Stefani Robinson has a bad case of what she’s been calling “pandemic brain”—so much so, she kind of forgot that FX was running an Emmys FYC campaign for What We Do In The Shadows. And so it was a surprise—first a shocking one, then a delightful one—when she got a phone call from her dad congratulating her on her Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series nomination for the Shadows season two episode “On The Run” (which you may know as the adventures of Jackie Daytona, Regular Human Bartender), as well as Shadows’ nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series—an honor she shares as an executive producer on the show.
This is Robinson’s second pair of Emmy nominations; her first was in 2018, when she made history as the first Black woman to be nominated both in the Outstanding Comedy Series and the Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series categories for her work on Atlanta. It’s an overwhelming thing to think about, and Robinson hopes she’s showing younger generations that it is possible for them to break into the industry as well. But mostly, she’s been writing, working on a third season of What We Do In The Shadows as well as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a biopic of the 18th-century composer known as “The Black Mozart” that Robinson recently sold to Searchlight Pictures.
It was between meetings that we spoke with Robinson, whose overbooked schedule hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for working on the “melting pot” that is What We Do In The Shadows. And really, Matt Berry coming to you and asking if you can give him more American swear words to say is a pretty fun day at the office.
The A.V. Club: This is your second set of Emmy nominations. That’s pretty exciting.
Stefani Robinson: It is, yeah. It’s crazy. It’s one of those things, if I stop to think about it for too long, I’m like, “Whoa. Geez.” It’s a hard thing to internalize, but it’s exciting. I’m excited!
AVC: When we were talking before the interview, you said you hoped that Chevalier de Saint-George was good, and that insecurity never goes away. Are there ever times where you look around and you’re like, “Oh shit, I’ve gotten this far! Cool!”
SR: I think so! It’s a weird pendulum, right? You get to a certain point, and it’s exactly what you’re saying. You look around like, “This is awesome. This is so cool. This is going well. All of my dreams have come true.” And then there’s that part of you, that crazy animalistic brain, that’s just like, “It’s actually bad that it’s going well, because that just means terror and horror are right around the corner! You’ve peaked! Get out of here!” So yeah, there’s a lot of that. “This is awesome—oh my God! It’s running out!”
AVC: I feel that way too. I feel like I could wake up any morning, and it’ll be like, “Ha, ha! Surprise! None of this is real!”
SR: It’s crazy. It sounds like a stupid thing to say out loud now, but when I was younger and I did feel that way, it was like, “I must be the only person in the world that feels like this. I am so alone in this feeling.” And then you start talking to more people—and not even people in your industry—you start talking to people everywhere in your life and you start realizing, “Oh my God, this is something that so many people deal with.” And it’s unfortunate. It’s a shame, but there’s something nice about knowing that you’re not alone in a feeling. It takes the power away from it.
AVC: I was reading an interview you did a few years ago, about your Emmy nomination for Atlanta. And you were talking about how, when you were growing up, you didn’t see a lot of Black women doing what you wanted to do. This is a big question, but—do you feel like young people are seeing you, and you’re making things possible for the current generation of kids?
SR: I hope so. It’s one of those things that maybe could [be happening], but I will never really know. That is a big question, because [if] you stop and just think about that... [Pauses.] Being able to speak to people like you and to be able to do the kinds of shows that I do, I hope that maybe there’s someone who looks like me, or identifies with me—or even doesn’t identify with me—and there’s some part of them that feels like, “Oh cool. I can do that. That’s something that’s attainable.”
[As far as] how I grew up in the industry, and my relationship with understanding Hollywood as a middle schooler or high schooler, if you take the racial and the gender aspect out of it—there was still to me, where I was growing up, a shroud of mystery as to how films got written or made. When you’re a kid and you’re watching TV or watching a movie, you know that someone had to have directed it or written it. But to me, it was like, “Well, I understand what a director is. I understand what an actor is. I know there’s a writer, but how does that happen?” You know what I mean?
