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What We Do in the Shadows and its Spooky Spinoffs

Happy Halloween! 🎃

To celebrate this spooky holiday (How scary? very), I wanted to dive into one of my absolute favorite vampire-related movies: What We Do in the Shadows!

This film was the brainchild of Jemaine Clement, at the time best known as one-half of the Flight of the Conchords, and a young director named Taika Waititi.

The two men from New Zealand share a Maori heritage and a taste for the absurd. They had been good friends for many years (including working together on Jemaine's acclaimed tv show with Bret McKenzie and on Eagle vs Shark—which I still possess on DVD!) before embarking on their vampire feature film.

Young Taika and Jemaine in the FIGWIT documentary

The film concept began to take shape in 2005, long before their work on the HBO show though—as a short called What we do in the Shadows: Interviews with some Vampires (nice take on Anne Rice's classic there lol).

This is probably what my copy looked like when I was a kid and the Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt movie had just come out haha

You can watch the entire half-hour short film here (apologies for the Russian subtitles, but it's what was available currently online. And TW for many uses of the f-slur...2005 was a much more homophobic time).

The premise of What We Do in the Shadows (both the short and the feature) is simple but ingenious: a mockumentary about the daily lives of vampire roommates in Wellington.

Jemaine and Taika's movie premiered in 2014, but I didn't watch it until probably 2017 (I was on a big FotC kick after seeing them live again the previous year). I knew the plot summary, but the twists and special cameos (like Rhys Darby as a werewolf leader) are amazing. And the music! I just adore "You're Dead" by Norma Tanega, and they also used it for the theme song of the identically named spinoff.

"We're werewolves, not swearwolves"

The film focuses almost entirely on Taika's character, Viago, who acts as the narrator and shows the camera crew around the flat. Viago also introduces his roommates Vladislav (Jemaine with long hair and a goatee) and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh).

There's a classic Nosferatu-type vampire in the house as well named Petyr (Ben Fransham) and some newcomers throughout the film: a young man named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) who is turned into a vampire by Petyr and his best buddy Stu (Stu Rutherford), a truly sweet bloke who just hangs out with the vampires and helps them with tech issues (there's that gentle Kiwi humor again that I love so much).

Per this New Zealand interview with Jemaine, Stu literally thought he WAS the IT guy for the movie—he had previously been roommates with Taika and had appeared in his earlier film Boy and in the short film (in which he's credited as the Production Manager):

A roommate named "Stu"? Where have I heard that before...

Stu as the only non-vampire enjoying some French fries

"When we wrote the script and made him a big part of it," relays Clement, "we let him think he was going to be our IT guy, and told him he'd just be in a little bit. Every day he'd go, ‘So when do I help with the computers?'; and we'd say, ‘Oh, just put that costume on first.' Because we almost keep him silent, I think, the whole time he thinks he's just being made fun of."
Rutherford, who had chanced into a bit part in the original 2005 short film on which Shadows was based, explains with the trademark precision of his other profession: "I assumed I would be in it slightly more - if you take a 20-minute short and expand it out to one hour 30 minutes, and you've been in for 10 seconds, you expect to be in for maybe 40 seconds."
So, anyway, he was in the flat in Mt Victoria and Waititi, starting work on the original Shadows, asked if he could store a coffin in Rutherford's bedroom for a few days. "Then they would say ‘we're heading into town, want to come' and I ended up in a couple of scenes," he says. Talk began that a full-length version would follow and that was enough to spur Rutherford into action, auditioning - mostly unsuccessfully - for advertisements to get some screen experience.

