Interview: Rhys Darby (What We Do in the Shadows)
Matthew Turner | On 21, Nov 2014Reading time: 22 mins
Vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows is out now on VOD – exactly the kind of groundbreaking technological release strategy you expect from a New Zealand film. Just ask Murray, manager of the Flight of the Conchords.
Well, that’s exactly what we did. We sat down with Rhys Darby, co-star of the horror mockumentary, to talk scary movies, reuniting with Jemaine Clement, and how Netflix (where his mockumentary series, Short Poppies, was first released in the UK) is changing the TV landscape…
How did the project come about, first of all?
Jemaine [Clement] and Taika [Waititi] and Johnny Brugh, as far as I know, and it might have been Cori [Gonzalez-Macuer] as well, made a short film, quite a few years ago with these characters. Not sure how long ago that was. 10 years ago? I think there’s even a clip of it up online, you can see the original little thing. And they really wanted from that point to turn it into a feature and I guess it took them 10 years to get around to it! [laughs] So then the right time came and they got together, because Taika and Jemaine always like to – whatever they do separately, they always like to end up working together if they can, they’ve been friends for so long.
They asked me, ‘Could we write this – we need a getaway to write it in, could we write it in your beach house?’ I’ve got this little beach house that’s quite nice, up north, in Auckland, quite a nice spot, definitely out in the wopcacks (that’s a term for the middle of nowhere). So they went there and they were there for probably two weeks, in this lovely setting, just scripting it all down and then from there they obviously went into production on it. I didn’t really think anything more about it, I knew they were making the vampire film, I’d heard about the original short and then part-way through, I got a call saying, ‘Hey, we’re having a whole bunch of werewolves in it – do you want to come down and play Anton, the leader of the wolf pack?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, oh, absolutely!’, you know?
So I got down there and no-one on the cast were allowed to see the script, so there was a script there and you could see them holding it and they had sides and things, but no-one was allowed to see – even Johnny Brugh, who was one of the main three. So both Jemaine and Taika got to share the directing part of it, which was fun for Jemaine, as it was his first kind of directorial job. And it was then them selecting their friends, the best comic actors that they knew in the country. So it was a great opportunity for everyone in the Wellington and Auckland area that had worked together in live comedy or whatever, but here we are, put together in this film.
And then we just did the kind of West Side Story stand-off on the street. So it was all completely improvised, we did a lot of interviews, they did a lot of documentary stuff. So it was shot as it would be if it was a documentary, so they interviewed us all and they just said, you know, ‘Tell us about what happens when you transform’ and so we just had to make it all up. Which is what I love doing anyway, so it was kind of – it just came together really well.
The interviews that you mentioned aren’t in the film, so presumably that means that there’s a lot of extra footage for the DVD?
No. There’ll be a lot of extra footage, yeah. There’s definitely quite a few werewolf interviews that didn’t make it in. But then it’s interesting how they did it with test audiences. I mean, I remember seeing one of the earlier runs of it, then later on they sort of cut bits out and then they added bits, they added a few more werewolf bits. Even after Sundance, I think. Which was cool, because I came back to Auckland and Taika said, ‘Hey, we’re going to shoot another werewolf bit’, which was the re-enactment of when whatsisname was found and we’re sort of all naked and we come up to him, which turned out really cool. So I like the way he did it, that he’s just been able to keep working on it until he’s refined it to what he really wants. And I guess that’s the beauty of independent film and being the boss of the whole thing, that you’re not handing it in to a studio. So the finished product, I think he’s really got it there now and, yeah, I think we’re pretty proud of it.
‘We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves.’ Did that come from you, if it was all improvised?
No, that was a line! I would like to take credit for that, but that was one of the ones that they said – I can’t remember which one of the guys said it, but they said ‘Werewolves not swearwolves’ is one thing we want to get in there’, which was fantastic. So we did that. The other interesting bit is that when we shot the scene where they come across us in the middle of the night and the moon’s about to come out and we’re just starting to turn, that was shot at 3am. I was under the weather when we did my shooting for that, so I had a little bit of a sore throat, which I think was good for the character, because it was a bit more gruff. But I was a little bit annoyed – I guess I was tired and pissed off, which helped, and so, when we did that scene I was just like quite erratic and like [does his lines], ‘Come on guys, get your chains on!’ And it really helped make that scene, I think, because there’s a lot of arguing and the other guys are just sort of wandering around going, ‘What’s happening here?’ and it just looked very realistic. I really like that scene, because we’re absolutely stressed out about the fact that we’re going to change and they haven’t got their track pants on, how big their legs get – ‘Those jeans are gone! You’ve wasted your money there!’ So, yeah, it was awesome. And then, the other great thing is they had enough money – I don’t know how they got it – to get this guy over from Australia, who’s like the main werewolf costume designer, he does Wookiees and hairy hominids and werewolves and things and he came over with all his gear and as you can see in the film, when they did the change, there’s some quite scary-looking fucking beasts that end up running through, which really adds to it, because it could have been really tinny, but if you add that element to it, it gives it that much more realism.
