Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter listens to the What We Do in the Shadows commentary.
What We Do In the Shadows is one of the best films of the year — and of last year too if you caught it on the festival circuit — and after what seems like a hell of a long time it’s finally landed on Blu-ray/DVD here in the States. It’s a comedic, faux-documentary about vampires, something that initially had me worried as I had already seen and loved the similarly themed Belgian film, Vampires, that manages to feel surprise and entertain from beginning to end with ridiculously funny gags, antics and jokes.
Co-writers/co-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi recorded a commentary track, but the disc is filled with other special features well worth your time as well including deleted scenes and the original short film they made nearly a decade ago.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for What We Do In the Shadows.
What We Do In the Shadows (2015)
Commentator: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
1. In a severe breach of commentary etiquette, neither Clement nor Waititi introduce themselves.
2. The New Zealand Documentary Board is not a real thing, “but it’s quite realistic.”
3. The two share directing credit, but neither of them remember who directed the opening scene with Viago (Wiatiti) exiting the coffin to turn off the alarm.
4. There were four big guys pulling Waititi up out of the coffin to simulate levitation, and Clement says by the end of the film’s shoot it was taking eight guys. “Too many puddings,” admits Waititi.
5. Waititi points out that the big rock slab he moves in front of Petyr’s (Ben Fransham) coffin isn’t concrete and is actually Styrofoam. “I hadn’t imagined that was concrete,” says Clement, “I had imagined it was ancient stone, pre-concrete.”
6. The film is scripted (and based on their original short), but they allowed conversations to develop naturally. “Often we would lead the actors towards where we needed the scene to go,” says Waititi. It pays off beautifully in the film itself, but the disc’s deleted scenes offer a look at some of the examples that didn’t quite result in magic.
7. Vacuum is spelled incorrectly on the chore wheel. “I don’t know how to spell vacuum,” says Waititi, to which Clement asks “You mean your character?” Waititi’s reply is simply “Me.”
8. They knew they wanted the opening credits sequence to feature old illustrations and photos, and when their editor (Tom Eagles) introduced them to the 1966 song “You’re Dead” by Norma Tanega they decided to add that in as well. Eagles had started collecting songs that leaned towards death. They tracked Tanega down to get her permission and discovered she’s now a painter.
9. Deacon’s (Jonathan Brugh) joke about the Nazis losing — “I don’t know if you know this, but the Nazis lost.” — apparently fails to get a laugh from American audiences. (I know I laughed.) Clement says New Zealand audiences find it funny for the same reason Americans don’t. “Yes, we know, that’s why it’s funny. Yes, we know, that’s why it’s not funny.”
10. The soda stream gag in the opening photo montage was Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Conchords) idea.
11. They acknowledge that rules about vampires seem to change from film to film, but neither of them had previously heard that vampires couldn’t wear silver. “I still don’t know if it’s true,” says Clement who seems to think it originated on HBO’s True Blood. They were already in the middle of filming and had the locket ready to go when someone pointed out that Viago couldn’t touch it with his exposed skin.
12. The original short also included the scene of the three vampires, dressed in their elaborate period costumes, walking the city’s busy streets at night. “People were yelling out homophobic slurs constantly,” recalls Clement. “It probably happened like fifty times in an hour, and it was terrifying.” The harassers included kids and women too. They’re happy to say that this time, nine years later, they didn’t receive a single insult while filming the same scene. The kid who yells it here had to be convinced to say it.
13. Jackie van Beek, who plays Jackie here, is an “amazing comic and dramatic actress and playwright and director.” Clement says she actually directed a couple of her own scenes allowing them time to focus on others, and she and Brugh perform together frequently in various shows.
14. The scene where Viago lays out newspapers and blankets before biting the young woman’s neck is one of Clement’s favorites, but it was apparently stressful for Waititi. “The blood went in my eye, actually in my eyeball, down my throat.”
15. The black & white photo of the crowd Vladislov (Clement) once hypnotized is actually from election night in Wellington in 1945.
16. Waititi wonders if pronouncing spaghetti as “bisgetti” is a New Zealand thing, to which Clement points out that “it’s a child thing.” Regardless, they’re not sure why they chose to use that pronunciation here. They do acknowledge the influence of The Lost Boys on this scene though. People asked them why we don’t get to see worms on Nick’s (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) plate, and they have a fairly brilliant answer. “The camera isn’t hypnotized,” says Waititi, “just Nick.”
