“It’s ridiculous.” Taika Waititi is outraged. “I mean this was all planned!” Planned for years. Before Eagle vs Shark, before Flight of the Conchords, half a decade before Boy, he and Jemaine Clement had a vampire mockumentary in mind. Finally, in 2012, they found themselves sitting down in the editing suite with the raw footage for what is about to be released as the feature film What We Do in the Shadows. “We were like, ‘This is going to be so easy, it’s going to be so quick.’ Cut to a year later and we’re still battling away.”
Documentaries are written in the editing suite. Documentary makers learn to expect a long haul figuring out which tiny percentage of the footage they’ve collected will jigsaw together into a film. When the documentary is about the private lives of a group of Wellington vampires, the need to impose structure on untidy reality would seem less pressing. Waititi is laughing. He can only agree. “The thing is, we had a script! It was all scripted. It had taken us six years, but we had 150 pages of script in the end. I was off making other films, Jemaine was doing Conchord stuff, but every now and then we’d email or we’d write a scene or have an idea. It got cobbled together, until in 2012 we finally said, ‘Look, we’ve missed the boat on making a vampire film before anyone else – if we don’t do it this year it’s never going to happen.’”
Waititi and Clement met at Victoria University in the 1990s and became friends and collaborators in the burgeoning Wellington comedy scene. They wrote plays, acted together, bounced ideas around. “There were a lot of comedy evenings around town at various pubs and bars and clubs.”
By the end of the decade, Waititi was helping run the Wellington Artists’ Charitable Trust in a warehouse in Cable St and working primarily in visual art. “Painting, photography, a little bit of comedy on the side. I don’t know if I’d have kept being an actor, I was getting a bit sick of it. But film was something I hadn’t really explored yet, so I tried my hand.”
Waititi’s short film Two Cars, One Night was shortlisted for an Academy Award and subsequently formed the kernel of Boy. (“Making the transition from short to feature is very difficult and I think people have often rushed it … luckily I got to make other shorts and experiment with Eagle vs Shark, which could handle being a clumsy first film-maker’s film. If I’d made Boy first, it wouldn’t have been as good.”)
But Two Cars, One Night was the second short film he made; the first, John & Pogo, which played at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2002, was an improv-driven mockumentary about a cop and his dog. “The great thing about improvising, and also the great thing about the mockumentary form, is it gives people the opportunity to play. To think on their feet, not just regurgitate lines. The actors become scriptwriters, really.”
This was the process he and Clement used in 2005 to make a short vampire film – a film that has remained unreleased, but which gave them the characters and sensibility for What We Do in the Shadows.
The characters came easily: three old-world immortals, roaming Wellington streets after dark and bickering over the dishes. Waititi’s sweet-natured Viago emerged fully formed the moment the camera started rolling. “I really liked the idea of a vampire who’s obsessed with cleanliness and sick of his vampire flatmates being untidy.”
Jonathan Brugh was ill the weekend they were filming. “So we filmed him lying down on the couch. And that’s where Deacon came from. Very low energy, too cool for school. And because those two stereotypes were taken, Jemaine went a bit more Dracula.”
These characters were clearly rich enough to sustain a feature – and together with a bunch of well-intentioned, slightly pathetic werewolves, to generate another skewed look at the idiosyncratic idiocies of the New Zealand male. “It’s an ongoing theme throughout my stuff. I think because New Zealand is so desperate to appear masculine. In everything we do, there’s this underlying desperation to look tough. I always think of a farmer standing in the rain. That’s our image of ourselves. A sheep under one arm, a rifle in the other. And, I don’t know, a wide-brimmed hat with water dripping down the brim, and he’s like ‘she’ll be right’. It’s a very cinematic myth. I think it’s very cool. I also think it’s really funny. Because, you know, everybody in life trips over. Everyone is an idiot. There are just no cool people.”
The problem with the 150-page script Waititi and Clement eventually created was twofold: it was too long and they both ended up feeling characters created through improv should not be scripted at all. “So we cut 50 pages and then we didn’t show the actors the script. We did pitch this film in the States to a few studios, and we had offers to go and make it over there, but they wanted to put celebrities in it. We would still have made a good film, but we would have probably had to make it according to studio rules. We wouldn’t have had this kind of process, improvising the entire thing.
“We’d very loosely block a scene and we’d just feel it out. Every take was very different, it was very liberating. It was one of the best experiences shooting that I’ve had.” And it meant going into the editing room with something very similar to the raw materials of a documentary: 130 hours of unscripted footage, out of which an 86-minute film emerged. Eventually.
“I think usually a director’s cut would take about three months. When I cut my other two films, it took about five. All up, this took about 14. We always said that some day we’ll release the film as a 10-disc DVD set. With everything. And then maybe put the editing software in there. If you think you can do better, go ahead! Good luck! I’d love to see other people’s versions of this film.”
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, released June 19.