Jemaine Clement: from Conchords to bloodsuckers

The Flight of the Conchords star is stepping into the shadows with his new big-budget vampire flat-share comedy

 

He’s one half of “guitar-based digi-bongo a-capella-rap-funk- comedy folk duo” Flight of the Conchords. He’s a descendent of Wairarapa chief Iraia Te Whaiti, a Maori leader who founded his own printing press and school. He’s a Hollywood player who has appeared in Dinner for Schmucks, Muppets Most Wanted and The Simpsons.

For now, though, Jemaine Clement has joined the ranks of the undead.

What We Do in the Shadows, the New Zealand comedian’s hilarious new film, concerns a house of mismatched vampire men-children, including the well-meaning Viago (Taika Waititi), the Nosferatu-alike Petyr (Ben Fransham), the petulant Vladislav (Clement) and the 183-year-old youngster Deacon (Jonathan Brugh).

Using a mockumentary format, Shadows, in common with the hit HBO series Flight of the Conchords, takes its cues from BBC’s The Young Ones.

“There are a lot of people who influenced us,” Clement says. “Kenny Everett. Garry Shandling. Even The Two Ronnies. But we never stray very far from The Young Ones.”

Closer to home, Clement found inspiration in Melbourne- based comedian John Clarke. “He did the first mockumentary I can remember. Think it was called Dag Day Afternoon. And even though it was a distant memory, when I saw it again, it has a lot in common with what we were trying to do. And it’s really funny.”

He cites Vamp and “a lot of movies that are probably bad if I watch them now” as informing texts. Although they did cheat a little by borrowing a rule about silver from True Blood.

“I watched a lot of vampire movies and a lot of horror generally in the 1980s,” says Clement, who co-wrote and co-directed with longtime collaborator Waititi. “We wanted to follow the familiar rules of those films rather than eastern folklore. But we were also thinking about some of the flats we’ve lived in.”

They didn’t have to clean up quite so many blood splatters in real life, right?

“I better not comment on that. We did have some messy flats.”

Several old muckers

What We Do in the Shadows, a No 1 box-office smash in New Zealand, reunites Clement and several old muckers, including Waititi and Conchords’ “manager” Rhys Darby, who pops up as the head of a rival werewolf gang. The film, which won many comparisons with This Is Spinal Tap when it screened at Sundance last January, was independently produced to accommodate Clement’s favourite collaborators.

“We did talk to people about making a studio version of the film,” says Clement. “But the first conversation was always ‘we want stars in it’, and we wanted the people who we knew were funny. So we went this way. I’m really glad we did. We had complete control. Even at HBO, we didn’t have that.”

Jemaine Atea Mahana Clement was raised by his Maori mother and grandmother in New Zealand’s Wairarapa region. He developed his talents as class clown when he forced to repeat his final year of high school, “although I like to think I was the class wit”, he says. Studying drama at university, he formed The Humourbeasts with Taika Waititi, who shares Clement’s Maori heritage.

Is there a particular Maori sense of humour, I wonder?

“I think there is. I guess it’s often playing up to certain stereotypes. You know, cunning but uneducated. Cheeky pranksters. Deadpan.”

Sounds familiar.

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