This should be a good year for friends of the fabulously freaky comic actor and musician Jemaine Clement. Although he and his Flight of the Conchords musical partner Bret McKenzie dispelled rumors late last year that they were getting back together to restart their HBO series (Clement is actually working on something else for the cable channel), Celment is appeared in a host of new films in 2015 that display quite a range. First up is the 2014 festival favorite and hilarious vampire mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, co-written//starring/directed by Clement’s EAGLE VS. SHARK partner Taika Waititi. The film was held off what was going to be a mostly VOD release in 2014 to give the filmmakers time to launch a Kickstarter campaign to get a wider platform release in 2015, and the plan seems to be working, fueled by some of the best reviews of any movie this year.
Clement was also in two films that premiered at Sundance in January—a re-teaming with his GENTLEMAN BRONCOS director Jered (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) Hess for DON VERDEAN, co-starring Sam Rockwell and set in the intriguing world of biblical archaeology; and the break-up comedy PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS.
Although he is something of a superstar in his native New Zealand, Clement’s career in American has been as a reliable supporting player in such works as DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS, MEN IN BLACK 3, and MUPPETS MOST WANTED, as well as doing a great deal of animation voicing for films and television, like DESPICABLE ME, RIO, “The Simpsons,” and the “Napoleon Dynamite” animated series. But seeing him in WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is a great reminder of what he’s capable of creating when given total control and a role that is front and center in an observant and viciously wicked comedy. I had the chance to speak with Jemaine Clement a few days ago, and I hope you enjoy our talk…
Capone: It must be exciting that this film is finally getting out there to people after premiering over a year ago at Sundance and playing festivals all last year.
Jemaine Clement: Yeah, yeah. It’s also the way the release has gone, it’s exciting how it’s growing instead of just disappearing.
Capone: That’s what you wanted. More of a platform release, right?
Capone: And you have to search to find someone who doesn’t enjoy the hell out of it. I saw it at SXSW last year, and I’ve been talking about it for a year. Vampire movies were my gateway drug not just into horror films, but into loving films in general. So seeing a film like this someone who clearly has a knowledge of different incarnations of vampire was such a thrill. Where did this idea of cohabiting vampires come from?
JC: When Taika and I started talking about this film, it was 10 years ago. A lot of that idea comes before that time and is based on our lives living with other people. And it took a long time to make. And there’s also a layer in the film which is about middle age, or aging, and being alive for a longer time and having a longer perspective of what life might be like. It’s a silly movie, but there are things that come from the two different times—the time of the conception of the film and then the time of actually make it. The argument in the film is, why wouldn’t you have flatmates if there are other vampires around; that’s a long time to spend alone. Also, we think of our vampires as not being very successful with money, so they’re sharing the costs, living together.
Capone: How did you decide which sort of vampire archetypes to use? Some of them are very clear references to specific versions of vampires we’ve seen in the past, and some are more vague. How did you come up with the four or five different versions we see here?
JC: Well, some of it came from improvising when we did the first version, which we made into a short in 2005. When we did that, things suggested themselves. Then when we had more of a budget for costumes and sets, things became more solid. I guess we used things we found funny and were distinct from each other. I think when Taika and I would do theater shows, which is how we started, we would just write lists of what we wanted to pretend to be, really, what we wanted to do. This was the same kind of thing—vampires would have been on that list. We’ve made up our characters, and for the most part, we let the people in it develop characters themselves a lot, except for Ben Fransham who’s playing the Nosferatu-looking one, Petyr.
Capone: Petyr's my favorite. Since it took you 10 years since you thought of this idea, did some of the more modern vampires, like from “True Blood” or TWILIGHT, come into play in later versions of this script?
JC: Yeah, we mention TWILIGHT a little bit; there were more mentions of it than are in the film. There was one part where two vampires are talking about being immortal at the end of the film, and we used to have the sun coming up and both their hands bursting into flames, and then Nick, the young one, complaining that he thought he was going to sparkle. And we probably would have used it, it just didn’t look really real when we did it. Who knows, the success of those other vampire films probably helped us and made it easier to find money. When we first came up with it, it seemed like a crazy thing to make a film about.
Capone: Once you decided on vampires, did you and Taika just binge watch vampire movies?
JC: Well, I grew up like you grew up—watching them and checking out basically anything that had a vampire in it. It wouldn't matter what the quality was like at that time, I would think it was brilliant no matter what it was like. Some have stayed in my memory and some haven’t.
Capone: But in terms of looking at ideas and scenarios for the household and things they would deal with as a household…
JC: We just knew it already. We didn’t need to go back and watch a lot of stuff. I think we went back and watched THE LOST BOYS again, but we knew it. We both had the same references. The way that this idea came about was, I had just watched this film NADJA; I don’t know if you know it; it was a ’90s black and white…
Capone: Yeah, of course, with Elina Löwensohn.
JC: Yeah! I just watched that and I liked that. It’s very arty, and I thought we could make a funny version of it, spanning centuries of these vampires who know each other from different countries of the world, and they come together over hundreds of years. And so I pitched the idea to Taika, saying let’s make something like that. We’d been making theater stuff and wanting to do something in film. He had a separate idea about making a mockumentary about something you couldn’t really film, so we just put those together.
Capone: I had read somewhere that you had ended up with 125 hours of footage. I’m sure people have asked you about DVD extras and things like that, but when you really look at that material, is it best left unseen, or is there stuff that hurt to cut?
