Thursday, April 30, 2020
hOw ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ became the funniest Show on TV
The only problem is that when making a show about vampires, the audience is going to expect to see those vampires fly from time to time, and that requires a lot of time just hanging around in a bunch of wire. Which is tough when, like Berry, you’re terrified of heights and Clement wants another take.
“All of your instincts are telling you to protect yourself and not be up there, yet you have stuff to do while you’re up there,” Berry reflects while home in London. (All interviews for this piece were done via the phone, as everyone was practicing social distancing.) “I’ve got to convince you that I’m not afraid of heights when I’m 50 feet up. I’ve got to look as if it’s completely natural, and that is hard.” He laughs for a moment. “It’s hard for me, anyway.”
Absurdity—and making that absurdity look completely natural, even if you’re afraid of heights—is the whole point of the FX series What We Do in the Shadows, which is returning for its second season this week. It doesn’t have much to say about The Way We Live Now, but it does have helpful advice for how to triumph in a werewolf duel and throw a proper orgy, which is more than enough. By dryly presenting the lives of immortal creatures who have no business being in this century, no modicum of self-awareness, no ability to pronounce the word “Manhattan” correctly, and no inclination to tame their all-consuming appetites, it generates more convulsive laughter than any comedy on television, as no other current comedy features a vampire being levitated off the ground via the power of projectile vomiting.
This delightful series—named one of the best shows of 2019 by many critics—would not exist without the film version of Shadows, which came about as a bit of a compromise between old friends. Clement and Waititi first met at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, where they formed the comedy groups So You’re a Man and the Humourbeasts. Before he would go on to shake up the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok and win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, Waititi directed episodes of Clement’s HBO musical comedy series Flight of the Conchords and cast him in his 2007 directorial debut, Eagle vs Shark.
The pair had played vampires in their live shows, and when looking to get started on a project, “I wanted to do something with my characters and at the same time, Taika wanted to do a mockumentary,” Clement says. “A lot of mockumentaries were about real-life things that you could see a documentary about, and we thought it would be good to have one that is about something that’s impossible to actually film and treat it all like it was real. It’s so silly. Just put those two ideas together.”
The result of this merger was the 2005 short film What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews With Some Vampires, which the pair, serving as cowriters, codirectors, and costars, turned into a feature film a decade later. “When we were filming, a lot of the crew said, ‘This could be a sitcom,’ because it’s about the relationships and dynamics within that house,” Clement remembers. “We heard it a lot, and quite a few people asked if we were interested in making a TV version, and I think Scott Rudin was the most demanding,” he says, referring to the Hollywood producer who approached them about an adaptation. Waititi is an executive producer, directed the pilot and two other episodes in the first season, and also reprised his vampire character from the film for a cameo, but owing to his busy film career he’s not as involved day-to-day as Clement, who created the series and serves as co-showrunner.
“I thought it could be funny if there was a different group,” Clement says of the early adaptation process. “I think the original idea that people were thinking, was that we could use the same characters, but I thought it might be good to just change the dynamic a bit.” He considered setting the show in Detroit or New Orleans, but “a lot of vampire movies and TV shows had already done those places.” He was working in Staten Island on a film while writing the pilot, and it seemed like the right fit, just close enough to New York, but also a place where “a run-down mansion wouldn’t look out of place,” he says. “We definitely like Staten Island, but we’re aware that some people feel some sort of snobbery or some kind of tension between Staten Island and other parts of New York.”
The film’s dry tone, a mix of the absurdism of the supernatural realm contrasted with the mundanity of suburban life, was influenced by Christopher Guest mockumentaries, The Office, actual absurd documentaries such as The King of Kong and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and horror classics such as Nosferatu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula—all references that would inform the show as well. That said, Clement knew he had to make a big change for the show to work: actual scripts.
In the film, the actors followed a loose guideline that they improvised around. The show still has improvisation, but it starts from a tightly written script. “In some ways, the TV version isn’t as true to the documentary format as the film perhaps,” Clement says. “There’s no time to edit a fully improvised show in this way because of the nature of this show.”
Having a script in place is more work, but it’s necessary in order to plan out the special effects that give What We Do in the Shadows its supernatural flair. And those special effects are, of course, more work for both the producers and actors. But everyone agrees they’re worth it, so Berry’s costar and fellow vampire Kayvan Novak doesn’t mind strapping on the wires to suffer for his art. “Some people say, ‘I get chafed groins. I get a wedgie.’ Well, yes you do,” he says. “But it’s fun flying up in the air.”
Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Kayvan Novak, and Harvey Guillén in What We Do in the Shadows
BestBest known for creating the ’90s NBC sitcom NewsRadio and writing for The Larry Sanders Show, co-showrunner Paul Simms had worked with Clement on Flight of the Conchords and the HBO sitcom Divorce. In What We Do in the Shadows, he saw an opportunity to fill a void in the current comedic landscape. “I just like stuff that’s really silly and doesn’t necessarily try to hit you over the head with any kind of deeper point that it’s going to make,” Simms says. “There was also the fact that I think so many comedies these days are all sort of verbal, and I loved how visual the movie was and how there were sight gags and big stunts and big special effects and things that you don’t see as often.”
Blessed with a voice that makes everything he says sound pompous, the aforementioned Berry is a familiar face to British comedy fans, having played memorable buffoons in The IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and The Mighty Boosh; Berry and Clement had also starred together in the 2018 film An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn. When developing his character—a Victorian-era nobleman turned vampire with a penchant for pornographic topiary sculptures and who also claims to be Jack the Ripper—Berry quickly focused on a few key traits. “He’s very much in love with his wife. He doesn’t consider anyone else in the house, particularly,” he says, adding that Laszlo probably wouldn’t get the premise of the show. “The way that I rationalize it in my head, I suppose, is that he doesn’t really understand what a documentary is and he doesn’t really care to.” Instead, he spends his time telling rude townies that “you shall submit to my dark power” before feasting on them, and occasionally reminiscing about the various stag films he starred in.
Natasia Demetriou and Matt Berry as Nadja and Laszlo FX Networks
The self-proclaimed leader of the vampires, Nandor the Relentless, was tricky to cast, as he’s a savage warrior who’s also a bit of a puppy dog. (At one point, he gets offended and defensive when he’s accused of feeding on cats.) Eventually, they found their bloodsucker in Novak, an English actor of Iranian descent. “He’s a big, broad, tall guy,” Clement says. “He’s so warm and friendly, but it also feels like he could kill people.”
Novak started out working as a dramatic actor, appearing in Syriana. From there, “I played Middle Eastern assassins and doctors and pimps and nightclub managers. I did all that,” he says. “I enjoyed them, but they just became a bit repetitive. I was bored of playing the bad brown guy all the time.” He cocreated the show Fonejacker, in which his extremely silly crank calls were set to animation. It became a cult hit in the U.K. and allowed him to find parts better suited to his inherent goofiness. “I know through animation I could spread my wings,” he says. “Now being able to play a period character that looks like me, I love it. I’m over the moon.”
“The vampires are foreigners in America. It seemed right to have actors who were also, in a way, foreigners in America—if you saw someone who was obviously from California doing a Transylvanian accent, it would just seem somehow bogus and fake.” —Paul Simms, co-showrunner
For a guy who makes clear at the start of the series that he’s called Nandor the Relentless “because I never relent,” Nandor is a strangely sympathetic character with a deep core of loneliness that Novak centered in on. “I guess that’s what makes him comic, is that he’s this mass-murdering, relentless pillager, but at the same time he’s still alive after 400 years, and it’s made him a little insecure,” Novak says. “He doesn’t get to do that anymore. He had to search inside himself and try and figure out a new approach to things.”
While the film revolved around three male vampires (the third was played by the New Zealand comedian Jonathan Brugh), the series features a prominent female vampire in Nadja, wife to Laszlo and sire to Jenna. (There were actually plans for two, Clement says, but Beanie Feldstein, who played the naive college student and LARPer turned vampire Jenna, is tied up with film work, though he’d love to have her back in the future.)
Nadja was meant to be a Mediterranean peasant girl, though that changed when the producers met the English Cypriot comedian Natasia Demetriou, who was willing to vamp it up to get the part. “I had a breakdown of what the casting director’s looking for. It said ‘feel free to dress up like a vampire.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, here we go, this is how I get my edge,’ and I put some red lipstick on and a black dress and thought, ‘I’m going to smash this,’” she says. “And then I got there and there were girls who’d brought amazing wigs and were in sort of medieval robes. And I was like … ‘Oh dear.’”
The audition was more of an improv-based interview in which Simms and Clement asked actors how they became vampires. Demetriou responded with a story about how, Clement remembers, “she used to be the woman on her island that would sing to calm the snakes, then one day a snake with an upper body then changed into a vampire.” The character was changed to reflect Demetriou’s Greek background. “She reminded me of myself and my aunts and my cousins. And then I spoke to Jemaine a lot about the character, and Jemaine’s wife is Greek and his mother-in-law was Greek,” she says. “She’s very inspired by very strong, angry, horny Greek women.”
Though Berry has his U.S. admirers and Novak had a part in Chris Morris’s acclaimed 2010 comedy Four Lions, the three principal vampires are all Europeans largely unknown to American audiences, which Simms says was part of the plan. “We thought that the vampires themselves are foreigners in America. It seemed like the right thing to do to have actors who were also, in a way, foreigners in America—just because if you saw someone who was obviously some good-actor dude from California doing a Transylvanian accent, it would just seem somehow bogus and fake,” Simms says.