Are you a fan of horror generally?
Not a huge fan, no, not of horror. But now and again I do – especially back in the day, before the kids and everything, I used to – I was on the stand-up circuit and I used to go and see the odd horror film during the day, which I thought was always the most scary time to go and see something. I remember seeing something like The Ring, for example, on my own. Like, you go into a cinema, somewhere here in the UK in the afternoon on a Tuesday or something and the scariest thing, there’d be literally like one other bloke in the cinema with you and he’d be sitting back there, four rows back off to the right, it was just like the two of you and I remember sort of watching it and freaking myself out and keep looking to see if that guy was still there! So I do like that element to it, but yeah, I haven’t been to a horror film for quite a while.
Do you have a particular favourite werewolf movie?
It would probably be the Michael J Fox, Teen Wolf. Yeah. Although I do like the remake of The Wolf Man, with Benicio Del Toro. So I guess out of the two monsters, I guess werewolves would be my preference, over vampires.
So in Twilight, you’re Team Jacob rather than Team Edward?
Yeah, I guess so. I guess it’s kind of – I find vampires, the whole very pale thing, sort of the daintiness of it, a bit off-putting. I like the rougher, gruff kind of beast element to the werewolf. You know what you’re getting there.
How did the co-directing work on set with Jemaine and Taika? Was there a difference in style between them?
They worked well together, because obviously Taika’s had a lot more experience behind the camera, but Jemaine is very much an actor’s actor, so he loves to be hands-on and he’s usually in front of the camera there, so he was more the in-front guy, working with us and Taika would be back a bit. But in terms of their comic ideas, I think they’re both very much on the same wavelength, so they would keep jumping in with ideas. ‘Oh, say this! Try that! Oh, hang from there! Come round there!’ And they’re very co-operative together and because I’ve worked with them a fair bit as well, I would offer ideas and we would be laughing at that and go ‘Let’s try that’, so always trying for the ultimate funny piece and giving various versions of it to see which take would end up being the best.
Would Jemaine direct Taika’s performances as well?
Um… no. No, I don’t think anyone tells Taika what to do! Yeah, I think, yeah. Pretty equally shared, but Taika was concerned at times with the way it was looking, the way the shots were looking and Jemaine just concentrated a hundred per cent on the comedy. Now, Jemaine also helped direct my TV show Short Poppies, which is on Netflix, and he did the same. That was his first directing that he’d done, that he really enjoyed with me. No-one knows how I can be at my funniest more than Jemaine and so he comes in and he just laughs. When we make comedy, he just laughs, loses his shit. And you know you’re doing something right then. It’s a very enjoyable experience and I almost forgot, because we hadn’t worked together like that since Conchords, how much fun we have just making comedy and then trying to capture those moments. So it comes down to – also, whoever’s behind the camera, whoever’s shooting it, to be right on the money and to capture those gold moments where things are happening just before the actors are cracking up. So it’s definitely a team effort, yeah.
Was it like that on Conchords too? You could suggest a funny line for Jemaine and they would take that on board?
Absolutely, yeah. We did a lot of suggestions of what we should do. We even had little pow-wows, we used to call them, where –
Band meetings, in fact…
Yeah! [Laughs] Band meetings about the band meetings. So we’d come and have a little meeting here, like this. I remember, because Taika directed a couple of those Conchords episodes as well, so we’d have a chat – ‘Oh, shall we do this? Let’s do that’ – and then some of the Americans would be sort of around the outside, like all the HBO people and they’d go [whispers] ‘What are they doing?’ and all these Kiwis would be in the middle going [whispers] ‘No, let’s try this, let’s do that’, ‘And then you do that’, and ‘Oh, then I’ll say…’ and then we’d go back to our positions, ‘Okay, action!’ and then we’d do it. It was a very kind of organic process, it wasn’t something where we just got the script and then just turned up on the day and then just went and did it, we kind of kept it evolving on the day.
Where was Bret for What We Do? We were waiting for him to show up!
Yeah! Yeah, I think a few people will say that. Bret was, as usual, very busy doing music stuff, I would say, probably still working with the Muppets situation and the other things that he’s got going on, which I can’t really say what they are, but he’s got these… yeah. So I don’t know whether Jemaine has a break from Bret or vice versa, they have a break from each other. Maybe it’s a – as I say, Jemaine and Taika have been friends for an equal amount of time, if not longer and I think it’s just shifting focus, but it would have been nice to see Bret turn up at some point. I’m guessing he was just too busy or he wasn’t available.
