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The Untold Truth Of What We Do In The Shadows

The bad news: vampires live among us. The good news: they're just as bored as the rest of us, even though they can live forever. That's the conceit of What We Do in the Shadows. First, it was a film — Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement directed while also starring as centuries-old bloodsuckers Viago and Vladislav, respectively, roommates with brash vampire Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and the horrifying Petyr (Ben Fransham). The cameras document their fairly mundane lives in Wellington, New Zealand — rising at night, hitting a listless club, and squabbling over the dishes, all while dressing like fancy counts and drinking the blood of innocents. 

In 2019, FX began airing a TV version of What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary like Modern Family, but about vampires, in particular four vampires — Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), accompanied by an overworked familiar named Guillermo (Harvey Guillen) — who share a spooky house on Staten Island.

Take a look behind the cloak and feast heartily on these stories about the making of What We Do in the Shadows.

It took almost a decade to get What We Do in the Shadows made

Before What We Do in the Shadows was a TV show, it was a movie of the same name, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. That was the end result of about a decade of attempting to get the film made and in the can. Back in 2005, New Zealand-based actors and filmmakers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement wrote, directed, and played the main roles in the 27-minute mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews with Some Vampires. It didn't get much traction, and so Waititi and Clement moved on to separate projects. For Waititi, that meant directing the Oscar-nominated short film "Two Cars, One Night," as well as the films Eagle vs. Shark and Boy, and a few episodes of Flight of the Conchords, the HBO series about a wannabe rock duo co-created by and co-starring Clement. 

About four years after they made the short, the duo got to work writing the feature version. And then it took another four years after that to get the production off the ground. It was editing that proved the most time-sucking of all the tasks: Waititi told Empire that the film's 87-minute running time is the result of carefully winnowing down 125 hours of footage. "We could [have] made it a three hour film," he claims.

More spin-offs await in the shadows

What We Do in the Shadows has already produced a successful spinoff — the TV version for FX, with new characters, which launched its second season in April 2020. Creators Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement apparently have a whole universe of supernatural monsters in the works. Wellington Paranormal premiered on TVNZ in Waititi and Clement's homeland of New Zealand in July 2018. Not yet available outside of that country and Australia, it focuses on Officers Minogue (Mike Minogue) and O'Leary (Karen O'Leary) from the What We Do in the Shadows film as they investigate spooky occurrences around Wellington in their familiar deadpan, mockumentary style.

Another big-screen endeavor could be on the way, too. This follow-up documentary will be about the oft-confrontational werewolf support group from the original What We Do in the Shadows, led by Rhys Darby as Anton. Waititi plans to reunite with Clement to write and direct the spin-off, which, in a bit of hilarious wordplay, is called We're Wolves.

The film shoot almost caused a mass panic

Spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the What We Do in the Shadows film: Petyr (Ben Fransham), the particularly ghoulish 8,000-year-old vampire who lives in a sarcophagus in the basement, dies when a vampire hunter breaks in and dear, sweet Petyr is exposed to sunlight, instantly turning him into a charred, black lifeless corpse. The film's prop makers had to construct that charred figure not just for the moment his roommates discover him, but for a planned scene in which Petyr gets a burial at sea of sorts, when his fellow vampires set it adrift in a Wellington harbor as they bid him goodbye. 

After placing the prop corpse in the water, filmmakers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement lost control and sight of the thing. "It was quite realistic looking," Waititi told the New Zealand Herald, "so we had to put a press release out saying that if anyone finds this charred body washed up on a beach, don't be alarmed, it's just a prop." As far as he knows, the body never did come ashore... and the scene in question didn't even make it into the final cut of the movie.

Where the cast of What We Do in the Shadows found inspiration

The vampires in What We Do in the Shadows are not the typical brooding and frightening creatures of the night. They certainly try to be as romantic and mysterious as the common perception of a vampire would require, but they just can't get the hang of it. Viago (Taika Waititi) is awfully cheery and innocent-seeming for someone who kills people, while Vladislav hides his pining for an old girlfriend by trying to be as dramatic as possible. Both actors (who also happened to devise What We Do in the Shadows) pulled from disparate sources to flesh out their characters. 

