Ten years ago, Wellington, New Zealand, was less welcoming of vampires. When Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, two unknown comedians, walked the streets in velvet frocks and ruffles for a 2005 sketch, dudes would drive by and scream homophobic slurs. Says Clement, "We were constantly abused."
Over the next decade, things changed. In 2006, Clement landed an Outback Steakhouse commercial. In 2007, he and college classmate Bret McKenzie launched the cult hit Flight of the Conchords and played the lead in Waititi's first feature, the cross-continental indie darling Eagle vs Shark. Their gang put a generation of New Zealand comics on the map. By the time Clement and Waititi had earned the clout to go back and expand their vampire short into a feature, What We Do in the Shadows, even Wellington had evolved. Clement and Waititi slithered into their bloodsucker threads and steeled themselves for more showdowns with brutes in too-big suits and running shoes. But today, Wellington out-hipsters Brooklyn.
"They've got even twirlier mustaches and bigger beards," says Clement. "It had completely changed." He and Waititi blended right in.
What We Do in the Shadows is a crack-up mockumentary about four vampires who share a New Zealand mansion — think a Real World palace with spinal columns scattered in the corners. Outside, they harass a pack of jockish, ginger werewolves, headed by Conchords alum Rhys Darby. Indoors, the housemates clash over their age gaps. Deacon, 183 years old, is the rebellious youngster, followed by 379-year-old Viago (Waititi), a fastidious dandy, 862-year-old sex maniac Vladislav (Clement), who still supports slavery, and 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), a comatose ghoul who rouses himself only to add to the family.
Mainly, they fight over chores, like whose turn it is to wash five years' worth of bloody dishes. The vampires live in squalor akin to a flat Waititi suffered where the standard of living dipped so low that the guys stopped using dishes altogether. "We painted circles on the table and just ate our food in the circles," says Waititi. "Then we'd wipe the table." (He and Clement shared a place after college and credit their then-girlfriends with keeping things civilized.)
This being New Zealand, their cameras, green screens, and set designers came from The Hobbit. Jokes Waititi, "We're into making sustainable films." Still, they kept their budget so low that they decided not to hire other actors to play the documentary crew, and made peace with gloriously lo-fi special effects, like superimposing Clement's face on the body of a hissing black cat.
According to Clement, What We Do in the Shadows is what Interview With the Vampire should have been. "Where's the interview?" huffs Clement. "The interview's such a small part of that! This is more like, if you got to interview them, what other questions would you have?"
In uncomfortable chairs at their favorite café, Clement and Waititi brainstormed long lists of vampire trivia. They had more mysteries than answers. "There was an interview where we asked logic questions, like 'Where do your clothes go when you stand in front of a mirror?' " says Waititi. Sighs Clement, "Often the answers were, 'I don't know.' " But sometimes, their answers were perfectly offhand. Pressed to explain why vampires prefer virgins, Vladislav shrugs, "If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it."
After Petyr bites Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a scrawny thug with neck tattoos, the clan grumblingly adjusts to their new member. Loudmouth Nick could get them all killed. But he also plugs these oldsters into the modern world, courtesy of his nerdy best friend Stu (Stuart Rutherford, a real-life IT tech who set up the wireless router at Waititi's mom's house). Now, when Vladislav hisses, "Leave me to do my dark bidding," he's on eBay.
Thanks to Twilight, vampires peaked in popularity five years ago. In 2015, they're a little passé. "When we came up with it in 2005, there were no sensitive vampires," sighs Waititi. Still, when your comedy is about a pack of overdressed outcasts pleading with a bouncer to invite them into a club, being uncool is a plus. Both Waititi and Clement have become married fathers, lending a universal anxiety to their immortals' fears that they're hopelessly behind the times. Not that either will admit it.
"As a very cool person, I like to explore, 'What if you weren't cool?' " jokes Waititi. He laughs and gets slightly more serious. "It is my true belief that there are no cool people in the world. Every cool person you meet, if you break them down, is full of deep insecurities. They're afraid of being normal."
"I met one," counters Clement. "This guy called Shane. He was cool. But yeah, if you think about anyone in detail enough, they're strange. You think, 'Oh, here's a normal guy — bit too normal.'" That's certainly not how their countrymen thought of them in 2005. They're still trying to be the most fun freaks in town.