Jemaine Clement on Conchords, vampires & Muppets

Jermaine Clement in "What we do in the shadows". Picture: Contributed
Jermaine Clement in "What we do in the shadows". Picture: Contributed
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FLIGHT OF THE Conchords star Jemaine Clement’s student days inspired his turn as disgruntled vampire, he tells Alistair Harkness

Occasionally I think, ‘If I’d just stuck that year out, I wonder if I’d have got an Oscar’,” chuckles Jemaine Clement, drily. The Flight of the Conchords star is on the phone from New Zealand to discuss his new film What We Do in the Shadows – but as we’ve drifted into a conversation about The Muppets, talk has inevitably turned to fellow Conchord Bret Mackenzie’s best song Academy Award for the 2011 reboot of Jim Henson’s finest creations.

“James [Bobin, director of the two most recent Muppet movies and co-creator of the Flight of the Conchords TV show] asked us both to write the music, but I don’t really like being in a studio and it looked like another year of being in a studio. But occasionally I think…” He trails off, laughs sardonically, then adds, “But it was really exciting.”

Did he have divided loyalties on the night? After all, Mackenzie’s only competition was a Sérgio Mendes-penned song for the animated film Rio, which just happened to star Clement as the voice of an evil cockatoo named Nigel. “I did a little,” he says. “I tried to guilt-trip Bret, saying, ‘Sérgio Mendes – we love that guy. He’s quite an elderly man now. You might take his only chance of winning an Oscar…’”

This kind of deadpan interplay has always been part of the appeal of Flight of the Conchords – both the comedy folk duo’s live act and the HBO TV show of the same name that fictionalised their attempts to break into the music biz as hapless New Zealanders newly arrived in hipster New York. But it’s a sensibility Clement shares with another long-time collaborator, Taika Waititi, who directed him in oddball romcom Eagle vs Shark, and with whom he has now co-written and co-directed What We Do in the Shadows – a vampire mockumentary in which they star as domesticated Dracula-types dealing with the frustrations of flat-sharing. Clement’s turn as Vladislav, an 862-year-old vampire ruing the banalities of the modern world compared to his medieval heyday, typifies the film’s This is Spinal Tap-style subversion of vampire lore. To wit: the opening scene features Vladislav participating in a flat meeting convened by Waititi’s fastidious Viago in which arguments erupt over doing the “bloody dishes” and whether or not antique upholstery should be protected during a feeding frenzy.

It’s a scenario partially inspired by memories of their own living arrangements while students at Victoria University in Wellington. The pair met in the drama club and performed as part of a larger sketch comedy troupe which included Mackenzie. “Officially I flatted with Taika’s girlfriend and he would just be round all the time, but he wasn’t in my worst flat and I wasn’t in his as far as arguments and messiness and all those things go.”

Was Mackenzie in one of his worst flats? “Yes he was. He wasn’t necessarily the reason for it being bad though…” The idea of doing a vampire film dates back to Clement and Waititi’s early forays into comedy. Before Clement formed Flight of the Conchords with Mackenzie, he and Waititi performed together as The Humourbeasts and had a skit about a vampire comedian. “I’d be onstage telling jokes,” remembers Clement, “and he’d be in the audience heckling me: he was another vampire who’d followed me round for hundreds of years.”

The notion of everyday tensions and irritations being amplified over centuries seemed like fodder for a movie, so they improvised a short film back in 2000 about a vampire flat-share. “It was pretty shonky,” admits Clement. “We made it for a couple of hundred bucks, which went on the costume hire. We did the make-up ourselves. It’s very poorly done.”

They tried to get a feature off the ground, but by the time funding finally came through a few years later, the Conchords had been offered an HBO special and, the same month, Waititi’s 2004 short film Two Cars, One Night was nominated for an Oscar. Suddenly, neither had any time.

As it turns out, the delay proved beneficial: Twilight moved vampires to the frontline of popular culture and the once ubiquitous mockumentary format subsided a little.

Although Bret Mackenzie isn’t involved in the film (Conchords fans will get a kick out of Rhys Darby’s cameo as a profanity-hating werewolf), its stuck-with-each-other theme seems oddly appropriate given the way Clement’s, Mackenzie’s and Waititi’s careers have intertwined since meeting each other when they were 18.

It was at the Edinburgh Fringe just over a decade ago that Flight of the Conchords began to take off. Having already performed in Edinburgh a few years earlier with Waititi, Clement had a feeling their shared brand of self-deprecating Kiwi humour would go down better internationally than it did at home. “I remember selling Bret on this idea that people were much more interested in comedy there, which turned out to be absolutely true.”

Though the Conchords started small, gradually building word-of-mouth among other comedians on their first visit to Edinburgh in 2002, the following year was a different story: their sold-out show was nominated for a Perrier Award and started attracting interest from production companies, leading to a BBC radio show that set the template for the HBO series in 2007.

Did the TV show immediately change things? “Yes. Suddenly it had become a career.” The thing about the Conchords, he adds, is that he and Bret would perform only every couple of weeks; there was just one comedy night in Wellington so that’s the most they could play in public. “It went from that thing that we did once a fortnight to a couple of years where we were doing it every day.”

They called time on the show after the second series, an announcement that continues to frustrate fans, but which follows the classic leave-them-wanting-more Brit model of Fawlty Towers, Spaced and The Office – although the decision was, he says, mostly down to the creative toll it was taking. “It was just too much to do. I can’t think of anyone else who has done so much in terms of recording so much music, writing a TV show and acting in it. Even The Monkees had people that would write their songs and scripts.”

Clement and Mackenzie have occasionally toured together since finishing the show and, mock Oscar envy aside, it was a dream come true for Clement to finally become part of the Muppet universe himself with a cameo in this year’s Muppets Most Wanted.

I tell him that director James Bobin once told me he thought Flight of the Conchords were like a grown-up versions of The Muppets. “People have often commented that our music reminded them of The Muppets,” he says, “and often we’d tell them, ‘That’s not what we were going for. We were trying to sound like Stevie Wonder.’”

What We Do in the Shadows is in cinemas now.