Jemaine Clement, introverted funnyman that he is, has an awkward charm to him that escapes most of his Hollywood peers. He’s coy with his comedy, firing off in quiet bursts rather than erupting like an attention-whoring lime light volcano. In short, his timidness is his strongest weapon.
This year, he’s been involved in no shortage of quality pictures, lending his visage to James Strouse‘s compelling family drama People, Places, Things as well as finalizing touches on his own vamp-comedy with collaborator Taika Waititi. Both show off his depth, range and potency as a comedy writer and should be sought out by anyone who likes all things Jemaine.
We sat down at the Seattle International Film Festival – me a Jemaine superfan, he a fish-out-of-water in the PNW – for a lengthy discussion that covered the gamut of his career. We talked improv, the highlights and low points of the New Zealand film commission, his awesome vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, his involvement with Steven Spielberg‘s The Big Friendly Giant, the idea of returning to music, the lasting legacy of Flight of the Conchords and the possibility of a reunion (and perhaps a movie). And finally, he answers the ultimate Kiwi question, “Is he more a box of Tim Tams or a jar of Marmite?”
*Scroll to the bottom for the full unedited audio*
Jemaine Clement: I don’t really have such a thing of a day in the life, because I do different jobs. At the moment, I’m working as an actor in Vancouver for films, learning my lines. Before that, I was editing the last film, or writing a TV project for next year. Before that, I was editing a thing…
Just a lot of fluctuation?
JC: Just different jobs, yeah. And all those things are really different from each other.
People, Places, Things, which I caught at Sundance—and you were there doing a Q&A afterwards—deals with this family man who in some capacity has lost his family. He’s a cartoonist struggling with his artistry. Do you think that being a creative person presents a challenge to relationships, or do you think it adds an extra element of spice to romantic life?
JC: I don’t think it has any bearing. I don’t see it as any different from my friends who do different jobs. Sorry, I’m sure a different answer would be more interesting. It’s just what I believe.
Are you moving around a lot? I know you’re wearing a lot of different hats—doing editing here, directing there. Are you based in New Zealand for most of the time?
JC: Yeah, but my family’s in Vancouver.
Do they often travel with you?
JC: Sometimes. They were there for part of People, Places, Things.
Did they come down to Park City when you were there?
JC: Yeah. We’ve been on the road since then.
So do you miss New Zealand?
JC: Not really. I know what’s there.
I remember at the premiere at Sundance, James Strouse got a lot of credit for the film handling race in a nonchalant way. Is that something that you guys were aware of on-set, or was it just a non-issue?
JC: We never even discussed it. And they didn’t discuss it with me. It’s in the script that they’re African-American, the characters. Sometimes you put that kind of thing in a script to give a clue saying, I want this piece in there. And you can lead people that way, by sort of subliminally mentioning it in the script, like anything. I remember when I’d write myself into things; it would be like a part-Maori guy, and not because it was important for the character—more like, I can do it.
I also read that James gave you the go-ahead to do some improv work on the film. Is that something that you always go into, being like, I want to make sure I have the flexibility to do that?
JC: No. I get into a habit when we did the Conchords TV show. We would always tell people, “Learn the idea of the lines; don’t learn word-for-word.” Bret and I never had any time to learn the scripts ourselves. We usually wrote them, and even the ones we didn’t write or rewrite—that was about as much study as we’d do, was just like typing it. And we would just think of it as the ideas being more important. So I got into a habit. And we would tell our cast, too: “Don’t learn it.” And I would get into a habit of that, taking a real quick study, and I might not come up with the exact same thing. It’s even hard for me to break that. Sometimes, on auditions, and in casting, people usually say, “Can you stick to the script?” When they say that, I panic in my brain. Uh-oh. I’m just used to doing that, and sometimes I just drift off in my head and say what I’m thinking in the scene. And the only time we didn’t do it—Regina Hall, when she turned up, she said, “I heard you like to improvise a lot; but I don’t do that. So don’t try that with me.” And I thought, OK. I’m gonna stick with the script. And then, after we were together for a few hours, James comes over and says, “OK, you can improvise with you want, add some things.” And we did that. And Regina was really, really good at that. And I said, “I thought you didn’t improvise.” And she said, “I was joking.”
JC: A lot of comedies do that. Sometimes too much. And I feel like directors or actors can fall in love with improv because it’s new to them, and end up putting too much of it in. And you can sometimes tell in movies like that.
So, speaking of improv, you co-wrote, directed and starred in the awesome vampire mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows. But you started filming that back in 2002…
JC: We filmed the short version in 2005 as a funding application. And then we both got real busy doing other stuff, so there was like a ten-year gap.
It premiered at Sundance last year, and then has just opened in cinemas here in March. Talk about what it was like making that movie, what your influences were…
JC: There’s an extension of the idea of, don’t mind the script. For that, we wrote quite a long script for a comedy. And it’s only something like 86 minutes. We wrote a script probably twice as long as that. And Taika and I were the only ones allowed to see it of the cast—just to see if that would push it further than we did sometimes—and often it didn’t. But it has its own energy. Improv can have a really intimate energy to it. Less guarded. Especially if you’re doing a mockumentary, you want to feel like it’s real—I don’t feel like we totally got that across in the film, that they’re real people. But that’s what we were hitting for.