JC: Yeah, most of it is best left unseen. There are some good things that we really liked that we couldn’t fit. We didn’t stick to a really modern structure of how a comedy goes, where you find out what the plot is in the first 15 minutes and then follow that. We let you just sit on stuff that we found funny for half an hour, which is a more old-fashioned, ‘70s-‘80s way of making comedy, just playing jokes for a while. Films these days have the same structure as far as when things happen, and we didn’t worry about that too much. But sometimes if we liked a scene and there was another scene at the start that slowed it down, we’d have to take it out. We have scenes that I like, like this one where Nick, the new vampire, has started turning everyone in Wellington into vampires, and we’re telling him you can’t do that because we’ll run out of humans, and all the vampires are trying to do the math figuring out how many people would turn into vampires if you bite three people and then they bite three people, and they can’t figure it out. It’s one of my favorite scenes, but we just couldn't fit it in there.
Capone: I really do think that by making it a documentary-style film, you’re striving for a certain degree of realism, and I noticed the second time watching it that there are actual moments where people are talking over each other. The thing in mockumentaries that bothers me is that it feels like everyone is waiting for their turn to say their line, but here there’s that overlap, and it felt much more authentic in terms of the documentary parts of it. Was that intentional?
JC: We didn’t tell people to do that. It just sometimes happens. I think if you do improv, what people do is they go with people’s suggestion and don’t disagree or fight, but we didn’t really. We maybe didn’t follow that rule. We didn’t come from that discipline. I’ve done a little, and the other guys have probably done a little, but we’re more looking for the conflict and arguments more often.
Capone: I think any old-school horror fan is going to go crazy for Petyr, but overall, the makeup and effects for this film are really top notch, without being overly flashy. Who did you get to do your effects work?
JC: The guy that did the makeup for Petyr is a guy called Don Brooker, and the digital effects are from our special effects supervisor, Stan Alley, who works for Weta, and a lot of the people he got to do stuff either had worked for Weta or finish their job on THE HOBBIT and work on our stuff at night. So there are a lot of really good people, and the style of the film hides it more because you can’t get it close, because you wouldn’t actually be able to, because it’s moving. That kind of helps.
Capone: The Kickstarter campaign you ran to widen the distribution model, how in the end did actually change the fate of the film and how it was released?
JC: It helped over the middle bit. We released in a few cities and we had the next week lined up, and we needed to know that we would be able to pay for the next week when those cities went out because you needed to have ads in all the papers for all the theaters. But now the film is doing well enough that we can convince theaters to put it on, and it’s making money that it can pay for itself now, but it helps with the tricky middle part.
Capone: Yeah, which is what you’re in the midst of right now.
JC: Yeah. It’s about to go to more places on Friday.
Capone: I saw one of the two films you had at Sundance this year, DON VERDEAN. And I love the concept of these guys that are seeking out biblical artifacts. Do these guys actually exist? Are there people that actually do this? I’ve never heard of this.
JC: [laughs] Yeah, they do.
Capone: It’s fantastic. Your character is Verdean’s advance man. Is he Israeli?
JC: Yeah. Supposed to be.
Capone: Right, exactly. Your’e worked with Jared before and you have an idea of what your’e in for.Tell me about Boaz, and did you do any research on the people that do that work?
JC: What’s surprising about all of Jared’s films, because they’re all so wacky and they seem to be in his own universe—him and Jerusha, his wife/co-writer. It’s surprising how much is from real life. In every film he’s made, NACHO LIBRE is based on a real story, at least the kernel of it. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, some of the things he says are things Jared’s brothers would actually say. Parts of GENTLEMEN BRONCOS too. And there are these guys. You can find on YouTube, biblical archeologists. Will Forte’s character is an ex-satanist—there is actually an ex-satanist pastor. He talks about forms of satanism. A lot of these are based on real people or types of people.
Capone: The former-satanist preacher I have no problem believing, but these archeologists…
JC: Yeah, there are real live people who have done it.
Capone: I just imagine these guys finding something really important, but if it’s not religious, they’ll throw it back. Like it’s useless to them if they can’t take on a tour of churches. You also had PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS at Sundance, which I did not see, but it almost seemed like more of a conventional comedy.
JC: For me [laughs].
Capone: Tell me a little bit about that one, because you’re the lead character in that for one thing, which is great.
JC: The way I’ve described it is as a romantic comedy about a breakup. It’s a couple, and they were in love at one stage, and it’s not about the part that they meet, fall in love, and get together. It’s later than that. They’ve got kids now, and they’re breaking up. It’s still funny.
Capone: It’s ripe for comedy. I know at last year there was this weird, one-day rumor that you did a very nice job of squashing and clarifying, but are you still working on something for HBO?
JC: Yeah, Taika and I pitched a show to them. We’ll probably ask all those people to be in it at some stage, but we’re just writing it at the moment.
Capone: So there’s not a pilot or anything like that yet?
JC: Nothing has being filmed for it, and it may never be. But we’re at the stage of writing. I’ve got to learn to shut my mouth and not say things before they’re actual things.
Capone: Good luck with that. There’s a long history of people not learning to do that. So you’re in good company.
JC: It’s really hard because you’re thinking you’re just having a a conversation, “Yeah we’re thinking of doing that.” [laughs] I’m still answering questions from comments many years ago by anyone connected to “Flight of the Conchords.”
Capone: Well you created something that people never wanted to go away. I think the thing I learned most from WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS is that the mundane behavior of vampires is really funny, and I think you’ve done a remarkable job of showing how they are very much like humans, that they have all the same neurosis and concerns and ego issues that we do.
JC: A lot of where this came from is the idea of, what if you don’t get over something even if you’ve been alive for 800 years.
Capone: Exactly. And it also seems like they do, in a weird way, crave human friends, and they avoid it because of the aging thing, and their friends will all die. I like that idea.
JC: Yeah. We think of it more as it’s the power of the Stu character, the IT guy, that brings them all together.
Capone: Jemaine, thank you so much for talking to me, and best of luck with this.