But there is one American. In a show full of big characters, entire scenes are often stealthily stolen by Colin Robinson, an office worker “energy vampire” of indeterminate age and origin who can travel in the daytime and feeds off despair and irritation, which he elicits via the most irritating small talk possible. (While feasting on an animal control employee, he observes that “some dogs are really big, while others are really, really small.” He also loves to get a good “mega feed” in by going to city council meetings to debate zoning ordinances.)
“It’s a really tricky thing to be boring and funny at the same time,” Clement says of the search for the right Colin. They found their energy vampire in Mark Proksch, who parlayed a yo-yo-loving YouTube sensation into roles on The Office, Better Call Saul, and numerous Adult Swim productions. While many actors might balk at playing a character whose defining trait is “boring,” Proksch was excited to be unexciting. “I find interest as an actor in being as subtle as I can. I’m not really a fan of broad comedy and big performances.” Like being silly, being boring can be hard work, and Proksch says he is constantly on guard against appearing too animated. He cites the orgy episode—it’s not a vampire show if there’s not an orgy at some point—as an example of the importance of doing less. “When I’m in leather gear, that’s what’s funny. It was funny because I’m so boring and milquetoast.”
Mark Proksch as “energy vampire” Colin Robinson FX Networks
The final member of the main cast proved the most difficult to find. For months, Clement and Co. were looking for an older man to play Guillermo de la Cruz, Nandor’s sweetly dorky familiar. Then the fiancé of producer Garrett Basch met the actor Harvey Guillén, best known for his roles on Huge and Eye Candy, at a wine-and-cheese party. Finding him funny, she invited him to audition. He was excited, especially for the opportunity to meet casting director Allison Jones, who cast The Office and Freaks and Geeks, among other comedy favorites. He admits that he hadn’t seen the film before, though it was next on his Amazon Prime queue.
“Basically, they gave me a complimentary audition,” he says. “I just wanted to meet her and she wasn’t there, and I auditioned, and an hour later I was called and told I had been cast, and I was told from Paul and Jemaine and Taika that I was the first time everyone said unanimously ‘That’s the one.’ Usually it’s 60/40. And then that weekend I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize and it was Taika and Jemaine. I booked it off that one audition.”
Guillermo is a vampire fanboy, inspired by Antonio Banderas’s character Armand from Interview With the Vampire (also Guillén’s favorite vampire film), and is willing to put up with Nandor’s constant dismissiveness and the other vampires’ complete indifference to his existence. Guillén was intent on figuring out why. “He’s in love with this world and wants to be part of it so bad, but it only means that he comes from something he’s not too excited about, or maybe he had a really tough childhood. Maybe he was bullied or he was different,” he says. “I could see him spending a lot of time by himself with a DVD in a quiet room in his mom’s house, not too many friends, so he has become friends with these objects.”
Simms’s main fear about adapting the film, he says, was that so much of its appeal was the casual chemistry between Jemaine, Waititi, and the rest of the cast. “Before we had the actors that we had for the TV show, I was just worried that we’d be able to find people that were as funny,” he says. “Then, one by one, the pieces came together. They’re each distinctive and different. They obviously exist in the same world as the movie vampires did, but they’re all unique characters.”
Once the undead had been summoned, the writing team went about plotting out the first season. “Part of it was just making sure that each episode wasn’t just a slice of vampire life and that they actually had a half-hour-long story to tell with a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he says. And each story always revolves around one central, underlying idea that keeps the series focused. “Vampires in a way, if you look at it, they have everything they want. They’re never going to die,” Simms says. “What we try to do is find the aspects of eternal life that would actually be a drag.”
TheThe past few years have seen explosions of what some critics have termed sadcoms, which is to say half-hour (or so) episodic shows that seek to observe the human condition and don’t always concern themselves with being funny. This type of television often focuses on underrepresented communities and people that have rarely been the center of a television show (Atlanta, Ramy, Insecure); it also allows comedy to explore topics usually relegated to more “serious” drama, including the portrayals of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder on You’re the Worst, or the often frustrating reality of single motherhood on Better Things). These shows have made television a richer and more diverse, interesting place, and we as a viewing public are better for them.
But it’s also OK for a comedy to just concern itself with being as silly as possible, with no deeper subtext. More than OK; in fact, our viewing diets aren’t complete without them. Just ask What We Do in the Shadows writer Stefani Robinson, who got her start writing for Atlanta, a show with quite a bit to say about the African American experience, and won acclaim for the episode “Juneteenth.” Robinson now splits her time between that show and What We Do in the Shadows. (She also wrote for the recently delayed fourth season of Fargo.)