17. They both love Deacon’s dance scene. “This was the most I laughed I think when shooting,” says Clement. “He’s kind of famous for that particular style,” adds Waititi.
18. “This is our friend Stu,” says Waititi when Stuart Rutherford shows up. “He’s Taika’s friend,” adds Clement, “he’s not my friend. He’s not an actor.” They let him think that he was just going to appear briefly but would instead actually be providing IT support — his real-world job is basically as he describes it in the film — in the production office. “He set up the router.” They essentially tricked him each day to appear onscreen again and again.
19. The retirement home where Viago finds Katherine is an actual retirement home, and the producer who scouted the location told Clement and Waititi that a real resident they had met would make for a great Katherine. Ethel Robinson was thrilled to be a part of the film. “We put fangs on her dentures,” says Clement.
20. The scene where Deacon and Nick get into a physical fight outside was originally written to have them brawling as humans up in the air, but they couldn’t afford the wire-work needed for the shot and decided to go with CG bats instead. I usually lean practical, but the scene works beautifully as is and results in Clement’s favorite effects shot from the film — the bit where bat-Nick slams against the metal door and returns to human shape.
21. The “biggest” effects scene in the film took 80 hours of digital work, and no one ever notices. It was the removal of their reflections from the restaurant table after Nick and Deacon’s fight.
22. “I can’t hear the movie,” says Clement around the 45:45 mark. Waititi agrees prompting Clement to suggest they should turn up the volume in the hope of hearing dialogue that might trigger some scintillating commentary.
23. The b&w photo of Katherine’s wedding is actually from Eagles’ own wedding.
24. The bit where Viago climbs into the coffin, closes the lid, and begins thumping the wood “wasn’t scripted” says Clement. “It was just a joke for the crew really.”
25. They filmed a funeral for Petyr (available in the deleted scenes) but lost the fake body in the ocean. “We had to do a press release saying if you see a charred body wash up on the beach,” says Waititi, “don’t worry.”
26. The two police officers (Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue) who arrive at the house had the crew laughing during takes more than anyone else. O’Leary isn’t even an actor — she’s a kindergarten teacher — but they both do great comedic work. The close-up of Viago explaining in a whisper how Vladislav was hypnotizing them was added later “because people weren’t understanding what was happening.”
27. They jokingly considered putting all of the footage online — they acknowledge they have a lot of scenes that simply went on and on — and invite people to assemble their own cuts of the film. “Would you be depressed if they made the best movie ever made,” asks Clement, and Waititi says he would thank them and then retire.
28. The “meat” prize in the cage at the party is played by the father of the two little girl vampires (Morgana and Morga Hills).
29. Waititi’s favorite scene is when the leads come across the werewolves trying to chain themselves to trees before the moon makes them transform. They told the actors playing the werewolves that no matter what Anton (Rhys Darby) told them to do they should keep approaching him with questions and concerns. The co-directors intentionally gave Darby conflicting suggestions too just to mess with the poor guy.
30. They had written the scene with the ambulance and police attending to the scene of carnage in the park but decided not to film it. They then decided afterwards to add it in after all and lucked out with the assistance of real medics. “They said as long as no emergencies come up we’ll come out and do it,” says Clement. “So we wouldn’t have finished it if there had been someone needing an ambulance. They would have had to leave.” “It’s the one ambulance in Wellington,” adds Waititi.
31. They originally ended the big vampire/werewolf get-together with a dance party including some flying moves, but it didn’t quite come together. “The effects people just were not interested at all in [digitally] painting out all those wires.”
32. They make mention of a post-credits extra scene — and I’m embarrassed to admit that while I saw this movie in theaters three times I was completely unaware that the extra bit existed. They shot variations of it but went with Brugh because his eyebrows are bewitching.
Best in Commentary
- Clement: “I don’t like it when [opening] logos don’t have sounds on them when I watch a movie, because I don’t know if the sound’s working!”
- Clement: “This is a terrible commentary so far.”
- Waititi: “There’s Jemaine in a little mini orgy scene that he wrote for himself.”
- Waititi: “It’s really a movie just about how cool Stu is.”
The two seem uncertain at times as to how to fill the commentary ‐ there are a few gaps, and they comment more than once that they’re unsure what to talk about ‐ but it’s still an entertaining listen. Their anecdotes are fun, they’re complimentary towards the cast and crew and they offer some insight into low budget productions. Recommended!
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