It wasn’t Jemaine Clement or Taika Waititi’s idea to turn their cult-favorite comedy What We Do in the Shadows into a TV show — you have producer Scott Rudin to thank for that — but once you watch the premiere of the new FX series, you have to wonder if it was fated to become a TV series all along.
The Certified Fresh WWDITS show follows a similar framework as the film: It’s a mockumentary about vampire roommates (Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Mark Proksch) and a devoted familiar (Harvey Guillén), but the action moves from New Zealand to New York City. These aren’t big city vamps, though — they live on Staten Island, a place with the same low-key underdog quality that New Zealand has.
Like the film, the series focuses on the more mundane aspects of vampire life, which means there’s a lot more interpersonal spats than epic vampire battles.
“When we were making the film we had joked about making, like, a ‘Housewives of’ series [where] you could go to different places and do different groups of vampires,” Clement told Rotten Tomatoes and a small group of reporters one December afternoon on the series’ Toronto set. “So as soon as I was on the phone and someone was saying, ‘What if we made a TV series of this?’ that immediately came into my head, and I knew it would be different characters in a different place.”
Aside from the Real Housewives reality series, read on to find out what else inspired the vampires’ transition from film to television, including what other pop culture inspired WWDITS (two very non-vampire-related documentaries might surprise you), what vampire rules the characters live by, the difficulties of night shoots, and more.
The first step in creating a vampire universe is to figure out the rules of this vampire world. Executive producer Paul Simms and co-EP Stefani Robinson said they’d consult the original film frequently, and they also drew from seminal vampire movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, and even the Twilight saga for inspiration.
“[Interview] is always in conversation in some way,” Robinson said. Plus, “I was sort of the target demographic for Twilight when that came out — I was in high school when that came out — so I have pretty extensive Twilight knowledge, I would say. It’s been fun re-watching all these movies.”
Clement and Waititi’s favorite vampire films include Scars of Dracula, Fright Night, Salem’s Lot, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Let the Right One In. The rules of the WWDITS world come from plenty of years of vampire movie-watching, and Clement and Waititi know them front and back.
“Taika and I are both fans of vampire movies, and when we’d get people to improvise in the film, we were more surprised that people don’t know the vampire rules like we do,” Clement said. “We thought everyone was a vampire nerd.”
These vampires have powers we didn’t see in the movie, but they’re pretty standard — they can’t go into private property without being invited, they can’t see their reflections in mirrors, stuff like that.
“We go basic ’70s-’80s vampire movie roles with a bit of ’30s,” Clement said. “They can turn into bats. They can’t go in the sun. They don’t sparkle in the sun; they die.”
Some of the rules are less obvious, like Waititi’s favorite bit of vampire law he found while researching: “One way to get rid of a vampire if he’s in your village is to steal his socks, fill them with garlic, tie them up, and throw them in the river. He’ll be forced to chase his socks, to go get his socks back. Then, he’ll get the socks and obviously they’ll be full of garlic. He’s going, ‘Ahh,’ stuck there on the banks of the river.”
A new technological twist is that vampires’ fingerprints don’t register on digital devices, so they can’t open iPhones or digitally sign for a very important delivery (like a package they’ll receive in the first episode). While the rules are pretty clear-cut, the more obscure ones complicate matters when the actors improvise something that won’t work.
“Often on set we’re like, ‘that’s right, they can’t do that.’ And I think most people probably wouldn’t care if you ever made a character go for a swim in the ocean, but they officially aren’t allowed to according to vampire law. They’re not allowed to go in salt or sea water,” Waititi said.
If Clement’s around, he’ll correct the mistake.
“When we have the actors improvising stuff, if I’m listening I’ll go, ‘They can’t swim’ if they improvise it,” he said. “‘Couldn’t do that.’”
Said Simms, “Jemaine is very particular about the rules. If they eat human food they get sick, but leeches they can chew on or suck on to get the blood out but the actual leech meat they can’t [eat]. … The one that has affected the show in the most frustrating way is the idea that vampires need to be invited in somewhere. Because we’re always writing scenes where we’re like, ‘OK, they go into the house,’ and Jemaine’s like, ‘hold it, they need to be invited into the house.’”