“We’ve all been Guillermo at one point in our lives. ... He wants something so bad, but it’s in him to maybe be something else.” —Harvey Guillén
“It’s not a show about social commentary,” she says with a laugh. Instead, it’s a show about Matt Berry screaming “bat” every time he turns into a bat, and half the time reverting back to human form because he doesn’t know where he’s going. The first season features a very loose arc of the trio being visited by an ancient vampire called the Baron who pressures them to follow his centuries-old demand to conquer Manhattan, but said arc is really just an excuse to prop up jokes about turning a city council member into a hellhound and getting high after drinking drug blood.
Clement’s general script-writing philosophy is, essentially, to ask ‘’What’s the worst situation they can be in?” “One of my favorite comedies is Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I always go and watch some of that before I write anything. ... The three main vampires are all stuck in their ways and hesitant to interact with the modern world.” Clement compares their proclivity to wear the clothes from the era when they turned to how “teachers dress the way they did when they were younger. Now that I’m in my 40s, I see that too. I like the things that I liked when I was 20.”
The supernatural aspect of the show allows for visual gags—like Nadja scurrying up the wall of her reincarnated lover Jeff’s apartment building like a raccoon or Nandor accidentally dropping Guillermo while they’re flying around—though cinematographer DJ Stipsen says the team is careful not to disrupt the show’s bone-dry humor. “We’re consciously not trying to put anything in the way of the actor’s performance,” he says. “The great thing about it is we’re incredibly adaptable in the moment. It’s not a huge moving beast, we can change things.” One of the main concerns in the writers’ room is balancing ongoing, seasonlong story arcs with individual episodes. “I don’t think we kill ourselves really trying to make sure that it feels like Game of Thrones,” says Robinson. “We want people to be able to tune in when they want to and feel like it’s fun and light-hearted in the way that you don’t have to necessarily have seen the episode before to understand what’s going on.”
Though mostly devoted to episodic japery (including one episode built around a pun too sublime to reveal here), the main seasonlong plotline for Season 2 revolves around a twist introduced at the end of Season 1: that after everyone takes a DNA test, Guillermo discovers he is a descendant of the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing, and naturally adept at killing vampires. (Which he does quite a lot this season, as the vampire council still isn’t over him accidentally killing the Baron.)
Guillermo the Vampire Slayer wasn’t the master plan all along. Like many of the plot twists, Guillén didn’t even find out about it until the table read, and he says his character’s last name (which is Spanish for “of the cross”) was something he came up with off the top of his head after Robinson told him he could give his character a last name. But it’s his inner conflict that drives the season, as he falls in with a group of vampire hunters who treat him much nicer than the vampires do. (Without getting too spoilery, there’s an intense action sequence that required Guillén to get a personal trainer.)
“Guillermo is the only human on the show, and we’ve all been Guillermo at one point in our lives. We’ve all done a job where our boss overlooks us for promotion, or we’ve been in a relationship where we love the other person too much and we have our heart broken,” Guillén says. “I love the arc Guillermo has where he wants something so bad, but it’s in him to maybe be something else.”
The relationship between Nandor and Guillermo is the emotional through line of the show, and in many ways they are the “will they or won’t they,” the supernatural answer to a Sam-and-Diane or Jim-and-Pam. But instead of hooking up, the question is whether Nandor will ever turn Guillermo into a vampire. Guillermo wants to be undead so he can feel, per Guillén, “that confidence and that suave and sexiness, all these things that he thinks he isn’t now.” But at the heart of Nandor’s character is a deep neediness and sense of isolation. He’s not married like the other two vampires; his 37 wives from the Ottoman Empire days have all passed away and he no longer has subjects to rule over.
“I don’t want Guillermo to become a vampire, because if I make him a vampire, he’ll leave. I like him being so devoted to me,” Novak says. “It’s like having a controlling partner who doesn’t want you to go and learn French in case you decide you want to move to France without them. They’ll give you 101 reasons why it’s a bad idea to learn French right now because they don’t want you to leave.”
Of course, Sam and Diane did eventually get together. So did Jim and Pam, and neither Cheers nor The Office ended because of it. Is Guillermo the Vampire really off the table then? “That’s still in the air,” Clement says. He hasn’t figured it out, which is how he prefers it. But whatever answer he lands on, expect it to be the silliest possible outcome.
“I think Jemaine put it perfectly after we shot the finale of Season 2,” Guillén says. “I asked him, ‘How did we end up here? Where do we go from here?’ And he said, ‘That’s the thing, isn’t it? You put yourself in a situation, and you find a way. We’ll figure it out.’”