When it comes to news of yet another TV reboot, revival or adaptation, fans often have mixed feelings about one of their most cherished properties being dragged out of the grave. But the announcement that FX was bringing back the 2014 cult mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows as a television series was met with an unusually high level of optimism — likely because the movie's creators and stars, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, were reuniting to executive-produce the new series.
"When we made the movie the critics, they kept saying things like 'this should be a series,' but it wasn't our idea to make it into a series," Clement told reporters during a December visit to the Toronto set. "Scott Rudin, the producer, saw the film and called us up and asked us if we'd develop a pilot."
"Scott was calling me up at 3 a.m., waking me up in the middle of the night: 'Hey, we got to make this series, man. What's happening with the series?' I'm like, Jemaine, deal with this guy," Waititi joked.
Given Waititi's commitment to Thor: Ragnarok, he wasn't available to co-write the pilot with Clement, who took on the project with a small team. And though Clement and Waititi starred in the movie — as well as the 2005 original short film the movie was based on — as vampires Vladislov and Viago, respectively, the busy multi-hyphenates opted to stay behind the camera this time (although their characters could potentially show up in future seasons of Shadows if FX opts to renew it).
Even without any returning cast members or characters, Clement didn't struggle with ideas for how to adapt the film, immediately knowing that the series would follow a new group of roommates in a new location — this time, Staten Island instead of Wellington, New Zealand. And while Staten Island may initially seem like an unexpected choice of locations for a group of European vampires to settle, it makes perfect sense once it's revealed that the main trio of bloodsuckers — Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and Laszlo (Matt Berry) — were sent to America nearly 200 years ago to conquer the New World, but never made it any further than the much-maligned N.Y.C. borough, choosing to settle into a comfortable house and routine rather than do any actual work. But when the ancient vampire who sent them on this mission, the Baron Afanase (Doug Jones), visits to check on their progress, the trio are forced to reengage with a world that they no longer understand.
While the show is technically about powerful, immortal beings out to conquer America while still living their best lives of leisure — made all the more easy by the naively earnest dedication of Nandor's human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) — the series is quick to make clear that their eternal lives aren't all that glamorous at all. "That's another thing Jermaine talked about from the start, was it's about these characters who are immortal and have lived hundreds of years, and just the tedium of that," said executive producer and writer Paul Simms. "Movies depict it as sort of the soul searching of, 'I'm immortal, I never die.' And [Clement's] like, that's 100 years of, like, figuring out how to pay your rent, 100 years of living with roommates... Imagine living with the same people for 150 years."
So rather than embrace the sexy mystique of vampire lore, What We Do in the Shadows is all about embracing "the mundane practicalities of being a vampire," as co-executive producer Stefani Robinson put it. This means everything from the characters' extended discussions about labeling caged victims so as to better keep track of when you began feeding off them, to the writers embracing the most minute and obscure vampire rules and detailing how exactly that would impede the vamps' lives.
"There was one [scene] where [an actor] was talking about spilling rice and I said, 'If a vampire spills rice they have to count them. ... Do it again,'" Clement recalled.
"We researched a lot of vampire law and the rules and some are so weird that if you told someone to explain it in the film people would think that you're just being over the top," Waititi said. "So my favorite one is, one way to get rid of a vampire if he's in your village is to steal his socks, fill them with garlic, tie them up, and throw them into the river. He would be forced to chase his socks. He can't get his socks back. Then he'll get the socks and obviously they'll be full of garlic and he'll go, 'Aahhh!' stuck there on the banks of a river."
When it comes to this show, no idea is too weird or too silly, because unlike many comedies these days — including several on FX alone — Shadows is out for laughs first and foremost. While most modern comedies tend to rely on verbal quips, this show isn't afraid of going big and broad for a gag. "I don't want to short change it by saying that part of the appeal was that it was funny — because I do think that in the last five to seven years ... I see so many comedies that are clever," said Simms. But what sets Shadows apart, per the producer, is that, "We do things on this show that are incredibly silly, which is really fun, and a fun change of pace."
The show's delightful goofiness is evidenced best whenever Shadows puts its unique spin on horror tropes. And let's just say the series is far from squeamish about gore, which includes "every type of bodily fluid you can think of," per special effects coordinator J.R. Kenny.
"We've done blood from neck — classic vampire blood, classic vampire bite blood," Kenny explained. "We've done the Baron biting into a guy's neck upside down, sort of like the Spider-Man kiss, but with blood coming out. We've done black puke. We've done popcorn puke. We've done pizza puke. We've done werewolf piss. We've done beer. We've done a lot of things spraying, but they each have their own little twist to it, so you're not getting the same blood spray every time."
Adding to the horror of it all are the introductions of other creatures to the Shadows universe. In addition to traditional vampires, like our central trio, the series also introduces a new subspecies in the group's fourth roommate, Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), an "energy vampire." Unlike traditional vampires who subsist off human blood, energy vampires aren't averse to sunlight and thrive off literally sucking the life force from their victims, often through dull conversation. They also happen to be the only type of vampire that can harm other vampires, making the hilariously milquetoast Colin an outcast even within the house.
The series will also be introducing a a pack of werewolves who are not, sadly, the Swearwolves from the original film, but should provide ample comedy nonetheless when the truce between the two species is broken. As for what other monsters exist in this universe and could eventually show up? Ghosts exist, but are "always just referred to and never seen," per Simms. The Jersey Devil is a maybe, the Babadook exists, and the question over Jewish golems proved to be quite the point of contention among the writing team. (They eventually settled on the golem existing, but not in Season 1.)
"Yeah, we have a lot of arguments that are us basically arguing for what we want to write that's funny, and trying to use ridiculous logic to prove like, 'Well, no, if a vampire could exist, of course there could be a golem.' Someone else saying, 'Well, I think Jewish folklore is different from the literature that led to vampires,'" Simms said. "All of it is really silly when it comes down to it at the end."
Throughout these discussions and debates, the one thing that never happened, though, was any consideration of saving any creature or storyline for a potential second season. From the gore to the gags, Clement, Waititi and the staff didn't hold anything back for this initial run, and it pays off. And though they haven't begun to consider what they'd do if the series gets renewed, it's not lost on the producers that immortal, stuck-in-their-ways vampires could fuel several seasons to come.
"It's like in movies, people change from the beginning to the end," Simms explained. "In TV shows, really, if you want this show to keep going, the characters never really change. They'll sort of change. So this is a perfect concept for a TV show because they're not really going to change that much. They do learn things and stuff, but none of it really sticks, also, because they have the built in arrogance of thinking that they're the greatest creatures ever created."
"We just sort of threw everything we had into these first 10 [episodes] and then we'll figure out what happens if there's another 10," said Simms.
What We Do in the Shadows premieres Wednesday, March 27 at 10/9c on FX.