I had the same sort of relationship with understanding below-the-line [positions] as well, like editors and costume designers. How does one get into that? Who are these people? Where do you find them? How did they learn how to do these things? So I think I wasn’t seeing people that looked like me in those roles, necessarily, but I also just wasn’t hearing much about them in general. It probably had something to do with where I lived; I was living in Georgia, in a town that valued sports and football over everything.
AVC: I’m from Ohio, so I feel this.
SR: Yeah, you get it.
AVC: I’m waving at you from the other side of the Mason-Dixon.
SR: I feel like it’s harder to access those things [in these places] versus growing up in New York City or LA ,where they may seem like less of a mystery. But where I was, it was like, “I like writing and I like movies. How do I make that happen?”
AVC: Even if you understand what the break down is on a set, it’s like, “Okay, but how do I do that? Do I have to know somebody? Do I have to just move to LA and hope somebody notices me?”
SR: Right. Do you go to school for it? Do you submit somewhere? What is that?Acting felt like less of a mystery to me, because we had theater. It was like, “well, if I’m in theater long enough, and I get good at acting, and I take acting classes...”
I [went] to this community theater group in Atlanta called the Atlanta Workshop Players. And places like those are great, because they had theater for young kids, and they hosted film workshops, and they invited casting directors and agents. They were really good about introducing people who had no idea how to get into the industry to actual professionals, albeit on a smaller scale.
So I was with them, and they had these LA trips, and I took a trip and I came out to LA for the first time [through them]. I was 15 or 16. And you just walked around LA, and you took classes at Second City, and you met casting directors. And I was just like, “Wow, the mystery is dissolved here.” But there’s nothing like that for writing, you know?
I hope these things have become more clear, or more accessible, just due to the internet and Twitter and Instagram. People are maybe more transparent about these things now. But it was different for me when I was in high school.
AVC: I think talking about it helps.
SR: Absolutely. The transparency of it is really helpful.
AVC: Well, let me ask you something that’s not so big of a thought: What were you doing when you heard about your Emmy nominations? Did you get up early?
SR: I was sleeping! [Laughs]
AVC: Oh wow!
SR: It was not on my radar at all. Obviously, I knew that the Emmy nominations would be coming out at some point. And I knew that there was a campaign for What We Do In The Shadows. You start seeing these things in the world, and you understand that. But there was just such a preoccupation in my mind, with not only the work I’ve been doing—I am working on season three of Shadows, and I’m working on the movie—and being so busy, on top of “pandemic brain” as I’ve been calling it. You know, the daily stresses and frustrations of living in a pandemic in America. I’ve been so preoccupied with what’s been going on.
My brother was visiting safely from out of town, and I had not seen him in months. So that was also [part of it]. My mind was so preoccupied with seeing the first family member I’d seen since the pandemic—longer than that, actually. I hadn’t seen him since Christmas. Anyway, it was just not on my mind.
But I was sleeping in, and my brother came in to the room. He barged his way in, and I thought something happened. I thought there was an emergency. He was like, “Dad’s on the phone. He needs to talk to you.” I’m like, “Oh my God, what happened?!” It was so scary. I was jolted up out of my sleep.
AVC: That’s mean, honestly. “Dad’s on the phone.”
SR: Yeah! I was just looking at him, like…
AVC: I would have thought someone was dead.
SR: That’s exactly what I thought! I’m looking at my brother. My brother’s not saying anything. So I take the phone and the first thing out of my mouth was, “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Nothing’s wrong. You got nominated for a couple of Emmys! How exciting! The show and one of your episodes! I just wanted to say congrats.” I had totally forgotten about all that. So I go and look at my phone, and it’s just completely blowing up. There were so many fucking texts and calls. So yeah, it was a shocking way to wake up that turned into a very exciting way to wake up. My heart was beating out of my chest. I was like, “what is happening??” I’m so glad that it was what it ended up being.
AVC: So, something else I read in an interview—I think it was the Hollywood Reporter—was that people would like give you these kind of backhanded compliments on writing the “Barbershop” episode of Atlanta.
SR: Oh yeah. [Laughs]
AVC: “Oh wow, you wrote from a male perspective.” Do you get that kind of stuff about Shadows?