Do you seek out that sort of collaborative working relationship, or are you happy to be an actor for hire in places too?
Definitely both. Ultimately, I’d like to work with the guys that I know I work well with, but it comes down to what projects are happening. And then it also comes down to financially what’s the most viable and what’s on offer. And unless we get something happening together, either they do or I do, that’s kind of the only way it really happens, because it doesn’t often happen that some other outside party will say, ‘Okay, we want you and you and you – you guys, you know each other, come in together’, because we’ll go, ‘Hang on, what is this thing?’ Because if we’re not controlling it in any way, we won’t really do it. So for the most part, I’m doing other people’s things, but with the idea that I’m controlling my part in it. I mean, I’ve been put in a couple of things that I haven’t been able to control and they haven’t been very good – the money’s been good, but I’ve kind of come out of it going, ‘Okay, so we’re just sort of waiting for the next fun thing’. So it’s kind of like we’re getting on now and there’s that – people often say, ‘Oh, why don’t you just keep working together?’, but it’s not as easy as that. We’ve all got kids and families and mortgages! [laughs].
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
Well, for me – biased – it would probably be the scene where the vampires come across us, when we’re trying to chain each other to the trees. Just because I remember that so vividly in my head and, as I say to you, how I was feeling at the time. But other than that one, I like – it’s hard to say. There’s so many good bits in it, right from the beginning, when Taika wakes up in the morning and goes and tells his flatmates to have a flat meeting. And also I enjoy the Johnny Brugh dance. You can’t really go past that, when he’s dancing for his flatmates and then Cori turns up at the window just learning to fly. Yeah, that’s magical.
Who have been your biggest comedy influences in your career?
Well for me, from the beginning, it was always Monty Python. I was obsessed by them, as a kid. Going through and then finding, on the back of that, the Goons, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan. So I sort of went back and then went forward from there. And then Jim Carrey, so I had Steve Martin, but really, the through-line for me has always been the British. Rowan Atkinson. Yeah, I guess comic actors more than stand-ups. And if you look at those names, they’ve all got similarities in being silly. But I do like Will Ferrell, I enjoy his work. So yeah, I guess anyone who can be a little bit crazy, a bit over the top, people who aren’t afraid to be odd. Yeah.
Are you based in the UK now?
No, I’m in L.A. So I’m just here doing a stand-up tour.
You mentioned watching The Ring in a London cinema – were you based here then?
Ah, yeah. Well, I lived here for seven years doing the stand-up circuit, so I was gigging five nights a week all over the place. And that’s where I had my first son, Finn, eight years ago.
What happened to The Amazing Dermot? We were a big fan of that Comedy Showcase.
[sighs] Oh, that’s good to hear. Yeah, I really liked that too – I thought that could have been something, you know? But it just didn’t go, they didn’t run with it. I’ve done two of those Channel 4 pilot scenarios. The other one was Fun Police, which definitely had things wrong with it – it had a big laugh track and stuff that they should have got rid of and made a few adjustments – but I believe both those shows could have had legs. So I’m sort of baffled as to why they didn’t. But particularly Dermot, because I just felt that that character could have had something.
Do you get to keep the rights to it? Could you potentially develop it yourself?
Well, the guy who wrote it, I mean, it’s his. And also, I guess Ash and the production company that made it, they’d have the rights to it, but I guess they didn’t…yeah.
It’s not something that could find a home on Netflix or somewhere?
Well, it could, but it wouldn’t be up to me. It would be up to the writers and the creators of that show. And I’d definitely be keen to give it another whirl. I mean, the future of television really is Netflix and I think you just make stuff and sell it to them and if it does well, then they’ll pay for the next lot of it.
It’s incredible how Netflix is changing the TV landscape at the moment…
Oh yeah, it really is.
You can’t even imagine where things are going to be five years from now…
I know. Well, I think the networks are going to shut down, apart from the ones like HBO that are creations amongst themselves. I had a friend – Jim Jefferies, who you might know of, an Australian comic, he had a show on F/X in America. Really good show and it ran for two seasons and then they just kicked him off, because no-one was watching it. But it was a great show. It was on F/X and then the second year it was on F/XX. And to find these channels is really hard, you know how many channels there are in America. It’s like, ‘What channel? What number is it?’ So, yeah, he just didn’t get the viewing figures, but if he was on Netflix, the whole world could see it and rate it and watch it on any device – it just makes more sense. So when I made Short Poppies, we went over and we pitched it, we tried to sell it to all these different networks and some of them were umm-ing and ahh-ing and Netflix just went, ‘Yep, mate. Absolutely. Big fan!’ We went and met the CEO and, yeah, they were just so much more pro-active and some of these other channels were like, ‘Oh, we don’t think it’s going to fit in with our – ‘ Well, you know what they’re like. ‘You can’t pigeon-hole that.’ ‘It’s very New Zealand – who’s going to watch that?’ So it’s kind of like, fucking, archaic, mate.
