Interview: Jemaine Clement Talks WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
What We Do In the Shadows first screened at Sundance 2014 and it has been clawing its way through the festival circuit since then. It's a terrific film, a witty and dark comedy about roommates who happen to want to eat other people. General audiences finally get a chance to see it as it opens in select theatres this weekend, and I can't think of better counter programming to that awful S&M-lite film that the vast majority will be seeking out.
I had the sincere pleasure of a 45-minute chat with Mr. Clement from a deserted basement in a hotel during the last Toronto International Film Festival. The bland decor and tasteless wall-coverings still seemed perfectly in keeping with our talk of blood, gore, how he wanted to lose the best joke in the film, and a fascination with a famous Canadian rescue dog.
I've been describing the film as MAN BITES DOG meets NOSFERATU, or I guess MAN BITES MAN. Were there specific documentaries or mockumentaries or comedies that you looked at? The Christopher Guest stuff, the SPINAL TAP stuff comes to mind.
Yeah, definitely Spinal Tap, all of those Christopher Guest ones with an eye on how much story do they have. They're quite light on story, heavy on gags and stuff, so we went for that focus as well. It's good to have that freedom, but you always have to have some story. Otherwise, people turn off. You can't just show them jokes.
Agreed. One of the challenges with "mockumentaries" is when they become just schtick, or feel episodic. Even Python sort of ran into that a little bit with their films, they stopped being cinematic. LIFE OF BRIAN is definitely episodic, but it also plays as a film.
Yeah. We tried to have parts that are emotional, that give some characters, you don't want to see them harmed, and I don't know how it plays, but that's what we were attempting.
Was that always part of the discussion, in order to make it, to dial it back, to set that tone correctly?
It was in the writing. But then [for] certain things a lot of it's to do with the way we cast. We ended up going with mostly comedians in the end, but we did consider different people for some of the parts. We did think of making the werewolves all manly and scary, and then we thought we'll just get some funny guys instead.
The hardest thing was when we were editing it because we had so much footage. The first edit was just jokes, and people got bored. They felt like it was funny, but you could just tune it out and you knew there was going to be another funny bit. The next one was all story and not many jokes.
So there's some mega 4-hour cut of this film which is all funny and all story?
I guess there is. It may not be that long. We always knew we wanted it to be shorter.
In terms of the co-direction, how did it go, did you work with the specific performers and another was in charge of camera, did you split the things evenly?
Taika [Waititi] and I have directed a lot of things before together, but [it was mostly] theatre, shows that we were both in usually. I mainly talked to the actors and he mainly took the technical parts, which suits me because I'm just not interested. Even when people ask me what kind of cameras we used, I can only answer in very vague terms.
The answer is RED. And then if they know enough, they know that even I don't necessarily know what it means. I just talk to the actors.
In terms of your interaction with actors, I assume you never want to be that person, especially as a fellow performer, to say no, I want the line read this way, but does it have to, as a director, sometimes come to that?
With this we didn't show [the fellow actors] the script. We wrote a script, and we would just describe it, quite carefully, which I guess was my job mainly. Sometimes we'd give them things to say, so if the werewolves were talking to us we'd give them the guys insults to give us. They'd come up with their own as well and we'd say to Rhys [Darby] whenever they get out of control, you have to calm them down, you don't want them to turn into werewolves and if they swear, you say "it's werewolves, not swearwolves". That's basically how we did it. There's not very often when we gave them a line because I didn't have actual lines, they were making up their own lines. Sometimes, in the interviews, we want to get certain things, but they're all really good at that.
From the outside that writing a script like this that gives so much leeway, as long as you hire incredible talent, might be easier. Yet in others, particularly structure, it's got to be a real challenge to make sure you don't have a bunch of disparate elements.
We didn't know that it would work, so we wanted to have a script, just in case on the first day we saw it didn't work at all, let's just get them to memorize this. I guess we felt confident enough that it was working that we kept with it.
