Taika Waititi on Giving 'What We Do in the Shadows' a Second Life on TV
The in-demand director reveals what it took for him and Jemaine Clement to develop an FX series based on their 2014 film and finding the right tone: "It was about just keeping it real and letting the actors riff without having to censor themselves."
Before he'd helmed a giant Marvel movie and become one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood, Taika Waititi co-wrote and co-directed a 2005 short called What We Do in the Shadows. That mockumentary went on to become a 2014 feature that put Waititi and collaborator Jemaine Clement on the map (they co-wrote, co-directed and starred in the feature). Now, five years later, their strange vampire universe is the setting for an FX comedy, and though Waititi and Clement don't star, their humor and tone are all over the show (they each helmed three episodes and serve as executive producers). The New Zealand-born Waititi, 43, spoke to THR about bringing back his vampire world, how he directed that star-studded episode and what's next for the show.
The movie came out in 2014, so what made it seem like now was the time to make the show?
It was never really a thing that we had planned on doing. I'd just finished shooting Hunt for the Wilderpeople and had started editing it when Scott Rudin got interested in the idea of doing the show. We're quite lazy, so the idea of someone else doing that kind of thing, pitching it, was more appealing to us. We've tried pitching stuff together in L.A. before, and it's gone terribly. The idea wasn't necessarily what we were both really trying to do at the time. But then, we always wanted to do something else, either with those characters or a spinoff film. So then we talked about making the show, whether we'd be in it or not, and we just decided it was probably going to be too much work. Are you getting the message that I don't like work?
You work a lot for someone who doesn't like work.
Yeah. Well, I'm not happy. Jemaine will tell you that I made a deal and then abandoned it and made him do it all. Which is true, but also I abandoned him to make Thor [Ragnarok].
You did direct three episodes, including the pilot. What were your main priorities in terms of protecting the tone of the project?
We basically had final cut on the film, so we got to do whatever we wanted — that's where that tone came from. We didn't have to censor anything. We found out that FX didn't mind the swearing either — that helped a lot. It was about just keeping it real and letting the actors riff without having to censor themselves. So trying to capture that tone.
There are so many insane cameos in an episode you directed, "The Trial," including Tilda Swinton, Danny Trejo, Evan Rachel Wood — all of whom had previously played famous vampires. Were there others you tried to get?
Well, Alex Skarsgard wanted to do it, but he was in Australia doing some movie. We asked a few other people, like Kate Beckinsale; she was out of town. We were still shooting in Toronto and we'd ask, "Hey, can you come to Toronto?" and even if they wanted to do it, it's a long way to come to do an hour's work. We did as much as we could there. We shot that about two months after we wrapped the show.
Your regular actors are used to your riffing, but were Tilda and Evan as playful, or was it more scripted?
A little bit, but we had limited time with them, and it was hard for them to do that because there was no one else in the room. It was just them and Jemaine and I, and we were basically running around the whole space pretending to be all the characters, for the eyelines and stuff. It was pretty mad. I thought it was going to be a complete failure, but it worked.
What's something you learned specifically from directing this show?
I didn't learn much on this shoot because I made the movie and this show is based on the movie. If anything, I learned that you can in fact repeat yourself without feeling too much like a hack. Oh, wait, I did learn that Toronto is uninhabitable in winter.
Where are you in the process for season two, and what are your hopes for it?
Season two is being storylined at the moment. My hope is that the characters' individual arcs and stories get more complex and entwined. I like these characters so much, I want to feel I know them even more intimately. And by intimate, I think you know what I mean.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.