New Zealand comedian Jemaine Clement is best known for his partnership with Bret McKenzie: Their band, Flight Of The Conchords, and its eponymous TV series, was a multinational hit, taking their wry, absurdist music around the globe. But Clement has had an equally longstanding partnership with another New Zealand comic and creator, Taika Waititi. The two men first met at Victoria University, where they formed the comedy duo The Humourbeasts. Clement starred in Waititi’s 2007 feature film Eagle Vs. Shark; Waititi directed four episodes of Flight Of The Conchords. They’ve done an assortment of projects without each other—Waititi was a featured actor on New Zealand’s TV comedy The Strip, and he wrote and directed the 2010 New Zealand dramedy Boy. With Flight Of The Conchords on hiatus, Clement has been appearing in more films, including playing the villain in Men In Black 3, voicing a villainous singing cockatoo in the animated Rio movies, and featuring in Jared Hess’ upcoming Don Verdean.
But after more than a decade of kicking around the idea together, Clement and Waititi finally got back together to make a movie: the improv-heavy mockumentary comedy What We Do In The Shadows, about New Zealand’s fairly dorky and desultory vampire community. Clement and Waititi scripted the film, then used their script as a structure for improv; they co-directed and star as awkward, nebbishy vampires in a flat they share with several others. A strong sense of comic self-delusion runs through the film: These are characters who think they represent strength and darkness, but they’re mostly petty, fussy, self-aggrandizing, uncomfortable slobs. Clement and Waititi recently chatted with The Dissolve about how they hated each other when they met, how the film was made, and the biggest complaint they consistently had when directing each other.
The Dissolve: In interviews, when you’re in the same room together, your dynamic revolves around quick banter, jumping off each other. Is your work dynamic similar?
Jermaine Clement: I guess I’d have to watch those interviews to know. But yeah, we usually riff very fast, just bouncing off each other.
Taika Waititi: Boing!
Clement: And then we run out of ideas, and then we stop for a couple of hours, have lunch, and then try to get back into it.
The Dissolve: You originally met in college, right? What do you remember about meeting?
Waititi: Well, it was the ’90s. So I just remember a lot of baggy pants. We were both wearing paisley shirts. Some people at the university had that Kid ’N Play haircut, that sort of tall fade. That’s coming back, actually, that kind of Boyz II Men look. So imagine us in the middle of that.
Clement: And I took an instant disliking to Taika.
Waititi: And vice versa!
Clement: Just on the look of him alone. If you print a picture of him, people will know what I’m talking about.
Waititi: If you print a picture of me in the ’90s, and show it to Jemaine, just a little shadow ripples through him, and he has to look at me now to remind himself that he likes me.
The Dissolve: Sometimes when creatives meet each other, especially if they’re both class-clown funny types, they dislike each other for competitive reasons. There’s a sense of “That’s my survival shtick.” Was there any sense of that here?
Clement: No, it wasn’t that, because I hadn’t heard him talk. It was just the look of him. It was when I heard him talk that I started to like him. I didn’t know who this guy was, but I saw him again the same day, and we were auditioning for the same thing, like a revue, a university show where people write and put on sketches. Taika was one of the people who made me laugh.
The Dissolve: You worked together as The Humourbeasts, Taika’s directed Flight Of The Conchords episodes, and you’ve worked on film projects together. Has your working relationship changed much over the past two decades?
Waititi: No, it flatlined in about ’97 and then stayed the same.
Clement: I would argue that it has evolved. I remember when we had our first show on together, we did lots of shows in big groups, including a couple of times with Bret McKenzie, who is in the Conchords with me. But when Taika and I did our first show together, I thought we were going to physically fight. Sometimes when we were onstage, we would ad-lib a lot. And sometimes we would insult each other, and it would start to get really personal, and I thought it would break out into a fight onstage. That was when we were very young, but now it’s not like that. We’re over that.
The Dissolve: From what I’ve read about your process, you wrote a huge script, but the film itself is largely improv.
Clement: Yeah, we wanted to be sure we had something to go back to if the improv wasn’t working. We did keep to the script as far as the structure of the story, and the scenes that are in it. We just wanted the dialogue to be more real and lively.
The Dissolve: As I understand it, you also shot 125 to 150 hours of footage. What was the editing process with that? How do you deal with that?
