Interview: ‘What We Do In the Shadows’ writers/EPs Stefani Robinson and Paul Simms talk Jackie Daytona’s toothpick, Guillermo’s development, and energy vampires
Although the Primetime Emmy Awards will have different form, it’s still on. One of the top nominees was the FX series, What We Do In The Shadows. The comedy in which the filming crew follows the life of four vampires from Staten Island received 8 nominations.
I had a pleasure to talk to executive producers and writers of What We Do In The Shadows: Stefani Robinson and Paul Simms. Both received individual writing nominations for their wickedly hilarious and witty scripts – Paul for Ghosts and Stefani for On the Run, in which Mark Hamill appeared as a guest star, and together for Outstanding Comedy Series.
Robinson had previously been nominated for her work on Atlanta’s for the episode, Barbershop. Before the FX series, Paul Simms created NewsRadio, the beloved Emmy-winning comedy series that follows the eccentric inner workings and relationships in a New York radio station.
Hi, my name is Zofia Wijaszka and I’m a reporter for Awards Watch, How are you doing?
Paul: I’m good. I think Stefani and I are both, besides everything else, tired because we’ve been working on the scripts for season three and getting everyone else’s scripts ready. The last thing we’ve done is left the scripts that we’re writing. We’re both burned out and tired, and having a hard time getting them done.
Paul: But I can’t complain other than that.
So I guess you guys have some rough idea of what’s coming in the third season?
Stefani: I hope it stays that way. I mean, there is a rough plan but I feel like with the COVID of it all, who knows what is actually going to be possible. But I think, as it is now, if everything went perfectly, it’s a very good season.
Yeah, everything is strange. Everything with filming and streaming. Hopefully, it goes back to normal soon. First of all, congratulation on your 8 Emmy nominations! Thank you guys for giving us this awesome series.
Paul: Thank you.
Did you guys expect it to happen? Especially your nominations for writing?
Stefani: No. It was something I was aware of, maybe in the back of my mind. Maybe it’s because it didn’t happen with season one and in my mind I was thinking, no, it’s not really the possibility.
Paul: Well, I hoped for it and wanted it. But I also thought that there are so many shows and it feels like our show isn’t that kind of show that gets nominated for Emmys, so it was a huge surprise – very, very exciting and satisfying.
Stefani, you wrote “On the Run”, and Paul – “Ghosts”. How did you come up with the whole concept?
Stefani: For “On the Run”, that was actually Jemaine Clement’s idea, at least the beginning of it or the early stage of it for the episode. Jemaine often comes to the writers room before we start the season with little ideas or few things that may be funny. With this one, he likes the idea of Laszlo being on the run and someone chasing him, and him feeling like a fugitive in this situation. And Laszlo keeps hiding from some guy that wanted to, you know, do him justice [laugh]. I think it was bigger in scope first, Jemaine had conceived it and it was bigger chase and they were going to go all over the place and have bigger battles. I think it was more intense.
Paul: Yeah, more action-oriented.
Stefani: But I think that, over time, the thing that was funny to all of us was this idea that maybe we make it seem like that’s what’s going to happen. And then we get to where Laszlo has gone and he just stays there. And he doesn’t move on. He doesn’t keep trying to hide and there aren’t multiple disguises.
What about you, Paul? How did you come up with the whole concept for the “Ghosts”?
Paul: There is a joke we had in the first season, where Beanie Feldstein’s character has been turned into a vampire and then they’re about to teach her how to turn into a bat and fly, and then she takes her clothes off. They go, “what are you doing?,” and she says, “well, where do my clothes go when I turn into a bat?” And then Nadja and Laszlo look at each other and go, “huh, we don’t really know what that works either.” So there was the idea of the vampires themselves not really understanding all the rules about how everything works in the vampire world. Then I started thinking, “well, the vampires are technically dead, and if they’re technically dead, that must mean they have ghosts, and it would be funny to put them in the situation where some of them don’t even believe in ghosts.” And then when I got that far, I thought of the idea of having our main actors acting opposite of different versions of themselves. That’s what I thought was really, really funny.
I love when, at some point, Guillermo says “So vampires are real and ghosts are not?” It just cracked me up.
Paul: Oh yeah, it cracked me up too.
Stefani, I need to know everything about Jackie Daytona. My friend is absolutely obsessed with him and he always talks about him. How did you come up with Laszlo’s alter ego?
Stefani: I didn’t want to overthink it. But Jackie Daytona, that name… I think that Daytona came first, as a last name just because, in my mind, there is probably no more American-sounding of a word, or a name than Daytona. And in your head, there’s just NASCAR and sweaty Americans, yelling at cars.
Paul: Hey, wow, easy! [laugh]
Stefani: Hey man,I mean that as a good way.