SR: I don’t, weirdly. That was something that was so interesting, that happened with the “Barbershop” episode. It happened a lot. They were backhanded compliments, but they were well-intentioned, so there’s no hard feelings. But I did get a lot of, “I love that episode. You wrote that? I can’t believe it. How do you know anything about that? You don’t know what it’s like to be guy with a barber.” Again, I think it was all well-meaning, but it was such an interesting thing that I had not experienced before. You have to just take a compliment as a compliment, but it’s one of those things that I assume men don’t have to deal with when they’re writing for other perspectives. It’s just sort of a given.
It’s not something that I’ve dealt with on Shadows. I think maybe the reason behind that is because they’re vampires, and vampires don’t really exist. Maybe the assumption is like, “It’s a thing that’s not real, so yeah, that makes sense.”
But the Shadows fans are so loving and so excited and I love the world that we’re able to be a part of. And I think that the groundwork Taika [Waititi] and Jemaine [Clement] laid out has been so helpful. That movie is so funny. I remember seeing it when it was out in the theater, and just loving it. So being a fan of the universe, it’s really special that I’ve been a part of something to help expand that universe and fans are on board. I feel like I am both a fan and a part of the actual show.
And I will say—when we’re editing the show, when we’re in post, I do genuinely mean that I feel like a fan. Because we’ll watch cuts of episodes, and I find myself laughing out loud like I wasn’t on set watching these takes 20 times in a row. It always feels new and fresh and it’s always making me laugh, which I think is a testament to the show. I’m so lucky that I can not only be a part of it, but also be a fan of it at the same time.
AVC: I have a question about writing the show, actually, and about those takes. When I was on set, we watched the filming of a full scene, and we watched the dialogue develop as the actors threw out different lines. When you’re scripting something, and you know people are going to rework it, is there anything you leave loose? How do you set them up for success?
SR: We always just write to write. We are aware of the fact that the actors are smart and talented and they’re going to have the opportunity to take it the way that they need to take it. But I think for us, when we’re writing, we are writing as if nothing is going to be changed.
The jokes that we put in are jokes that we think are funny, and that if they were unaltered they would still be funny. That would be our hope. We are very strict about that.
And we care so much about the scripts because of exactly what you’re talking about, the improvisation of it all. There is an opportunity for things to go off the rails pretty fricking fast if there isn’t a script to lean on, or there isn’t a story to lean on, or if there isn’t solid structure and flow. So, for us, the scripting is one of the most important parts, at least going in. Because having that backbone, and having something so rigid put in place, I think it actually allows for more freedom in terms of the performances and in terms of improvisation, once we do get to that point.
AVC: But as a writer, you have to able to kill your darlings, right?
SR: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. I think the other side of that, although we are strict about the script, we always want something better. And we always invite people to play. We’re not really married to anything.
There are some things we are married to, [but] I feel like that is often more the story. And sometimes there are certain jokes within scripts that we’re just like, “Can you just get it as written, because it makes us laugh and it’s super funny?” But it often gets to a point on set where not only are the actors coming up with their own runs or new takes on the scene or new performance choices or even new dialogue at times, but it often gets to a point where the writers and directors are doing the same thing. So there are times where, if it’s something I wrote, Matt [Berry] will try something new, and then I yell something at Matt, and we try something totally different and we go back and forth. And then either Kyle Newacheck, or Yana Gorskaya, or whoever of our many amazing directors who are available, do the same thing. Jemaine does a lot of that as well when he’s directing.
It’s a lot of everyone collaborating and throwing new ideas in and just getting a bunch of them [on tape]. And it sucks, too, because it’s one of those things where it’s so much fun in the moment, but you then do have to remember that when we’re in post, we can’t put everything in there. And I’m glad that we don’t. [Laughs]But talking about killing your darlings, that’s really where that phrase makes the most sense, because we get so much footage and so many different takes with so many different jokes, but we can’t use everything.
AVC: It has to stay a tight, coherent half-hour story.
