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article imageReview: Laughing. Crying. Bleeding. — Maybe. Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Oct 29, 2014 in Entertainment
Are you a vampire? Or an outsider, at least? Do you like laughing? What about love? Watch the work of filmmaker Taika Waititi.
An accomplished director, actor, writer, artist, and producer, with a number of acclaimed works to his name, Taika Waititi’s latest is a clever, funny vampire mockumentary called What We Do in the Shadows, co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement. New Yorkers will be able to sink their fangs into it this coming Friday, Halloween night, at the eighth annual Scary Movies fest at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
What We Do in the Shadows combines comedy, drama, and horror in funny and sometimes very unique ways. The movie’s premise revolves around a documentary crew who’ve been granted access to a very secret, very bloody world. Vlad the Poker (Clement), dandy Viago (Waititi), bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), and 8,000 year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) are vampires sharing a flat in Wellington, New Zealand; along with trying to keep a very strict diet, they deal with the daily mundanities of shared-space living and new connections with freshly-created vamp Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) and human friend Stu (Stu Rutherford).
Described as "the only vampire movie you're going to need to see this year (and, probably, ever again)," the movie features hilarious depictions of the group trying to get into nightclubs, dealing with police, avoiding fights with a pack of local werewolves lead by the feisty Anton (played by Rhys Darby, familiar to Flight of the Conchords fans as Murray the band manager) and discovering the internet. Its first few minutes portray Viago awakening his roommates and holding a meeting; Waititi's deadpan expression, combined with the overall silly-meets-serious tone of the scene, recalls the best of Blackadder and Monty Python. What We Do in the Shadows is, at heart, a smart mishmash of genres, styles, and cultural references, at once loose and focused, precise and chaotic, touching on contemporary issues like racism and responsibility, designed to appeal to both longtime improv comedy fans as well as lovers of vampire lore.
Taika Waititi  the co-creator of vampire mockumentary  What We Do In The Shadows   plays Viago  an 1...
Taika Waititi, the co-creator of vampire mockumentary 'What We Do In The Shadows', plays Viago, an 18th century vampire trying to fit into modern life.
The vampire mockumentary is one of many accomplishments throughout Waititi's impressive career. Definite themes run through much of his work, ones revolving around relationships, love, and the role of the outsider. What We Do in the Shadows continues these themes — in fact, they help to ground the movie’s more fantastical elements. “The idea of "vampires" is a metaphor for anyone who is rejected and doesn’t fit into society,” Waititi states.
The "outsider" has been a popular cultural trope for centuries, one used in novels (Goethe’s Werther and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye being classic examples), film, art, music, and beyond. “Outsider-ness” is something Waititi himself is clearly attracted to. He admits that his mixed cultural background (Waititi’s father is Maori; his mother is Jewish) provides at least partial fuel for his creative curiosity, though his attraction to outsiders runs deeper than family background.
“All my friends growing up were outsiders,” he confesses. “It’s more being attracted to certain types of people rather than cool groups, I prefer to make a cool group rather than be in a cool group. I hated all the popular kids at school.”
This, despite being what he calls a "social slut" in high school. Raised between rural New Zealand, with his artist-father, and Wellington, with his teacher-mom, Waititi was constantly encouraged in his creative pursuits, whether that meant theatre, photography, or art. He noted in a 2010 interview that "it was quite cool having parents who were disappointed if I wasn't creative."
 Living in New Zealand  you have to accept you’re on an island  —you can’t escape that   filmm...
"Living in New Zealand, you have to accept you’re on an island —you can’t escape that," filmmaker Taika Waititi says.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
That creativity found early acclaim through his work with Humourbeasts, a 1990s comedy duo he formed with Clement. The pair, who met in university, have since worked together on a number of projects, including Waititi’s first full-length feature film, Eagle Vs. Shark, an early version of What We Do in the Shadows in the mid-2000s, and a number of Flight of the Conchords episodes, including writing and directing the popular “New Zealand Town” installment, which featured Xena star Lucy Lawless. Waititi gained worldwide notice for his 2003 short Two Cars, One Night, a touching piece about two kids who wait for their respective parents in the parking lot of a pub; it won numerous international awards, was nominated for an Oscar, and later inspired the immensely popular 2010 film, Boy. Waititi also helmed the award-winning short Tama tu (about a Maori unit fighting in Italy during World War Two), directed numerous music videos and commercials, and played the pivotal role of confidante Tom Kalmaku in the 2011 film The Green Lantern. All this, plus a TEDx Talk, busy online fan sites, penning the next big Disney movie, and over 26,000 Twitter followers means that the artist is, by all reckonings, a qualified cool kid.
“How can I not be popular with this jacket?!” Waititi laughs, pulling the sleeve of his colorful, patterned jacket.
The self-deprecation is hardly necessary; one gets the feeling Waititi loves and identifies with the outsiders he features, and that a good part of his creative drive comes from a deep need to understand that identification. “The connections in my work are people trying to be loved and popular, and that’s in all three films (Eagle vs Shark, Boy, and What We Do in the Shadows). There’s a lot of people desperate for attention."
Waititi s vampire alter-ego Viago references old and new cinema vamps  including Brad Pitt and Tom C...
Waititi's vampire alter-ego Viago references old and new cinema vamps, including Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in 'Interview With The Vampire.'
GAT / Video Services Corp
Waititi got attention —perhaps not the kind he wanted — when he feigned sleep during the 2005 Oscar ceremony. Nominated for Two Cars, One NIght, Waititi pretended to be asleep when his name was announced. He explained in an interview that it was all part of an elaborate joke with the other nominees that went awry but, as Clement noted as part of a TIFF interview last month, Waititi’s routine didn’t go down well at home.
