clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How cult movie What We Do in the Shadows went from internet phenomenon to new TV show

FX is transforming Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s kooky vampire mockumentary from a beloved meme factory into a comedy series.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The world isn’t exactly clamoring for vampire mockumentaries from New Zealand — especially a film which never received a wide release, was only shown in a handful of U.S. cities, and grossed less than $7 million worldwide.

Yet the 2014 horror-comedy film What We Do In the Shadows has become such a cultural touchstone that FX is launching a new TV series adaptation on March 27, to the delight of fans everywhere.

The new series closely follows the film’s premise of a group of socially awkward den of centuries-old vampires trying to adjust to modern city life. The justification for the TV version seems to be building more story, more jokes and sight gags, and more awkward clashes between vampires and humans — in short, more of everything fans have come to love about the film.

The average filmgoer might assume that the new series owes its life to the recent prominence of the film’s co-director, co-writer, and co-star, Taika Waititi. Since What We Do In the Shadows was released, Waititi has become a major Hollywood name, thanks to his crowd-pleasing turn as director of Thor: Ragnarok, a.k.a. the first good Thor movie. Waititi had a long, well-established partnership with his Shadows co-creator Jemaine Clement, and a string of broad-ranging, critically acclaimed films to his name by the time he was chosen to direct Thor.

But Waititi’s rising star was only part of the groundwork for FX’s decision to adapt What We Do In the Shadows into a ten-episode series. In fact, he probably owed his Thor gig to What We Do In the Shadows and its large cult following.

For while the film’s minuscule box office performance might have suggested that it would die in obscurity, instead it rapidly gained a second life on the internet, fueled entirely by memes, fan love, and especially GIFs.

Clement and Waititi’s long and fruitful partnership led to WWDITS

Enough things get labeled a “cult phenomenon” these days that it’s easy to discount the whole idea. But this film in particular is a true modern example of a movie that found its legs entirely thanks to a tiny but loyal fanbase, before growing into a cornerstone of internet culture, thanks to its unholy alignment with a rise in GIFs as one of the internet’s primary forms of communication.

What We Do In the Shadows (WWDITS) first traded on its creators’ established reputations as cult comedians and longtime creative partners. Clement and Waititi met while attending college together. The pair reportedly hated one another on sight, because they each thought the other one was a showboating snob. They soon “reluctantly” began to find one another funny, and went on to collaborate extensively with their other longtime collaborator, Bret McKenzie.

As Waititi moved into directing feature films like Eagle vs. Shark (2007) and the critically acclaimed Boy (2010), he often cast Clement, who went on from those roles to co-star in with McKenzie in the HBO series-cum-musical partnership Flight of the Conchords (2009-2007). The fish-out-of-water musical comedy series, which featured writing and directing by Waititi, became a cult hit and snagged 10 Emmy nominations during its short life.

By the time Clement and Waititi reunited to collaborate on WWDITS, they had each established themselves as masterful comedians in their own right. It’s perhaps this freedom and wealth of experience that made the film such a refreshing entry into the annals of the horror comedy, a genre that had been overkilled so often by 2014 that the most common word applied to it was “tired.”

Filmed on a low budget — reportedly just $1.6 million — the story referenced a 2005 short film Clement and Waititi had produced (reportedly for an even smaller $200), called What We Do In the Shadows: Interviews With Some Vampires. The conceit was essentially a confessional, single-camera mockumentary: MTV’s Real World meets Lost Boys by way of Spinal Tap.

But each of these cultural touchstones were dated, to say the least, and the early-aughts horror comedy trend, which arguably peaked with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead a decade earlier, had long since fizzled. (The 2010s saw a long string of flops interspersed with a few one-off successes; since 2012, only six comedy-horror films, all of them franchise installments, have managed to outperform the genre’s last breakout cult hit, Cabin in the Woods, at the box office.) This meant that film producers were highly reluctant to take a chance on it. The film’s initial opening, in New Zealand in June of 2014, didn’t make enough of a splash to interest international distributors.

So Clement and Waititi did what was then still a relative novelty for the internet: They turned to Kickstarter for help in getting the film a larger following.

The creators relied on their pre-existing cult following to get the word out about their film. Then the internet did the rest.

When Clement and Waititi ran into obstacles distributing their film, they had a precedent for what to do next. The 2013 Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign, at the time the most-successful film campaign in Kickstarter history, had disrupted the industry and presented a new path for filmmakers and other creators to sidestep the high expectations of Hollywood. So the pair launched a Kickstarter campaign, asking their fans to help them raise $400,000 to pay for U.S. distribution for the film.