How different is the script from what the final product is?
That's a good question. I'd love to know. I'd love to compare the script to the movie. The script's much longer because we just wrote every idea we had. And then sometimes they were whole scenes but they turned out to be a 10 second part of a montage or something.
Were there particular beats that you thought would have been required when you started the project that you realized . . .
...weren't right? I feel like that always happens. I can't think of one now, but more like the other way around, where we thought something would be clear and we had to film something later that clears it up.
So the process was that you shot shit-tons of improv and then did a cut and then did pickups?
Yeah, we did that twice. There's a slightly different piece from Sundance, with one new edit of one scene and a new section that we shot. We felt like it could be a funnier bit, or sometimes we'd run out of time to do things, so we didn't film everything we wanted to and we went back and got it.
We [added] a reenactment that we put in of Stu being found by the werewolves in the bush and he's naked and we do a black and white reenactment, with a soft focus.
There were specific comedies that you looked at, but were there specific documentaries that you looked at?
A lot of the documentaries and mockumentaries are similar. Anvil, it's very similar to Spinal Tap, it's the same story even though it's real. I even wonder if it was inspired by Spinal Tap.
[We looked at] a lot of History Channel documentaries, with all of the archival material, paintings and that kind of stuff. It's a mixture of History Channel documentaries, things like Big Brother, BBC fly on the wall documentaries, it's a whole lot of things all mixed up together.
I am well aware that this is your job, this what you get paid to do, but I'm always fascinated in projects like this about the functional decisions about comedy - to know when to hold the laugh, when to push on this vs. not, especially when you're watching it over and over again.
I'd love to see what somebody else would do if we gave them all of the footage and see them put it together.
I'm happy to take it. I'll send you FTP info
You think that, but it's over 100 hours of footage. It's 130 hours or something.
Yeah, it was the most fun to film. We just had the camera on all of the time, and we were just playing these characters. There's no wrong, we just let people do what they were doing, we told them what the scene was and said have another go and try to find the good bits and then do it again. It's like rehearsing a play kind of but we were filming every take and we put it together. But the editing was very long.
There's some times where it's clear it's a fresh take, some are even corpsing on screen... I just realized how odd it is to use that term in this context.
It's the right context! I think it comes from people acting as dead on set, not being able to get up, so it's perfect. So yeah, we would corpse. I'm pretty notorious for that, the corpse. The scene that was the hardest was the two cops that were interrogating us, they're just so dry and they're playing it so straight, that was a hard one to get through.
What makes you laugh when you see it in a film?
I remember once recommending the film Happiness [Todd Solondz, 1998] and going, oh, this is hilarious, one of the funniest films I've ever seen! They rang me up to complain after they'd seen it. Why did you recommend that? It's one of the most depressing things I've seen in my life.
When I saw it, I thought it was the best comedy that I'd seen in years.
That played TIFF the year before AMERICAN BEAUTY took all the accolades, and I sounded like a hipster shit about the Mendes film - "I like my depression and child molestation better when it has Philip Seymour Hoffmann masturbating!"
Yeah, it's amazing.
Is there a film that you do love that would surprise us?
Probably not. I feel like my influences are pretty easy to read. There's this film called Yellow Beard [Mel Damski, 1981] - Do you know that film? That's derided by most of the cast, all critics, and I really like that film.
What do you like about it?
Well, first of all, I didn't know about it at the time and I liked those films. It's also this weird cross Atlantic mash up of all of these comedy people, the Pythons are in it, Cheech and Chong, Peter Cook, and all of these people that you'd never think of together. There's a lot of films like that where they put all British comedians and American comedians together and they're a miss, but this one I think people see it like that, but I love that film.
Is there a unique Kiwi sensibility to SHADOWS that you think is translatable?
Apparently. I wouldn't see that, but...
Let's put it this way: you've shown it to local audiences.
In New Zealand, yes, they say it's very New Zealand.
