The Old Ones: Jemaine Clement on his new vampire flatshare comedy
Jemaine Clement's preoccupation with vampires reaches its zenith with undead houseshare comedy What We Do in the Shadows. The Flight of the Conchords star explains where this fascination started and why being immortal would have its disadvantages
“I was in the university library and I saw this guy across from me – he was chatting up this girl and pointing to the pictures in a book.” Jemaine Clement is recalling the first time he set eyes on Taika Waititi, fellow Kiwi comic and director of Boy, the highest grossing New Zealand film at the local box office. “He looked like one of those overly confident guys – you know, one of those guys in their early 20s who has more confident than they deserve. He had a crochet hat on, and I instantly disliked him.” Luckily for all of us Clement warmed to Waititi when he saw him auditioning for a uni sketch show he was also taking part in – “I remember reluctantly finding the stuff he was doing funny” – and they became fast friends. If they hadn’t, the world wouldn’t have What We Do In the Shadows, the pair’s inspired comedy, which they both star in and direct, and which centres on a vampire house-share.
The Flight of the Conchords star is speaking to us down the phone from New York, where he’s holed up between wrapping his latest film and travelling to Europe to promote What We Do in the Shadows (“I do still live in New Zealand,” he says, “but it’s not very handy”). It transpires these creatures of the night have interested Clement from an early age. “I used to be preoccupied with vampires: I would dream about them a lot.” These nightmares, brought on by watching movies like Salem’s Lot and Hammer’s Scars of Dracula, were far less traumatising than what followed, however. “When I was nine or ten I started a gang at school called The Vampires,” he says. “We would all wear those cheap, plastic hinged vampire teeth and we’d go around talking in Transylvanian accents trying to scare smaller kids.” Did it impress the girls at school? “Not so much.”
What We Do in the Shadows also follows a vampire gang of sorts, and they’re similarly pathetic. The premise is that a TV crew are making a documentary following four vampires who share a dilapidated house in the suburbs of Wellington. “Any drama that a vampire has can go over a long period of time – it’s all amplified,” says Clement. “We were just imagining what it would be like if you’d been flat-sharing for hundreds of years. What would the relationships be like after the strain of all that time living together?” To give you a picture, house meetings mostly involve domestic discussions around oldest housemate Petyr’s (aged 8000 years) habit of leaving his victims' rotting corpses strewn about the place and arguments about whose turn it is on the five-year-long washing-up rota.
"If you live for eternity, you’ve got to budget” – Jemaine Clement
Perhaps the most tragic of the four bloodsuckers is Clement’s own character, Vladislav, aged 862, whose glory years are long behind him. “The idea was that [Vladislav] was going to be very mysterious and cool, but a guy who’s going a little bit senile because he’s been alive so long,” he explains. But part way through filming – the script was semi-improvised as they went along – Clement realised he needed to take a different approach. “Maybe he used to be cool and powerful, but he’s gradually lost all that. I mean come on: now he’s sharing a crappy flat with three other vampires.” In the world of fictional monsters, vamps have always been the sexiest, the most glamorous, the most bourgeois. Not so with this quartet. “These guys have not invested well,” deadpans Clement. “They just get by basically. If you live for eternity, you’ve got to budget.”
The humour comes from the disconnect between vampire mythology we’ve learned from movies and books, and realities of the modern world that make life as a vampire emasculating. Clement pulled a similar trick with Flight of the Conchords, where the chief joke is they’re a rock’n’roll band with only one fan and a lifestyle that makes Cliff Richard look hedonistic. Is this self-deprecating style of comedy a mode that’s central to the New Zealand sense of humour? “I’m told that there is [a particular New Zealand sense of humour], but I’m not sure what it is,” he says. “I’ve often heard that New Zealanders aren’t reputed to have one at all, actually.”
Where have you heard that?
“I’ve heard it from different people all over the world. It could be that sometimes New Zealanders are joking and people don’t realise it. That’s what I get a lot: I joke to people and they just keep on talking as if I’m totally serious. Sometimes it takes a microphone for people to realise.”
Judging by the reaction of the audience we watch What We Do in the Shadows with, he should have no fear on that score.