Ultimately, the rules are helpful in making the story as interesting as possible.
“It’s good to have limitations. It makes it harder for them,” Clement said. “Because vampires have so many powers, they also have to have weaknesses.”
While Berry’ Laszlo, Novak’s Nandor, and Demetriou’s Nadja all have traditional vampire backgrounds, Clement created a new piece of vampire lore in “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Proksch), a day-walker who doesn’t feed on blood, but rather sucks the life out of people. Think the most boring person in your office who you’d never want to be caught next to at the water cooler, then multiply that boredom by at least 10.
In researching whether vampires existed, Clement came across people who would talk about an energy vampire in a psychological context.
“But I just thought, what if it was supernatural as well? Yeah, that’s been really fun to do,” he said.
Adapting a film into a television series isn’t as easy as it sounds, despite the fact that there’s already a creative framework to go with.
“People think of it as TV as being smaller-scale, but it’s actually larger because you have to have so many different stories,” Clement said. “That part of it is hard, but it’s also the fun part [because] next week we’re doing a different story. I love that.”
And while certain story lines will have full-season arcs, the 10 episodes are mainly standalone half-hours that establish the new characters and the new world in which they’re living.
“Remember how TV used to be where you could turn on an episode of Bob Newhart and watch, and you didn’t need to know what happened before or after? There are still elements in the first season that are season-long arcs, but we’re thinking about it in terms of 10 episodes,” Simms said.
“I hate it when TV people go, ‘It’s like we’re making a 10-episode movie.’ No you’re not. TV is better than movies anyway,” he joked, “so why would you want to make that comparison?”
While the pilot was filmed in Los Angeles and the series was filmed in Toronto, the What We Do In the Shadows show takes place on Staten Island (a place where no one on the cast or crew is from, and most of them have never been). Clement visited while writing the pilot, but the writers’ room had a built-in expert.
“One of the writers, Tom Scharpling, his wife is from Staten Island and anything we have to ask [about being] authentic, we have to ask Tom,” Clement said. “They get really stupid like, ‘Would you see a cow like this in Staten Island?’”
Why Staten Island, though? The vampires made it to America, but didn’t get very far in to the country.
“You could almost say Staten Island is the New Zealand of New York. It’s kind of the forgotten borough that not many people live in,” Simms joked. “No, but [it’s] quainter and not as glitzy and glamorous [as Manhattan].”
One downside to a show about vampires: all of the action takes place at night, which means anything that’s not filmed on the show’s Toronto soundstages must be shot at night.
“We’ll often go from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m., depending on when the sun rises. So that’s the bit that makes you want to cry,” Clement said.
Clement directed a few episodes of the season, as did Waititi (who was directing the episode Rotten Tomatoes was present for filming), original film star Jackie van Beek, and Jason Woliner.
While most of the WWDITS film was improvised, the show is fully scripted — but with plenty of room for the comedian cast members to play around.
“They’re all good at improvising, these guys, and that was a big part of the audition. …A lot of people are good and funny,” Clement said.
But “you don’t want people who are acting” or who prepare, Waititi added.
Said Clement, “it feels more real if people [can wing it]. And also you just get things that you wouldn’t think of planning out. Going on a big tangent and talking about some detail, you often don’t do that because in a script, you’re trying to be very efficient and just tell what’s absolutely necessary. But it’s more fun and more real when they go off onto something that you wouldn’t put in a script normally.”
The scene Rotten Tomatoes observed the cast filming took place in a local Toronto mansion called Casa Loma that is frequently used for film and television shoots — from Fox’s recent Rocky Horror Picture Show remake to 2000’s X-Men and many more. It would be a spoiler to reveal who the main cast was interacting with and why, but, suffice it to say, it was a good thing filming took place far away from the viewing room, because the members of the press in attendance were laughing so hard.
The surprise of who the special guest stars for the late-season episode are is so worth the wait, however, and rest assured, early-season episodes feature some comedy bona fides too. In the meantime, check out a featurette from the set below to see exactly how funny Novak, Berry, Demetriou, Proksch, and Guillén are.
What We Do in the Shadows premieres Wednesday, March 27 at 10 p.m. on FX.