Did you ever consider for this movie, specifically—What We Do in the Shadows –turning it into a television concept? Because it seems like something that would be great for an ongoing series.
JC: In New Zealand. We want that cast, so…We couldn’t make it in America with that cast.
‘Cause they’d want bigger stars?
JC: They’d want Americans. Fair enough, fair enough. I actually think it’s fair. Each country reflects its own culture, that’s what’s good about…
And the New Zealand film commission pays for everything, right?
JC: They do, but they didn’t pay for that. The thing in New Zealand, you might notice: there’s quite a lot of good movies coming from New Zealand. There are a lot of movies, and only four million people, there are a lot of movies. Part of it is because the New Zealand TV system is really old-fashioned; there’s no way they’d let us do that on TV in New Zealand.
JC: We did actually submit that once to the TV stations. When we first made the short, we thought we’d hand it in and see what would happen with that. We got money for it, to make the film, but we had to give it back because we got busy and thought this isn’t the time, but later on we handed it in, and just didn’t even hear back. New Zealand TV is really all the worst parts of American TV without the best parts. The Bachelor is huge. But there’s no Mad Men.
It’s the pop context.
JC: Yeah. That’s what kind of thrives there, weirdly, since it takes pay and is funded. There’s no option of making a TV show of anything like that; being in a show like that or something like that, there never will be.
Is there any chance we might see more collaborations like that in the future, with you working in the style of mockumentary?
JC: We want to write a—Taika’s working on another film at his own directing on his own at the moment. But after that, I’m hoping we write the werewolf one. We’ve been talking about that. Rhys Darby would be the lead. We’re really hoping to get that. We’ll take their money, though.
When people think about New Zealand in terms of an entertainment complex, they often go to Lord of the Rings and Flight of the Conchords. Though Flight of the Conchords is set in New York.
JC: There’s a perfect example—Flight of the Conchords. Sometimes we’d do episodes that would have a New Zealand writer, likely a New Zealand cast, a New Zealand director. All New Zealand people. But it’s an American show; none of us get jobs in New Zealand.
Do you find that in America, people recognize you more than in New Zealand?
JC: People recognize Flight of the Conchords a lot in New Zealand—and if not from watching the TV show, then from watching the news at that time. When the show was on in the States, people were amazed because New Zealanders don’t like New Zealand comedy. And part of that’s because the TV system’s so bad; if good things do get made, they’re on late and they’re never put on primetime or anything like that.
And speaking of Flight of the Conchords, is there any movement, anything in the future with you and Bret?
JC: I could just show you an email from last week—“Should we get together soon and write a movie?” And I could show you one from the year before and the year before…it’s something that we always talk about. The last email had some premise ideas in it, which is a new step for us. But part of it that’s difficult is we want to make it with James Bobin; he lives in LA, and that means we’d have to go to LA. We’ve both got really good lives in Wellington. LA…it’s not my favorite place, anyway.
Aside from the geographical restrictions, is there anything else holding you back?
JC: Not really. Bret got really busy working with James on The Muppets movie. We really wanted him in What We Do in the Shadows. And actually, we had him in the short as a vampire…
I was kind of surprised I didn’t see him pop up somewhere in there.
JC: But we actually cut him out of the short, because he was collapsing laughing the whole time. Even though he’s funny. He’s a vampire called Bret. We should’ve put that in the extras, actually; we should have put them in, even though his acting is terrible. Just ‘cause he’s so amused by it. We both work quite a lot out of the country, and it often seems we’re not in the town at the same time, even though I can bike over to his house.
As a fan, I’m wondering why we don’t see Jemaine in more movies every year? Is it an issue of not the right projects being available, or that you’re too busy? ‘Cause I’d like to see about 300% more annually.
JC: I think this year there’s probably more, but I don’t know, the Shadows movie was this huge job, like a year long. And I did actually manage to escape and do a couple movies while Taika took over, and we would swap, ‘cause neither of us were getting paid to do Shadows. So he would go and do commercials and other TV shows, and I’d go and act in stuff, and then we’d get back in a depressing little room.
And put your money in a pile?
JC: Sort of. Yeah, we can pay for the movie again. So that took me out for a long time. And before that I was on Men in Black 3, and then it was Boris. Almost a year on each; almost two years taken out by those films. I don’t know where I’d fit it in, really. It’s not possible, when I want to do more acting and more writing. The good thing about Men in Black is we wrote a lot of What We Do in the Shadows while I was doing it, because we had a lot of downtime. But you usually can’t do that. Like the movie I’m doing in Vancouver moves so quickly.
JC: It’s an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, The Big Friendly Giant.
Directed by Steven Spielberg?
What’s the role?
JC: I’m one of the evil giants. So there’s the big, friendly giant. Do you know the book?
Yeah. It’s a great childhood classic.
