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article image'Flight of the Conchords' star gets vampy in latest movie Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Sep 14, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - 'What We Do In the Shadows' was a big hit at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Its co-creator, 'Flight of the Conchords' star Jemaine Clement, says naturalism played a vital part in making the movie.
What We Do In The Shadows is a unique take on both the vampire myth and famous cinematic portrayals of the bloodthirsty undead. A 90-minute charmer that incorporates humor, horror, fangs, and friendship, the movie has garnered a wellspring of critical praise since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and has travelled to a number of international film festivals, including ones in Germany, Australia, even Transylvania. It recently won the Grolsch Midnight Madness People's Choice Award at TIFF and is set to open across North America this winter, though it will be part of the opening gala at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto in October.
The premise of What We Do In The Shadows is simple: throw a quartet of vampires together in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand, observe the mundane aspects of their world, and see what happens when they try to negotiate the modern world. Forget seducing women or fending off would-be Van Helsings: What We Do In The Shadows explores who does dishes, how to get into nightclubs, and why spreading newspaper on the floor prior to a neck-bite is so important.
Balancing old loves, new responsibilities, and shifting relationship dynamics, the film also neatly integrates liberal dollops of macabre humor with genuine frights. Clement and co-creator Taika Waititi serve up a smart mix of genres that's refreshingly free of glib humor, grim cynicism, or tiresome comedy tropes. Familiar visual cues in the film point back to its essentially playful heart; numerous vampire film references (including Gary Oldman's turn, The Lost Boys, the classic Nosferatu, as well as the 1994 film adaptation of Interview With A Vampire) are presented, milked, and mocked, to maximum effect. The movie offers clever, post-modern nods at classic Hammer horrors and 1980s gorefests as much as The Marx Brothers and the quasi-documentary style of Sacha Baron Cohen. This is better than Spinal Tap-with-vampires; it’s vampires mashed up with SCTV, by way of Blackadder. The vamps themselves are firmly the Stoker/Rice variety, not the sparkly Twilight kind — charming, funny, scary, hapless, insecure, restless. Never have the undead been so strangely, endearingly human.
What We Do In The Shadows started life as a short film in 2005. Clement and Waititi met at university in the 1990s, and went on to form the award-winning comedy troupe, Humourbeasts. Clement’s longtime passion for vampire lore and Waititi’s desire to make a mockumentary found expression when the two made the short; it would be eight more years before they brought the film to full fruition. In that time, Clement achieved cult status with Flight of the Conchords (HBO, 2007-2009) and appeared in a variety of projects including Muppets Most Wanted, Men in Black 3, and Dinner for Schmucks, as well as doing voice work for a myriad of animated films including Rio, Rio 2 and Despicable Me. Waititi received an Oscar nomination in 2005 for his acclaimed short film Two Cars, One Night, which he later expanded into a smash full-length film (Boy) in 2009. He actually directed Clement in 2007's Eagle Vs Shark, and did writing and directing work for Flight of the Conchords as well.
 What We Do in the Shadows  vamps Viago (Taika Waititi)  Deacon (Jonathan Brugh)  Vladislav (Jemaine...
'What We Do in the Shadows' vamps Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) integrate nocturnal habits with the more quotidian aspects of sharing a flat.
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Still, despite their combined credentials, filming a vampire movie — a mockumentary at that — was no easy task. Budget constraints presented several challenges, along with lengthy hours of post-production. Owing to the improvised nature of the shoot, it took close to a year to whittle Shadows’ 125 hours of footage down to a 90-minute running time. Stu Rutherford, who plays a human friend in the movie (echoing his real-life, long-term relationship with the filmmakers), recalls doing 14 takes for a scene in which the vampires meet their nemeses, a local werewolf gang, the head of which is played by noted Kiwi actor/comedian Rhys Darby. “I was only there on the edge (of the scene), but thought, this is going to be a problem with the edit,” Rutherford recalls. “Every take had weird tangents and people standing in different places. It was like, wow [...] I know their editor, and thought, ‘This might be quite a nightmare...’”
“We wanted a naturalism about it,” Jemaine Clement says of the improv, and the choice not to show performers the movie's script.
That embrace of naturalism naturally gave rise to awkward moments. The scene in Shadows, for instance, in which hipster vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is banished from the flat, cast a gloomy pall over the mood of the performers. “Sometimes people thought they were getting kicked out, like a Big Brother thing,” Clement explains. “When Nick and Stu leave the house, they don’t know if they’re going to be in the film the next day. Now, it’s funny, but at the time I felt terrible.”
Another scene in the film involves Stu being taken into an ambulance. Originally cut from the script because of budget constraints, the filmmakers decided it was too good to pass over. “Chelsea (Winstanley, one of film's producers) just rang up the ambulance: “Would you be able to come up and be in a film?”” Clement recalls. “They said as long as there’s no emergencies, sure, and the paramedics acted in the scene — they were all really serious and loved it: “He’s bleeding out, he looks bad!” They looked as if they’d just seen someone die.”
The naturalism also extended into performances, with Waititi and Clement casting Rutherford as the friend the vampires like too much to kill. It’s tempting to think of Rutherford as the Karl Pilkington-like figure of the project, but he’s treated with a notable degree of respect and gentleness, both on-film and in interviews. In many ways, Stu, however unwittingly, is the person who inspires change amongst his vampire friends. The scenes of him educating the vampires on the tech wonders of the 21st century are especially endearing, with one showing Stu introducing the joys of Facebook to a fascinated Vladislav.
“Would you like to poke her?” Stu asks genially, as the vampire’s eyes light up.
“I didn’t understand the significance of that until I saw it,” Rutherford recalls with a small smile.
“I’m making sure he answers in a specific way, but he doesn’t know why,” Clement says, a discernible flicker of mischief crossing his small smile.
Vladislav (Jemaine Clement)  Viago (Taika Waititi)  Deacon (Jonathan Brugh)  Petyr (Ben Fransham)  N...
Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), Viago (Taika Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Petyr (Ben Fransham), Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), and Stu (Stu Rutherford).
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Rutherford himself referenced a Japanese style of comedy called manzai he’d seen during his time living abroad, offering his own take on the straight man (or tsukkomi), but he insists he didn’t come to the project with any thespian-like ideas. “It’s my first time properly acting in a film,” he says, “I would’ve been terrible if I’d known (about the script).”
The experience did get him thinking about process, improvisation, and presence on-film. After appearing the 2005 short, he went on some auditions, purely for the experience. “I always get feedback, and they were like, “Maybe try and have some expression on your face…” I went away. For an actor to be told they need expression is quite a terrible thing…”
Clement, for his part, didn’t want the film to be weighed down by any sense of emotional melodrama, as if the vampires were merely funny window-dressing for a more didactic experience, yet many of the timeless issues the script touches on were intentionally planned. “Whether it’s about senility, aging, maturing, getting over things, outsiders, homophobia, racism.. all these things we’d talk about at some stage. And we actually did end up thinking about these things, and serious themes, for this movie.”
Just as serious was maintaining the humorous tone. “We always wanted it to be light, to be funny. In American films, you’ll be enjoying the film and at the end they’ll have gone a totally different genre of film — they suddenly go serious and the character works through their problem, no matter what it is. To me that always feels like, 'Why has it changed into this soppy mess?!' Even when we tried to do a soppy scene, we had jokes in it.”
More about what we do in the shadows, jemaine clement, flight of the conchords, Sundance, Tiff
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