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Who were the true genre MVPs of 2020? Without a doubt, the vampires of Staten Island: Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) from FX's What We Do in the Shadows.
Last year as pandemic lockdown ennui settled over us all, Season 2 arrived just when we needed it most and it delivered us from some of our misery. From the "Superb Owl" party to Jim vs. Jackie Daytona and Colin's promotion, the show hit new heights of hilarity and ensemble perfection. It even left us on a juicy cliffhanger with Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), Nandor’s familiar, revealing his vampire slayer skills when he wiped out the Vampiric Council to save his master.
With Season 3 returning to FX on September 2, SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom with executive producer/showrunner, Paul Simms, to find out how he and the writers are mixing it up for the vampires and the audience this season.
Heading into the third season, what elements of the show are you and your writers enjoying most constructing for these characters?
Part of the challenge of the third season was let's try to not repeat ourselves. There were so many people who were like, “Are we going to see Jackie Daytona again?” And we said, "Well, no." If I do say so ourselves, that was like a perfect episode and a one-time thing, so you don't want to go back to it.
How are you keeping the show fresh for everyone?
It's a combination of two things. It's seeing more of, and expanding, the supernatural world in ways that are visual and funny. And whenever I read interviews about getting “more into the characters,” it makes it sound so boring. [Laughs.] But there are relationships, obviously, in the show that have developed that were never planned out originally. You'll start to see a glimpse of it in Season 3 of Laszlo and Colin Robinson — two people who basically get on each other's nerves—developing this unusual friendship that plays out through the season. And I think the main thing we try to do is always keep having surprises. There are some good ones in the [first four], and there's some great surprises that come up through the rest of the season.
In Episode 2, "The Cloak of Duplication," Kavan as Nandor gets to essentially play every member of the house. Was that born of Kavan’s skills as a mimic?
Yeah, that one definitely came from knowing that Kayvan is an amazing mimic and so that was really basically where that whole story idea came from. How can we figure out a situation where he is doing his version of the rest of the cast? Because of COVID, we couldn't spend a lot of time on the [soundstage] so a lot of it was watching on monitors up in our office. I remember sitting there working on another script and hearing this Guillermo scene going on, and then turning and realizing that it was Kayvan doing it. It was really just remarkable. In fact, when we were editing it, we were worried that people were gonna think that we just had the other actors do the voices. But he did every single voice. Especially with Guillermo, he found just such little details and mannerisms that were just amazing, and really embodied the character. And none of the [cast] was on set when he was doing those imitations. They'll all be seeing them for the first time, so I hope they're all flattered. [Laughs.]
How do you approach breaking a season? By finding the micro-moments or from the macro storyline, like the Vampiric Council story this season?
One thing we've said from the beginning is that we want it to be like an old-fashioned sitcom, where you don't have to follow the whole history. We don't want it to be one of those shows where people you have to watch the first six episodes or you won't understand. I just imagined the old days when everything was in syndication and at one in the morning, you could turn on and watch any episode of Mary Tyler Moore and just know what was going on. We try to build every episode like that.
But then for the hardcore fans, we do want a big, overarching story for the season. But nothing that's so serialized that it excludes anyone. A lot of it is then a combination with the stories. Sometimes we'll start from the abstract and go to the specific like, "We'd like to see more of Laszlo and Colin together." Then sometimes it goes from a specific to the abstract, like from last season, Matt plays the piano and sings, so let's do something musical. Let's just start from there and figure it out.
Speaking of music, Laszlo and Nadja’s musical stylings were a hit. Did Matt noodle the songs into being or did the writers create them?
For those songs that they did [last year], we came up with the lyrics and said take it to Matt and said, “Do your thing!” But in this season, there was a scene for instance where Laszlo is telling a very long story about why he left England and how he came to America. It was a long chunk of dialogue. And then we started thinking it would be really funny to have him just happen to be at the piano while he's telling the story. And then he starts illustrating the story, so it's British music, and then he's playing “God Bless America” as he comes here. And then when something scary happens, it's like a silent film. And for Toast of London fans, there's a great little Easter egg.
You’ve already teased more about Guillermo’s family lineage. When you do lean into actual creature mythology, what do you and the writers enjoy most about spinning it to your needs?
When I think about it, it’s based on the surprise. Like the fact that the person they're most vulnerable to, who takes care of them and watches over them when they sleep, turns out to be a Vampire Slayer. And then also the surprise of Guillermo. When we first meet him, he is nebbishy and shy and introverted, and then he’s becoming this action star that didn't really know he had it in him. And we do try to figure out a way that it all actually makes sense and is motivated by actual history. But then as the show goes on, things we've established we have to stick to those rules so it becomes more of a puzzle to figure out.
But one thing I'm proud of and also excited about with Season 3, is that in Season 2 we had the whole thing with Nadja's dead lover who keeps coming back to life. At the end of the season, you realize that it was Laszlo all along who killed him every time. We did some similar things this season with stuff that you wouldn't notice, but when you get to the end of the season, you’ll go, "Oh, it all adds up in a really cool way."
Because of COVID, was it harder to get guest stars to travel to Toronto to shoot?
Well, Kristen (Schaal) was so much fun in Season 1, and everyone in the cast loves her and she fits in so well that we knew we wanted to do more with her for this season. But it was tough. Aida Turturro has a great part, and that meant coming up and doing a two-week quarantine. But we're really happy with the people who did that. And also in Season 3, instead of going with the celebrity cameo, we went with people that we thought were really, really funny that also wouldn't mind sitting in a hotel room for two weeks, waiting for their turn to act. There are some good and surprising faces that come up.
What are your personal favorites this season?
Partially because it's so funny, and partially because of the ambition of it, I really like “The Casino” episode. I really like Episode 1, "The Prisoner,” a lot because we ended the last season on a “How's Guillermo gonna get out of this?" moment. The other thing I like, besides the way it sets up the rest of the season and how they're going to deal with Guillermo, is that it had so many scenes in it where all our regular cast are together. It wasn't about meeting someone new or going someplace new. It was just all five of them in a room together, which are always my favorite scenes in the show. When you have five actors who improvise well, you need a special chemistry for them to be able to improvise well together. And they really are great as a team.
What We Do in the Shadows Season 3 premieres with its first two episodes on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX and the next day on FX on Hulu.