Lessons in Mockumentary Filmmaking with Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
The ‘What We Do in the Shadows' creators share insights into their mockumentary roots at the premiere of their new series at SXSW 2019.
It’s been five years since Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement donned their Elizabethan capes and prosthetic fangs in their original vampire romp What We Do in the Shadows, but the comedic duo have never stopped their pursuit of putting on those who pursue truth.
At the world premiere of their new FX series - which retains the same title, but introduces a new set of documented vampires living in Staten Island, New York City - Waititi and Clement poked fun at their “unfinished pursuit of reality.”
Yet, in typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, the comedic duo also shed some searing light onto how to tell mockumentary stories that work in any format.
Making Impossible Documentaries
In the Q&A after the pilot episode of their What We Do in the Shadows TV show first premiered, Clement opened up about some of the origins of their vampire send-up and how the idea of the mockumentary style came to them.
Creating “impossible documentaries” was a theme Waititi and Clement explored as a “Documentary Now”-style documentary project that followed around impossible subjects. While the other ideas didn’t stick (including following people during an alien invasion), the mundane lives of vampires living in Wellington, New Zealand did.
When to Script, When Not to Script
Anytime a concept moves across formats, it’s interesting to see how they change and adjust. Both Waititi and Clement were adamant that a major difference was the amount of “scripting versus the amount of not scripting” - or improv - which they used in the series versus the original feature.
The mockumentary genre is very loose by its nature - as its mirroring real life, unscripted documentaries - so the choice between tightly scripting and letting moments breath and happen is an important one. However, as a production grows, Clement points out, the improv often moves more to the writers, and less to the performers.
With More Money Comes More Bosses
Without getting into the nitty and gritty of the production of the WWDITS series production (and without giving away any spoilers outside of the pilot), the production certainly represents a higher quality with more VFX and several impressive-looking practical effects.
The jokes and humor, however, muchly remain the same for Waititi and Clement’s new cast (Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou as vampires and Harvey Guillen their familiar Guillermo) as many of the wittiest moments coming from the small everyday exchanges between characters that have been cooped up living together for centuries.
Mockumentary Filmmaking Advice
Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice from the creators after their premiere came from Clement regarding his advice for any aspiring or up-and-coming mockumentarians or filmmakers to not put too much pressure on yourself or your one single idea.
When starting your next project, “open three documents on your computer so none of them will intimidate you.” That way you’ll feel better dropping the ones that don’t seem to hit, but you can keep revisiting the one that does.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.