And has the response been different between the New Zealand audience and the international audience that you've shown it to?
There are parts that are different. Really small things. Things like there's a reference to Nazis and one of the characters being a Nazi. In New Zealand, at least when we were testing it that got a big laugh, and in America there's silence. We'll see how Canada goes.
On behalf of the Jews, we laughed. That's a good Nazi joke.
Well, my attitude towards that is people don't want you to joke about the Nazis, well, they're Nazis. If we won't joke about Nazis, then they've won.
We can't let the Nazis win.
There's a musicality to the comedy, it seems like the improv has a bouncing back and forth, almost jazz like element.
Right. Some of that is faked through editing.
Let's put it this way: When you're cutting stuff like that and you're involved in the direction, do you feel that your own musicality very much influences your filmmaking?
I guess in a way we go, when you're saying cut to it . . . . now, so you know if sometimes you get really specific about when the timing of something should be and you don't necessarily know why and I guess that's probably like jazz, yeah.
And knowing when to cut is knowing when it's going to get a reaction, or does that only come with lots of testing?
Well, that's different for different people. In a movie like this we do sometimes linger on things for a long time. Some people laugh a little and it willl die down, and there will be one or two people laughing their heads off, so it's a bit weird.
The character does an erotic dance, where it's just on way too long and I found it so funny, I could watch that for hours probably. And when we were filming, that's the most I laughed, just watching him dance.
Is that the key? You have to make yourself amused first?
But everyone's different.
But as long as you're making what you see as funny. Yet here there are two directors you need to make laugh.
We don't differ on that much really, considering, but we did differ on that. Sometimes with two directors you've just got to hold out the longest. Sometimes we'd make deals where we'd go "OK, I'll let you have this joke if I can have this joke", and then we'd go watch it and go "your joke didn't work", and we'd go "OK, but you don't get your joke either". But mostly, we agree.
You spoke earlier of Nazis. Say what you will about National Socialism, at least they had an ethos, and part of that was to have somebody in charge. You would think that with two directors, at some point in time, somebody has to make the final call. Do you ever say, "I'm in the second MUPPET MOVIE! I get to make the call!"
I'd say it would be more likely to be Taika saying I've directed two movies and you haven't. But no, we'd just discuss it and we've watched it so many times. We can tell if it doesn't work.
Thanks to one of your lines, I've been thinking about sandwiches since January.
It sticks with people, that image.
That's one where that didn't make me laugh. I wrote it and wanted someone else to say it. We'd forgotten and then it was like, oh, no one's done this. It's so disgusting, and then I said it, and then that was in a pickup thing and they said oh, well, we've got to put that line in, obviously.
I was like ugh, no. And I got voted out. The editor and Taika voted me out 2-1.
So, you didn't want to include my favourite line in the movie that you wrote and performed?
Yeah. I think it's because sometimes it's hard to make me laugh. I think it's like tickling yourself, where it's hard to surprise yourself.
I happened to think of that one, and it's just kind of disgusting to me, which is why people laugh at it.
Do you stockpile jokes from one project to another? Do you write something and then think about how it'd work in a totally different context?
Today I was writing and it wasn't working and then I mentioned that both characters were played by Jeff Goldblum and then suddenly, I found it funny. So sometimes you need to think of the thing that spurs you on.
Are you writing something now that might be used in a project 5 years from now?
I hope not. I hope it's closer. I'm writing a TV show with Taika and it may or may not happen. We pitched a very similar idea in New Zealand years ago, so it's more like the other way around where we thought of it a long time ago and it's turning up now. It's always hard to tell what kinds of ideas are going to actually eventuate. You think they all are, and then later down the track, you realize that some of them don't.
There are things that yeah, we didn't, theatre shows that me and Bret [McKenzie] or me and Taika and we have used it in Conchords or in other things that turn up again, especially if they're in theatre because relatively no one sees them.
