How Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi are rewriting the rules for What We Do In The Shadows

Kayvan Novak stars as Nandor on What We Do In The Shadows
Photo: Matthias Clamer (FX)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s not hard to get into the spirit of things on the set of FX’s What We Do In The Shadows, the identically titled spin-off of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 cult classic. On this mid-December day, Toronto is a vampire’s haven: gloomy, with a chill in the air and a Gothic castle whose depths come to life when the sun sets. And as we head into a night shoot after an afternoon of interviews, the lore around the blood-sucking undead creatures has been parsed over by the show’s cast, executive producers, and creators so thoroughly, the reporters invited to the set start to wonder if they have what it takes for immortality.

There’s almost a sense of inevitability to the spin-off, which is already part of a ridiculous cinematic universe that includes a promotional short film starring Waititi, who reprised his role as the uptight dandy Viago, and the clueless-cop comedy procedural, Wellington Paranormal. But What We Do In The Shadows isn’t merely the latest in film-to-TV adaptations; its fate was practically prewritten. Clement tells the group of journalists, including myself, gathered on set that he had always had an eye set on expanding the world of the three provincial vampires who were the original subjects of the mockumentary. “When we were making the film, we had joked about making a [Real] Housewives-like series where you could go to different places and do different groups of vampires. As soon as I was on the phone with someone saying, ‘what if we made a TV series of this?,’ that immediately came into my head and I knew it would be different characters in a different place.”

The possibilities were equally obvious to his crew and mega-producer Scott Rudin, who urged Clement to adapt his delightfully absurd horror-comedy for TV; he and Waititi had, after all, fleshed out their own short film to make that 2014 feature. Clement wrote the pilot, and a writers room was quickly put together, including executive producer-writer Paul Simms and co-executive producer Stefani Robinson, who tell us everyone’s had a devil of a time trying to get the mythology around vampires straight. Simms had previously worked with Clement and Waititi on FOTC, while Atlanta alum Robinson found herself invited to the filming of the pilot, and later, to be involved directly with the show. They were soon joined by Tom Scharpling; meanwhile, Waititi signed on to split directing duties with Clement, Jackie van Beek (who played Viago’s familiar Jackie in the film), and Jason Woliner.

Though Waititi had already reprised his role once and the series has at least one Vladislav Easter egg in store, the longtime collaborators immediately nixed the idea of getting the old undead gang—including Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon—back together. But they were also deeply invested in their vampire mockumentary, which began with a short but was also pitched at one point as a “Documentary Now!-type show about impossible documentaries.” Clement says he and Waititi pitched a company in New Zealand on a similar idea of a six-part “impossible documentary”—“impossible” because they followed subjects not actually in existence—starting with the one in which they’d already starred. They’d also wanted to do an installment about “an alien invasion,” but the overall series never came to fruition.

They were hardly creatively stalled, though: In the years since What We Do In The Shadows sent up vampire tropes, Waititi has directed several acclaimed features, including Thor: Ragnarok, while Clement’s helmed several episodes of Wellington Paranormal in addition to soft-shoeing his way into our hearts as Legion’s Oliver Bird (oh, and filming an HBO concert special with his fellow Conchord, Bret McKenzie). Their return to talking heads, wire-rigging, and “enhanced pettiness” benefits from their other endeavors, but the premise of Shad ows is also inherently expandable, holding up a mirror to beings we’ve elevated to mythical status but who have zero self-awareness. Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, and Kayvan Novak make up the infernal trio of Laszlo, Nadia, and Nandor, respectively, and their chemistry is enviable; no matter what the configuration, the results are gut-busting. What We Do In The Shadows has all the bite of the original and its deadpan humor, while also mining new comedic and thematic territory—it has the potential to set off a Rube Goldberg machine’s worth of new directions. And Clement thinks TV is the ideal format for developing them: “I think people think of TV as being smaller scale but it’s actually larger because you have to have so many different stories.That part of it is hard, but it’s also the fun part, because then next week, we’re doing a different story. I love that.”

Although the broad strokes remain the same—three vampires pick to live in a house with a few familiars and a documentary crew—the rules and relationships are always changing. As Guillermo, Nandor’s familiar, Harvey Guillén is all too familiar with shifting goal posts; he’s been denied immortality for the last 10 years. In some ways, Guillermo is a Staten Island (where the show is set but not filmed) analogue to van Beek’s Jackie, but his resentment grows more gradually, smothered by politeness and the sweater vests that Guillén wove into his character’s story. It’s been a collaborative process throughout; although Clement wrote several of the scripts, he and Waititi know their main trio can improvise their way through a clash with werewolves or a simple house meeting. Berry, Demetriou, and Kayvan are shooting one such confrontation when we’re all at Casa Loma, and it is truly remarkable to watch as they conjure a new stream of profanities or pathetic excuses with each snap of the clackboard. Waititi chimes in several times to help out a certain guest star while also directing his core cast, and I find myself hoping FX shares the outtakes some day.

