Exclusive Interview: Jemaine Clement on Muppets Most Wanted

Jemaine Clement Flight of the Conchords

I missed Jemaine Clement at Sundance due to our conflicting schedules, but his What We Do In the Shadows co-director, Taika Waititi, was nice enough to text him a question I had in reference to the Flight of the Conchords song “Mutha’ucka’s.” Shadows played again at SXSW so I was able to meet up with Clement there. The timing was better, especially because he has a significant role in Muppets Most Wanted opening this weekend.

Clement plays a Gulag prisoner whom Kermit meets when he’s mistaken for a Russian criminal. What We Do In the Shadows is about a house of vampire roommates who let us inside vampire culture in a mockumentary comedy. Most of our questions were about Shadows but we got some good discussion about Muppets, Conchords and, randomly, Robocop and Freddy Krueger.

CraveOnline: If you remember, Taika texted you my question about mutha’ucka’s.

Jemaine Clement: Oh yeah, I remember. So this is like the second half of that interview.

You gave me a very helpful answer about dealing with mutha’ucka’s. Only I actually add the F and the T. Is that okay?

It takes a lot of discipline not to. When you’re singing that song, trying to remember to drop it out, because we did it a lot.

You ended up having a fairly big role in Muppets Most Wanted.

I wouldn’t have thought of it as a big role, but I guess there’s a lot of people in there.

You end up being in more of the movie than a cameo.

Right, somewhere in between. I was there for a month.

So you knew it wasn’t just going to be a cameo?

Yeah, I suppose so.

Was that the first time you ever sung a song that Bret McKenzie wrote that you weren’t involved with?

No, because we would often write separately, so sometimes I would sing a song he had written or he’d sing a song that I’ve written. Sometimes I would go, “I’ve written a song but I’ve imagined you singing it. I feel like this is a character you would do.” So we would do that anyway.

Did you ask James Bobin if there was a role for you, or was it something where he said, “We’ve got a character that might work for you?”

No, I didn’t ask him. He asked if both of us would write the music for the first one, but Bret loves being in the studio, working with Pro Tools and putting tunes together, and I really don’t love that. It drives me mad, so I couldn’t handle a year of doing that.

Do you enjoy the live performance of music?

Oh yeah, that’s so much fun. Also the first song that James got me to look at for The Muppets was an evil rap, and I was working on Rio and the very same week I was writing an evil rap for Rio. It was just so similar, the idea, to what I’d just been asked to do and started working on it, I thought I’ll steal jokes from myself. So I didn’t end up doing it, but acting for me is a lot more fun.

Would an acoustic album be your ideal for music?

Probably just live work. Studio can be fun but I don’t know.

Well, if you perform it live and someone can record it then I’ll be happy.

[Laughs] Okay.

Is there going to be any new Flight of the Conchords music?

We’ve written a few songs that we haven’t recorded because every time we tour we write one or two new songs at least.

Have you performed them on the tour?

Yeah, we performed in the Oddball Tour last year.

So some of your new songs are out there?

They’re probably on YouTube and next time we tour we’ll probably look them up on YouTube and learn them. Even though we tell people not to record them, we always use it as a reference later if we can’t remember how the tune goes or some of the words.

What is the difference in tone between the movies you do with Taika and the comedy you do with Bret?

I know there’s a difference in the way we come up with ideas. I feel like with Bret, Bret’s so picky that we’re both trying to find the ideas that we both like. With Taika, we just try everything and then we sort it out later which we like.

What were some things you tried on What We Do In the Shadows that might have gone the wrong direction?

Oh, well, we did have it ending in a big dance sequence. We didn’t have the budget for a big dance sequence but we tried on a limited budget and it was really terrible.

I think the sandwich line is the quotable line from the movie and Taika told us it almost wasn’t in the movie until the last minute.

Yeah, that took convincing. I said, “Uh, I’m not sure. That’s kind of just gross to me.” But they convinced me and that’s always the biggest laugh.

You’d had a number of big movies like Men in Black 3 and Diner for Schmucks recently. Was it time to go back to New Zealand and make a movie?

Yeah, I wanted to just hang out in New Zealand for a while. It took much longer than I thought it would, this movie. It took a lot of editing because we had so much footage because we were improvising.

You weren’t expecting it to be like that?

I didn’t expect it taking quite as much time.

How long was it?

Most of a year editing, but I went and did other stuff as well. I’d always get back to this thing and chip it into shape.

Did you miss out on doing anything because you were busy with Shadows?