According to The Independent, Waititi based Viago's sunny and effervescent disposition on his own mother's personality. As for that silly way he speaks, that comes from a stranger. "He's partly this guy I once met when I was traveling: a German guy who just had a very high-pitched voice," Waititi told Empire. His name: Phillip, although Waititi says he preferred to be called "Mr. Happy." As for Vlad, Clement based him on a classic: Count Dracula, specifically Gary Oldman's portrayal of the famous vampire in the 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula.

What are the "rules" of the franchise's vampires?

Every work of vampire fiction utilizes "rules" under which its world operates. Plot contrivances become common knowledge about vampires, such as how they don't appear in mirrors and can die if they go out in the sun. Each major vampire movie, book, or TV show has its own rules, including the What We Do in the Shadows universe. Rather than make up a whole new mythos, though, the creators chose to adopt the vampire dicta that are likely the most universally familiar: those of Bram Stoker's 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula. It's from that novel where so much vampire culture stems, such as the creatures' aversion to crucifixes. "We stuck with the Bram Stoker rules," Jemaine Clement told Empire. 

"I think that era was where the rules came from, that they can transform into bats and so on," Taika Waititi adds. "We've gone for the movie-Dracula Dracula."

That said, What We Do in the Shadows takes place in a world where other prominent vampire movies and shows exist. In the TV show, Nandor (Kayvan Novak) buys glitter so that he may sparkle like Edward Cullen does in Twilight. His familiar, Guillermo, speaks of his desire to become a vampire after watching Interview with the Vampire and becoming enamored of Antonio Banderas' character, Armand.

What exactly is an energy vampire?

When Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement adapted the What We Do in the Shadows film into a TV show, they switched the setting from New Zealand to Staten Island. This called for a cast of all-new characters, including Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), the franchise's first American, as well as its first "energy vampire," a creature who feeds not on blood but on the psychic and mental energy of others... by boring them half to death with dull conversation and un-fun fun facts.

Energy vampire is "a term I've heard used to describe people who are difficult to talk to, and I've definitely been cornered by these people at parties. Those people that you feel you need to be saved from," Clement told The Hollywood Reporter. "It was just taking that to the supernatural level." Proksch improvises most of Colin Robinson's torturous dronings. "A lot of it's not on the page, he can just do that endlessly," Clement notes.

The What We Do in the Shadows theme song is "Dead" perfect

Both the film and TV iterations of What We Do in the Shadows utilize the same catchy opening theme song. It's mildly spooky — fitting for a show about vampires — but with its crisp, folk-influenced British Invasion sound and relative obscurity, it would certainly be at home on the soundtrack of a Wes Anderson movie. (The singer does have a vocal resemblance to Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, but using a song by the Zombies in a vampire movie is just a little too on the nose.) 

That song is called, appropriately enough, "You're Dead." The film's editor, Tom Eagles, amassed a collection of songs about death, and turned directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement on to the song. They eventually decided to use it for the opening montage of old photographs and drawings. To get permission, the production had to track down the woman who wrote and performed it in 1966: American folk singer Norma Tanega. The late performer (she died in 2019) is a one-hit wonder in the U.S., but not for "You're Dead." Her only charting song is the equally odd-yet-charming "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog," which hit #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.

One of the creators abandoned the TV show

It took a long time for What We Do in the Shadows the movie to become What We Do in the Shadows the television series. The film was released in 2014, and although filmmakers Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement almost immediately entertained offers to turn it into a show, it didn't hit cable TV until 2019. It's mostly because Waititi went on to become an in-demand filmmaker. He directed the Marvel Cinematic Universe entry Thor: Ragnarok, and then wrote and directed the World War II comedy Jojo Rabbit, in which he co-starred as an imaginary Hitler and won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. In short, he had a lot on his plate, and could successfully put off even thinking about making a TV version of What We Do in the Shadows — something he says he and Clement didn't really want to do. 

