Sundance 2014: Taika Waititi on What We Do In the Shadows
It took me until near the end of Sundance to finally catch the New Zealand vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement wrote, directed and costarred in a mockumentary about a group of vampire housemates preparing for a masquerade party. By now, Clement was no longer available but I got to meet up with Waititi on Main Street, and he was surprised how seriously I took the film.
CraveOnline: How did you hook up with the New Zealand Documentary Board to present this serious exposé?
Taika Waititi: Good question. Are we doing this in character?
I thought I’d do a few and see how it goes.
If you Google “vampire attacks Wellington” a few things that will come up. In particular there’s one case where this guy and this girl attacked someone and bit them. It was quite famous in New Zealand. It was a Wellington vampire attack. At that point, the Documentary Board approached Jemaine and I because we were the most qualified in New Zealand to make this kind of film, after seeing our previous work obviously. They’ve managed to find a contact that led to another one, we went deeper, we went deeper and we did a lot of research and we found the guys in the flat.
And your precautions included crucifixes on the set?
Crucifixes, we had to bathe in holy water before turning up to the flat, stuff our pockets with garlic. We actually got a garlic infused oil which was a spray. If we ever felt in danger, we’d just spray it around the house.
Was that a tough negotiation with Viago and the house how much safety and sanctuary you’d have while following them?
Yep, it was tough at times. More the other guys. Viago showed a lot more restraint. He has quite a bit of will power. I think Viago’s probably the most sensitive of the bunch. As you see, his love story, he’s the one when we were hanging out with him that was the most protective of us.
Viago bears a striking resemblance to you. How do you account for that?
Yes, I actually didn’t recognize that until a lot of people have started pointing it out. I took a screen grab of him and I put it next to a photo of me and there is an uncanny resemblance, yeah.
So it looks like vampires sleep either in coffins, hanging upside down or in a harem with succubi. Does that mean all the myriad vampire legend we’ve seen in movies all have a place in their society?
Absolutely, and as we keep trying to say, it’s all true. Bram Stoker, the guys told us that Bram Stoker got a lot of his information for his book from the guys when they were still in Europe, and they said he’s an asshole.
Have you done a lot of interviews like this as the director of the documentary?
No. [Laughs] I’m working real answers to things into it though. The Documentary Board gave us not much money to make it. It was a pretty low budget documentary. I guess the main shoot was five weeks of intense shooting and then a tiny little bit here and there, hanging out with the guys and coming back after a few months after Nick got bitten and stuff.
Okay, the truth is Jemaine and I came up with the idea in 2005. At that point, no one was making vampire films. I think Underworld had just come out or Underworld 2 and we were like, “Hey, this is a perfect time to make a vampire mockumentary because vampires aren’t very cool and no one’s making vampire movies.” The other one was John Carpenter.
John Carpenter’s Vampires was in the late ‘90s but they did do some straight to video sequels so maybe it was Vampires: Los Muertos.
Oh my God, was it that long ago? Maybe you’re right but it was John Carpenter’s, films like that. We were like, “Well, it’s the perfect time to strike.” Then we went off and did other things, we were trying to write it and we wrote like a scene or year. Seven years later we’re like, “Okay, perfect, let’s do it.”
Did you get a few more jokes out of the whole Twilight phenomenon?
Yeah, actually one part of the film we wanted to do was we wanted to get, because we felt like now we were making a film at the end of the vampire craze, that we wanted to get a shot of the last Twilight posters being taken down from around the cinemas and stuff. Just a billboard being taken down. That would’ve been quite awesome.
Comedic tone is so hard to describe, but how would you describe your sense of humor?
Well, we like sad humor. We like humor based in tragedy and just the clumsiness and awkwardness of humanity. We find those moments the funniest. The balance of the film was sometimes we’d be like, okay, let’s just fill it with jokes and it’d be really funny. Then we’d watch it and it’s like it’s very funny, but also kind of boring. There’s no story. So we’d concentrate on the story and then it’s not funny anymore. We’ve lost all the jokes, so it’s a constant battle between story and jokes and trying to find a balance. Then we cut out a few scenes, like a really cool seen that we love which is [SPOILER]’s funeral. We find it really funny but at that point it’s quite a lot of sad scenes and we realize maybe especially foreign audiences would find it too many bummer scenes.
Is part of it also that once you’ve lived a few hundred years, you just become dorks because you’re so outdated?
Yeah, you become complacent. You expect to be a virtuoso on any instrument. With that much time you might as well learn stuff, but they’re actually terrible at everything. I think that’s what would happen if you were immortal. You’d go, “Oh, I’ll learn how to play piano properly in the next decade.” You have all the time in the world and that’s not actually a good thing.
I think the sandwich line is going to be the quote of the movie. Was that in the original script years ago?
That is scripted. We had always had the sandwich analogy but we actually didn’t shoot that until we did some reshoots. We wrote a script but we didn’t give it to the actors. None of the actors saw the script so the whole film is improvised. The actors would turn up to set and be like, “What’s going on today?” “Okay, so in this scene this happens and this happens. You need to get from this point to this point in the scene” because we wanted people to have the most natural performances.
Because we were such big characters, especially for vampires, it was important we stuck as closely as possible to the documentary genre and try and keep things feeling real, because it’s such a preposterous idea anyway. How do you make a supernatural documentary but keep it in that doc world? We were influenced by documentaries like Spinal Tap and Grey Gardens, Anvil which is basically Spinal Tap.
So comedic and straight documentaries?
And a lot of those improv movies you can still tell they’re finding the scene as we’re watching that. I did not feel that in What We Do In the Shadows. How did you keep it on point?
It was in the editing. Each scene we did, because of the improvising, each scene was a 15-minute take. We ended up with 130 hours of footage and we had to get 85 minutes out of that. It took a year to edit.
Could you make an alternate movie like the Anchorman: Wake Up, Ron Burgundy?
Maybe, maybe. Maybe we can come back to them, like where are they now?
Were you as much spoofing the tropes of documentaries as vampires?
Yeah, and I think a lot of it fell into sometimes, because this whole reality TV thing, some of what we were doing was using those horrible clichés that they do like those little punch ins and stings. I really hate that genre. It was pretty fun to do.
Unfortunately Jemaine’s not here to ask my Flight of the Conchords question but maybe you can help. I still have too many motha’uckers ‘ucking with my shi’. What can I do about all the motha’uckers ‘ucking with my shi’?
Where’s my phone? I was going to text him and see what he says. How about I text him and I’ll give her the answer and [the publicist] gives you the answer? How about that?
Okay. What are your favorite vampire movies?
The one that was most influential to me was probably Lost Boys. When I saw that, I made my mum buy me a trench coat just like Corey Haim and I looked stupid in a trench coat at 10 years old.
I was wondering, you hit so many vampires in the beginning of the movie, just that Petyr looks like Nosferatu, how far you’d take it. Almost 30 years later, was Lost Boys a risk?
I think so. It’s only a small joke and there were definitely people in our test audiences who didn’t get it. That’s why we had to put in the line of him saying, “We stole that from The Lost Boys.”
Jemaine’s text came through. He said:
Jemaine Clement: They never stop. You stop one mother ucker and another mother ucker comes and ucks with your shit."