But for all the wriggle room in the dialogue, there’s also an ever-growing list of vampire rules that were definitely not made to be broken. Waititi says the team “researched a lot of vampire law and the rules—some are so weird that if you told someone to explain it in the film, people would think it was just over the top.” Everyone cites different vampire movie favorites and sources of inspiration: Simms, for example, is a Bram Stoker’s Dracula guy while Robinson loves vampire movies in general. Clement’s own interest in vampires began when, as a child, he woke up one night and “could hear the TV, and there was this scene of a bat dropping blood on this skeleton which becomes Christopher Lee. And it freaked me out so much. I had nightmares for years after that, and that’s differently related to why I’m still making a vampire thing.” Berry, Demetriou, and Novak regularly look to the original Shadows film, which observes the conventional movie wisdom that silver and sunlight are deadly for vampires, for inspiration.

The list of what’s forbidden to vampires goes on; they can’t blaspheme—Demetriou says she’s had to turn each involuntary “oh God” to “oh goodness”—or eat or swim or go in sunlight. Most of these edicts were set in the film, but did you know that, according to Waititi’s research (or research conducted at his behest and probably at the expense of someone else), vampires are compelled to chase their socks, even if you’ve filled them with garlic and thrown them into a river? Then there’s the whole subset of “Lost Boys rules,” as Clement calls them, including the needing an invitation to enter any private dwelling and the storing of alcohol (or blood, or what have you) in fancy decanters. That research only went so far, though; the Shadows creative team had to make up plenty of its own mythology, not least of which is the introduction of a whole new, but apparently quite common, type of vampire.

Like Clement, Mark Proksch, who plays the fourth roommate, Colin Robinson, cites Let The Right One In and Nosferatu as among his favorite vampire movies. But those films provide little background for his character, who’s an original creation for the show. Colin is an energy vampire: he deploys tedious lines of thinking and questioning to drain his co-workers of their psychic energy faster than the fluorescent lights or bureaucracy they work under. Colin’s insistent dullness can even sap vampires, including his roommates, of their strength. It’s a fascinating concept, one that more than justifies the decision to expand the group, and also offers some of the most excruciating albeit hilarious moments in this first season. Proksch says he modeled his prattling corporate drone after “Floyd the barber from The Andy Griffith Show—that meandering, and his continuing to talk, you know? That type of folksiness.”

If it seems like Clement and Waititi have gone out of their way to find ways to tie their immortal characters’ hands behind their backs, it’s because they have. As Clement tells us, “It’s good to have limitations—makes it harder for them. Vampires have so many powers, they also have to have weaknesses.” But Nandor, Nadia, and Laszlo do retain super strength, powers of hypnosis, anti-aging abilities, and a knack for organizing a vampire orgy (one of which is on the horizon this season). We’ll also see a different take on Colin’s energy-sucking ways as well as the creation of at least one new vampire, and may even have new abilities of their own (though not according to any of the four episodes we’ve seen so far).

There is one area where the Shadows team didn’t set any limits: vampire are pansexual and not at all inclined to jealousy. Nadia and Laszlo even have an open marriage, though they still regularly fight, often in front of Nandor. The dynamic among the three is frayed—just as in the Metallica documentary that served as partial inspiration, Clement suggests you sometimes just want to rip your partner, roommate, or bandmate’s face off. But it’s all cyclical, like the number of projects spun off from that perfect and vicious parody; Waititi says vampires, like collaborators, “go through phases… There’s probably a few that, after a hundred years, become real distorted.” They also have a preternatural ability to hold a grudge: “In a relationship that long, there’ll be like an hour where you feel like that: ‘Remember those 10 years when we weren’t talking?’.” But then, the make-up sex is probably way longer, it’s probably a good couple of months.” Clement, seeing the opportunity to set another limit, quips: “As long as it’s a lightproof room.”

Characters who don’t age or die of natural causes can’t undergo the same kind of incremental change or growth as most comedy characters, which is why Shadows stacks the deck against its would-be conquerors. Greater stakes and a serialized element are other ideas born of the TV adaptation. Laszlo and Nadia didn’t move to Staten Island with Nandor just to ride the ferry—they were supposed to have conquered “the new world” or North America, whether or not it includes Canada, in the name of vampires everywhere, but mostly under the auspices of one baron. That the season-long arc works in tandem with but doesn’t hinder the great episodic storytelling is more proof that there is indeed a whole coven’s—sorry, coffin’s—worth of worthwhile premises.