So you're plagiarizing from yourself?
Yeah, constantly. And I think I've done it more than once where I've plagiarized the same joke from myself and put them in a couple of different things. People haven't seemed to notice yet.
Do you always remember that you're plagiarizing, or do you occasionally write the same joke twice in a different context?
I think that's probably easy to do, I think I've done that as well.
I've sat at the piano and I've written really great Peter Gabriel songs before. I'm like, this is amazing!
What me and Bret would do when that happens as you realize that it's a famous song, if you can think of two other songs that it also is, then it's ok. Because then it's just a standard form.
Is it the same for comedy, if you think of a joke and it reminds you of a couple of other jokes?
I remember seeing an edit together of I don't know what it was, I think it was a documentary about comedy, and it had an edit of all different movies and sit coms and stuff and the joke was someone saying walk this way, and the person behind them would walk in physically the same way. And I love seeing jokes used in lots of ways.
I can think of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
Well, that was one of them, yeah, that's the only one I can remember, but they had a whole, like 10 of those in a row of different movies that have used that joke. But Young Frankenstein's easy to remember because he's got a hump.
Did you end up watching NOSFERATU over and over?
I actually saw Nosferatu at university in a film class. I do have this really strong memory of being 5 years old, maybe 4, waking up in the middle of the night and going to talk to my parents and my mom was watching this movie called Scars of Dracula [Roy Ward Baker, 1970]. I only know that because I looked it up, this year, going what was that movie that made me have nightmares about vampires for years?
It's a sequel to some Dracula movie where they kill Christopher Lee - They've killed him in the previous movie, and then they want to bring him back, so it starts off with a skeleton I think on a coffin, in a stone coffin, and then a bat, like a rubber bat comes in and drops some blood on the skeleton and then it kind of reanimates. I remember that as black and white, but that's because our TV was black and white, but it's actually colour.
You can watch the whole movie online for free, on Vimeo or something.
You've been in business long enough to actually see the influx of people stealing all of your shit. Has that changed the stuff you get to do?
I've always been just behind when we started, when me and Bret started recording, they'd say, oh, you used to make lots of money from doing this. Like, if you got to that place on the charts, you'd be millionaires once. Always just behind that.
So you're doing HBO just behind.
Before that we had a deal with NBC. We got there, and they gave us money to write a pilot, which was never made, and then we went to HBO. The same there - they said, if you'd come two years ago, there would be a million dollars each, or something like that. There were million dollar deals everywhere, and we just always missed it. I think we'll just continue to miss it. But I'm interested to see how it's going to affect film. People don't want to, the lower budget films are going to get lower budget.
Most of the work that we know you for is with partners, partners who have their own success individually. What are the advantages of working with someone else, especially for the type of stuff that you do? Is comedy easier when you have another person to act as a sounding board?
Bret and Taika are both people I did comedy live with first, before we did other stuff. I think it can be quite a lonely life. But touring with those guys, I always had a friend in it. Sometimes we all did stuff together too, with bigger groups, and coming up with stuff. There's always parts that I do myself, like I did the first draft of this script and then I handed it over and then the first edit of this movie, I think, I did the first one and then Taika did the second one.
I just go back to what I was like at school. I always liked just talking to someone and it's like that. They're friends as well.
Do they share your sensibilities as much as we'd expect?
I feel like Taika and I are very similar in our tastes. Bret and I are more different, but with Bret and I, we find out what we have in common, and sometimes that can make things stronger because of maybe it appeals to different senses of humour.
This film was probably quite specific.
That line is blurred of course when you and Bret played characters with your own names
Whenever I meet Brets I wonder, "Are you serious?"
As an audience we want to externalize your characters into your working relationship - touring together, etc. Yet that image must have a strange effect on both your work as collaborators and friendship. Is that a fair comment?
Can you think of an example?
I would think that if I'm told that my relationship with my friend is a certain way, it's going to fuck up my friendship with my friend.