Paul: Those NASCAR people are Emmy voters, come on [laugh].
Stefani: I just meanit seems as American as possible. As American as possible in a way that it seems as the total opposite of not only Laszlo, but Matt Berry. And thinking about Matt Berry even just saying the word Daytona.
Stefani: I’m sure that he’s never said this word in his life.
Paul: And Stefani,when she went after to write the script, she didn’t even have a name. And when I first read that, I really laughed because it not only seems like a super American name, it seems like a name that someone who doesn’t understand America that well would think that it’s a perfect American name.
Stefani: It’s almost too American. It’s not like John Daytona. There is something about Jackie.
Paul: You also get a sense that Laszlo is going into hiding but still wants to have a little bit of flash. He still wants to be like, “Jackie.”
Also, that toothpick was such a great touch. Did you have any other ideas for Jackie Daytona’s attributes or was it always a toothpick?
Stefani: It was always a toothpick and jeans because that’s just felt like the silliest disguise anybody could wrangle up and put together. But I think, on a technical level, I liked the toothpick and jeans. For the visual joke, the thing that I did write down was that his midsection was still the same. He still had a little bit of …
Stefani: Yeah, ruffles, but then he had jeans and toothpick which visually was funny to me. But also, technically, I think that, as a producer, you want to see Matt Berry’s face and you want to see him as Laszlo. And the idea of getting too crazy with disguise… although it could have been really, really funny.
Paul: Now I’m thinking about this. Didn’t we also, you and me via email, discussed that we want the disguise to be something very easy for him to take off and put on?
Paul: We didn’t want him to, like, take off the mask or something, for the joke of it, that it’s so simple. Just putting a toothpick in his mouth somehow makes people not able to recognize him [laugh].
Yes, and that scene when the mirror cover falls down and then Mark Hamill just goes, “oh, charlatan!” It was just so good.
Stefani: That still makes me laugh. That moment. This poor idiot vampire, it took up until that… And also, that moment is especially funny, because he sees the thing fall, sees that Matt Berry is, in fact, not a human, but he’s still, at that moment, doesn’t know that it’s Laszlo. Like, “you’re charlatan, you’re lying to me, you’re not really a bartender” up until the toothpick goes and he’s like, “oh my God, and on top of everything else, you’re the guy I’m after.”
Paul: That’s also before the very funny moment. I think it’s much funnier to us than to the viewers, where as soon as they start fighting, a man in the bar shouts out: “oh my God, they’re vampires!”
Stefani: I, like, peed myself laughing at that. “Oh my God, they’re vampires,” like that would happen in a real life.
Yeah [laugh]. And Mark Hamill with his want for “human alcoholic beer.” How was it working with him?
Stefani: It was awesome! It’s this surreal experience that I don’t think I fully internalized yet, and everyone who was there, I don’t think they fully internalized it yet. I, and Paul can speak for this too, I didn’t think we would get him. It was this idea that we would try for it and he’d pass, because he’s Mark Hamill, he’s just one of those people that are legendary. And you hope you’ll get him but, but you know, you have a list of backups. When he did say yes, it was crazy. It felt like an overnight process where he was just on our set, and he was wearing the wig and the cloak. He fully created a character. We didn’t have to give him any notes, or any thoughts. He already had an accent and the mannerisms. He was such a professional and so funny. Watching him and Matt improvise was such a satisfying thing to see. I love Mark Hamill, I think he’s great. I hate that I was born too late because one of the thing I regret about being born too late, among many things, is that I didn’t get to see Mark Hamill on Broadway. All of that stuff, and being there live, watching him work – it was kind of a cool experience.
Paul: Speaking of not internalizing it, I feel like I haven’t either. I mean, I was so excited that he did it. And part of it is because he tweeted that he loved the movie and he loved the tv show. One of the things when they tweet they like the show, they’re probably going to end up getting the invitation. But it was just two nights ago when it started to hit me more, cause I was showing my eight-year-old son the first Star Wars movie for the first time. It’s the first time I’ve watched it for a while, and I’m sitting there, thinking about how it was when I was probably eleven or twelve years old. I kept saying to my son, “that’s the guy who was on our show”. He was like, “shut up, I’m trying to watch Star Wars”.
I also love the banter between Laszlo and Nadja in your “Ghost” episode – especially the moment where Laszlo pretends not to see a ghost of Nadja’s ex. Do you have any inspiration for how to write their relationship?
Paul: A lot of inspiration for their relationship comes from the actors, from Natasia and Matt themselves. You know, we started the first season, we knew that they were married couple. And I think, early on, some of the jokes were supposed to be more about, “oh, they’re married forever, and they’re sick of each other.” And this came from Natasia and Matt, when they would just improvise and act. And they aggravate each other but they’re also very horny for each other still, after three hundred years. That, I think, is a big cue to writing them. Also, we’re always trying to avoid with Natasia, with Nadja being too much like a straight woman who’s like, “oh you guys, you dummies.” You know what I mean? What’s fun about writing her is that her character is just as crazy as guys’ characters are. I think that’s probably it.