Well, I said no, I wouldn’t be able to read scripts and do other things. I guess I did, but I said no to auditioning for other vampire movies because there were a lot. Everything was a vampire movie all of a sudden.

All the straight vampire movies that weren’t comedies?

Yeah, like one of my favorite vampire movies when I was a kid was Fright Night and they remade Fright Night and they asked me if I wanted to try out for the part of the funny guy. It was a tough one because I love Fright Night but then I wouldn’t want to ruin Fright Night. Then I was also doing this other vampire movie so I don’t want to just do vampire movies either.

Would that have been the David Tenant part?


Did you like what David did with that role?

I haven’t seen it but I’m sure I would. I think he’s great.

Is it because of your love for the original you’ve avoided watching it?

Yeah, I think so. That and Robocop I haven’t seen because they’re two of my favorite movies from being a teenager.

Robocop for me also but I did a really big turn on that, becoming interested in the remake and actually really liking what they did with it.

Oh, that’s cool. I’m not one of those people who actually thinks it ruins the original movie because the original movie still exists.

Definitely not. I don’t even think sequels ruin the previous movies because you can just stop at the point you stop liking it.

Well, people think that. And then books, though I don’t think I could read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin after I’ve seen a bit of that movie on the plane.

You can’t picture it without Nicolas Cage?

It’s just Nicolas Cage now. My imagination wasn’t powerful enough to recreate the character in my head.

But with Robocop, if they had managed Robocop right in the ‘80s, we’d be on Robocop 10 by now. But they didn’t, so here we are.

There were a few Robocops though, and a TV series.

I actually liked the Canadian TV series. It’s an improvement on Robocop 3.

Yeah, maybe. Was there a hologram character?

There were two different TV series. I like the “Prime Directives” one. The other series had a female hologram who helped him.

I didn’t know there were two.

There’s so much Robocop out there!

And I was also a huge Nightmare on Elm Street fan. That’s another one I haven’t seen the remake of. The TV series even, “Freddy’s Nightmares,” it was cool.

I thought it would be great to have Freddy Krueger every week, but when I saw them I thought there’s something different about these. They’re not like the movies.

They’re definitely not as scary.

So is one of the angles of the humor in What We Do In The Shadows that these vampires have been alive for so long that they’re really just outdated dorks? They’re not threatening vampires.

Yeah, they’re old men. They’re old men. Even if they look the same as they did 100 years ago, they’re old men. I think part of that is that we’re all around 40, that we probably feel like that in our lives. If we had made the movie when we’d first come up with it eight years ago, I wonder if it would have had so much of that.

If you’d done it eight years ago, there wouldn’t have been Facebook or Skyping.

No, you’re right, yeah. I don’t know what it would’ve come out like.

I think you nailed every type of vampire, even down to the Nosferatu-looking Petyr, even a Lost Boys one. Were there any you had to leave out?

I’m not sure. I guess if we had more budget there would be more. Certainly at the ball, we had big scenes at the ball where we’d interview a family of vampires whose kids were teenage vampires. There’s no way that could’ve fit, but we did have more suburban vampires and other characters who were trying to get something in. There’s a lot of stuff about clothes, people who became vampires in the ‘90s just eternally wearing ‘90s clothes and things like that.

Are you as into reality TV as you are into vampires?

No, I never watch reality TV. I used to think that it was the enemy, it’s killing off everything else, killing off fiction and anything imaginative. When I have watched it, I’ve cried at “The Biggest Loser” when I have happened to watch 10 minutes. It can be really powerfully emotional no matter how cheesy it is because when you know something’s real, not that all reality TV’s real.

So was that aspect of What We Do in the Shadows more foreign to you than the vampire side?

Well, the reality TV part of it sort of creeped in. We intended to make it just a documentary but the kind of dramas that they have where they’re bitching at each other just seemed to fit after a while. We could have edited it just to be a BBC style documentary. We had so much footage we could have, but it also could have been more reality TV. I guess there are catfights.

Besides Fright Night, what are your favorite vampire movies?

Well, when I was a kid I loved that movie. “Salem’s Lot” was the scariest one for me. Both Nosferatus, the ‘70s one and the ‘20s one. Near Dark is pretty good. Lost Boys, I loved it at the time. It’s still very watchable. Let the Right One In was fantastic.

Either version, or just the Swedish version?

I prefer the Swedish version. It’s a little bit spookier.

Have you been appalled by some of the vampire movies that have come out of late?

No, not really. I think they are turning people off vampires though. I’ve met real vampire fans who’ve come to our showings just embarrassed to like vampires because of the Twilight movies. Like you say, it doesn’t delete the existence of other vampire movies.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.