'What We Do in the Shadows' Boss on Season 2's Big Mission: Stay Funny

Showrunner Paul Simms tells The Hollywood Reporter why he didn't have any lofty ambitions for the second season of his FX vampire comedy.
Russ Martin/FX; John Lamparski/Getty Images

What We Do in the Shadows is not a very complicated series. Its second season, which premieres Wednesday, might be more ambitious in its special effects or production design or stunt coordination, but storywise, it's very similar to the first (and the movie of the same name on which it is based).

"The show is very simple. It's about a bunch of vampires who've been roommates for 200 years who live in Staten Island. You don't need to know a lot of backstory to enjoy," explains showrunner Paul Simms. The writers' mission going into season two, he says, was also very simple: "My honest answer is such a terrible thing to put in an interview, but it's just, like, make more funny episodes."

Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), and Nandor's human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) live together in New York City's forgotten borough and do vampire stuff. That's really it. The first season's biggest surprises came in the form of frequent, and sometimes epic, surprise guest stars — one episode managed to enlist famous film and TV vampires including executive producers Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (reprising their roles from the WWDITS film), Wesley Snipes (Blade), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn) and Paul Reubens (the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The only real plot twist came at the end of the season, when Guillermo discovered that he's a descendant of famed vampire hunter Van Helsing.

That's the main conflict for the overworked and under-appreciated assistant going into season two: Is he meant to become a vampire, as Nando has promised he'll do, or is he meant to be a vampire killer?

"This season we explore his struggle with that a lot," says Simms. "But see, even when I say 'explore the struggle' it makes it sound like one of those shows that's all serious and stuff. And the thing I love about this show is that it's absolutely silly and funny. I don't think we have any bigger points about anything that we make. You don't have to do a lot of hard thinking. You just have to want to laugh."

Simms spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of escapism, why he's not trying to top the vampire council in terms of celebrity cameos and losing a key location before season two.

Honestly, with a show like this, do you actually have to move the story forward at all?

There are fun arcs we follow with with Guillermo's journey, but it's sort of like — I love The Office. The Office was about the tedium of working in an office and nothing really ever changes, or when something changes it quickly goes back to being tedious. In this show, it's sort of like, take that and multiply it by hanging out with the same people for 200 years and being sick of each other. Within each episode, of course, we try to tell a good, solid story. But but we really did set out to not make it something that you had to watch every episode and that there are a lot of big developments. It seems like that would not make sense anyway. Part of what's funny about the show is that these vampires had 200 years during which they could have done anything they wanted — they could've learned any language, written 1,000 books, become proficient in any musical instrument — and all they've really done is sat around and bickered with each other. There are things that they're doing that get them to engage with the outside world, but their lives aren't going to change that much.

Did you have a similar shooting schedule? Were there any significant production challenges?

It was pretty similar. One of the hard parts was that we wrote so many scripts the way they were the first season that take place at nighttime in front of the vampire house. And right before we got to Toronto to start shooting again, we were told that we couldn't use the vampire house that we'd been using. We wasted a little while trying to find another house that looked like that, but it was such an unusual house — it was the same house that was used in the movie It, the one about the clown. That was our biggest production struggle: We ended up having to build the outside of the house, and then we started getting more ambitious and we built more of the topiary garden and built a koi pond. That was all in a parking lot in front of the soundstage where we work. So that was a big, ambitious thing. But I'm glad we did it because it looks really cool now.

Season one had pretty epic guest stars. This year you've revealed that Haley Joel Osment, Craig Robinson and Mark Hamill will appear. What can you say about who else you were able to get?

Mark Hamill we wanted to be a surprise, but then we forgot. It was fun because we had a lot of people who had seen the first season who were really into it and wanted to be on the show. Some of them couldn't do it for scheduling reasons, but Mark Hamill was an example of someone who was a fan of the show and he tweeted about how much he liked it. If you're going to say you like the show then we'll get in touch with you and say, "Prove it!" His episode is really great. That one we had in the middle of last season that had all those guest star vampires, we realized there was no way we could top that. So there's no huge mega guest star episode, but all through the season there are funny little surprise things. Including the return of — well see now, I don't want to spoil it, but the return of a funny character from last season. That was my favorite thing about that vampire tribunal episode — the way we kept it a secret and just watching Twitter and everyone reacting as they saw it for the first time was great.

What else can you say about Guillermo's Van Helsing twist?

Harvey did have to do a lot of stunt training for this upcoming season. If you had told me at the beginning of the show that Harvey was going to have to do a lot of stunt work, I would have gone, like, "I don't see how that's going to happen." But Harvey did a lot of stunt work this season. I feel like so few half-hours [have] both physical comedy, but are also big and visually distinct from the real world. So we leaned a little more this season into more action and more elaborate, dramatic-looking things as the vampires come into contact with more parts of the supernatural underworld that exist right beneath the normal Staten Island world that we all live in. There are a lot of good and very ambitious action scenes, and a lot of it's centered around Harvey. Harvey makes a really good action star also, because he's someone that you don't expect to have combat expertise, but he really threw himself into it and the results are really great.

And at least in the first few episodes, he's still doing it in his little sweater.

Yeah, it's him in his little brown sweater. Another thing that we get more into this season is the relationship between him and Nandor. It's the oldest, simplest relationship with the book: It's the boss who treats the guy badly but the guy still admires the boss. They get a little more complex this season as he gets fed up with being treated badly and Nandor realizes how much he values Guillermo. It's funny and sweet but not sweet in a quirky kind of way.

Season one got kind of meta in poking fun at having to establish the rules of this vampire world — Beanie Feldstein's character is learning how to be a vampire and asks about what happens to her clothes when she turns into a bat, and the vampires don't know how to answer her. You lean into those logic holes again in episode two, which involves ghosts.

That's some of the stuff that amused us the most — the idea that just because they're vampires and have all these powers doesn't mean they understand everything about how it works, either. That was one of my favorite parts of the first season, was her going, "What happens to our clothes? Do they just disappear? Or do I get undressed?" And the vampires themselves having no idea. That might have been the inspiration for the ghost episode, with them going, "Well, technically we're dead, don't we have ghosts?" And none of them really having the answer.

That meta layer really goes back to the show not taking itself too seriously.

You're not going to learn anything and you're not going to feel like you have to run out and register to vote or change your life or be a better person. It's just escapism. It's a weird kind of escapism, because there are people being slaughtered by vampires in every episode, but it's still escapism. What makes any show work is the cast and liking those people, which is half liking the characters as they're written, and half just liking the actors who are playing them. The actors are so fun on this and I think that just comes through — how funny they all are.

There are a lot of special effects in this show. Did you get to try anything in season two that you'd wanted to do in season one?

There is so much this season. Once we figured out our special effects and stunt crews were so good — we were nervous going into [season one] that it would take forever to shoot. Once we realized how good they were, this season we really just didn't worry about how hard it was going to be to do something and just wrote what we thought would be great to see. So it was almost like we were challenging them. The ghost thing was a huge [endeavor] — it's one thing to write that Nandor is talking to ghost Nandor, but then to figure out how too shoot it and do all that was really hard. Still, when I watch the cuts I'm astonished how well it came together. A big part of that was Kyle Newacheck, who used to direct Workaholics, came in and directed a lot of episodes. He was really great about figuring out how to do stuff like that. There's a big battle scene. There's a big chase and showdown underneath the city in a sewer. There's a secret witch's lair that's in an abandoned subway station. There's all sorts of stuff that's just super ambitious and cool.

What We Do in the Shadows season two premieres Wednesday, April 15, at 10 p.m. on FX.