News

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement on Revamping Cult Film Favorite What We Do in the Shadows for TV

Find out how Real Housewives, Metallica, and Twilight influenced their FX television adaptation.

by | March 27, 2019 | Comments

It wasn’t Jemaine Clement or Taika Waititi’s idea to turn their cult-favorite comedy What We Do in the Shadows into a TV show — you have producer Scott Rudin to thank for that — but once you watch the premiere of the new FX series, you have to wonder if it was fated to become a TV series all along.

The Certified Fresh WWDITS show follows a similar framework as the film: It’s a mockumentary about vampire roommates (Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Mark Proksch) and a devoted familiar (Harvey Guillén), but the action moves from New Zealand to New York City. These aren’t big city vamps, though — they live on Staten Island, a place with the same low-key underdog quality that New Zealand has.


WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS season 1 keyart (FX)
(Photo by FX)

Like the film, the series focuses on the more mundane aspects of vampire life, which means there’s a lot more interpersonal spats than epic vampire battles.

“When we were making the film we had joked about making, like, a ‘Housewives of’ series [where] you could go to different places and do different groups of vampires,” Clement told Rotten Tomatoes and a small group of reporters one December afternoon on the series’ Toronto set. “So as soon as I was on the phone and someone was saying, ‘What if we made a TV series of this?’ that immediately came into my head, and I knew it would be different characters in a different place.”

Aside from the Real Housewives reality series, read on to find out what else inspired the vampires’ transition from film to television, including what other pop culture inspired WWDITS (two very non-vampire-related documentaries might surprise you), what vampire rules the characters live by, the difficulties of night shoots, and more.


Vampire Influences

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- "Pilot" -- Season 1, Episode 1 - Pictured (l-r): Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, Matt Berry as Laszlo. CR: Byron Cohen/FX
(Photo by Byron Cohen/FX)

The first step in creating a vampire universe is to figure out the rules of this vampire world. Executive producer Paul Simms and co-EP Stefani Robinson said they’d consult the original film frequently, and they also drew from seminal vampire movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, and even the Twilight saga for inspiration.

“[Interview] is always in conversation in some way,” Robinson said. Plus, “I was sort of the target demographic for Twilight when that came out — I was in high school when that came out — so I have pretty extensive Twilight knowledge, I would say. It’s been fun re-watching all these movies.”

Clement and Waititi’s favorite vampire films include Scars of Dracula, Fright Night, Salem’s Lot, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Let the Right One In. The rules of the WWDITS world come from plenty of years of vampire movie-watching, and Clement and Waititi know them front and back.

“Taika and I are both fans of vampire movies, and when we’d get people to improvise in the film, we were more surprised that people don’t know the vampire rules like we do,” Clement said. “We thought everyone was a vampire nerd.”

On the non-vampire side of things, they looked at the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster and the classic Grey Gardens to tackle roommate dysfunction and life in a dilapidated mansion.


Vampire Law

These vampires have powers we didn’t see in the movie, but they’re pretty standard — they can’t go into private property without being invited, they can’t see their reflections in mirrors, stuff like that.

“We go basic ’70s-’80s vampire movie roles with a bit of ’30s,” Clement said. “They can turn into bats. They can’t go in the sun. They don’t sparkle in the sun; they die.”

Some of the rules are less obvious, like Waititi’s favorite bit of vampire law he found while researching: “One way to get rid of a vampire if he’s in your village is to steal his socks, fill them with garlic, tie them up, and throw them in the river. He’ll be forced to chase his socks, to go get his socks back. Then, he’ll get the socks and obviously they’ll be full of garlic. He’s going, ‘Ahh,’ stuck there on the banks of the river.”

A new technological twist is that vampires’ fingerprints don’t register on digital devices, so they can’t open iPhones or digitally sign for a very important delivery (like a package they’ll receive in the first episode). While the rules are pretty clear-cut, the more obscure ones complicate matters when the actors improvise something that won’t work.

“Often on set we’re like, ‘that’s right, they can’t do that.’ And I think most people probably wouldn’t care if you ever made a character go for a swim in the ocean, but they officially aren’t allowed to according to vampire law. They’re not allowed to go in salt or sea water,” Waititi said.


WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- "Pilot" -- Season 1, Episode 1 - Pictured (l-r): Kayvan Novak as Nandor, Harvey Guillen as Guillermo, Matt Berry as Lazlo (John P Johnson/FX)
(Photo by John P Johnson/FX)

If Clement’s around, he’ll correct the mistake.

“When we have the actors improvising stuff, if I’m listening I’ll go, ‘They can’t swim’ if they improvise it,” he said. “‘Couldn’t do that.’”

Said Simms, “Jemaine is very particular about the rules. If they eat human food they get sick, but leeches they can chew on or suck on to get the blood out but the actual leech meat they can’t [eat]. … The one that has affected the show in the most frustrating way is the idea that vampires need to be invited in somewhere. Because we’re always writing scenes where we’re like, ‘OK, they go into the house,’ and Jemaine’s like, ‘hold it, they need to be invited into the house.’”

