What We Do in the Shadows producers reveal the story behind that all-star episode
On Wednesday’s episode of FX’s vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, the three main bloodsuckers from the original 2014 film — played by Taika Waititi, Jonny Brugh, and series creator Jemaine Clement — made a surprise appearance, representing an international vampire tribunal. Their quest? To find out what happened to Doug Jones’ Baron Afanas, who was accidentally incinerated in the previous episode of the recently renewed show.
But that was just the beginning of the episode’s unexpectedly starry list of guest performers, who appeared alongside regulars Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Mark Proksch, and Harvey Guillén. Other members of the tribunal were portrayed by a clutch of well-known actors, all of whom have previously played vampires: Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Paul Reubens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Evan Rachel Wood (True Blood), Danny Trejo (From Dusk Till Dawn), and, via Skype, Wesley Snipes (the Blade franchise). And that still wasn’t all! The episode also boasted appearances by Kristen Schaal, as the tribunal’s messenger, and Dave Bautista, playing a vampire wrongly imprisoned for “turning” a baby.
“The idea came up when we were first in the writers’ room, mapping out the season,” says Clement and Waititi’s fellow executive producer, Paul Simms. “Jemaine had the idea of the vampire tribunal. He said, ‘And then we’ll have all these famous vampires from movies and TV.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to get those. It would be impossible.’”
Below, Clement, Waititi, and Simms step out of the shadows to reveal how the the episode came together… eventually.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the idea for the episode, and for featuring actors who had previously played vampires, come about?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Well, Taika and I were talking about appearing in the show, but trying to think how our characters would be in Staten Island, or with those characters in New Zealand, or in a third location, and also keeping an eye on story. I’d been to SXSW with [the movie version of] What We Do in the Shadows, and Tilda Swinton was there [with Only Lovers Left Alive], and our films were playing almost together, two vampire films. She said, “Do something where our vampire characters are together.” I just locked that away in my brain. So I thought, well, maybe a whole lot of vampires from different places have come together for some reason, and then just to tie it into the story line that we had.
TAIKA WAITITI: We’d often talk about the idea of the vampires that we knew about somehow being involved. Even the fact that our vampires used to talk about them all the time. Like, it was only mentioned briefly in the film, but my character was kind of obsessed with Blade and sort of fanned out a lot on Blade. In the Unholy Masquerade in the film, he dresses up as Blade and everyone’s like, “No one wants to see Blade at a vampire party, he’s a vampire killer!” So it was already kind of in there, and then Jemaine picked up on the idea that we would start with one person like Tilda and then add in all the others. I asked Tilda to do it and she was like, “Okay, sure.” [Laughs] That was pretty much it.
Did you draw up a big list of people who had played vampires?
CLEMENT: Yeah, so we started with Tilda, and it was kind of her idea. We had high hopes she would turn up, even though people were skeptical. People would go, “Are you sure?” We were pretty sure of that one. Yeah, we had a massive list, and then our casting people went out to lots of people. I’ve seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie, but I didn’t know Paul Reubens played that character, because he’s so in disguise. I didn’t realize it was him, but we were excited to get him, because he’s such a funny person. We had to wait a while to get Wesley to agree to it. In the writers’ room, when the idea came up that someone would be on Skype, I found [that] really funny, from being in lots of meetings where there’s one person on Skype, and how disruptive it is to those meetings. So we pushed hard to get him to come. Danny Trejo and I were actually in a movie together.
What movie was that?
CLEMENT: It was Muppets Most Wanted. Evan Rachel Wood just said yes, so we were lucky there. It’s actually surprising how many people have played quite classic vampires [and] are still quite young. We had everyone on this list. We made a huge list. There were more people who didn’t make it. Like we’re saying in the scene [laughs], some people don’t want to do that anymore. Some of those things were true when we were improvising, like, “He was busy,” “He didn’t want to do it.”
The characters in the episode reference Robert Pattinson, Kiefer Sutherland, Brad Pitt, and Tom Cruise as vampires who are absent for one reason of another. Did you actually reach out to Brad and Tom?
