A record-breaking audience gathered at Auckland’s Q Theatre to enjoy a very special June Writer’s Room with two of New Zealand’s brightest and funniest film makers. Chaired by actor Cliff Curtis, Script to Screen invited multiple Emmy-nominee Jemaine Clement and writer/director Taika Waititi to discuss the co-writing, co-directing and co-starring of their latest collaborative project, What We Do in the Shadows.
What We Do in the Shadows welcomes the audience into the ‘nightly’ lives of three vampires (plus a fourth who hangs out in the basement) sharing a Wellington flat. Like any other flatmates, they argue over the housework and domestic issues, enjoy going out for a spot of nightclubbing (if they are invited in, of course) and some banter with a pack of local werewolves, and must find those who will provide them with the sustenance they need … There is no doubt that this latest outing from one of New Zealand’s best known comedic teams is a real winner.
Jemaine and Taika share a long history of good friendship and creative collaboration dating back to their university days in Wellington when they were ‘… 19 year olds talking about men problems and burgeoning manhood.’
The two saw each other one day in the Victoria University library where it was dislike at first sight. Jemaine said he disliked Taika because he was wearing a reggae hat and hovering around a girl and Taika said, “I hate people with glasses. Jemaine was wearing this tapa cloth shirt. I thought he was one of those intellectuals trying to be ‘down with the brown’.”
Later that day, the two ran into each other again at a Capping Review audition. They watched each other’s performance, liked what they saw, put aside their initial differences and became friends and creative colleagues, developing and performing in a number of shows around Wellington with other like-minded actors.
“No one would hire us to be in their fancy plays so we were stuck in Bats making up our own stuff,” said Taika. “We learned to love rejection.”
The two made lists of all the things they’d like to do … make movies, be vampires … which developed into a list of questions like ‘what happens when you turn into a vampire?’ which then morphed into a short film project completed in 2005 where some of those questions were answered.
The film was based upon about 150 pages of jokes with a storyline running through. “Some scenes were 6/7 pages long so if you go by the ‘one page equals one minute of film’ then we had something that was 150 minutes long. We wanted it to be a natural process so didn’t show the actors any of the pages. We just asked them to turn up and we’d say things like ‘lie down here and we’re going to cover you in blood’.”
Sometimes that approach worked, but often it didn’t. There was always the script to fall back on but handing over a 150-page script wasn’t a happening thing. “We gave the crew a 100-page version,” said Taika. “Eventually we were able to shoot everything in a short amount of time but ended up with about 150 hours of footage. We spent over a year editing it.”
The freedom to improvise has always been integral to their work although Jemaine admitted in the early theatre days it didn’t always go so well. “It could throw you onstage sometimes. There’s been a progression for us. In Eagle vs Shark I wasn’t allowed to memorise anything. With Flight of the Conchords we’d improvise about 15% of the time, writing the scripts in such a way that it was easy to improvise. With Shadows, we progressed from having a little room to improvise to having a lot, so next time we might go back a bit.”
“People say that improvisation is a tool to get around script problems,” said Taika, “or to be used when a scene isn’t working. Good actors will tell you they only do it when they’re trying to figure out a problem. There’s been a change in comedy though. Improvisation has become more important. Some actors can come up with jokes right on the spot.”
What started out in 2005 as a list of questions and an idea of scenes, gradually developed over the next few years. The two kept in touch between projects, exchanging ideas and potential storylines until 2012 when they both decided to sit down and write the script properly. They headed out to a house in the country where they could work without distractions. Boy had taken Taika three years to write, Eagle vs Shark three weeks. Shadows was written in three days and both agree that it was a far better film than it would have been if they written it in 2005.
The audience had been asked to write down questions for the panel to answer so Cliff delved into the question box to ask a few.
‘What makes wellington such a popular vampire spot?’
“It is dark and rainy and cold.”
‘Would you make a sequel?’
