When Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and indie film director Taika Waititi unleashed their vampire mockumentary farce What We Do in the Shadows on the world in 2014, one can only imagine they assumed it would be a one-and-done. Certainly, one wouldn’t have expected that five years later, the pair would be working on not one but two different television spin-offs—New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal and the FX’s What We Do in the Shadows in the U.S.A. Who knew that neurotic vampires and surprisingly prim werewolves would be such a positively sanguine vein of source material?
But a lot can change in five years. Before the first film’s release, Waititi was a little-known NZ filmmaker, the director of low-budget dramedies like Boy and Eagle vs. Shark. A few years later, he’s the creator of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s critically and commercially beloved Thor: Ragnarok, a film utterly stamped with Waititi’s own personal brand of awkward, absurdist humor. Few creators have ever left such a direct stamp on the tone of the overall MCU as Waititi did, and in the process, he greatly increased his own Hollywood stature, winning himself a degree of creative freedom in the process. His choice of what to do with that freedom, with Clement again by his side? Fully commit to fleshing out the uproariously macabre world of What We Do in the Shadows.
And as season 1 of the new series comes to a close this week, it’s increasingly clear that the team behind What We Do in the Shadows has crafted a snarling, fang-bearing success—one that both pays deference to the film that inspired it and establishes an array of new vampire characters who are all compelling and unique. In transporting the series from New Zealand to Staten Island, the show has unearthed an endless vein of American culture for potential commentary, as seen through the eyes of deluded and murderous (but somehow oddly loveable) ghouls. It’s been a regular fixture in Paste’s own weekly TV power rankings.
One of the keys of the transition from film to TV that might be easy to overlook, however, is the presence of cinematographer DJ Stipsen. Originally meeting creators Clement and Waititi via his work in the NZ music video scene, Stipsen’s eye informed much of the original feature film’s mockumentary look and feel. It was only natural, then, for Stipsen to return as DP for the FX series, preserving the visual continuity of “a film crew hanging out in a den of vampires.” In doing so, Stipsen and co. looked at a number of single-camera comedies, especially the original British version of The Office, in terms of gauging exactly how involved they wanted the camera (and the implied film crew behind it) to be in the action.
“The mockumentary style was the signature that propelled the first film forward, so we didn’t want to stray from that premise at all,” says Stipsen, chatting with Paste from his home in New Zealand. “It’s a pretty quirky style, though. Finding the operators to do this show the way we do it was quite tricky. The cameras are heavy and the takes are long. There are a lot of creative decisions to make. When you’re engaging with the scene, you need to make the decision of either being more observational, as voyeurs removed from the scene, or if you’re going to be right up in the action with the vampires. In that sense it’s not really a documentary, it’s more like a reality series—like a cops show or something at times. It’s a style that requires you to throw away practically everything you’ve learned in your entire career.”
Stipsen on set during one of many long, arduous nighttime shoots.
To this end, the creation of the first FX season of the show involved some grueling shoots, conducted almost entirely at night—what Stipsen refers to at one point as essentially working “vampire days,” starting shoots just after sunset and finishing just before sunrise. Viewers, however, are rewarded with a genuine sense of the vampire protagonists as nocturnal creatures. Granted, it’s easy to overlook those sorts of things in episodes like “The Trial,” when you’re swooning over vampire cameos from the likes of Dave Bautista, Tilda Swinton, Paul Reubens and freaking Wesley Snipes.
“Every time they tell us about one of these amazing cameos, I’m blown away,” Stipsen said, as we discuss Waititi’s impressive Hollywood connections. “Our ability to have much bigger gags has really paid off for the series.”
Beyond the comedic jolt those unexpected sort of cameos provide, though, one of the most entertaining aspects of the series has been the delicate acknowledgement of the film crew themselves as (extremely) peripheral characters. In the original feature film, the crew is rarely referenced by design, outside of an opening text overlay. In the series, however, spending more time with the characters eventually leads to the audience putting more consideration into “Who are these people behind the camera?” Especially considering the fact that some of the crew are implied to have been, you know … killed by vampires.
“I like that it’s largely not addressed, because it plays into the vanity of the vampires,” Stipsen said. “They’re all quite vain. I like to think that maybe the film crew figured it all out for themselves and showed up at the door, and the vampires just feel like they’re achieving something important because people want to learn about them. I can imagine that the human cameramen are constantly in a conversation about how amazing their documentary will be, which is sort of a reflection of their own vanity. It all comes with the acknowledgement that they could die at any time.”
Eventually, of course, that means directly acknowledging the fact that there are human characters in every scene, toting around cameras, something Stipsen and co. cleverly pull off in “The Trial” when the camera crew gets left behind as the vampires escape in bat form. That decision came from discussion between Stipsen, Waititi and Clement, who made the call that it was “about time to visually reference the crew.”
“We really had to pick and choose our moments like that,” Stipsen said. “You can easily over-reference the crew, but then there are obvious moments to do it, like when the Baron is introduced and doesn’t understand why these cameramen are there. It’s like any kind of photojournalism you look at, because you often don’t consider what is happening to the person taking that photo or video. What happened to them, if it’s an image or video of something really dangerous or violent? In the world of the show, Guillermo is the one character who will visually acknowledge the cameras a lot, I think because he sees the other humans as comrades—and because he’s embarrassed by the vampires.”
It’s a testament to the show’s solid construction that it manages the balancing act of both hiding and acknowledging its off-screen characters at the same time as it shows off an often surprising amount of quality VFX work. One might not think of What We Do in the Shadows as a series that would require much in the way of special effects, but each 30-minute episode is typically studded with flying, wall-climbing, bat transformations, decapitations and the occasional total immolation. Only Stipsen’s purposely understated style keeps it all from seeming ostentatious.
“It was important not to telegraph the massive visual effects,” he said. “We really wanted them to be as incidental as possible, not breaking the documentary feel. If a vampire flies, it’s like us walking—it’s not a big deal to them. It should be captured in a way that feels mundane. If the effects seem incidental, it means we’ve told that part of the story correctly.”
And that’s just it, when it comes to the beauty of What We Do in the Shadows—the show is a critique of the mundanity of everyday American life, delivered through the perspective of vampires who you’d really expect to be more impressive. You can almost feel the disappointment of the cameramen behind the lens in how truly ordinary their subjects are, which is mirrored in the vampires’ disgust as they discover new facets of society and popular culture outside the safe haven of their home. Whether it’s the chambers of a city council meeting, or an immigration office, What We Do in the Shadows mines humor from the dispassionate boredom of modern existence, something Stipsen hopes the series can explore even further in its recently announced second season.
“I think what I’m in love with in this series is the utter banality of the world they explore outside the house,” he said. “The more bureaucratic and banal places we can find to shoot in, the funnier they are and the happier I’ll be. The worst thing is, these are all real locations where people actually work! You see these places and think ‘Okay, I love my job.’”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.