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“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS” creators reveal what they didn’t do

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If you catch WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS as it begins its theatrical run today, you’ll see one of the funniest horror/comedies ever. And below, filmmakers/stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi note a few things you won’t see, like a reference to a certain vampire franchise and a suggestion by none other than Peter Jackson.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (released by Unison Films and Paladin, and reviewed here) is a mock documentary focusing on a quartet of vampire roommates in a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand: Viago (Waititi), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and the monstrous-looking Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in the basement. The laughs come thick and fast as the group deal with the difficulties of existing in the modern world; the assorted complications include a would-be victim, Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who winds up being transformed into a bloodsucker himself—and originally occasioned a gag reference to the TWILIGHT saga.

“You know the scene where Deacon and Nick are talking on the hill, about how people will die and he has to get used to that?” Clement asks during a chat with FANGORIA. “We had a bit where the sun comes up and they both catch fire on their hands—and Nick gets really angry, thinking he was going to sparkle [laughs]! But we cut it out.”

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Clement, who rose to fame via the cult TV series FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS and played the alien villain in MEN IN BLACK 3, and Waititi, whose films include EAGLE VS. SHARK and the Kiwi smash BOY, developed WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS over the course of a decade, based on some early standup routines and a 2006 short film. Over that time, TWILIGHT put vampires under a much brighter spotlight—albeit one meeting disapproval from horror fans—and Waititi notes, “It became unavoidable because it was so huge, so we had to make some little reference to it.”

“It was helpful at one point, when we were looking for money,” Clement adds.

“Nick’s character is like this new generation of vampire,” Waititi continues, “and the way he’s obsessed with TWILIGHT, which the [other] characters have never even seen, represents a kind of changing of the guard for vampire fans.”

“The rest of us [take our references] from Hammer horror movies,” Clement notes.

Thus, the gang’s apartment house has a suitably Gothic look, and Clement says, “The interiors were built on a stage, but based on an old building from the early 1900s—which was Peter Jackson’s office at the time.” New Zealand’s biggest cinematic export also provided them camera and lighting equipment and got them good deals at his postproduction house, and Clement recalls, “Peter offered to lend us 3D cameras, and suggested shooting it in that process. But we thought that mostly, it’s just talking, and it might not really work in 3D.”

With all the preparation WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS required, Clement notes that there wasn’t a great deal of time to think about his character, which—like the other vamps—developed over the course of shooting, with a certain amount of improvisation involved. “I was just stressing out about trying to get the film made,” he says of the leadup time to the beginning of shooting. “We had to do tests for makeup and what I would look like; I think most of the work for me went into clothes. We put together, with the wardrobe designer, a bunch references from history and other vampire movies, like maybe Nick Cave plus Louis XIV. Karl Lagerfeld was one who was on my sheet of references [laughs]. And [turns to Waititi] you said that your character was like your mum—you said, ‘C-3PO mixed with my mum!’

“Some of it developed during the filming,” Clement continues, “where I imagined my character as very powerful, but he has no use for his powers; in the modern day, they’re just wasted, because there aren’t castles and slaves any more. I wanted him to be like an unpredictable old man, but then Jonny Brugh proved to be quite unpredictable in what he was going to say as Deacon. So I couldn’t do that, because we never knew what Jon was gonna do.”

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They also weren’t able to control certain members of the crowd who appear in WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS’ biggest scene, which takes place during an Unholy Masquerade Ball attended by all manner of creatures of the night. “We had so much to get through in two days on that,” Clement says. “It was a bit of a nightmare; we had wanted it to be a lot bigger and more grand, with freakier characters and so forth. We had a lot of film students in there, wearing fancy-dress costumes, and some of the digital effects we used involved painting over and changing people’s faces, because you’d see some of the extras just smiling and laughing in the background, since we were improvising and they don’t know what was going to happen. So we’d tell the effects guys, ‘Make their face full of fangs,’ or something. Wellington’s really good for digital talent and prosthetics and stuff like that, but not so great for serious extras [laughs]!”

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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