Oh, right, I don't think that was a problem necessarily, more the amount of time we had to spend with each other. Anytime we talk about doing another project it just reminds us of being in the war of making that show. We did so many jobs on Conchords that we never got a break. We were running an HBO show which is a lot of work, but we were also doing albums with the songs simultaneously, in the same amount of time you'd get to do only one of those things. So, that was intense.
Parts were based on our friendship but a lot of it is based on our careers together because we would tour and play to audiences of, we did do it, like in the show.
We did do a show to one person who had left by the end of the show without us realizing, which was actually in Canada as well, that was in Vancouver. Canada's where we did our first ever show, our own show, it was an hour long, of just our songs that we had collected.
So you had war memories of being abandoned in Canada?
Jem: We had some tough times in Canada. But also some good times. We started off in Calgary and we had huge audiences there because it's the home of improv, so people go to the theatre anyway. Then we went to Vancouver and it's totally different.
[Bret and I] were more flatmates, we didn't really hang out that much. I've always liked Bret and we've always got on, we weren't really in each other's lives like the characters are. I wouldn't hang around on dates, but there were other friends who I've done that with, and so we would take our other experiences from our other friendships and put them into the story.
We did one episode with Art Garfunkel, and he started talking about that subject too, at the end of our shooting it - do Bret and Jemaine like each other? Do they get on with each other? That's what people want to know. And he's talking about himself and Paul Simon.
I'm perhaps badly trying to get a bit depper than that, finding interesting the divide our perceptions of authenticity.
The stuff about us being so dependent and interconnected is all made up in that show, but it's probably true of other relationships we've had. But people connect us together and for a few years, it's only just recently that people have stopped asking me where Bret is.
I would hope they ask him where you are.
Well, they do do it too. No, but like, hey, Jemaine, where's Bret? And I look around, and they expect him to be right next to me.
You'll be premiering at Midnight Madness for a particularly ridiculous crowd.
I've heard that it's madness. I've heard there's beach balls.
Are you somebody who sits in the audience for your films, surreptitiously?
Which screening [at Sundance] did you see, the first one, or the press screening?
The press screening.
The first one, I was ill, I thought it was failing. Taika and I sat next to each other at the back, he never watches either, and just, oh God, oh, this is so quiet, this moment. It wasn't until well after, days later, that we realized, oh, this is, people enjoy this. At least some people, not all people.
I think it's better than you think it is. I know that seems ridiculous, and you don't need more people blowing smoke up your ass, but . . .
It can't hurt, more smoke.
I always just assume that Kiwis respond to Canada in the way that, you know, since you have this crazy other country right beside you, that everybody assumes you're a part of . . .
Yeah, we're the Canada of the Pacific.
I was wondering if you had any other strong connection about being in Toronto, do you have a connection with the city?
Only really that we've played here. No.
No weird Canadian girlfriend from the past?
Not watching Degrassi Jr. High in your spare time?
What's that? There was The Littlest Hobo. Was that filmed in Toronto?
Somewhere around here, yes.
Actually, I think Rachel Blanchard, who is in the Conchords, a Canadian actress, I think she might have been in The Littlest Hobo. When Bret and I found that out, we were so excited! When we started we'd do some originals and some covers and the covers were The Eye of the Tiger and The Littlest Hobo theme song and that show was big. I think we might have played it in Massey Hall maybe because this is where it's from, but when we would play that in New Zealand, the audience would all sing along. Everyone was like [J emaine starts singing] "there's a voice, keeps on calling me, down the road, fly along with me..."
It's an emotional song.
My first two flats that I took, I wouldn't take them if they had gas outlets because of The Littlest Hobo. There's an old lady, she turns on her oven, she forgets and she faints and she only survives because the hobo comes and saves her, and that gave me a fear of gas ovens.
So you've had an electric oven?
We have gas now, but it took a long time to get it, to feel like I trusted them.