Jemaine Clement Almost Worked in Advertising. Instead, He Made One of 2019’s Best New Shows

What We Do in the Shadows, based on his cult vampire comedy, premieres tonight on FX

Clement (inset) stayed behind the camera for What We Do in the Shadows, which is based on his 2014 film. John P Johnson/FX; Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Jemaine Clement’s resume is filled with quirky delights, from teaming up with Bret McKenzie as the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords to appearing in the trippy FX drama Legion to his 2014 mockumentary vampire comedy film What We Do in the Shadows, which he is now an FX series and debuts tonight.

But the New Zealander almost took a completely different career path, telling Adweek he seriously considered working at an ad agency. “Before things started working here, I was thinking that would be what I was doing,” he said. “But I wasn’t looking forward to that.”

Instead, Clement ended up creating one of the year’s best new shows in What We Do in the Shadows, which follows four vampires who live together in Staten Island. Clement, who starred, co-directed and co-wrote the original film (alongside Taika Waititi, who went on to direct Thor: Ragnarok) stays behind the camera for the FX version, serving as a director, writer and executive producer. He sat down with Adweek to talk about turning the movie into a TV series and how he almost ended up in advertising.

Adweek: Why did you want to bring this to TV?
Jemaine Clement: I didn’t want to take it to TV [laughs]. But I have been acting a lot lately, and I had said I was going to do a year of writing projects. Then we got the call that [producer] Scott Rudin had seen the movie and wanted to talk to us about developing it into a TV show. And that immediately took out the terrible “pitching” part of making a show, which is usually soul-destroying. So it would be something that would be made, and I thought it had enough good challenges in it to make something that was the same idea, but new. I only knew I was going to write the pilot, and I enjoyed doing that, and I enjoyed working with the people and the characters, so I kept doing it.

Did the network try to get you and Taika to appear onscreen as well?
Yeah. The first idea they had was that we’d be in it, and immediately we said, “We’re not going to be,” for lots of reasons.

After Taika directed Thor: Ragnarok, was the experience with him on set different than what it used to be now that he’s a big movie director?
Taika didn’t direct all of the [episodes], but when he’s on, there’s some excitement. And also, he wasn’t as tired as the rest of us, so he literally brings energy because the rest of us have been there for two months already working night shifts.

It can be tough transitioning a movie into a TV series. Did you look at any previous shows that had started as movies?
No. But we had joked when we were making the film, that there might be other groups of vampires. That this is a thing you could do in any country. When I had the very first phone call, that was the first thing that came to my head, before I hung up, that’s it’s going to be a different bunch.

I also want to talk about your advertising background. You did some Outback Steakhouse ads a decade ago.
Oh yeah. I used to write ads, too. One of my first jobs after I dropped out of college was writing sketches for a TV show. And between that and my next proper job, I worked for a radio station writing commercials for different clients.

What do you remember about that experience?
I liked how you have something to start with. Because I’d write sketches, which is something similar—short, two pages. But with a commercial, you’ve always got something to begin with like a product or a place. I liked that. And I was only writing for a radio station and not a big agency. So they would take what they could get. And I could be quite creative. I had fun.

Did you think about going into advertising?
I was looking into working for an agency. I remember the first meeting. I sat down with someone at an agency. I’d won an award for an ad I wrote. They brought me in to pitch on this –they were doing an ad for the same thing. And I brought in a bunch of ad ideas. I read one, and the guy said, “That’s a great ad I wrote” [laughs]. He didn’t write it. … Just that part of it I don’t like about agencies. It’s very competitive. And before things started working here, I was thinking that would be what I was doing. But I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Why not?
It’s so serious and so high-pressure. I’ve never seen the tension on a film set that I’ve seen in a commercial. The worst I’ve seen a director telling off an actor was in a butter commercial. I’ve never seen that on a big-budget film. It was about the angle of the knife. There’s so much pressure. But I always enjoyed acting in ads.

Do you have a favorite ad you’ve appeared in?
I don’t know if it’s a good ad, but Bret MacKenzie and I, from Flight of the Conchords, we advertised a phone company in the U.K. [Phones 4u, in 2004]. It’s one of the first things we did together as a paid job. And it was shot all over the U.K., so we got to go to all these places in the U.K. like a little fishing village in Scotland, to Bristol, to Brighton. … It was pretty fun.

How long did that take to shoot?
It might have been a week. The budgets are massive. To shoot a week on anything … we’re only supposed to have four days on an episode of this [show]! Most of them ended up being five days because there’s not enough time with all the special effects and locations. But on a commercial, in those days anyway, that was standard, to get something that’s only 30 seconds.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.