I love her character, especially the episode “Brain Scrambles” where she meets that old woman that she knew as a girl and then she goes, “oh yes, that’s true. I used to pin her to the ceiling for hours.”
And unfinished businesses, of course… How did you find ideas for those?
Paul: Basically, I don’t like to do any research and that’s the only thing I sort of knew from the top of my head is what people say about ghosts. That they linger, because something is unfinished in their lives. The hardest one to figure out was Natasia’s. The joke of hers became about how hard it was to figure out what was her unfinished business, she doesn’t know herself. It was just fun for her to sort of argue with herself. Laszlo’s was just a dirty joke to try to make the other writers laugh. And then share it with the rest of the world [laugh]. And then Nandor’s. Since Kayvan speaks Farsi, I wanted to do something with no subtitles, or anything, that we had a character like that. And he’s always referring to his past. But seeing him actually speaking Farsi really gives you an idea that this is the guy who’s been alive for four hundred years, you know, a warrior in Persia.
Stefani: That was also really sweet, though. I think you’re selling yourself a little short here. I think the emotional part of that was very unexpected.
Paul: Oh, I know it’s good [laugh]. It is interesting how some of those things come out. You could really trace the genesis of that story back and we had all those paintings, and we have Nandor improvising about the things in his room and there is a painting of him on his horse, and he goes, “that’s my horse, John.” It’s just funny that the guy would name his horse John. That’s been mentioned more and more in season two, so I thought that that would be an interesting thing about this horse John. So out of brief three-second improv, later the whole story can come. Which is how a lot of the show ends up working.
It’s amazing. Also, I love Nadja’s doll. I need that doll so bad. That would be such a cool thing for fans.
Stefani: I know, there is only one. It’s a very expensive doll that takes three men to operate. It’s quite a marvel.
Paul: Now, the first time I saw it, I was like, “can I have one of these to take home?” And then they told me how much it cost, and I was like, “okay, never mind.”
Oh man! I also enjoyed Guillermo’s character development this season, he absolutely rocked. Was he always supposed to be a savior?
Stefani: I don’t think so. I think that was something that came in a latter half of the season one in the writers room. I mean, just him being a vampire slayer or having that lineage at all was, I think, the cliffhanger that we were excited about for the end of season one. We didn’t really think past that.
Paul: But even that sort of, I wouldn’t say came accidently, but we already had the story of them getting their DNA checked to find out their family history. Because we wanted to do the story with Nandor having a great-granddaughter who’s now an old woman and him going to visit her. And as we talked about the other character, then it was just a joke about maybe Guillermo finding out that he has vampire hunter’s blood. Like other things starting with a joke, we got towards the end of the season and we knew we wanted to have some exciting moment and we sort of kept that build up. But it wasn’t planned from the very beginning. And then having made that big cliffhanger at the end of season one, we got to season two and we were like, “we can’t just ignore that, we have to play out the reality of what would happen.”
That was great. Also, Colin Robinson, he’s an energy vampire and it’s so relatable to other people. I have at least two energy vampires in my life.
Paul: You’re lucky. That’s a very small amount.
How did this character come to life?
Paul: That was the idea that Jemaine had. I think part of it was, that when we got the TV show, we wanted to do something different from the things in the movie. It came about as you can guess, we all meet people in our lives that seem to talk too much about nothing and seem to be intentionally annoying us. It also started out as a joke in the pilot. We thought it may even be a smaller character in the show. But it’s so fun watching him interact with the rest of the group that the part has gotten much bigger. And we learned more and more about him even though we’re really making this stuff up, because, you know, there is no history of energy vampires, no matter how many books you read. That’s one of the things that season three is going to explore even more is what is the energy vampire and where do they come from, and how does a person become the energy vampire.
I’m waiting to find out what’s going to happen to Guillermo, and Nandor, and how everybody’s going to react, because they all already know about him having vampire hunter’s lineage. That will be exciting.
Paul: I was just working on that. On script one, season three.
I cannot wait for more. I will be keeping my fingers crossed for you guys during Emmys.
Stefani: Thank you!
Thank you so much for talking to me today and for giving me your time. It was a blast.
Paul: Great. It’s so nice to talk to someone who really watched the show.
Stefani: Thank you, have a good one!
Stefani Robinson and Paul Simms are nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the episode “Ghosts” of What We Do In the Shadows and for Outstanding Comedy Series. What We Do In the Shadows is currently available to stream on FX on Hulu.