Living with roommates–or “flatting” in Kiwi parlance–is a delicate matter. There are personal lives to respect, household chores to divvy up, and individual idiosyncrasies to contend with. And that’s just for the mere mortal among us. For flatmates Viago, Vladislav, Deacon and Petyr, who also happen to be vampires, those banal cohabiting foibles include issues such as: addressing the excessive littering of human skeletons, walking in on a ceiling-suspended virgin orgy, and dealing with a growing stack of very bloody dishes. And vacuuming.
These domestic dynamics are on display in What We Do in the Shadows, a comical mockmentary that purports to provide a never-before-seen glimpse of the vampire lifestyle. Shot by a living human camera crew in tow (which the vamps vow not to eat… except maybe one cameraman), the film follows Viago the dandy (played by Taika Waititi), Vlad the pervert (Jemaine Clement), and Deacon the devil-may-care bad boy (Jonathan Brugh). At 8,000 years old, Petyr (Ben Fransham) largely keeps to himself.
Co-directed by New Zealander comedians/filmmakers Waititi (Boy, Eagle vs. Shark) and Clement (of Flight of the Conchords fame), the film deftly walks the line between buddy comedy and camp gorefest while adopting all the right tropes of a documentary. As the trio roams the streets of Wellington, NZ in search of nightlife, good times, and virgins we see them run into age-old problems like being denied entry into clubs (vampires need to be invited in) and having trouble picking up (potential meals, not dates). Their centuries-old routine is altered, however, when Nick, a newbie vamp, and his still-living bestie, Stu, join the crew. From there, they tussle with a pack of werewolves, led by straight-laced alpha male Anton (played brilliantly by Conchords co-star Rhys Darby, aka Murray), develop a protective bond with Stu and, in one of the film’s genuinely touching scenes, are introduced to 21st-century technology (the first Google search of vampires: sunrise).
And these interactions between friends ring true, aside from the all the shapeshifting and bloodlust, that is. It’s this convincing tone of the film juxtaposed with the absurd premise that has no doubt lead to its popularity–it was recently granted the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
While in Toronto at TIFF we caught up with Clement and Stu Rutherford, who plays the warm-blooded mate, to talk about how reality heavily informed this completely unreal story, and how the practice of keeping the cast in the dark yielded some of the best mocku-real performances this side of Spinal Tap.
Clement traces the early seeds of the idea of the film to his childhood. As a young boy in New Zealand he says he had a hearty obsession with vampires. “When I was 10 I started a gang at school called the Vampires and after school we would get those plastic teeth and ride around on our bikes speaking in Transylvanian accents and try to scare local kids,” he says. But it was his friendship and professional collaboration with Waititi that ultimately led to this film.
As comedians in New Zealand, Clement says he and Waititi had been working on some vampire stage characters and really wanted to make a movie. “Taika suggested we make a mockumentary. He was thinking about making a documentary about something you couldn’t actually document, you know, like an alien invasion.”
To test the idea, and to help secure funding, the duo created a short film in 2005 of the same name. That’s when Rutherford, then a quiet IT guy, got involved.
“I was flatting with Taika and a bunch of other people at this stage,” says Rutherford. “And he was like, ‘Do you mind if I store a coffin in your room for a few days? We’re shooting a short film about vampires and we’ll probably shoot a scene in your room.’ I was trying to be a good housemate so I was like, ‘Uh, yeah… yeah sure.'” It wasn’t long before Rutherford was pulled into the action. “I was just hanging around because it’s a interesting to watch a bunch of funny guys pretending to be vampires. And then they asked me to just go stand in the shot and they might make me this guy’s friend. I don’t think I said anything in that film.”
And that, basically, is what you see from Stu the character. As a quiet IT guy in the film, Stu is a comic foil simply because he’s so observationally quiet–and so alive.
While Clement says the team extensively researched vampire lore to come up with their characters, in fact, as with Stu, most of the character traits came from the actors themselves. “We improvised a lot in the short–most of the cast are standup comedians. Like, Jonathan, the guy who plays Deacon, got sick when we were shooting and he ended up being really moody and went off. That set his character. And Stu just happened to be around so we asked him to be in the short,” says Clement.
Filming on the feature version of What We Do in the Shadows didn’t begin until 2012, seven years after the short. This, says Clement, was because he and Waititi got busy with their careers: Clement was making American’s laugh with Flight of the Conchords and feature film roles, and Waititi was directing his feature debut, Boy.
But the gap came with its benefits. Rutherford was able to transition from real-life IT guy to actor by building his film chops. “They said they might shoot a feature in the future so I did a one-day course in how to audition, and did a few auditions now and again so I would not freak out when I saw the camera,” says. He also started working behind the scenes on films.
And then there was that bit about vampires blowing up in pop culture. “We started thinking about working on the feature right as we hit a wave of vampire popularity, so it did make it a lot easier for us to make. We were asking for money at the point that it was peak vampire.”
One of the most brilliant aspects of What We Do in the Shadows is how natural the interactions seem. That’s largely because the directors’ filmmaking process involved keeping all but the most central actors in the dark about what was actually happening in the film.
Take Stu’s character, for example. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that in the film, Stu’s role evolves significantly beyond a wingman of few words–which was as surprising for Rutherford as it is for audiences.
“When I turned up I first noticed that the crew wouldn’t talk to me as much as I thought they would have,” says Rutherford who had worked on features as a crew member before. “I realized they’d been told not to tell the cast what was happening. So they wouldn’t tell the cast how the film was unfolding. We felt like we had a weird disease because they’d angle off the other way when we went to talk to them. Then Taika and Jemaine would say, ‘You’re shooting this scene, you’re going to talk to Nick, he’s going to talk to you . . . just see how it goes . . . action.’”
Clement says this was because they wanted to elicit the most natural responses from its cast. “For instance if someone was going to be surprised by being kicked out of the flat, we wanted them to be surprised and we wanted them to look upset.”
“I was upset,” adds Rutherford. “But I think it adds to the awkwardness and the documentary feel to it. It was like being in a film, as you’d expect, with a layer of being in a weird game show, because you never knew what was going on.”