“We have been thinking of sequels and spin offs . It’s a natural thing to do. Perhaps ‘What We Do in the Moonlight.’
‘Best prank pulled on set?’
“We were way too serious for pranks.”
‘Did you use authentic archive images or were they recreated by a graphic artist?’
“Most of the archival stuff we did ourselves, putting our own characters into old drawings and photos. Freeman White did the portraits of the film characters.”
‘Who did your marketing campaign?
“Anna Dean and Chris Henry. Anna did all of the online stuff . We also developed a beer called Delicious Neck to help market the film.”
Jemaine and Taika not only write, compose music and make graphic art, but also produce and distribute. When asked about funding the film, Taika said they bypassed the NZ Film Commission. “We weren’t against the NZFC but to get their money you have to go through several rounds with many people who can change every couple of years. One person may like your film and then another comes in and doesn’t. I’m not sure they would have funded us anyway. We had the opportunity to get money easily within a few days from the US so we took that. It was way easier.”
The film’s budget was just under 2 million with ” …. a couple million in favours,” said Jemaine.
Taika said they pitched the idea around Hollywood for three days. “It was depressing. We didn’t really have a story but did get offers from some studios. Making it that way might have been an easier process but we wouldn’t have been able to film here and by deciding not to go that way, we knew that we would get to make it.”
“There’s also that advantage with big budget vs small,” said Jemaine. “With a small project, we can do everything and have creative freedom … but then you can be up all night doing things yourselves whereas with big budgets you have teams of artists doing all the work.”
Cliff invited audience questions and the first asked Jemaine and Taika to describe their process on set for co-writing, co-directing and acting.
“I am difficult and unpredictable,” said Jemaine. ” I don’t know what I’m going to do so just keep the cameras rolling. When I first started acting, I was doing a TV show. The director wanted to make every character ‘likeable’ so I challenged myself to think of what was ‘unlikeable’ in every character because you do need to figure that out.
“Often Taika and I would direct each other with something like, ‘turn it down a little’ because we’d be overacting in certain scenes. We’re used to working with each other, especially when we did theatre together and we didn’t even know you had a to have a director. There were times though when I thought we would have a fist fight.”
Taika said the actors did become confused at times. “I’d say one thing and then Jemaine would say another. We both had versions we wanted so had to find ways to mix and balance those. We would both try to edit together but the reality was that one of us would go away for a month, leaving the other to edit alone, and then come back to work together again. We constantly ran out of money for the pickups and had to put some of our own into it.”
Jemaine said the month spent filming was a lot of fun. “We did find our directing roles eventually. I was more in charge of script ideas and Taika was involved with the technical side of things so it all worked out.”
When asked why they chose to premier at Sundance rather than in New Zealand, Taika said, “The NZ Film Festival is in July, not the best time to premier. We completed the film in December 2013. Sundance is a good festival. If you do well there and get positive reviews than that’s a great start.”
“It’s always good to hear about someone from NZ making good overseas,” said Jemaine, “as opposed to New Zealanders doing well in New Zealand because people aren’t interested in that. We got good reviews at Sundance. Coming back with those made people more confident.”
And the good reviews were helpful for use on the trailer and posters too.
Another question asked the two how they managed to keep things on track, seemingly in the midst of chaos. Jemaine replied that they were very solid on storyline and script from the outset. “We’d identified the dramatic moments … the sad bits … all of the parts that people would follow.”
The two are exceptionally busy with multiple projects on the go. “My kitchen is a mess, the whiteboard is covered in writing,” said Taika. He has commercials to shoot in the next few months and is looking at three scripts with large studios but is putting things to one side at the moment to promote Shadows.
The future is bright for both Jemaine and Taika and who knows what they will get up to next. Until then, Taika left the audience with a simple message:
“Ask your friends to see the film. If each of you can tell ten people to stop watching My Kitchen Rules for one night, that would be very cool.”
Written for Script to Screen by Jane Bissell