Taika Waititi received the news that What We Do in the Shadows would open in Canada on Valentine's Day weekend with a slow grin. It was barely October when he visited Toronto, but I ask the New Zealander to make the case: Is his vampire "documentary," which plays the domestic squabbles and existential quandary of vampire roommates for laughs, really a date movie?
"My story is really romantic," Waititi says of his prissy character Viago, who pines for the one who got away. "It's almost a meet-cute, really," he continues. "Think of it as a tragic love story where maybe they never get together in the end, maybe he visits his long-lost love and just … hovers." He laughs.
He might also cite the fact that the No. 1 thing people claim to want in a mate is a good sense of humour, something that fills this mock-doc comedy.
What We Do in the Shadows is co-written, co-directed by and co-stars Waititi and Jemaine Clement (half of the Flight of the Conchords folk-comedy duo). The comedy appeared at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and a dozen other festivals, and is well on its way to cult-classic status.
It's material the pair had been tinkering with for a decade. "We didn't want to play anything like the angsty Twilight version of vampires – for us they're not very funny. We like the more romantic, over-the-top vampires with the accents," Waititi says. "All our favourite vampire films were The Lost Boys, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula and Interview with the Vampire. I wasn't meaning to be an old-school vampire type, but I liked the idea of a mother hen obsessed with cleanliness." Perhaps his Edwardian dandy vamp is not as unlike Edward Cullen as he might think.
The success of earnest teen vampire romances, however, is what helped the feature version of Shadows get made. "After Twilight, then True Blood, people were excited to do the genre, and since we had this idea, it became easier suddenly," Clement says.
"And by the time we were filming it," he adds as a world-weary coda, "it was, 'Oh great, vampires … '"
"When I pitched doing a vampire film to Taika, it was very much an arty thing," Clement recalls. "I'd just seen Nadja from the 1990s, black and white, very moody, and making fun of that sexiness and stylishness of vampires." What We Do in the Shadows ended up an understated spoof with a handmade feel, shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary about roommates "to make it more acceptable that incredible things happen," Clement says. "Like turning into a bat."
Early on, they even considered trying to shoot it on 16-mm, "to make it more like Grey Gardens," Waititi says. "It's probably good that we waited 10 years to make it, otherwise it would have ended up with characters who just happen to be vampires – observational, and not as ridiculous. And [10 years later] we were jaded, had seen more and were, like the characters, more lazy."
As an ensemble comedy and an affectionate send-up that plays with the conflicts of bloodsucking archetypes (you don't have to be fluent in vampire pop-culture to enjoy the movie, but it helps), it is the spiritual heir of the British cult classic The Young Ones and the early 1970s Canadian TV series The Hilarious House of Frightenstein (the latter unwittingly, since neither has heard of it). "I didn't know it at the time, but I do know now that most of my favourite comedians growing up were Canadian," Waititi says, citing Dan Aykroyd and Ivan Reitman.
Waititi says he got the first choice of characters: "I wanted to play the least likely vampire to ever be made into a movie. Jemaine went next and opted to play it Gary Oldman-style."
"He bases that character on his mother," Clement says of Waititi's Viago, "on her tidiness and making sure everyone's doing their part. I'm much more traditional about my vampire – I like torture, I'm a former leader of some small country or province who's into having slaves, but now has lost his power."
The cast is rounded out with friends who aren't professional actors – such as the female cop, who is a kindergarten teacher in real life, or Stu Rutherford ("Stu is just literally playing himself").
From 150 hours of film, they've prepared 2 1/2 hours of bonus materials for the eventual DVD edition – it consists of script material and secondary bits. "We had a whole thing with them selling all their old swords and candelabras first to make money," Clement says. "But who wants to watch vampires selling their stuff on eBay?"
The roommates tangle with a rival supernatural gang – a pack of pacifist werewolves led by Rhys Darby (known for his deadpan Flight of the Conchords role). They joke about making a companion film about those lycanthropes. They even have a title – What We Do in the Moonlight.
For years in interviews, Clement and Waititi have been mentioning Shadows as their pet project, so now that it's done, what's next? "I'm still surprised we actually did it," Waititi admits, before adding that they're writing a spinoff show for New Zealand TV that follows the two cops in Shadows. "And now we plan to keep mentioning the werewolves film. We'll never write it, or ever make it, but we'll keep mentioning it."