SR: Exactly. Yeah. If there are any disagreements about what was funny, that’s where it happens. It’s like, “Oh man, I really loved that joke that Matt came up with, or Natasha came up with, or that face she made, but we gotta keep it moving.” Or, “This other thing might’ve been funnier.” Some of that stuff becomes difficult. But those are high-class problems, being stuck on which is the funniest thing versus, “Oh God, this is not funny at all.”
AVC: So let’s talk about “On The Run.” I’m so delighted that this episode got nominated.
SR: You gave it an A-! I got fired!
AVC: [Laughs.] Did you read why?
SR: Because Lazlo didn’t sing?!
AVC: I wanted him to sing! Why didn’t he sing?
SR: There was a whole episode of him singing that we were going to save it for, Katie. Of course we talked about it, but we were like, “He’s got a whole [musical] episode, so everyone who really wants to hear him sing, they’re going to have a whole episode [to do that].” I’m teasing you.
KR: You were building suspense.
SR: Yeah, exactly. It was too obvious of a choice to have him sing there.
AVC: [Laughs] Okay, okay.
SR: We had to build the anticipation of it. We needed the audience to be shivering with it.
AVC: Nice Rocky Horror quote, by the way.
SR: I appreciate you appreciating my appreciation of that movie.
AVC: The “regular human bartender” line was an instant classic. I noticed people changing their Twitter handle to it the day after the episode came out. What was the genesis of that phrasing?
SR: Just writing it, at that point. [Laughs] The joke being that both of these vampires are desperately trying to convince the others that they’re a human. So the genesis of it [was], how overtly ridiculous can I make this theme? It made sense to just start putting “human” in front of words that you wouldn’t say “human” in front of.
AVC: Were there any other versions?
SR: There weren’t actually! Regular human bartender, that was one and done. That was one of those ones where me, Yana the director, and Matt Berry all agreed was the funniest thing, and we went with it.
AVC: So was that just the idea behind “regular human bartender,” or the humor of the episode in general? The idea of vampires trying to convince each other that they’re human, I mean.
SR: I think it was both. I see what you’re getting at.
AVC: Yeah, because there’s also the Big Mouth Billy Bass…
SR: That line in particular is probably a good way to describe the rest of the episode, or the attitude I took the rest of the episode, which is the blatant ridiculousness of someone who is so clearly a vampire so seamlessly fitting into a situation where nobody’s the wiser. That attitude was the compass for the entire episode. That’s what made it feel funny to us.
In the writers room, when we were initially discussing this idea of Laszlo so easily tricking everyone, we were talking about—well, how long has he been in this town? Has it been a year? Has it been 12 years? Has he really had to work hard to cement himself in there? But to me the funniest thing was, no, just make it the shortest amount of time [possible]. The idea that he just sort of shows up, and within a week or a week and a half everyone’s like, “Yeah, he’s the heart and soul of this town,” and they totally accept that he’s a regular human being, just really made me and the other writers laugh.
AVC: Is that due to his mind powers as a vampire?
SR: It’s his disguise, man! The toothpick and jeans, that’s it. He didn’t have to use any hypnosis with such a convincing disguise.
AVC: So, “regular human bartender” came out right away. What about some of the other details? There are so many funny details in this episode: the Big Mouth Billy Bass, and the volleyball team, and Laszlo’s truck...
SR: That [last] one’s one of my favorite parts. It was so much fun to shoot also, we had to get a Matt Berry dummy in there.
The Billy Bass... I came up with that a couple days before shooting, actually. I had taken a pass on the script, and we wanted to find a way to tie Laszlo and [guest star] Jim [played by Mark Hamill] together in a way that felt sweet, but also left room for more conflict. And I was thinking, “Well, it makes sense for Laszlo to swindle this guy again by giving him something that he says is priceless, but isn’t priceless.” And I was like, “What do you see in a bar that feels like that? I guess the Big Mouth Billy Bass does. That’s ridiculous and very American and weird.”
AVC: It is!
SR: And Matt Berry holding one, or even saying “Big Mouth Billy Bass”—which, by the way, I will say for Jackie Daytona specifically, a lot of the things that I ended up writing, I did have Matt Berry in mind. I was like, “Well, what’s funny for Matt Berry to say?,” and just picturing what made sense. And that was one of those things. Matt Berry holding a Big Mouth Billy Bass and dragging that out and saying that phrase was something that made me laugh.