The result after a month was a respectable $450,000, surpassing the campaign goal and raising enough to get help distributing the film into a limited number of theaters throughout the U.S. between February and March 2015. While that total may not seem like much, it was at the time the highest total ever for a film distribution Kickstarter campaign. The film even reportedly snuck into the top 20 of the U.S. box office charts, and the film’s U.S. release wound up returning over half of its worldwide gross.

And while the film was ultimately never received a wider theatrical release, it was given an ironic boost, thanks to the advent of piracy. The film was one of the most-pirated films of 2015; this proved to be crucial to its success, because its popularity as a bootleg item fed its virality, which fed its popularity — all of which helped make it one of the internet’s most well-loved films.

WWDITS was ready-made for going viral

What We Do In the Shadows fits into an under-discussed, loosely-grouped, and poorly examined roster of films that have essentially been granted a second life and wedged themselves deep into pop culture thanks to their status as viral online phenomena. They’re united, in essence, by three ephemeral qualities: quotability, meme-ability, and GIF-ability.

Often, films will be elevated into the pop culture hivemind on the basis of a single meme-able moment, while the rest of the film gets largely left on the internet’s cutting-room floor: think El Dorado’s now-ubiquitous “both is good” reaction GIF, or 300’s “This! Is! Sparta!

But occasionally, movies come along that seem to be made entirely of viral-ready material. Think, for example, of films whose memetic imagery has become so well known as to be almost divorced from their original contexts: Mean Girls, The Emperor’s New Groove, and The Dark Knight, to name a few internet culture juggernauts that have essentially memeified themselves into infinity. Most of these films managed to meme their way into the cultural consciousness before the advent of social media — in particular Tumblr and Twitter, the platforms most responsible for disseminating the wit of WWDITS.

What We Do In the Shadows is the perfect encapsulation of this type of film, as much for what it failed to do in movie theaters as for what it subsequently did on the internet. During its initial U.S. release, critics were divided over how well the film worked given how stale the horror-comedy landscape was at the time. Some critics raised eyebrows at the mockumentary format and vampire subgenre, which each seemed as tired as the other. While plenty of reviewers felt the movie managed to hilariously revive each of these dead genres, multiple critics thought it was too thin to work as a feature. “The film often feels like a throwaway ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch padded out to 90 minutes,” one complained.

Subsequently, however, WWDITS became a huge hit on the internet. What made WWDITS a favorite with online audiences wasn’t the overall conceit, or the numerous parodies of vampire films, elements which frequently failed to impress critics, so much as the execution: its frequent wordplay, sight gags, and overall silliness — as well as its obvious love and respect for the vampire films it was homaging (yes, even Twilight). While critics had been unimpressed with the film as satire, fans received it as an expression of love for everything it was ostensibly mocking. The film was tailor-made, in short, for geeks of all stripes.

Above all, the film benefited from the portability of its jokes in GIF format. In fact, WWDITS is perhaps the ultimate example of a work that owes its success to its eminent gif-ability — an asset that helped spread it farther on the internet and further into mainstream culture than it ever could have done through mere film distribution.

The film rapidly spread in bite-sized form (pun intended) as a quotable feast across the internet. The quotes were inevitably accompanied by or substituted with GIFs, many of which became essentially standalone internet icons, all but divorced from their original context:

The film was served particularly well by the advent of gifsets, a specific format born out of Tumblr’s file size upload limit. Gifsets group multiple small GIFs together to represent a scene, a full quote, or a bigger idea than a single image can — a framework that proved ideal for showcasing WWDITS’ particular brand of comedy:

The film also spawned countless memes, from text posts to drinking games to movie in-jokes. And, of course, there were the bootleg, fan-made crafts, cosplay, fanart, and trivia — and, of course, the endless quotes.

All of this doesn’t necessarily translate to success for the upcoming TV show — though early reports from those who’ve screened it are highly positive. What seems clear is that FX, having had time to grasp the memetic material on its hands, clearly knows what kind of film its adapting, and what kind of audience it’s trying to reach.

The FX series also gives the creators a chance to expand on the world-building, which has removed the vampires from New Zealand to New York City. At a preview panel for the show at the 2018 New York Comic Con, executive producer Paul Simms described the vampires — a cast of all-new characters — as having come to America years ago in order to “conquer” it, but then quickly getting lost and bored. Sounds accurate. The vampires also have some unique quirks — for instance, there’s an “energy vampire,” who, according to Waititi and Clement, feeds off boring conversations.

In addition to the FX show, the original WWDITS also spawned a 2018 spinoff TV series in New Zealand, called Wellington Paranormal. And Clement and Waititi were hard at work on a sequel, tentatively titled We’re Wolves, before Waititi’s ascent to Thor disrupted the production. They’re still keeping it in their back pockets, however — and that, perhaps more than anything, tells you that What We Do In the Shadows’ dark reign over the internet is far from over.