Ultimately, the rules are helpful in making the story as interesting as possible.

“It’s good to have limitations. It makes it harder for them,” Clement said. “Because vampires have so many powers, they also have to have weaknesses.”

While Berry’ Laszlo, Novak’s Nandor, and Demetriou’s Nadja all have traditional vampire backgrounds, Clement created a new piece of vampire lore in “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Proksch), a day-walker who doesn’t feed on blood, but rather sucks the life out of people. Think the most boring person in your office who you’d never want to be caught next to at the water cooler, then multiply that boredom by at least 10.

In researching whether vampires existed, Clement came across people who would talk about an energy vampire in a psychological context.

“But I just thought, what if it was supernatural as well? Yeah, that’s been really fun to do,” he said.


Transferring to TV

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- "Pilot" -- Season 1, Episode 1 - Pictured (l-r): Kayvan Novak as Nandor. CR: John P Johnson/FX
(Photo by John P Johnson/FX)

Adapting a film into a television series isn’t as easy as it sounds, despite the fact that there’s already a creative framework to go with.

“People think of it as TV as being smaller-scale, but it’s actually larger because you have to have so many different stories,” Clement said. “That part of it is hard, but it’s also the fun part [because] next week we’re doing a different story. I love that.”

And while certain story lines will have full-season arcs, the 10 episodes are mainly standalone half-hours that establish the new characters and the new world in which they’re living.

“Remember how TV used to be where you could turn on an episode of Bob Newhart and watch, and you didn’t need to know what happened before or after? There are still elements in the first season that are season-long arcs, but we’re thinking about it in terms of 10 episodes,” Simms said.

“I hate it when TV people go, ‘It’s like we’re making a 10-episode movie.’ No you’re not. TV is better than movies anyway,” he joked, “so why would you want to make that comparison?”


Moving to Staten Island

While the pilot was filmed in Los Angeles and the series was filmed in Toronto, the What We Do In the Shadows show takes place on Staten Island (a place where no one on the cast or crew is from, and most of them have never been). Clement visited while writing the pilot, but the writers’ room had a built-in expert.

“One of the writers, Tom Scharpling, his wife is from Staten Island and anything we have to ask [about being] authentic, we have to ask Tom,” Clement said. “They get really stupid like, ‘Would you see a cow like this in Staten Island?’”

Why Staten Island, though? The vampires made it to America, but didn’t get very far in to the country.

“You could almost say Staten Island is the New Zealand of New York. It’s kind of the forgotten borough that not many people live in,” Simms joked. “No, but [it’s] quainter and not as glitzy and glamorous [as Manhattan].”


Nocturnal Schedule

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- Pictured: Kayvan Novak as Nandor. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX
(Photo by Matthias Clamer/FX)

One downside to a show about vampires: all of the action takes place at night, which means anything that’s not filmed on the show’s Toronto soundstages must be shot at night.

“We’ll often go from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m., depending on when the sun rises. So that’s the bit that makes you want to cry,” Clement said.

Clement directed a few episodes of the season, as did Waititi (who was directing the episode Rotten Tomatoes was present for filming), original film star Jackie van Beek, and Jason Woliner.


Finding the Cast

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- "Pilot" -- Season 1, Episode 1 - Pictured (l-r): Mark Proksch as Colin. CR: John P Johnson/FX
(Photo by John P Johnson/FX)

While most of the WWDITS film was improvised, the show is fully scripted — but with plenty of room for the comedian cast members to play around.

“They’re all good at improvising, these guys, and that was a big part of the audition. …A lot of people are good and funny,” Clement said.

But “you don’t want people who are acting” or who prepare, Waititi added.

Said Clement, “it feels more real if people [can wing it]. And also you just get things that you wouldn’t think of planning out. Going on a big tangent and talking about some detail, you often don’t do that because in a script, you’re trying to be very efficient and just tell what’s absolutely necessary. But it’s more fun and more real when they go off onto something that you wouldn’t put in a script normally.”

The scene Rotten Tomatoes observed the cast filming took place in a local Toronto mansion called Casa Loma that is frequently used for film and television shoots — from Fox’s recent Rocky Horror Picture Show remake to 2000’s X-Men and many more. It would be a spoiler to reveal who the main cast was interacting with and why, but, suffice it to say, it was a good thing filming took place far away from the viewing room, because the members of the press in attendance were laughing so hard.

The surprise of who the special guest stars for the late-season episode are is so worth the wait, however, and rest assured, early-season episodes feature some comedy bona fides too. In the meantime, check out a featurette from the set below to see exactly how funny Novak, Berry, Demetriou, Proksch, and Guillén are.

What We Do in the Shadows premieres Wednesday, March 27 at 10 p.m. on FX.


Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.