But I’m glad it worked out! The Billy Bass was one of those things that was just, “I hope this tracks is funny and works.” Our art department constructed a few breakable Billy Basses, so when he smashes it at the end, it just completely breaks apart. Which was so satisfying to watch a few times. They made it look really good.
AVC: Did Matt Berry know what a Big Mouth Billy Bass was?
SR: I think he knew what it was. I didn’t have to explain that to him. [Laughs.] But Matt was really funny—he did come to me after initially reading the script, and he said, “I want more American curse words and more American sayings.” He was like, “I want to say ‘god damn’ a whole bunch.” I was like, “Do you not say that that in the UK?” I guess maybe they don’t. But he loves saying, “god damn son of a bitch.” So I made sure to go through the script and give him as many Americanisms as I could. He was very specific about that. That was his one request.
AVC: I didn’t realize that was an American thing.
SR: Yeah. I didn’t either.
SR: Right? I mean, I gave it to him. He had fun with that.
AVC: Do you ever get little cultural misunderstandings like that on set? You’re shooting in Canada, the show creators are from New Zealand, you’ve got American writers, British actors…
SR: Oh, all the time. It happens all the time. It’s a lot of, “Wait, what?” I mean, exactly as you’re saying, all of our teams are Canadian, aside from the heads of department. Like Amanda Neil, our costume designer—I don’t know if you met her when you were out there, but she’s incredible. She’s so talented and so great. She’s from New Zealand. So at times it’s little confusions, like “jumper” versus “sweater.” Things like that.
And it happens sometimes, too, with the cast—or at least our three vampires, because they’re British. Sometimes they’ll reference political figures, or they’ll have sayings they reference in their improvisations where we’re all like, “It sounded funny, but what does that mean?” That often happens. And it happens on the other way, too. We have to sometimes explain, as Americans who write the scripts, political figures and things that have happened in our history. So when they try to make the joke work, they’re just like, “I’m saying this, but I have no idea what it means.”
A lot gets lost in translation, but it’s also very informative too, because you’re learning a lot. Everyone’s learning from everybody. It’s a real melting pot.
AVC: You’re a co-executive producer on this show, as well as a writer—
SR: I’m an executive producer this season, which is good.
AVC: That’s awesome. As an executive producer, do you have any influence over the casting of the guest stars? Like Mark Hamill in “On The Run?”
SR: Oh, yes. We do a lot of that. Me and [the] co-executive producer, who’s Sam Johnson this year, tackle a lot of the casting. Not only the bigger guest stars, but smaller roles as well. It’s something that we’re in constant communication with our casting department [about]. Our casting director, Gayle Keller, she’s fucking awesome. She’s also nominated for an Emmy for this season.
But yeah, we’re in constant communication with them as far as the types of people that we want on the show. In the writers’ room we have a running list of people we find funny that we hope could one day be a part of the show, and sometimes we loosely base characters around these types of people. But Gayle and her team—they’ve got some great ideas too. They know a lot of New York and LA comedic talent, so they’re pushing forward ideas that we don’t necessarily think about at times, too. But we do have a running list of our big-name vampires we always are asking for, season after season. It’s something that we are very, very into.
AVC: I still laugh thinking about Blade on Skype at the vampire council.
SR: That whole episode was so surreal, and so—[Sighs.] It was hard. And I’m saying that as someone who was just around. I think it was much harder for Taika, who directed it. In the episode, [we had] this really crazy, large council room and we had to get everybody there; Taika and Jemaine were already there, but we had to get Jonny Brugh from the What We Do In The Shadows movie out to Toronto in time so the three of them could be together. At the time we were shooting in Toronto, we were still unsure about which famous celebrity vampires we were going to have in the scene. It was Taika and I and some readers jumping around face to face just to make eye lines make sense, and reading the lines out loud. The choreography was crazy. Just the dance at the beginning took a while. I don’t think we even knew at the time, in Toronto, that we were going to get Wesley Snipes. So we shot all that stuff hoping that that was going to be the case, at least on the side of Taika and Jemaine and Jonny and our vampires. We had no confirmation that that was even going to be something that would make it in. So that happened. We shot that all there—one of our last episodes that we shot up there.
