When Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi wrote and directed the mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” they, along with Jonathan Brugh and Ben Fransham, played centuries-old vampires in Wellington, New Zealand, struggling with their unending lives and the quotidian frustrations of modernity.
It’s a comedic conceit these New Zealand natives had been toying with for ages, long before Waititi (the director of the Marvel blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok”) and Clement (who, with Bret McKenzie, formed the comic music duo Flight of the Conchords) had any Hollywood standing — going back to the late 1990s, when they became friends at Victoria University of Wellington.
After it opened — in 2014 in most of the world, and in 2015 in the United States — the film received some supportive reviews and gained a cult following. But its modest ticket sales seemed to drive a stake through the heart of any further possibilities for it.
Now Clement and Waititi have a new FX series, also called “What We Do in the Shadows.” It debuts on March 27, and follows a different crew of vampires and their struggles to settle down in Staten Island.
On a March night, surrounded by the decadent revelry of the South by Southwest festival, Clement, who created, wrote and directed on the FX series, and Waititi, who directed several episodes, gathered with Paul Simms (“Atlanta,” “NewsRadio” and “The Larry Sanders Show”), one of their executive producers. They met here in an ornate chamber at the Driskill, a Romanesque-style hotel that opened in 1886.
Amid the spooky atmospheric elements — some intentional, some accidental — they spoke about their affection for the undead and the creation of the new show. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: So FX showed me the first few episodes —— [the lights in the room begin to flicker]
TAIKA WAITITI: What happened there?
PAUL SIMMS: It’s a vampire room.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I don’t know, because my eyes were closed. I was relaxing.
Q: I was saying —— [lights flicker again]. It seems to happen whenever I talk.
CLEMENT: It’s your power.
WAITITI: Stop talking.
Q: I was worried I’d miss your original film characters in the TV version of “What We Do in the Shadows,” but I’m glad to say I didn’t.
CLEMENT: You didn’t?
WAITITI: It’s a little bit of a Roman dagger in my back.
CLEMENT: We thought about that movie for a long time, over years and years. But the actual movie, we only shot for four or five weeks.
WAITITI: I really wanted to make a mockumentary thing because I’d just tried to make a short one about police dogs. But the dogs were played by people. This was like 2002, 2003, and I thought that was the easiest way to shoot stuff. Just leave the camera on — you really didn’t have to try.
Q: Where did vampires enter into it?
CLEMENT: We had played this thing on stage one time. Taika, Bret and I all went to Calgary, to do a show, where one of us was on stage playing a vampire, doing vampire jokes. The only one I remember is like [exaggerated Slavic accent]: “I just flew from Transylvania, and boy are my arms tired. Because they were wings, and I flew all the way.” I think that was Taika doing that, and then I’d get up from the audience, dressed as a vampire, too, and I’m heckling him.
WAITITI: “You’ve been heckling me for 250 years!”
CLEMENT: “You heckled me in Vienna in 1563!”
WAITITI: “And then I chopped your head off!” “Ah, you have a new head, my friend.”
CLEMENT: I forgot that joke. “Yes, I have a different head.”
WAITITI: “Ah, but I remember the voice. And the heckles.” When we first met in Wellington, nothing was really open late at night except for video-game parlors. We would hang around, playing air hockey and doing those kinds of characters. “Ah, my old rival.” Just keep the stupid thing going on for ages.
Q: Were vampires part of your cultural upbringings?
CLEMENT: I remember waking up at 5 years old, and my parents were watching a horror movie. It was “Scars of Dracula.” There’s a skeleton lying on a stone tomb, a bat flies in and drops blood on it, and it becomes Dracula again. It’s ridiculous, but back then, it was like, whoa. I had nightmares about vampires after that for years.
WAITITI: I grew up in a tiny, tiny, tiny, little fishing village on the East Coast of New Zealand. Basically, the place where you’d take marlin to get weighed was in this shed, down on the pier. And they’d turn it into a cinema for three or four months. So when I was 7 or 8, I saw George Hamilton in “Love at First Bite,” in this shed, projected on a sheet.
CLEMENT: Working with Paul and the other writers in the writers’ room, not everyone knew about vampires. Taika and I know a lot about vampires.
SIMMS: Definitely, none of us knew as much as Jemaine.
CLEMENT: A lot of the ideas in the first week, I’m just going, “No. You can’t do that.” [laughs] “Vampires can’t do that.”
SIMMS: I wrote a fantastic joke where they were having appetizers that were leeches full of blood.