Stu with the vampires in town

Next came Waititi's big hit, Boy (2010) in which Rutherford was upgraded to production assistant and, benefiting from the remote filming location at Waihau Bay, secured a cameo role. He earned his Internet Movie Database (IMDb) entry for playing a prison guard stabbed with a fork by Waititi during a dream sequence where James Rolleston's title character is imagining his wastrel father escaping jail.
Clement and Waititi's decision not to share the script with the rest of the cast may not have helped. The result was 120 hours of footage and instructions to Rutherford along the lines of "sit in the kitchen, and react to what we say to you".
Crew, he says, were told not to tell him anything - "it was like we had a funny disease" and so not until 10 minutes before the movie's pivotal scene did he know what was to pass. And it wasn't until they all went to the Sundance Film Festival and saw the finished version that he realised the magnitude of his role.

It's just fascinating how much footage they filmed for the movie (120 HOURS)—no wonder Stu didn't know how big his character would be in the final product!

With the massive critical success of What We Do in the Shadows, Taika and Jemaine were able to create two equally impressive spinoff television series.

The first spinoff premiered on FX in 2019 with another riotous group of vampires living in Staten Island this time around: Nandor (Kayvan Novak), his familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), the vampire couple Laszlo (the always-wonderful Matt Berry) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou, whose real-life brother Jamie is the absolute BEST part of The Afterparty), and my favorite of all, the hysterical Mark Proksch as the energy vampire Colin Robinson.

And Kristen Schaal joined the cast in season 5, making her a firmly embedded member of the Taikaverse (Mel on FotC, this, and Our Flag Means Death)

Prior to the highly anticipated pilot, I remember that I clearly recognized two of the actors from other programs.

I had first encountered Matt Berry's vocal talents on Disenchantment where he played a jilted lover named Prince Merkimer.

And I knew Mark Proksch from his stint on Better Call Saul, in which he played a drug dealer who was WAY over his head and soliciting the help of Mike Ehrmantraut.

However much anticipation there was, all of my expectations were blown away by the immediate chemistry of the cast. I also can't see the word "bat" without hearing it in Matt Berry's voice lol.

I particularly enjoy Colin Robinson climbing the corporate ladder and growing long hair as a result of his power increasing. Fun fact: that episode (Colin's Promotion) was directed by Jemaine himself!

The five-season show is critically acclaimed, massively popular, and has received many Emmy nominations and even nabbed a win in 2022 for Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costume!

While Jemaine was very active on the show initially, he left the writing staff in Season 3 to focus on his concurrent passion project: Wellington Paranormal!

Whereas What We Do in the Shadows has always been a bit raunchy and adult (the FX show really ramps that up), Wellington Paranormal is very family-friendly fare that I used to watch with my daughter with no problem—she was NOT allowed to watch the FX vampire program!

Wellington Paranormal premiered in 2018 in New Zealand and is an X Files-type of show on Max that features a monster of the week that the two inept cops from the film—Officer O'Leary (Karen O'Leary) and Officer Minogue (Mike Mingue)—have to figure out and defeat.

Yup, the easily hypnotized police officers in the 2014 film have their own spinoff—it's the concept that just keeps giving apparently!

While I enjoy the cops and their reactions, my favorite character would have to be Sergeant Maaka, played by Maaka Pohatu.

His character is utterly delighted by the supernatural, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He also makes beeping sounds before opening the paranormal meeting room, which had me dying the first time I saw the show!

And there's been a few more movie connections in the program: Here's Nick, the youngest vampire in the 2014 film, appearing as a blood bank worker (eek!). And Rhys Darby shows up in season 3 with a fun cameo too!

Wellington Paranormal has unfortunately wrapped with its fourth season in 2022, but the episodes are available to stream currently on Max.

All in all, Jemaine and Taika were able to milk the vampire genre for all it was worth and now have created one of the best and most prolific concepts in the 21st century (started in 2005 and is still going strong with a sixth season of WWDitS ordered for 2024).

That's pretty impressive, and they still are good friends to this day. Here's a fun video of them goofing around on press junkets (and Taika mentions wanting to play a pirate at 1:15 in)!

I hope you've enjoyed this deep dive into the spooky worlds created by two young Kiwi comedians, and good on ya!

For the complete list of New Zealand Comedy Month articles, please click here.

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