And then, months later, we came to LA and we had a mini shoot where we had all the celebrity vampires come in, except for Wesley. And Taika and Jemaine were there doing basically the same thing. They took one celebrity vampire at a time in a room with total green screen, and Taika and Jemaine were bopping around doing everybody else’s voices and stitching them all together. It was so complicated, but worth it. And then our showrunner Paul Simms had to go to Wesley—I think in Jersey?—and they filmed everything on the computer in a a hotel room.
AVC: I imagine most episodes are a little more controlled than all that.
SR: Oh my God, yeah. Most of them are more straightforward, although still complicated because you’ve got so many wacky visual effects. That one was just like, “oh my God, I don’t even know how this is going to look.” But it’s a testament to our editors, and how awesome they are.
AVC: Do you ever come up with any ideas as a writer, and then get told, “Ooh, yeah. Sorry. That’s going to be kind of expensive.”
SR: Oh, all the time. I can’t think of anything specific, but I feel like, especially on this show—it’s less so with things like Atlanta. Specifically with What We Do In The Shadows, the thing that we hope sets our show apart, and something we’re always thinking of aside from the story and the jokes, is that it feels cinematic, and it feels like a good horror movie. And that when there is blood and flying and vomit and limbs flying off and electrocution and levitating, it looks real, and it looks as good as possible. So a lot of the time in our scripts, we are very ambitious about what we want on the screen.
But oftentimes, it’s either that we’re running out of time or it is too expensive. The one example I do have was the Laszlo and Jim the vampire fight for “On The Run,” when they first meet each other and Laszlo runs away. We had initially conceived that as a longer chase scene, It was a more more Fugitive type thing. It was Laszlo flying and bouncing on top of rooftops, and then eventually they’re in a warehouse and we have a standoff. Then they leave the warehouse, and they’re at a train track. We really wanted to do that classic “two opponents on either side of the train track” thing—
AVC: Oh, and then the train goes through the middle?
SR: And then the train rips through and Laszlo’s gone. [Laughs.] That was something we really, really wanted to do, but it was too expensive and didn’t make sense and we didn’t have time. So we often are thinking very big, and at times we are told we have to rein it in.
AVC: Well, you know, it’s the nature of the world. Literally anything could happen.
SR: It’s true. It’s difficult, but we make it work.
AVC: I wanted to end by giving you a compliment, actually. Like I said, I was reading some interviews with you before this, and a lot of them were around your first Emmy nomination for Atlanta. And you were talking about being the only woman in the writer’s room on that show. I’ve noticed that you brought a lot of women writers onto this show, and I think that’s awesome.
SR: Thank you. It’s very nice of you to point that out. It’s incredibly important, and those things keep me up late at night. I’m happy that we have as many women as we do, and if it were up to me, we’d probably have more and more and more and more and more and more.
I really love this writers’ room. The writers are incredible, and they’re so funny and they’re so great and I love all of them. They work really hard, but [so does] everyone involved on the show. It’s just one of those rare opportunities where it’s like—I mentioned the melting pot earlier, but I really feel that way when I’m on the set. There’s me, a Black girl from Georgia, hanging out on set with Taika and Jemaine, who have indigenous roots in New Zealand, hanging out with Harvey [Guillén], who is Mexican, hanging out with Kayvan, and Kayvan’s Persian, and Natasia—she grew up in London, but has roots in the Greek Cypriot community in the UK.
We’re just such a great melting pot of people and perspectives and experiences. I don’t know, it feels great. It feels like I am in a place where there’s not one kind of person or perspective. And I hope that more productions going forward feel a little bit more like how it feels to work on What We Do In The Shadows.
AVC: That’s great. And I would like to formally apologize and say that I should have given “On The Run” an “A.”
SR: Oh my God, Katie, you don’t have to do that. Stick to your guns. I’ll take the “A-.”
AVC: It’s okay, I already admitted it in the season finale writeup.