by Stu Rutherford. "He was Taika's flatmate at the time we were making the short, and we said, 'We're gonna make this short film, do you want to come?' and he just sat there at the table, being himself, so we made a character out of him," Clement explains. He has proven to be one of the most popular characters with festival audiences so far.

• People have loved the werewolf scenes so much that Waititi and Clement are considering creating a spin-off film about the lives of the werewolves -- the pack includes Rhys Darby, and Cohen Holloway. We're just counting the days until you can buy a T-shirt that reads "What are we? Werewolves, not swearwolves."

- TimeOut

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