CLEMENT: I believe someone did. I didn’t personally. We just mainly hear back about the people who have agreed to do it, and are really good-spirited about it, about doing favors for people they didn’t really know.
PAUL SIMMS: I remember Kiefer Sutherland passed. Brad, we talked to his people and they were very open to it, but by then we were so full up with vampires, we never really followed up. Which is kind of rude of us, and maybe a mistake. But that’s saved something for season 2. And Tom, I don’t even think we tried. It was one of those things where we went out to a lot of people, and once we got the people that we had, we were very happy with it. There were a few people who did want to do it, and then scheduling-wise it just didn’t work out. I can’t remember if [Pattinson] was one of them. I do remember Alexander Skarsgård was really very open to doing it, but he was in Australia at the time. We almost sent someone to Australia to try to shoot him, but the schedule didn’t work out. As it is, I wish we had more time with each one of those, so if we got more, it would have been even less time for everyone. But we’re open for anyone for season 2!
WAITITI: For some reason, Cate Blanchett was on the list. I think maybe people got confused. I don’t know why she was on their lists. I was like, “Cate, have you ever played a vampire?” She was like, “No, but I’d love to.” I was like, “But you haven’t?” “No.” “Well then you can’t be in the show.” [Laughs] She was like, “What? I want to be in it!” I said, “But you can’t, because you haven’t been a vampire. Those are the rules!”
How did Dave Bautista get involved?
CLEMENT: I wanted Kristen Schaal to do the part of the messenger from the vampiric council. I couldn’t really imagine anyone else doing it. And she was working in Toronto at the time, so we were hanging out, because she was filming a film [My Spy] with Dave out there. We had met him before, but she just mentioned, “If you have any parts, he’ll do anything to be in it.” We had this part that we were looking for someone anyway. So we got him in there and I think we were all surprised by how funny he was. We do a lot of takes where we get people to make up their own lines, or we’ll suggest different lines while we’re shooting, and he took to it really easily.
WAITITI: I knew he was funny from the Guardians [of the Galaxy] films, and I think most people who have got that wrestling background, you find that a lot of those guys have got a really good grasp on comedy and playing to the camera, because a lot of that is like mockumentary as well.
How did shooting all these people work from a logistical point of view?
SIMMS: Jemaine and Taika and Jonny Brugh we shot in Toronto, while we were still shooting the show. Tilda and Paul Reubens and Danny Trejo and Evan Rachel Wood we shot in Glendale, California, on a soundstage about a month after we finished shooting. Tilda was just super-funny and got it immediately. Evan, I believe, was very excited to meet Tilda. We were done with shooting Evan, but she hung around for a while longer because she wanted to see Tilda work and talk to Tilda. Danny was great. When we were talking in the writers’ room, were going through a whole long list of everyone that could possibly be in it, Danny was one that someone remembered at the very end, and everyone loved that idea. It’s so funny to see a guy who seems so scary but is such a sweet funny guy in real life. I mean, he’s the scariest-looking of them all, but really a sweet, funny guy. And Paul Reubens — with everyone, we were worried that they wouldn’t want to do what they had done before, so that was really exciting to see him in his old look.
WAITITI: The fact that people were even interested in doing it, I found really fascinating and kind of baffling, but also just so triumphant. We were so excited. Just to have them on set was amazing.
SIMMS: Wesley Snipes on Skype was the very last thing we shot. I mean, the season had been over for a long time. Wesley, it was hard to get him. We shot him in a hotel room in Tenafly, New Jersey.
I assumed you just got him to call on Skype and shot the screen.
SIMMS: People kept saying, “Well, it’s easy, all you have to do is Skype in from wherever.” We were just worried about the picture quality being as good as it needed to be. When he finally said he would do it, initially he said, “Just come over to my house and do it, in Tenafly.” Then, he was like, “Eh, I don’t want all this equipment in my house.” So we rented a hotel room somewhere near where he lives in New Jersey. The funny thing about Wesley was, his people said, “Don’t ask Wesley to wear the dark sunglasses. He doesn’t want to wear the dark sunglasses. He doesn’t want it to look like Blade, or whatever.” We were all warned not to do that. We had a pair of glasses on standby, but I didn’t know if I was going to have the courage to ask him to wear the sunglasses. And then, when Wesley showed up, he was wearing how own sunglasses, which looked cool, and went right into it. So there was nothing to worry about.
