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Building better monsters—and a better monster hunter—for <i>What We Do In The Shadows </i>season 2

Building better monsters—and a better monster hunter—for What We Do In The Shadows season 2

Graphic: Allison Corr, Photo: Pari Dukovic (FX)

I figured that the mansion would look smaller in person, but I wasn’t expecting the neighbors. Much like the fictional vampires whose comedic adventures have brought us all here today, the cast and crew of What We Do In The Shadows are doing some very strange things right in the middle of what otherwise appears to be a normal residential area. Most of the show’s sets are housed indoors, but the vampires’ yard is actually built on a patch of grass in front of this complex of sound stages and production offices, no more than 50 feet from the modest brick bungalows that sit catercorner to the lot. One imagines an elderly resident peeking out from behind their lace curtains, seeing a longhaired man in a fur-lined cape drowning Haley Joel Osment in a shallow pond, and sighing, “there goes the neighborhood.”

Or maybe they’re used to it by now, as this is What We Do In the Shadows’ second year filming in Toronto. Everyone involved with the show has gotten used to a lot, actually—take Kayvan Novak, who plays the 757-year old vampire Nandor the Relentless. Asked if he ever gets claustrophobic inside of the massive coffin that dominates his character’s bedchamber, he demurs: “It’s cozy,” he admits, but “usually it’s near the end of the scene,” so he doesn’t have to wait in the dark between takes. Still, the nights are long—the show mostly shoots at night, even for its indoor scenes—and busy, with the cast draped in heavy upholstery fabrics that not only hang beautifully, but also keep them warm when they’re huddled outside at 3 in the morning in mid-November.

But you adjust, as they’ve adjusted to the custom vampire fangs designed by the show’s creature designer, Paul Jones, and made by an in-house tooth consultant. These new fangs are engineered to solve a problem that reduced viewers to giggles in the days of Dark Shadows and Hammer horror: full-mouth prosthetics that made an actor sound more like an old man with loose dentures than a bloodsucking monster from beyond the grave. What We Do In The Shadows is looking for laughs, but not those kind of laughs. And so Novak and co-stars Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou wear a dental piece a bit like a retainer that fastens behind the front teeth, but with pointy fangs on either side. The stunt people get soft silicone fangs, so they don’t chip a real tooth by accident. “There’s a lot more glue this season,” Jones says.

Illustration for article titled Building better monsters—and a better monster hunter—for iWhat We Do In The Shadows /iseason 2
Photo: FX Networks

There are a lot more falls this season, too, and a lot more fights—especially for Harvey Guillén, whose character moves from the sidelines of What We Do In The Shadows to its center in season two. After discovering in the season one finale that he’s a descendant of famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, Guillén’s Guillermo has turned out to be quite the savant when it comes to killing creatures of the night. That, of course, leads to a bit of an existential crisis for Nandor’s once-hapless familiar, making Guillén the emotional heart of the story as well as the locus of its action.

“I fell out of a window the other day,” Guillén cheerfully tells the assembled press corps when it’s his turn for interviews. (In another parallel between the show and its filming, Novak was obliviously buying scented candles while Guillén was wrestling with extras in vampire makeup.) Everyone is friendly and cordial, but Guillén is on another level; he’s not air kisses, polite laughter, so-wonderful-to-see-you Hollywood nice, but the kind of nice you get from a kindergarten teacher who genuinely enjoys being around kids all day. It’s disarming, particularly when he brings thermoses full of Mexican hot chocolate to the conference room where we’ve set up camp for the afternoon.

And he’s not the only one with a demanding role. The only member of the main cast we don’t get to meet is Demetriou, but she’s got a good reason. Two, actually. Not only do her costumes take significantly longer to get into than the guys’, but today she’s being strung up into one of the harnesses that the show’s ultra-shredded, ultra-serious stunt coordinator explains come in two types: one for flying straight up, and one for swooping across the room sideways like Peter Pan. Tonight, Demetriou is flying horizontally, screaming and cursing at Novak for a bit where Nadja discovers that Nandor sacked her ancestral village centuries earlier.