JC: It’s very well-known in New Zealand. It’s probably Roald Dahl’s most well-known book. But I think here it’s “Matilda” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”. So I’m just one of the horrible giants. Bill Hader is one.
What is that transition like, going from something small where you’re literally paying for it yourself, like What We Do in the Shadows, to a big production with Steven Spielberg at the helm? Does it feel different?
JC: Yeah, definitely. Taika and I both did a lot of the jobs, and it was much more intense and worrying. Big Giant I just have to learn my lines. Very different, the scale. A lot of it’s motion capture.
And that’s your first time doing that?
JC: It is, yeah. They do have sets, surprisingly. Not that they actually need to have them. But in this one they do have the BFG’s house, and they have a scale for him, and a scale for us. One for the little girl, so she’s got a huge scale. They’ll make a table as big as this room that she’s walking on. Then they’ll be a table this size for the BFG. Then the same table. And there’s one this size for me and Bill and the other giant guys.
So does that come down to the philosophy of one for them, one for me? I’ll go do this giant project, and then one that I’m passionate about?
JC: No, because I love Steven Spielberg movies, and the “BFG” book. Melissa Mathison is the writer on that, and I love her other movies. If I was to do a superhero movie, that might be like that.
‘Cause your career precludes that you really only invest yourself in projects that you find worth in. Is that a fair generalization?
JC: I think so. ‘Cause I don’t think of myself as an actor, but it’s taking up more and more of my time.
So you consider yourself a comedy writer, first and foremost?
JC: Yeah, ‘cause that’s what I started doing, but if you actually add up the time, it’s probably more on acting now. I think if I—I’ve always got something to do. And if I don’t, writing’s always there; if you’ve got an idea, maybe not money, but you’ve got a job—there’s always that.
Where does music fit into all this, because obviously you rose to stardom on the back of your comedy music.
JC: It’s funny really, because I was doing TV and stuff, writing kids’ shows and doing theatre, and getting sick of auditioning. Still love doing theatre stuff and acting, and writing comedy shows. And then me and Bret said, “Let’s get out of this acting bullshit and start a band.” Half as a joke. But then we started doing it, and it went really well. Taika and Bret and I—Bret together had written lots and lots of theater shows, and The Conchords was the easiest to tour because it was just two guitars. And it just took off, and it led to doing the thing that we’re sick of doing. But in a good way. It’s led to all these other cool things.
Do you foresee yourself doing more musical stuff?
JC: Yeah, yeah. I’ve don’t know why, but I really want to make a musical movie. I don’t even like musical movies. I don’t even understand why I want to do it so much. Bret and I have been talking about doing that.
And that would be something other than, necessarily, Flight?
JC: Maybe. It won’t be like the TV show. It won’t be the characters from the TV show. It could be other people.
Do you guys ever go out and play shows anymore?
JC: We haven’t for about a year-and-a-half, played any shows. We’re planning to.
That’s just a logistical thing?
JC: Yeah, we’re doing other things. Bret’s had another baby. I’m sure you know and can tell when people have babies by tracking their career.
So let’s talk about New Zealand for a quick bit. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. I know you said that you don’t miss it.
JC: That’s the farthest, most remote place you went to— Otaga University —must be the most southernmost university in the world. Closest to Antarctica you could study.
You grew up in the North Island, and then you moved to Wellington where you can hop a ferry to the South Island in forty minutes. Are you still a North Island guy?
JC: Yeah. The South island’s the pretty one, but…
They’re both pretty cool.
JC: I don’t know the South Island very well.
Have you spent any time down there?
JC: Yeah, I have. Sometimes I found it disconcertingly white. I know I look white, but I don’t think of myself as white.
A Maori at heart?
JC: That’s how I was raised, and so I like it, but there’s something there culturally, I don’t fit there sometimes. It’s a beautiful place, and a lot of my good friends live there.
Being from a small community, and then achieving international fame, what is it like going home?
JC: In the midst of the Concord stuff, it was pretty insane, especially if Bret and I were together, people would come out into the street and record us and stuff like that. Getting home, sitting in the same café where I would be trying to scrounge some money to get a samosa, but now there’s a billboard of me and Bret across the road from the same café that he used to wash the dishes before we left.
So is that overwhelming, or is that just a supremely awesome thing?
JC: No, it’s overwhelming. I don’t think either of us like that. But now everyone’s used to us, so it’s fine. And people forget. We’ve both been working mostly in movies—Bret even more behind the scenes, ‘cause he’s doing music. People see these movies and TV, so it’s actually less of a deal. People like to seek out your stuff, whereas if you’re on TV, they can’t.
Being right in your face.
Culture question: Do you see yourself more as a box of Tim Tams or a jar of Marmite?
JC: I think probably Marmite, as in not everyone’s taste. Really delicious if spread thinly.
But overwhelming if it’s thickly spread.
JC: It’s not peanut butter. Don’t lay it on too thick.
Being an international sex symbol, how do you fend off the ladies?
JC: They keep them away from me. They do a good job themselves of fending themselves off.
Full Unedited Audio Here:
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