We think you should definitely use your Netflix contacts to get Dermot back on there…
Yeah, okay. Well, I’ll have a talk, actually. I’m having a chat to Ash Atalla soon, so I’ll see what he thinks.
Excellent. In the meantime, what’s your next project?
Back to L.A. for the rest of the year, writing various ideas, can’t really reveal too much, but possibly do another Short Poppies, another season of that show or a spin-off of one of the characters. And pitch, pitch some more ideas to America. And writing a film, that’s my next project. Because I’ve proven to myself that I can write television, I can write stand-up shows that are more than just telling jokes, they have big narratives and things, so now I want to challenge myself to see if I can write a film. And that will involve a usual collaborative effort with those guys that I’m used to working with.
Will we ever see Murray again?
[Slight Murray voice] Oh, never say never! Yes, he’ll come back at some point. But he really is in the fate of the Conchords, when they want to do something.
Do you think they will? Do you think they’ll do a special or something like that?
I think they will perform again. They perform live themselves now and again, but as to whether they’ll film anything, not sure. But I think one day, for sure. Yeah. There’s too many fans out there.
You did a couple of episodes of Modern Family. What was that like?
Really good. They were an awesome bunch of people. You could tell they were on the most successful show on television and they knew it. But they were really down to earth and they were just, like, giddy with – it’s been like five seasons and they were still like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to work today!’ So they were really nice, the creator, who also, I think was directing that episode I did in Australia was very – he let me improvise a little bit, heard some of my ideas. And the guy, Steve, Steve Levitan, I think his name is…
Steve! He had seen me in Edinburgh. Which just goes to show, Edinburgh is still worth it, for comics to go out there and get seen. So he saw me in Conchords and stuff, but also, by watching me live, could see what else I could do. And that’s how I got the part.
And do you keep abreast of TV comedy? Do you watch a lot yourself?
I’d like to watch more, because there’s definitely a lot of British stuff that I don’t get in L.A., things that I hear my friends talking about over here and some of it’s not on Netflix and it’s not on BBC America. Stuff that’s on Channel 4 and things like that that I probably need to get the DVDs while I’m here, because I definitely would prefer that to what’s over there, because I’m just not really into a lot of the stuff over there. Like, well, there’s those dreadful sitcoms that just keep going and things like New Girl and things like… I don’t know, there’s a lot to pick and choose from, but I can’t… er…
Parks and Recreation? Are you a fan of that?
Well, I watched a bit of it. One of my friends here, he swears by it. But I think I watched it back in the day a bit and went, ‘Oh, it’s just kind of like The Office, but outdoors.’ And I was kind of like, you know, I’m kind of picky. What’s one I do like? I used to watch Eastbound and Down, which was quite cool. I liked that. He’s very funny as that character.
You might like a British sitcom called Count Arthur Strong
Ah, yes. Yes. I’ve seen one episode on a plane. It’s very funny. And the other one is Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s sitcom, House of Fools. That’s just stupid. I’ve seen one episode of that on a plane as well. And Matt Berry, he’s got a show too, Toast of London. I’ve heard good things about that.
Toast of London seems really similar to Dermot…
Well, that’s why I’m like, ‘You know, what’s the problem? Is it because I’m a New Zealander, you don’t want me in the…’
You think it’s racism?
It’s racism! [laughing] I don’t know. I think someone at Channel 4 got the sack or he quit because he really wanted Fun Police, which is the second one I made over here and the Head of Commissioning or something went no, and so the guy walked. So there was a bit of an argument or something over – and that made me feel good, that there was people that really wanted me on there, because, hell, if one of those shows would have gone [got made], I’d be still here, I’d have stayed here. But you never know what’s round the next corner. Something will come up. After I do a tour like this, people always get on the thing going, ‘Oh, I’ve made something, do you want to be involved in this?’ I normally give things a go.
What do you look for?
Well, definitely comedies that are silly and that will go off the script and just be as mental as I like. And things that really make me laugh. Probably not things that are too mainstream and that’s probably my problem! But, yeah…
You don’t want to be too mainstream
No, I don’t. But yeah, I guess I’ll always be a little bit alternative.
What We Do in the Shadows is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.