"We didn't mind the idea of it existing, but the idea of us doing it was just a lot of work," Waititi told Vulture. While he's an executive producer on the series and has directed a few episodes, he mostly left control — and labor — to Clement. It's not exactly a surprising decision — the pilot was ordered right when Waititi got offered Thor. "I couldn't see any way that I could be totally involved in the show and the film, so I made Jemaine do it," he half-joked.

How the epic vampire summit episode came together

What We Do in the Shadows stepped it up in its seventh episode. After the vampire Baron dies on their watch, the main characters must go before a council of vampires, which consists of movie and TV vampires of the last 20 years. The twist: the roles are reprised by the actors who brought them to life, except they play "themselves," implying that they also happen to be offscreen vampires. Among the special guest stars: Paul Reubens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Wesley Snipes (Blade), and all three living vampires from the What We Do in the Shadows movie, marking the first appearances by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi on their own show. 

The duo was interested in cameos, but couldn't figure out a reason, until Clement remembered that he'd met Swinton at SXSW when both were presenting their respective vampire films. "She said, 'Do something where our vampire characters are together,'" he told Entertainment Weekly. "I just locked that away in my brain," until he devised the tribunal idea.

Many other stars couldn't make it. Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys) turned it down, Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) was filming in Australia, and Cate Blanchett missed out, too. The Oscar winner reportedly really wanted to come, until Waititi realized she'd been put on the list of fictional vampires by mistake — she's never actually played a bloodsucker.

What We Do in the Shadows is often tedious... intentionally

The long-form structure of TV's What We Do in the Shadows provides an opportunity for writers to really explore what daily life is like for an ageless being. And the answer to that question: it's boring and monotonous. In that regard, the show's biggest influence isn't monster movies. "The Office was about the tedium of working in an office and nothing really ever changes, or when something changes it quickly goes back to being tedious," showrunner Paul Simms told The Hollywood Reporter. "In this show, it's sort of like, take that and multiply it by hanging out with the same people for 200 years and being sick of each other." 

A main source of comedy on What We Do in the Shadows is how pathetic it is that the vampires, granted seemingly infinite time on Earth, have completely squandered that gift. "Part of what's funny about the show is that these vampires had 200 years during which they could have done anything they wanted — they could've learned any language, written 1,000 books, become proficient in any musical instrument," Simms said, "and all they've really done is sat around and bickered with each other."

The vampires were not invited back into the house

FX's What We Do in the Shadows takes place on Staten Island, New York, but it actually films in Toronto, made up to resemble the American suburban enclave. The sprawling house where Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja, Colin Robinson, and Guillermo reside is even a noted house of horrors — or at the least the one used to shoot the first season is. Prior to the comedy-horror production moving in, it was used to film the big-screen version of Stephen King's It. The second season was shot in a different house, owing to a last-minute production emergency. 

"Right before we got to Toronto to start shooting again, we were told that we couldn't use the vampire house that we'd been using," showrunner Paul Simms told The Hollywood Reporter. "That was our biggest production struggle." The series' crew had to build a new house exterior to match the original one. And then they "started getting more ambitious," adding on a larger topiary garden and a koi pond in the parking lot of the soundstage where interior scenes are captured.

Mark Hamill's fandom paid off

In the sublimely silly second-season What We Do in the Shadows episode "On the Run," Laszlo assumes a new identity in Pennsylvania as a "regular human bartender" named "Jackie Daytona," disguising himself with just a pair of jeans and a toothpick. And yet, it works against the reason he ran away: Jim the Vampire, to whom he owes a very small and old debt. Jim is played by Star Wars legend Mark Hamill, who got the role because he's a huge What We Do in the Shadows fan. He enjoyed the movie but didn't think the show would be great because Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement weren't in it — but then he was wrong. "I always get nervous about shows I like, because I find something I really love and it gets canceled. So I tweeted about it several times, trying to get my followers to give it a try," Hamill told Vulture. "Apparently that's what put me on their radar, and the next thing I know they asked me to come on their show." Hamill assumed he'd be given a small role — a civil servant, or neighbor. When offered the role of Jim the Vampire, he says he "just flipped out."

Hamill's guest-star role elevated the show's profile just as his tweets had. "On the Run" even earned an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series (one of three that What We Do in the Shadows earned in the category).