What We Do in the Shadows mockumentary offers Kiwi humour with bite

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      TORONTO—The jokes in What We Do in the Shadows are about as dry as the skin of a fiendish 8,000-year-old bloodsucker you keep locked up in your basement. The movie has one of those, as well as some off-colour jokes about Nazis that play better in New Zealand than in the U.S.—just as one would expect from a vampire mockumentary written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

      “There’s a line in the movie about WWII: ‘I don’t know if you know, but the Nazis lost that war.’ In N.Z., everyone laughs, because it’s so obvious,” Clement explained in a one-on-one interview with the Straight following the film’s premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. “In the U.S., they get touchy just at the mere mention of Nazis. My attitude is that the people who tried hardest to ban jokes about Nazis were Nazis.”

      Clement, a man of Maori descent, just like his collaborator, Waititi, was circumspect about rattling cages on either end of the Pacific.

      “No, it isn’t that I feel that there is nothing off-limits, just that Nazis aren’t off-limits,” he said.

      In What We Do in the Shadows, opening Friday (February 13), Clement plays Vladislav the Poker, who, at 862 years old, is still a teenager in vampire years. Three-hundred-and-seventy-nine-year-old Viago (Waititi) is an indiscriminate pillager, while Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years young, is the Nazi holdover who ends up the butt of all the Third Reich jokes. There is also the aforementioned 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham), the elder statesman of the house, who is more old-skool in that they keep him in a casket.

      The film’s conceit is that the four friends, destined to cavort across the Earth for all eternity, haven’t quite managed to become suave internationalists. Rather, they’ve all ended up as roommates in a rickety old house in working-class Wellington—forever.

      “We wanted to make a documentary about something you couldn’t make a documentary about in real life,” said Clement. “I was, incidentally, very interested in vampires, and for a whole lot of reasons, most of which involved just wanting to dress up and talk in funny accents. And because these characters span centuries, that’s interesting in itself. I like the idea of my character in an unhealthy relationship that’s been going on for thousands of years.”

      If it seems to Clement that he and Waititi have been collaborating for eternity, it’s because they have. In college, they bonded over a shared love of midcentury British comedy and formed a touring group called the Humourbeasts. Clement then starred in Waititi’s debut feature, 2007’s Eagle Vs. Shark. Waititi went on to make Boy (2010), the top-grossing Kiwi film of all time, and Clement, famously, became the handsome half of Flight of the Conchords.

      The film, which began very long ago as an improvised project among a group of New Zealand comedy types, was shelved when the two leads went off to pursue other projects.

      “It was always a thing on the boiler and in our heads, just waiting for the time we were all free to finish it,” said Clement.

      “Every year an email would go around: ‘This is the year, let’s try to do it!’ More and more time passed and it never worked out, but the other cast members kept asking about it.”

      Clement’s take is that the film’s unconventionally drawn-out process was an advantage in several ways.

      “One would be the budget,” he said. “If we had made this years ago, the special effects wouldn’t be as good.”