Illustration for article titled Building better monsters—and a better monster hunter—for iWhat We Do In The Shadows /iseason 2
Photo: FX Networks

If you think Nadja has a filthy sense of humor on the show, you should’ve heard what was coming out of Demetriou’s mouth on the set—while the camera was rolling, anyway. I could tell that the harness was getting more uncomfortable with every passing take, but she didn’t complain or ask to stop, whispering conspiratorially with Berry and director Jemaine Clement as they worked out jokes about Frank Zappa and old women “with spines curled up like snakes.” The dialogue in the scene develops quite a bit as we watch from an adjoining room; I recall Berry’s response to my question about his signature line readings earlier in the day, when he said, “the scripts are starting points. We were picked because we can add things. If you see something that you think could be made funny, you just do it, and if it works out, it works out.”

Expanding and defining the scope of the vampires’ world is a fixation for showrunner Paul Simms and writer/executive producer Stefani Robinson, who are happy to let the cast play with the dialogue as long as the internal logic of the series is tight. That means developing the mythological “rules” the show’s many supernatural creatures must obey—zombies, necromancers, witches, and ghosts join the roster this season, alongside vampires both psychic and sanguine—and deciding when to break them. (Clement says, “we keep to the basic [rules]. The enjoyable ones.”) It also means maintaining an awareness of the show’s mockumentary structure: Simms insists that the camera operators shoot in a documentary style, never cheating with crane shots or other camera movements that would be impossible for a small documentary crew to pull off.

The biggest focus is on character, and the cast members can answer questions about their character’s likes and dislikes, personality and temperament, thoroughly and without hesitation. Asked if Laszlo’s laissez-faire attitude is the result of centuries of perspective, Berry immediately replies, “it was his personality [in life], and he’s then accepted into a world that doesn’t judge, so therefore he can express it.” Guillén speaks with equal authority when he says Guillermo “is a closeted character in so many ways. He’s keeping secrets to himself and by omission hurting people,” comparing his character’s devotion to Nandor to that of Smithers for Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. And Novak? He tries to always remember that although Nandor may be sweet and goofy, deep down, he’s also a mass murderer.

Meanwhile, Mark Proksch, who plays energy vampire and fifth roommate Colin Robinson, possesses more charm than his aggressively boring character. But he does gives off a similar just-happy-to-be-here vibe, all smiles when he drops by after completing some effects shots on a nearby closed set. Unlike Demetriou, Berry, and Novak and the fanged, nightwalking vampires they play, Proksch can draw inspiration for Collin from the many workplace nuisances he encountered before he started acting full time. “There was this one guy, when I was temping back in Minneapolis,” he remembers. “He would come in every day and turn on his AM radio, which I do this season. It was conservative talk radio, and he’d turn it up a little bit louder, then a little bit louder, throughout the day. And you could not talk to him about anything other than conservative talk radio.” He adds with a laugh, “anyone who’s worked in an office can draw from deep experience.”

Within all the leeway What We Do In The Shadows gives its cast to interpret the scripts and infuse their own personalities and experiences into their characters, Clement “mostly tend[s] to think in terms of logistics.” He budgets time for alternate takes and encourages the show’s other directors to do the same, but they’re “trying to get stunts and improv and all these things crammed into this little period of time,” he says. As long as the levels of blood and sex don’t exceed that of other FX series—not that difficult to do, when the measuring stick is American Horror Story—the network mostly leaves them alone. “They give us notes on the episodes, which we sometimes read,” Clement says with a sly smile.

Illustration for article titled Building better monsters—and a better monster hunter—for iWhat We Do In The Shadows /iseason 2
Photo: FX Networks

And he’s not kidding about that little period of time: When Clement pushed for five days to shoot an episode, “we got four and a half.” So he relies heavily on editor Yana Gorskaya, whom he’s worked with since the original What We Do In The Shadows film, to keep the ever-evolving scenes on track. Several of the crew members have been with Clement and Taika Waititi since that 2014 movie, actually—like costume designer Amanda Neale and cinematographer D.J. Stipsen, both New Zealanders who followed What We Do In The Shadows to Canada. “The thing with the movie is it was a bunch of friends making it,” Clement explains. “We’d done theater stuff together for a long time. For this, I had to invent a new bunch of friends.”

And it seems to have worked. The nights are long, and Canada is cold, and the harnesses ride up, but going in to its second season, What We Do In The Shadows has managed to convene a council of cheerful weirdos and eccentric creatives all its own. As we toured the many creepy antiques the show’s art department had spent the last few months scouring Canada to find—anonymously, of course—a set decorator declared, his voice full of pride, that “we got a three-for-one deal” on taxidermy bears for the vampires’ library. You won’t hear that on the set of Young Sheldon.

Disclosure: Travel and lodging for this report were provided by FX Networks.

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