CLEMENT: Well, they can’t eat solid food.
SIMMS: That’s my point, still — they could just chew the blood out. The writers’ room was a lot of arguments.
Q: Was it bittersweet for you that the original “Shadows” movie was not more widely seen?
WAITITI: How dare you! My mom saw it and she loved it. That’s all I care about.
CLEMENT: I had the opposite experience because the idea came from when we weren’t professionals at all, and it’s really us joking around with a bunch of our friends. It surprises me how many people have seen that movie.
WAITITI: Our production designer took the discarded green screens from “The Hobbit” and built a house out of it. And they were just going to throw it away and burn it.
CLEMENT: If you peel back the old wallpaper, you’d see the green.
Q: The movie generated a previous TV spinoff, “Wellington Paranormal,” which started running in New Zealand last year. When did you start thinking about this series for FX?
CLEMENT: We didn’t. Scott Rudin saw the film and then started harassing us until we did it.
WAITITI: I was in Hawaii, about to have my second kid. It’d be like three or four in the morning, the phone would ring, and it would be him.
CLEMENT [American producer voice]: “Taika. We’ve got to do this show. When is this show happening? We’ve got to get it rolling. I know it can go.”
WAITITI: When it’s like 3 or 4 in the morning, the only thing you can say to get rid of people is like: “Yeah, yeah, totally, just do it. OK, we’re doing it. Bye.” And the show happened.
CLEMENT: The thing is, in the movie, we were the bosses and we never had to take notes. Now we have to take notes from the network.
WAITITI: Take notes on something you created and you know everything about.
CLEMENT: And a lot of the notes are like, “In the movie ...” Oh, man. We know. We did the movie.
Q: Did you ever consider reprising your movie roles in the TV show?
WAITITI: They encouraged us to do it. “It’d be really cool if you guys were in the show, at least one of you.” Well, I’m not going to do it if he’s not going to do it. Neither of us really wanted to do it.
CLEMENT: In TV, there’s just so much to do.
WAITITI: It’s hard enough listening to your own voice while you’re editing. And then also listening to your own voice while you’re directing. And acting. Doing a stupid accent and then stopping and giving a note. You’re just talking all day long.
SIMMS: I think Jemaine thought that it was going to be easier than it is by not being in it.
WAITITI: We were doing night shoots in Toronto — when I say “we,” I had it easy. I came in for like the last three weeks. It was like coming to a battlefield in France in World War I. They were so haggard and tired and half dead.
CLEMENT: It took Taika about three days to get that way.
WAITITI: When I was outside, I was wearing two Canada Goose jackets. Then I’m hanging out inside this drugstore where we had put the monitors, going: “I’m not going out there to give them direction. They can come in here if they want direction.” I think we wrapped at like 7 a.m. and Jemaine was still going on another set. I turn up and Jemaine is curled up in a ball, half asleep, looking at this monitor, going, “Mmmm. Uhhh.” Like, mumbling.
CLEMENT [weakly]: “More energy.”
Q: You’ve worked with Paul, going back to the “Flight of the Conchords” HBO series. How did he fare in these conditions?
CLEMENT: You’re quite vampiric yourself.
SIMMS: I did not mind the night shoots at all. That’s my natural schedule, anyway.
WAITITI: We’d nap all the time. I’d see a couch and be like, “There’s my couch.” Matt Berry is also a huge napper. On the sets, we’d scope out the beds. And I’d be, “Oh, that’s mine.” And then I’d come in and Matt would be in it.
CLEMENT: Usually when you have a house set, there’s bedrooms with beds. But there’s no beds on this, because it’s coffins. There’s nowhere to sleep. So everyone’s got to really search: “Ah, now that human character has a bed.”
WAITITI: The college bedroom on the pilot, me and Matt were fighting over that bed all the time.
CLEMENT: But there was a sign on the door: “No sleeping.”
WAITITI: And then in smaller letters: “Unless you’re Taika.”
Q: What, if anything, has the experience of making the show further taught you about vampires?
SIMMS: The show is funny and silly, but it is about the sadness of eternal life.
CLEMENT: There is a sadness about not letting go.
WAITITI: Humans are so [expletive] stupid and boring and lazy, that given the gift of immortality, you’d never get around to doing anything. You’d just put off everything. People that have been alive for 5,000 years, going: “I’ve got forever to learn how to play violin. Why start now?” Humans, they still carry on human nature into being an undead creature. All those hang-ups stay with you.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.