Tag Cloud

RT History Netflix Christmas movies name the review Hulu BAFTA HBO Max Pet Sematary aliens latino Hallmark Christmas movies technology CMT APB Kids & Family Television Critics Association 72 Emmy Awards Mary Tyler Moore Disney Channel hollywood classics Premiere Dates south america Infographic sag awards Winners Interview Arrowverse docudrama Reality blockbuster MSNBC Bravo Disney Plus Awards Tour Anna Paquin green book Black History Month facebook PBS social media Watching Series game show stop motion IFC Films YouTube Red The Walking Dead Musicals Comic Book spy thriller MCU miniseries Trailer Epix Sundance TV NBC Emmy Nominations thriller cartoon Creative Arts Emmys 24 frames Red Carpet indie Lucasfilm universal monsters ABC Academy Awards Travel Channel Columbia Pictures The Arrangement Sundance Now President Apple TV Plus Rocketman screenings asian-american theme song Syfy concert Brie Larson twilight ESPN toy story Spike historical drama reviews Mystery cops Extras dramedy dogs TCA 2017 slashers diversity Christmas singing competition cults Elton John GoT Endgame dceu YouTube Premium Biopics 4/20 Classic Film TNT Trophy Talk Winter TV TBS serial killer Best and Worst book halloween strong female leads Toys OneApp revenge Nickelodeon animated Film ghosts AMC Pop TV sequel renewed TV shows zombies FOX mutant HBO Go Acorn TV festivals Drama joker Starz Paramount adventure comiccon DC streaming service TV Land space 2018 VH1 series Sundance PaleyFest Opinion Awards political drama X-Men screen actors guild anthology Horror TCA PlayStation ratings transformers psycho Family FX crossover A24 Marvel Television Baby Yoda crime drama cinemax Podcast kids Character Guide cancelled television Hallmark boxoffice cats USA Crunchyroll anime Esquire Cartoon Network witnail natural history Pixar Vudu children's TV WarnerMedia Ghostbusters Rom-Com Grammys Avengers sports Quiz MTV Marvel OWN Fall TV 2015 Adult Swim parents adaptation Pride Month Marvel Studios based on movie zero dark thirty Oscars Funimation Reality Competition Binge Guide obituary die hard indiana jones CBS TIFF Polls and Games discovery dc harry potter movies TV crime free movies composers criterion Marathons science fiction Superheroe a nightmare on elm street Film Festival talk show Amazon Prime Video Games video dragons Ellie Kemper disaster travel Calendar Rocky worst BBC America Action Turner Classic Movies superhero Tarantino Crackle elevated horror RT21 comic spanish language Apple TV+ 2019 Black Mirror LGBTQ DC Comics rotten movies we love El Rey Spectrum Originals Mary poppins Writers Guild of America Shudder Musical Mary Poppins Returns Summer Lifetime Apple Sony Pictures Mindy Kaling TCA Winter 2020 Disney streaming service supernatural TCA Awards Heroines TCM BET canceled Trivia CW Seed Photos Spring TV Comedy 21st Century Fox YA Warner Bros. The CW E3 dark Emmys Set visit Amazon Prime Video franchise romance History VOD USA Network quibi Pop Song of Ice and Fire Star Wars See It Skip It war Discovery Channel GIFs Logo news 007 all-time New York Comic Con Cosplay Holidays chucky Tumblr comedies documentary werewolf nbcuniversal comics A&E Disney+ Disney Plus directors Disney TruTV Nominations critics Stephen King Fox News batman BBC canceled TV shows San Diego Comic-Con Ovation hispanic Turner award winner E! breaking bad hist DirecTV DGA 2016 Amazon Studios WGN Country teaser SXSW ABC Family YouTube cars blaxploitation Television Academy biography spinoff IFC Music television jamie lee curtis cancelled TV shows Netflix Martial Arts sitcom First Reviews SDCC Walt Disney Pictures Animation streaming cancelled 2020 what to watch stoner scary movies fast and furious CNN spain stand-up comedy game of thrones tv talk richard e. Grant Countdown Certified Fresh Super Bowl TLC vampires Thanksgiving The Witch Chilling Adventures of Sabrina christmas movies 71st Emmy Awards LGBT crime thriller Hear Us Out period drama Masterpiece spider-man versus 2017 Women's History Month American Society of Cinematographers SundanceTV GLAAD Schedule Valentine's Day Tomatazos mockumentary Freeform robots movie DC Universe nature police drama Cannes video on demand politics Box Office true crime unscripted Superheroes Rock Year in Review Food Network Holiday National Geographic justice league Star Trek Captain marvel First Look finale The Purge Western Mudbound child's play binge FXX Universal Britbox Sci-Fi Dark Horse Comics cancelled TV series medical drama 20th Century Fox zombie FX on Hulu documentaries VICE Fantasy Tubi HBO satire best Comedy Central romantic comedy Sneak Peek independent Pirates BET Awards Lifetime Christmas movies Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 45 films NYCC reboot laika Paramount Network CBS All Access Election Amazon emmy awards Comics on TV Shondaland Showtime Chernobyl Teen Nat Geo psychological thriller rotten golden globes Peacock BBC One Lionsgate mission: impossible foreign cooking casting doctor who TV renewals ITV