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If Vlad the Impaler were still around, we’re pretty sure he’d thumbs up the unrelenting immortality of the idea behind What We Do in the Shadows. If you aren’t aware, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement first came up with the idea of interviewing vampires about how they exist in the modern-day way back in 2005 for their short film, What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews With Some Vampires. Based on that proof of concept working, they adapted it into the feature length version in 2012. With hours of improv faux documentary footage to choose from, they spent 14 months editing it into the theatrical 2014 cult gem, What We Do in the Shadows.
And yet that still didn’t quench the flow of vampire bits to explore, so Waititi and Clement pitched, and then sold, a TV spin-off of the idea to FX in 2018. Now, What We Do in the Shadows, the series, has a 10-episode first season that drops on FX beginning March 27.
The pilot, written by Clement and directed by Waititi, presents audiences with a new cluster of mostly dysfunctional vampires living in a gothic home in today’s Staten Island. A documentary crew (perhaps the same one from New Zealand, it’s never stated) follows the day-to-day eccentricities of the four vampire roomies, who are more interested in topiary and glitter shopping than world domination. Brit comedians play the core trio with Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou as the married Laszlo and Nadja, and Kayvan Novak as Nador, the former Ottoman Empire pillager. They’re joined by U.S. comedians, Mark Proksch as Colin the Energy Vampire, and Harvey Guillen as Nandor’s desperate-to-be-a-vampire Familiar, Guillermo.
Showrunning the series is former Flight of the Conchords consulting producer/writer, Paul Simms, who remembers when Clement invited him and his wife to see the film in New York City. As Simms tells SYFY WIRE, he loved it, “but I didn't think anything else about it. Then, a few months later he's like, "What if that was a TV show?" I'm like, ‘You should do it, it sounds great.’”
Busy working on other series like Girls and Atlanta, Simms never considered doing anything with it until Shadows was picked up at FX, his home network for Atlanta. It soon worked out that he could shift over to Shadows and be Waititi and Clements showrunner while they worked on prior commitments, and came in to direct or write scripts.
So, what does the series version of this ongoing comedy experiment looks like? Simms opens the casket for us to look under the hood…
What’s the connector between the New Zealand vampires and the show vampires?
The show takes place in the same universe as the movie did, but these are all new characters. These are all original characters to the show, none of whom are in the movie.
Do the story ideas come from exploring the tropes of the vampire world, or more the character flaws?
I don't know if it was tropes as much as finding, in the same way with the movie vampires, different kinds of vampires. With the original auditioning, when we saw Natasia and Kayvan and Harvey, we were going in a direction. Then when we saw them, we went further in the direction that they already were. They’re incredibly funny. Like Nandor was larger than life and used to be a warrior, and then Kayvan was so tall and warrior like. The only person I think we had in mind at the beginning was Matt Barry. He was someone we sort of wrote that character for. But it was great finding these actors that made us laugh so much in the audition and then moving more towards what they do and what is funny about them.
Why Staten Island as the series backdrop?
[Jemaine] and I liked the idea of it being in New York city but, not the New York City that you always see. In other words, not in Manhattan and not Brooklyn. Staten Island really set up a great future episode where they go into Manhattan to where the cool Manhattan vampires are. It's the first time they realize that they're not as cool as everyone else, which is really fun.
For the series, is there an arc you are playing out all season, or is it more episodic vignettes?
There is an arc for the season but the episodes are all stand alone, so it's not too serialized. The season builds to a climax at the end but, there's also a climax in the middle that has to do with the Baron (Doug Jones). When the Baron reawakens again, and basically says, "What have you guys done so far?" It's a really good surprise and really funny.
The movie was culled down from hours of footage. Is that the case with the episodes?
No! I would not be able to focus. The main thing that was important to me was that each episode tell a solid story. If there's a solid story you're telling then, you can let the actors go off in whatever direction they want as long as you remember, in this scene, you want him to do this.
Most of the shows I've worked on, including Conchords had improv. In Conchords, we would labor over the scripts, me and Jemaine particularly, and he would go over it down to the semicolon. They'd get on set and they would do something much funnier with maybe two of the lines that we'd written. So, we keep it loose. Also, it’s fun to not think about it while you're shooting as long as you're getting the story parts that you need, and then you get in the editing room and you see which was actually funnier. I'm 53 now so I don't remember anything. I don't remember if I wrote the line, or if the actor wrote the line, and I can look at it all fresh. Every day is a new day.
Let’s talk about Nadja basically raising a new vampire played by Beanie Feldstein. We don’t get that dynamic often in vampire stories.
No, it's one of the most fun and odd things in the season, this relationship, because it keeps shifting. Sometimes, Nadja feels motherly, sometimes it’s girlfriend-ish. It builds to a great episode that's in the second half of the season where Beanie has sort of completed a transformation, and she's done everything except feed on human blood and she is too self-conscious and doesn't know how to do it. Nadja is basically teaching her how to be a full vampire. I don't want to make it sound heavy because it's all silly-stupid, but there are metaphors about becoming a woman.
What about guest stars? Are you pulling from your circle of Kiwi comedians?
There's a little Conchords overlap but in a very subtle way that only Conchords super fans will know. Jemaine did feel like he wanted to make sure that we weren’t trying to rip the movie off too much. Which is ironic, considering that he made the movie, but for people who love the characters in the movie, there's some special appearances that they'll be very excited about.
What We Do in the Shadows premieres on FX on March 27.