Interview: ScreenAnarchy Talks WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS With Taika Waititi
Because What We Do In the Shadows is so damn good, and the choice for many of you to finally see it is finally here, here's another interview with one of the film's co-directors.
A renowned talent in his native New Zealand, Taika Waititi's name may not be as familiar to international audiences as Jemaine Clement's, but his reputation is stellar and he provided a unique and often hysterical contribution to this film.
ScreenAnarchy readers may be familiar with Taika's remarkable film Boy from 2010, or his previous collaboration with Jemaine, Eagle vs. Shark.
I spoke to Taika when he was in Toronto for the Imaginative film festival (both he and Jemaine have Maori roots, and the film played as their showcase of international and Canadian indigenous filmmakers). Relaxed but chatty, we spoke at length about his own reaction to the film, working with his partners on this project, and how different audiences appreciate different aspects of the film.
As a director, do you look for little things, those little specific moments do to it, or is it much more organic, you're much more worried about the performances than you are about the specific directorial details?
I guess it's a mix. It's probably not that obvious in Shadows, but I'm usually quite hung up on the look and making things cinematic. At the same time, I'm always trying to look for opportunities to make something funny or to undercut the drama. In Boy there were sort of serious scenes, or scenes that could have been shot with a focus on the drama.
I always try to find different levels of humour to inject in there. A lot of the balancing act is in the editing. With the dad character in Boy, I would often do different levels of performance because when we're shooting I don't know if we're going to make it like a comedy or not. I think a lot of forcing it to be funny came a little bit later on because I wasn't sure what kind of film it was going to be and what the actual end tone was going to be.
You shout over 150 hours of footage for SHADOWS and carved it down to 90 minutes - Talk about what to choose to actually make it into a coherent, 90 minute whole.
That's why it took 14 months to edit! Boy took about 5 months. So it was 7 more months of trolling through the material, trying to find the right stuff. We just had a big pendulum between story and comedy the entire time we were working on the edit. One time, we put all of the jokes into the edit of the film, we had a little feedback screening, and most of the comments were it's really funny, but I just kept switching off and I wanted to check my phone because I knew that I could come back to the film and just start laughing again. They just didn't care about anyone, and there was no story really.
That was quite telling, that it doesn't matter really how funny you try to make something, story is always key. People just need to have something to hold on to. Otherwise, it's just a series of funny scenes that don't really connect. Then, we would concentrate on the story, and forget about the jokes, let's just get the story perfect and yeah, it's a really satisfying story, and then we'd play it and nobody would laugh. There were a few jokes, but it wasn't the huge laughter that we really wanted, so we kept going backwards and forwards between that.
We always want to put the jokes in first, those were the things that we cared about the most, but then often it was at the expense of the story, so it was just chipping away again. Even after Sundance we went back and started editing again based on those screenings. We treated those more like test screenings.
Speaking with Jemaine, he mentioned that the added the dramatic reconstruction bits. I had to wait 'till nearly the end to find them!
Yeah, we added that. We played around with losing the Nazi joke at the beginning because we were like Americans are really sensitive about this stuff. You always see some people are quite sensitive and rightly so, but also, I don't know, we just weren't sure. We find this funny, and it's only 10 seconds in the film. But is it 10 seconds at the beginning of the film where you lose your audience and they completely hate that character? It was a discussion point but in the end we thought let's just leave it in.
The whole idea behind that moment is just talking about how, if somebody lives forever, when they see something like WWII, to them, it's just another war in the history of mankind whose responsible for many atrocities and many wars. He's like "I don't know if you guys know that the Nazis lost their war?" And it's like," I don't know if you guys heard about this one called WWII? Yeah, they've got these guys called the Nazis, and they lost." It's so telling. If you live forever, what the fuck would you, how would you know that's the most important war in recent history?
One of the strengths of this film is about identity, about what it is to be a vampire and what it is to live up to that. Do you feel at all that the film has an overarching message? And do you find responsibility as a Maori filmmaker, to inject meaning?
Yeah, this is something I'm always conflicted on as well because one of the questions we always ask ourselves back home is what is a Maori film or a Maori filmmaker? I'm very much against the idea that it has to be Maori content to be classified as a Maori film because if you limit yourself to that - then we don't have ownership over things like the span of life, that means we can't say this is a Maori film and this is a really good film and it means that Maori don't have the right, we can't say oh, this is a Maori filmmaker?