Clement: Very boring. [Laughs.] The shooting was so much fun. We just had the cameras on all the time, and we were hanging out with people we like working with. And then I did the first edit, and that was a very long, lonely process. And then Taika took over, and it was the same for him. And we kept swapping. Fortunately, there’s two of us, so over the year we were editing it, we swapped. So we could keep ourself fresh on it. And we also had different editors. But that’s by no means a record. I know Brüno had something like 500 hours.
The Dissolve: Was there any kind of contractual obligation to bring this in so short? Did you just want it to be tight, because it’s a comedy?
Clement: We just looked at our favorite comedies, like the Monty Python comedies, and This Is Spinal Tap, and things we thought were classic comedies. And we looked at how long they were. We didn’t manage to get it down as short as those films, but we were trying.
The Dissolve: How did you design the characters you each wanted to play?
Waititi: Well, I just played my mum, a version of my mum. In my previous film, Boy, I’m playing my dad. But I didn’t want my mum to feel left out, so in this film, I’m playing a version of her, but as a vampire man. [Laughs.] Still, the soft side of my mum comes through, I think. The soft, caring side.
Clement: I kind of mixed Antonio Banderas in Interview With A Vampire, Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and just made it as if the character wasn’t as successful or dashing as those other guys. Not anymore, anyway. Just the idea of a guy who lives forever, but he still ages in some ways, he’s past his prime psychologically.
The Dissolve: A lot of the comedy you’ve done, together and separately, is based on awkwardness and incompetence. Do you have a sense for why that humor appeals to you?
Clement: No, I don’t know why. I guess I’m more experienced with being awkward than not being awkward. Do you know, Taika?
Waititi: No, I don’t know!
The Dissolve: It’s a particularly creative use here, combining that awkwardness with characters who are meant to be fantasy avatars of being immortal and eternally young and beautiful.
Clement: It’s partially that, but also, when you see vampires in movies, they’re turning someone, or charming someone. But what if you put the camera on them all the time? Would they be able to keep that up?
The Dissolve: At what point did you decide to do this as a mockumentary? Was that always built into the idea?
Clement: Very early on, I wanted a vampire film. Taika and I were talking about making a film back when we mostly did stuff onstage. I wanted to do something with vampires, and Taika thought it would be a good idea to do a mockumentary, because he could make it feel real. And also, most mockumentaries are about real things. They’re very close to real documentaries. This was just a way of paying homage to those other films. Taika really wanted to make a documentary, and we talked about a lot of documentary ideas you couldn’t actually do in real life. There was one about a group of aliens invading Earth, and just the difficulties you never see. The logistics, the organization it would take, the planning in trying to invade a planet.
Waititi: I’ve always liked films like Spinal Tap, and I’ve always loved The Office, the British Office. I guess maybe mockumentary is getting a little overdone. But I thought the only way it would keep me interested was exactly that, doing one about something you couldn’t make a documentary about. Often real documentaries are more interesting than fake ones. You can’t believe that it actually happened. You’ve seen Anvil, which is almost exactly the same story as Spinal Tap. If Spinal Tap had never happened, people could probably look at Anvil and think, “Oh, this is fake.” I just think there are so many things in real life that make great documentaries. It’s kind of hard to compete with them.
The Dissolve: So once you had this idea and the format, did you come up with characters and audition people? Did you bring in people and let them create their own characters? How did it progress?
Clement: The main people in it, we know from the New Zealand comedy scene. The guy who played Petyr [Ben Fransham], I worked with a lot. We were both in a show with him. Deacon [Jonathan Brugh] was in a comedy show that was very influential to Taika and me, Sugar And Spice, in New Zealand. He’s kind of comedy royalty in New Zealand. When we came up with the idea, it was 10 years ago. We shot a short for it to pitch the idea, but then we both got busy, so we didn’t get around to it for a very long time. Cori Gonzalez-Macuer [who plays Nick in the movie] was playing in the clubs when Bret, me, and Taika were all playing in the clubs too. And he was very young. He was from a different generation, so that’s his role in the film as well.
The Dissolve: And then how much of the characters did you dictate to them, and how much did you discover them in improv?