“It was a national outrage, like, YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP AT THE OSCARS! “But I was joking!” YOU SHOULDN'T JOKE! There were columns about it from prominent people, like, ‘You should not do that!’”
Funny faux-pas aside, Waititi has a fine body of work to be proud of. His films meld comedy and drama into an affectingly authentic expression of humanity, in a manner that is neither cloyingly sentimental nor tooth-achingly puerile. Combines elements of identity, love, and hope with healthy dollops of absurdity, slapstick, and nostalgia, Waititi has a knack for combining a solid story, a great visual, and a funny premise. His first feature, Eagle vs Shark, features two misfits the soft-spoken Lily (Loren Taylor, who also co-wrote the screenplay), and mean, jerkish Jerrod (Jemaine Clement). With a mix of surreal humour and touching performances, the film is a moving exploration of men, women, relationships, compromise, and power. Waititi provides a compelling contrast between the intense beauty of the land and the inherent ugliness of its characters that powers much of the film’s drama.
“That came from a place of just having a really strong desire to not make a romantic comedy,” he says of the film’s inspiration. “I wanted to make a love story but I knew nothing about it — I still don’t know a lot about love or how to love someone — but thinking about the structure of a love story, what you're supposed to do, and doing everything in reverse, making her chase this guy, and he’s really hard to get, and why would you chase that?”
Because girls do that?
He smiles. “I know!”
Taika Waititi: writer  director  actor  All-Blacks fan  vampire documentarian.
Taika Waititi: writer, director, actor, All-Blacks fan, vampire documentarian.
Veronika Roux-Vlachova
Boy is, for all of its distinctly different characters and premise, still deeply connected with Eagle Vs. Shark, in that it provides a delicate examination of human relationships. Its titular character (James Rolleston) lives with his grandmother and relatives in rural New Zealand; their lives get shaken up with the arrival of his long-lost father (Waititi). Rather than resort to heavy-handed melodrama, moments of surreal levity are used as a way of gently exploring the movie's essentially sad heart. The "boy" is a passionate Michael Jackson fan, and the film shows how he places his idolized father into the pop star’s shoes, with Waititi sporting a nifty leather outfit straight out of "Thriller" and some impressive dance moves. Several scenes underscore the delicate relationship between fantasy and reality, while offering a quietly wise commentary on love and abandonment.
“I don’t know how to do a straight-up drama,” the filmmaker confesses.
Though he doesn’t characterize the story as being “too personal” (despite being a huge Michael Jackson fan himself as a youngster), there were personal echoes in making the film. Boy (like Two Cars, One Night) was shot in Waititi’s hometown, a tiny, rural community without cell phone or internet service. “It was great,” he recalls. “It was the best shoot I've ever had. Nobody was on their phones the entire time we shot. For three months we were just a crew of people all in the same town, and we’d go the pub together every night and people would go fishing, and … it was good.”
However, there's been little if any time for calm promoting What We Do in the Shadows over the last few months. Waititi and Clement have had a whirlwind of international engagements and appearances, sometimes separately, sometimes together. The pair debuted the movie at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January, and Clement was in Toronto for TIFF last month, where the movie won the Grolsch Midnight Madness People's Choice Award. Waititi was in the Canadian city recently for the kickoff of the imagineNATIVE Film Festival, though in-between, they took the movie (and vampire alter-egos) to Berlin. Clement will be in New York for the Scary Movies screening on Friday, and the pair will be appearing at festivals in Hawaii and Los Angeles next month. The movie gets released in the UK November 21st, and will debut in select North American cities on the suitably scary date of Friday the 13th (of February, 2015).
Despite the hectic pace of work and promotion, what's clear is both the depth of friendship between the two men, and how their mix of playfulness, mischief, wit, and fierce intelligence translates so clearly onscreen.
“We had the opportunity to make ( What We Do in the Shadows ) in the States without our friends ...
“We had the opportunity to make ('What We Do in the Shadows') in the States without our friends,” Waititi remembers, “but it wouldn’t been… the same movie. Maybe it would still be funny but it would not the same thing. With this, you can recognize there’s already a relationship and comfort there between all the actors.”
GAT / Video Services Corp
The filmmakers made the risky choice not to show their cast the script through the shoot, instead relying on an improvised naturalism that reflected the realistic reactions. That decision had mixed results during filming, though the movie is clearly propelled, at least in an energetic sense, by the closeness and trust between its castmates. As Clement noted during TIFF, “when you're doing it, it’s this big camp. I didn’t mean it this way, and we didn’t think of it, but sometimes people thought they were getting kicked out, like a Big Brother thing. When they’re banished, Nick and Stu leave the house, they really 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.”
“It was frustrating,” Waititi recalls, “because sometimes when you're not getting what you want with the improvising, you think, “Shit, I wish i’d just given them the script!” […] Eventually you have to explain: “Just say this line so it makes sense for the next scene,” but by the time you got to that point it was fifteen takes and two hours. Having said that, there’s lots of great gold you get from the improving you would’ve never thought of, just great material.”
“It doesn’t quite feel like a real thing, working with your friends,” he adds. “If you think it's a real movie, you start getting nervous! There’s a lot at stake! But I don’t know if anyone believed this would really be a film.”
Waititi’s character, the foppish Viago, has, for all his proclivities toward lying newspapers on the floor and holding flat meetings, a deeply unfulfilled part of his life that is explored with a touching delicacy. “I hate romantic comedies but I'm a big fan of love stories,” he says, “but it’s all very New Zealand: you’re not allowed to get emotional.”
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