Both Jemaine and I are Maori and so by law of race, you should be able to say I'm a Maori filmmaker and this is a Maori film. There's always been a lot of discussion about that in New Zealand, because otherwise, we're just going to be stuck in this rut of putting wind flutes in all of our soundtracks and having people go up to the top of the mountain to talk to ancestors.
Unless you're making fun of that, it's just not funny. I'm into making funny films.
I try to describe being Jewish is like being Canadian. I'm Jewish in a Christian society just like I'm Canadian living beside the States. I think somebody who's Kiwi and deals with obviously the collision of two cultures, you have a slight distance from the dominant culture, therefore you can reflect upon it.
That's right. I grew up in, thematically, pretty much all of my work is about outsiders and I think growing as neither full Maori nor full Pākehā or white. I've always been an outsider, felt like an outsider in both worlds, even as I identified more with my Maori side.
I've always enjoyed stories about people who don't quite fit in, who struggled to be accepted or to be understood.
You asked if there's a message in this film, and I think there are a few messages and things - definitely one is of tolerance and acceptance and the idea that people's impressions of things really cloud the relationship. The idea that we're not accepting of a new vampire, we're not accepting of a new human that we can't eat, or we're not accepting of werewolves.
Even on a kind of more humanity level, I think it also explores the idea that, even if it's just a message like in life, there's a deadline. , and it's your death, and there's a reason for that, and that is so we don't just sit around being fucking useless humans for eternity because that's all we'll do. I believe that humans are the stupidest, clumsiest, most useless in the animal kingdom and that if we're granted the gift of immortality, it's just the worst possible outcome that you could. It's the worst thing ever and it increases that laziness, it increases being useless and we're just going to put things off forever.
Already, we don't live our lives to our fullest potential, we put things off - oh, I'm just going to learn to play the piano when I'm 60, and then you get to 60 and it's like, I'm too old to learn to play the piano.
Life for humans is just a series of not doing shit.
What these vampires are, I hope what it kind of shows is that if you live forever, you've got to do something with that, otherwise, look at us, we don't do the dishes for five years.
Given the larger identity, then, how Kiwi is your film?
The humour is very indicative of the New Zealand style of humour which I call the comedy of the mundance. It's basically because we don't come from a life in the fast lane environment with huge cities and fast cars. We have a lot of that, but the majority of New Zealand is laid back, laconic, kind of don't make a big deal out of stuff, super humble.
There's a lot of humour in exploring the mundane existence we have and things like who's going to wash the dishes. We could talk about that forever, and improvisations and stuff and those scenes, when we shot them, they're all like 15 minutes of us just talking about it. There's one bit where we're going through these bills and it's like who ordered a credit card? Someone in the flat's got a credit card. And then I was talking about who might have a credit card and all of those little things of how are we going to pay off this credit card?
There's some beautiful moments of character that I recognized the second time through that I had missed. Your character's incapacity to cut things in a straight line, the fact that both the photo inside the medallion and the chore board are wonky, so somebody who is so fastidious and so proper cannot cut a proper circle. Do you draw pleasure from thinking that your 15th time through you're going to find different things?
There are little things, even in the sound mix, where I think after repeat viewings you get. Now and then we'd have a character in the background say something that you don't get because it's not in the scene if you're watching just what's going on in front of you, if you hear a character in the scene saying something ridiculous and we'd be an hour in the edit just trying to get the level right on that one little thing that we would find funny that I guarantee nobody has heard.
We talked with Jemaine about jokes that you hear over and over again and you stop knowing whether or not they're working or things that you would improvise, and they would stay in or pull out. I think one of the best lines of the film is about fucking the sandwich and he suggested that he fought very hard to get that out and you guys fought very hard to keep that in. Could you just talk about that from your perspective?
That was a scripted line. I think most of the good one-liners were all scripted and again that's that balance.
I can't remember why Jemaine didn't want that in. I think he just thought it was gross and quite opposite to the stuff that he says, so it's that character thing. But I think also one of the things with the characters was that we wanted to have moments that we knew the audience would just lose it. There's a lot of subtle humour in the film because Deacon, Johnny's character, a lot of what's funny about him is just his face. A lot of people might not get that, they might just be concentrating on the dialogue, and so we laugh a lot at Deacon because of his facial expressions, they're the funniest thing.
We spent a long time trying to get more of those facials in and you have to have something for everyone. I think that sandwich joke is something where it's like it's the least subtle thing in the whole film. You've got to have those moments, which is what makes those Apatow films funny, those big moments where it's like yeah, that's the big joke.