Clement: The dialogue’s almost all improv. We would have to stop them if they started coming up with a storyline, or a plan to do something, or an idea that would need another scene. We’d have to pull them back and say, “No, you can’t, because there’s another scene, we have to do this scene we’ve written.” I think at first, they weren’t sure that we had such a detailed plan. I think they thought we were making up the whole movie as we went, and I know I’d read articles about this movie where we’d describe it, and people think that’s what we’d done as well. But we always knew how every scene would start and end. They would just get to say it however they wanted to say it.
The Dissolve: What were your experiences like directing yourselves? Do you feel more sense of control on or off camera?
Clement: Well, there’s two of us, so we could usually direct each other, and there’s a lot of things we say just into the camera, so the other one would be able to direct. The direction was almost always, “You’re overacting.” [Laughs.] And so sometimes when we both were in the same scene, we didn’t have anyone to tell us that, and we were overacting. So we tried to edit around our overacting. [Laughs.] Usually, we’d be on hand to tell each other. And then sometimes we’d split into different units, and Taika would go film a scene he was in, and I would film a scene I’m in.
Waititi: I think this was harder just because we were improvising the whole thing, and a lot of the time we didn’t really know exactly what we were doing.
Clement: It was an experiment.
Waititi: And a lot of the time, we’d just decide what we were doing on the spot. Sometimes we’d have to do different versions of things, because we didn’t know. We weren’t sure if Jermaine’s take would be better, or my way. But most of the time, we agreed. The hardest thing I found was just being dressed up like a dandy, and trying to get people to take me seriously. We had some difficulty with the crew members. We had some arguments, and all I could think was how ridiculous we looked, dressed like we were trying to have a very serious conversation about whether or not we’re continuing the relationship.
Clement: Yeah, the two of us dressed like vampires.
The Dissolve: Is it true you’re considering a spin-off with the werewolf pack because they’ve been so popular with audiences?
Waititi: It is slightly true. We have a couple of ideas for another movie. If we do one again, we have a couple of ideas for other movies based on this. One being following the werewolves, one being the vampires going back to the homeland of Transylvania, and it’s all different.
The Dissolve: Given that this one took 10 years to get around to because of all of your other commitments, do you think we’ll be waiting a decade for that spin-off?
Clement: It’s possible that it wouldn’t matter, because we don’t age.
The Dissolve: But your audience does, and the culture does. Will this movie, or a spin-off, be less relevant in an age 10 more years removed from Twilight?
Clement: Well, I don’t know. We thought of this movie years before Twilight, so who knows what will happen. I don’t think we’re really planning to do it in another 10 years. It’s just that we lived in different countries for a while. Now it’s a lot easier for us to make something happen. I wouldn’t take so long now. You only need a few months to shoot a film.
The Dissolve: What is up for you guys next, together or separately?
Clement: We’re writing a TV show together, and we’re trying to produce one in New Zealand, but New Zealand’s great for making movies, and very difficult for making television. We might have made What We Do In The Shadows a TV idea, if it was easier to make TV in New Zealand. I’ve got some acting coming up. I’ve done a couple of films that were in Sundance that I’ll probably be standing by to promote soon. I’m probably touring with Bret Mckenzie for Flight Of The Conchords later on in the year, but probably near the summer.
The Dissolve: Are you tired of questions about whether there will ever be more Flight Of The Conchords material?
Clement: Well, that’s why I got there first, so there wouldn’t be the question.
The Dissolve: What do you look for at this point in an acting project?
Clement: Usually, it’s just based on the script, if I like that. Sometimes, it’s just liking the people involved, or what they’ve done before. If someone asks me to do a movie, and they’ve done one or some of my favorite movies, there’s no question I’ll do it. I feel indebted to them.
Waititi: Ask him to do a movie with you!
The Dissolve: I don’t think he feels indebted to me after one interview.
Waititi: But he’s too nice to say no!
The Dissolve: At this point, would you rather be in a movie made by somebody with an interesting idea or résumé, or would you rather make your own projects together?
Waititi: Jemaine, I’d love to keep working with you. But sometimes, it’s easier to just make someone else do all the work. You just have to say all the lines.
Clement: It’s definitely easier to just say the lines. Yeah. But it’s more satisfying to make your own stuff. They’re rewarding in different ways.