Sporting an oversized fluro-coloured baseball cap and leaning on the podium, Taika Waititi was hilarious alongside his co-director, co-writer and co-star Jemaine Clement as they world premiered their vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows to a wrapt midnight crowd at Sundance. Posing as documentarians, their deadpan schtick went like this.
"In 2005 nobody was doing vampire movies...it was like the perfect time to strike, and then it took us seven years."
JC: In February 2011, we were approached by the New Zealand Documentary Board to make a vampire documentary documenting the vampires of Wellington.
TW: We'd heard stories about vampires.
JC: We'd seen Blade 3. We thought we don't want to be in the room with those creatures, and that's very much the way we approached it. But I think it was the wrong way. We came to love them, didn't we?
TW: We came to love those guys, they're really great guys. I guess that's about putting aside preconceived ideas.
JC: That's what we are trying to get you to do…
TW: About people.
JC: They're not all Brad Pitt types. [Of course, Waititi is writing a screenplay for a film he will direct for Pitt's Plan B company.]
TW: They have wants and needs just like us. As truth tellers, they were constantly seeking out the truth, seeking out the essence of…
JC: We wanted to give these people a voice.
TW: They couldn't speak before they met us, basically.
JC: When we filmed them, we started to think, who is a real vampire? Is it them drinking the blood of humans or was it us the filmmakers?
TW: That's the question we want you guys to have in your heads when you are looking at this film.
JC: [serious look] Is it us the filmmakers, or is it you? Are you the vampire or the audience?
TW: Are you the ones with the voracious appetites?
JC: Drinking the essence of these poor creatures.
TW: Foraging into their lives for their blood essence and drinking it happily.
JC: So that's what we want you to think about.
[Both pointing into the cackling crowd]
TW: All of you!
JC: All of you!
What We Do in the Shadows is a feature version of Waititi and Clement's 2006 short, though it's not like they threw a pile of cash at the mockumentary, which was hugely influenced by Spinal Tap. Basically, it's a talkfest between a bunch of vampire blokes interested in sinking their teeth into virgins, though most importantly, hassling each other as they adapt to the world around them, including the internet.
Essentially, the vampire flatmates have a few issues and they couldn't be more different. Clement's handlebar-moustached Vladislav is highly oversexed, while Waititi's Viago is a foppish nineteenth century romantic, complete with a German accent and even sprouting credible German in some scenes. There's also Jonathan Brugh's vampire Deacon and Ben Fransham's Petyr, who's a dead-ringer for Max Schreck's Nosferatu from the 1922 silent film. Young Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) enters the fold as a recent vampire with a Robert Pattinson complex, and they also welcome a human flatmate Stu (Stuart Rutherford), who is helpful with modern ways.
Some of the funniest moments come when they encounter a bunch of werewolves, whose leader Anton is played by Rhys Darby. The only principal female role of Jackie is hilariously played by Jackie van Beek, one of many followers/slaves yearning to become part of the vampire boys' club.
Most of the action takes place inside the walls of the vampire boys' crumbling Wellington abode, though they do venture out into Wellington to attend the Unholy Masquerade Ball at the Cathedral of Despair. Shot in Wellington in September 2012, the film marks Waititi's first feature since his 2010 mega-hit, Boy, and Clement's first New Zealand film since he appeared in Eagle vs. Shark.
JC: “Taika and I read a script but we didn't let anyone see the script, we didn't let the actors see it, we would just describe it. Often I'd be the one describing the script and Taika did other stuff. I don't know what he did.”
When asked where the idea came from, Waititi replied, “We both like vampires and vampire films and in 2005 nobody was doing vampire movies. Underworld had just come out, it was like the perfect time to strike, and then it took us seven years.”
JC: “Underworld 2: Evolution. That was the thing we were worried about, that people were over-exposed to vampires.”
TW: “Time was of the essence in getting this film made and seven years later, we finished the script.”
“In 2005, when we came up with the idea, we wanted to test out the characters so we spent a weekend making a short film with our friends. We didn't have werewolf characters in the short and there was one bit that didn't really make it into the new film, which was when we dressed up so we looked a bit like Prince and The Revolution. We went to town one night on a Friday night, and it's quite a macho society in New Zealand, so walking down the main street of Wellington was a really amazing experience being called homos and faggots. It was terrifying.”
JC: “It was also rugby night and it felt like we were going to get beaten up.”
TW: “That's probably why it took years to get over that and to get up the courage to make it into a feature.”
JC: “But it didn't really happen this time. Something has happened over the six years where it's not such a big deal to wear some rough furs and dress up. Some change is good.”
Produced by Unison Films and Defender Films, What We Do in the Shadows was indeed made on the cheap. “Some of the people who did the special effects in the movie were paid in hamburgers and stuff like that just in their spare time from making other much bigger movies,” says Clement.
TW: “Peter Jackson helped a lot. He leant us gear and stuff. He is another [hesitates] independent filmmaker.” (Crowd laughs.)
The duo explained their perseverance in delving into the lives of vampires.
JC: “It took years just to gain access to this secret society and then to be allowed in the circle and for them to open up about their lives. I am sure there are certain things they didn't share with us.”
Jonathan Brugh: “My mother would be horrified if she discovers I'm playing a Nazi war criminal. I genuinely went. 'I don't want to be a Nazi war criminal in the film, guys'.”
JC: “We don't have to keep it; we still have some editing time.”
TW: “Yeah, we'll go back to the condo tonight and just…”
Did they shoot in a real house? “The set was built all on a…” Waititi stops and reconsiders. “It's all fake.”
JC: “Sorry guys, the whole thing is fake. You can't tell, but the walls are made out of old Hobbit green screens and when the paint would peel sometimes you would see a bright green patch. So yeah, it was really made out of rubbish.”
Initially, they thought they might churn out one of these films each year, but after five weeks of shooting and a year of editing they realised that would not be possible.
TW: “We shot about 125 hours of footage that we had to trawl through so a lot of that time was just watching stuff and saying, “Well, that was dumb, don't put that in!” And then trying lots and lots of different stuff. There is gonna be like a 20-disc box set of extra features.”
One of the most difficult scenes to get into shape was with the werewolves, Clement explains. “It's all improvised. But in tricky scenes like that we did show them some of the lines, some ideas for insults and things like that.”
Jackie van Beek: “There was a scene where I was riffing in the car and it was probably like an hour and 20 minutes. So Jermaine might yell out things like, 'This is getting boring! Go back more onto the bit about the sex or something'.”
Watch 'What We Do in the Shadows'
Wednesday 31 March, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming afterwards at SBS On Demand)
New Zealand, 2014
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Jemaine Clement