Did the Rob Reiner/Christopher guest shtick play an overt role in how you approached the film?
Well, I had no idea how they shot those things, so it wasn't really the method or the style of shooting that we took from it. I think mainly the idea of committing to the idea of a documentary, whereas many of the fake docs will start with that idea and then they'll give up after the first 10 minutes and just turn it into a movie. I really liked District 9, but one of the things in that is that it starts like that, and then it just turns into a movie, and suddenly the camera is with the aliens down in the ghetto and it's like how? What? This scene isn't even a documentary anymore, and I found that mix of the styles a bit annoying because you buy into the world and then you're like, oh, they've just changed the rules.
Did you find times that you wanted to do things differently?
No, we wanted to keep it.
Did you lock yourselves into a box at some point, thinking oh man, I really wanted this to work, but this is not going to work.
Oh, for sure, yeah. There's moments when I guess even in things like the fights and stuff where it would look more dynamic and more exciting, but then also, I thought it was just funnier to see a fight that way. When you see a fight in real life, there's no close up angles or the angles with the impact and stuff. If you see a fight in a parking lot, it's just two guys scrapping about, it lasts about 10 seconds, and it's just really anti-climactic. I think we kind of wanted that a bit in the fighting scenes in this.
If SPINAL TAP was an influence, that certainly MAN BITES DOG was as well
Man Bites Dog for sure. The thing with these films is it's been so long since I've seen them it's better I find to just hold on to the memory of a film, rather than see it again. Often you watch it and you'll be so disappointed because you'll be like oh, it isn't what I thought it was.
With Man Bites Dog, I saw that in the 90s and in my mind, it's just sort of just like this, it follows him around a bit. I remember watching a tiny scene online and it was, that was inspirational, I was like, yeah, that's right, they did it really well, there's a bit where the sound man gets lost, and the camera man is following them and you can't hear what he's saying or anything like that and slowly you hear the guy with the boom gets closer and closer and you can hear what they're saying, I thought that was very smart because it was a big sequence where I think there was a shootout or something and you can't hear what's going on and it was brilliant and I wish we'd done that.
Are there influences that might not be as overt as that? Are there things that might surprise us? You're watching Ben Hur or something? Even in your comedy?
There probably are influences like that. Jemaine often compared the style to reality TV, and I was hoping that it wasn't like that because even though it's a movie and it's supposed to feel like a doc, like I think there really is a difference between documentaries and reality TV.
Reality TV is just, in terms of production value, and the style, it's really pitiful. There are great documentaries and so . . . I'm trying to think, Grey Gardens was a big one for me. I wanted it to feel a bit more like that where we didn't sit down, there's no sit down interviews like that, it's just fly on the wall.
I think people might mistake us trying to do that for us being influenced by reality TV because it's almost like the first reality show, just watching. If they had sound effects like when the woman sings her song and instant reality show, quick zoom ins, that film is really great.
I'm always influenced by things like that and another film, a New Zealand film called In Spring One Plants Alone, which is Vincent Ward's first film. It's a really beautiful doc, observational, no interviews, just watching and he gets a really beautiful story from that and it just makes things more poetic. That would be, personally, what I was hoping it would be like.
So many comedians, especially in an interview, they are so serious about comedy, to the point almost of being dry. Both you and Jemaine seem to have a lightness about your own work, while still taking it seriously.
I've never analyzed comedy, so I don't know anything about it. I know there are comedians who analyze jokes and the timing of the jokes and all of that stuff, and there are special words for when you bring a joke back and all of that stuff, these terms, and I don't know any of that shit.
I find it funny and maybe there will be little moments that I know will work, but only because I've either seen it before, or it's been a mistake and I've just gone "oh yeah, that's fucking funny". But I know that it's not about trying to make something that's funny to other people, most of the time.
It's just what I think Jemaine and I will laugh at, our friends. I think a lot of what I do for film is making sure that I'll be able to face my friends and hang out with them. And keep my pride.
Is the key then to make yourself laugh first?
Yeah, that's the key. Because if there's stuff we put in there that felt like a mainstream joke that none of us found funny, I think we'd just be really disappointed in ourselves. You've got to be proud of it and want to watch it.
You've lived with this film and seen it multiple times since, does it still make you laugh?
K: I haven't seen it since probably April, so, it made me laugh then. There's lots in it that still makes me laugh. But I think I'm done now.
Do you feel the pain?
[Laughs] Now it's painful.