The other funny thing about Wesley is, it was incredibly exciting for me, and the whole morning I kept thinking, I really want to take a picture with Wesley Snipes. But I was like, am I going to ask him to do that? You know, he seems so intimidating. And then when we finished shooting his part, he pulled out his phone. He was like, “Can I take a picture with everyone? I want to get pictures with all you guys. Let’s get a group picture together, and I want a picture with you.” So it was great. He was really fun and incredibly funny. When we shot the Skype thing, we set him up, and then had him Skype with Jemaine, who was in New Zealand, who sort of walked him through the scene. But Wesley did so many really funny variations.
I don’t mean to be rude, but Wesley Snipes seems like the guest star least likely to have heard of the film.
CLEMENT: [Laughs] Yeah, he was the one that we had to send the movie to, and have a phone call with, and explain what it was.
WAITITI: It’s a weird thing telling people what it is. It’s just a weird thing to try and explain, because they’re like, “What? You want me to do what? That character I’ve already played?” It seems weird, like it’s a Red Nose Day kind of thing. There was a moment there where it looked like we wouldn’t be able to get him and Jemaine and I kind of felt like, “What’s the point?” [Laughs] When we got him, it was a really huge coup for us. The cool thing about Wesley was, he knew I was about to call him and he answered the phone by saying, “This is the Daywalker!,” which I found amazing.
Jemaine, what was it like for you and Taika and Jonny to reprise your roles from the film? I’m assuming it was fun.
CLEMENT: Yeah, we went pretty naturally into it. We spent a month doing that on the film, and at various Q&As we’d appear in character live, so it was pretty accessible to us.
WAITITI: I’d kind of vowed never to do it again. [Laughs] Having done it so much in the film, and subsequent promo things for so long, just the idea of putting those sharp teeth back in my mouth filled me with a bit of dread. I think part of why we didn’t want to be in the show in the first place was it just being so hard, and having to concentrate on the characters as well as the story, and directing, and all that stuff, it was just like another huge job. In the end, having Jonny there — because we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get Jonny Brugh, the third main vampire in the film, and the fact that he managed to come out, that made us feel more excited about reprising the roles. And then, once you’ve put the costumes on, and put the teeth in, it was just second nature and really fun.
The choreography for the vampire dance looks quite complicated, given it doesn’t get that much screen time.
SIMMS: Oh, don’t worry, there’s plenty of more footage, there’s hours of footage of that. No, we had real dancers, and a real choreographer, and then Jemaine and Taika and Jonny sort of [laughs] doing their best to keep up with them.
CLEMENT: Yeah, it was really fun joining in. All the dancers had learned the dance, but we hadn’t learned it. Just trying to fit in with those dancers at certain times was a really fun, random element of it. We didn’t even know where they were going to turn or anything like that.
On the episode, the guest stars playing vampires are referred to by their real-life names. But as Blade is a Marvel character, does this mean that the What We Do in the Shadows film is technically now part of the Marvel universe?
CLEMENT: [Laughs] Well, that’s the thing that was tricky. We couldn’t really call people with character’s names, because we’re not allowed those characters.
Paul, you said other actors who have played vampires would be welcome to appear on season 2. Do you think this kind of episode is something you will do every year?
SIMMS: It could be, but usually when we [say], “Oh, that was great, let’s do another variation on that,” Jemaine is the first one to go, “Oh, we did that already.” Then again, the other day we were talking, and he was saying he was thinking of ideas of how to bring Vanessa Bayer’s emotional vampire character back. So, maybe.
WAITITI: There were people who couldn’t [play vampire this time], but now we’re going for a second season — I’m not going to say their names, but there are lots of other people who will be in the next season.