If you haven’t checked out the FX supernatural comedy series What We Do in the Shadows yet (and you really, really should!), rest assured that what you’ll find is equal parts wacky, weird and wildly hilarious, but it’s also heartfelt, poignant and socially relevant. Created for television by Jemaine Clement, and executive produced by Taika Waititi and Paul Simms, it plays with vampire mythology in a refreshing and entertaining way that gives the characters a charm that they wouldn’t have, if they were just bloodsuckers who were looking to take over the world.
Straight off of her excellent work, writing the “Barbershop” (Episode 205) and “Woods” (Episode 208) episodes of Season 2 of FX’s Atlanta, which were two of the best episodes in a season of expert storytelling, Stefani Robinson went to work as a co-executive producer and writer on What We Do in the Shadows. During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, she talked about how she ended up on the staff, working with this team of creatives, how often they were surprised by how far they could push the comedy, improv on set, telling the stories in Episode 8 (“Citizenship”) and Episode 10 (“Ancestry”), and what it was like to pull off all of the cameos for the vampire council. She also talked about returning for Season 2 of Shadows, her experience on the writing staff for Season 4 of Fargo, having her fingers crossed that there will be a third season of Atlanta, wanting to develop and run her own TV series, and the feature film that she’s developing.
Collider: You’ve previously said that sitcoms and supernatural stories are what you dreamt of writing, when you moved to Los Angeles. What were the sitcoms and the supernatural stories that inspired you?
STEFANI ROBINSON: I think it was less sitcoms, and more the supernatural and the tone of What We Do in the Shadows. That was something that I did want to write, when I came out to L.A., in whatever capacity I could, but not specifically sitcoms. Growing up, I watched a lot of broader, silly stuff, like Austin Powers and that type of high-concept big world ideas that were silly. It was things like that, that I loved, as a kid, and also just even more of the absurd, drier, more European/British sensibilities. I was a big fan of The Mighty Boosh, which is very absurd and very silly. It’s definitely not for everyone, and it’s also very abstract and surreal. It does feel like it’s strangely artistic and also very endearing, but isolating. At the core of that silly, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s what I loved, as a kid, growing up, and also what I responded to with What We Do in the Shadows, specifically.
After Season 2 of Atlanta, which often leaned more towards drama than comedy, how did you end up joining What We Do in the Shadows, which is a much more outrageous comedy? Was it just that the opportunity came up, so you took it, or was it a specific conversation about that show, in particular?
ROBINSON: It was a little bit of both. Paul Simms, the showrunner of What We Do in the Shadows, is actually the executive producer on Atlanta. He’s worked with Jemaine Clement and even Taika [Waititi] for a really like time, back to Flight of the Conchords days, and he had mentioned to me that he was working on the What We Do in the Shadows pilot. Just as a friend, I was like, “Oh, my god, I love that movie! I love those guys, and I think they’re so talented and fun.” And then, it ended up being real and, luckily, I’ve got an overall deal at FX, and the show was at FX, so it became one of those things that was just super easy to throw myself into. It felt very natural and organic, and it was less of a formal conversation and more like, “Okay, now I’m working for this.” It was great. I was so happy to be involved because I loved the movie, and I loved Taika and Jemaine. And it was different than anything that I had done professionally, at the time. It was probably more similar to Man Seeking Woman, which I also worked on, that was very high-concept and more of a sitcom, rom-com type of structure. The idea of doing something that was high-concept, but silly, and that had crazy special effects, and blood and gore, seemed like a fun thing to jump into.
It’s definitely one of those shows where, every time I watch it, I think that it’s just bat-shit insane, but I love every second of it and can’t wait for more.
ROBINSON: Yeah, exactly. That’s good. I’m glad that you have that reaction. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but for me, working on a show like that, and even putting that in the world, is such a breath of fresh air. I feel like it can be entertainment in a world that can be bleak and drab. Atlanta Season 2 was more dramatic than it was comedic, so even the comedies are grounding themselves more in the bleakness of everyday life, which is a very interesting and beautiful thing, when done correctly, but it was a great breath of fresh air to work on something that’s just silly, and is a distraction, and is just pure escapism, and is funny and goofy. I feel the exact same way, that it is bat-shit, but that’s what I like about it. You can just go on this crazy ride.
What’s it like to work with and learn from creatives, like Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement and Paul Simms? How do you find your own voice, among all of that?
ROBINSON: Those guys, weirdly, are so not intimidating. I think that’s what makes them so great at what they do. They are so open to people who already have an established voice, so I felt less pressure to be like, “Okay, this is how I’m gonna stand out.” It’s like they already understand how I stand out, and they’re accepting and encouraging of it. They’re the nicest guys, and they’re so fun to be around. Taika and Jemaine have worked together for a very long time and they’ve been friends for a very long time, so when the two of them are around, it feels like theater camp. It’s just two buds, hanging out and making a show ‘cause they think it’s fun. We’re all playing dress up and hanging out with our friends, and that’s not the case with everybody, in my experience. I don’t mean that as a good or bad thing, it’s just that those guys are so warm and ready to play and be silly.
When you do a show like this, it seems like nothing is off limits, as long as it makes sense for the story and characters, and you can really push the comedy. Was there ever anything you wrote for the show that you were like, “I’m not sure if this is too much, or if this will work,” or did it always feel like there would be a way to make it work?
ROBINSON: There were multiple stages, along the way, where we were all like, “Is this gonna happen?!” I didn’t write it, but in Episode 3, Josh Lieb’s episode, with Laszlo’s vulva garden and the topiary that looked like vulvas, we got the script and were like, “Well, this is obviously gonna be blurred out. We’re not gonna actually see any of these.” And then, as it was happening and we were in Toronto, in production meetings, we were seeing sketches and going, “Oh, my god, they’re actually gonna build vulva topiary. That’s gonna be real.” But then, in the moment we were still like, “Okay, if we shoot it . . .” And we did shoot it, but went, “There’s no way that they’re gonna air this.” And then, they did air it, which was crazy. We were like, “Oh, my god, we’re getting away with this. This is crazy!” I think that’s the biggest example. There were many little things, where we were like, “Is this gonna end up happening?” And then, it usually does, which is the interesting thing. That’s the fun of the show.
As a writer, what’s it also like to be a part of a show where it is so unpredictable, in the sense that there is improv and the improv seems to be encouraged? How is the experience of being on a set where people shout out lines?
ROBINSON: It’s so much fun. It’s exactly what it sounds like. We do as many takes as we can with the script, but then, the fun of it is not only the actors coming up with their own take on what we’ve written, but it’s also us, throwing out new takes on what we’ve written. It’s so collaborative. That’s how Jemaine designed the set, and Paul encourages that kind of thing. We just try to make each other laugh, at that point. It’s helpful, when we’re in a good mood, because so much of that show was shot at four in the morning, outside while freezing in Toronto. There were a few times where shouting out different takes did feel tedious because we were all exhausted and freezing. But for the most part, the writers and the actors are all friends, so it does get to a point where you’re just trying to make a friend laugh, and that’s so much fun.
I really love that the two episodes that you wrote because I think they show such interesting sides to the characters. In Episode 8, “Citizenship,” we get the crazy, supernatural side of things with a new vampire trying to learn how to take her first victim, and that’s balanced with the socially relevant side of applying for American citizenship. What was it like to balance two things like that, in the same episode, and what were you most excited about, with telling that story?
ROBINSON: That’s a really good question. It’s fun to do exactly what you just said, which is explore the fun, more cinematic, genre-y aspects of the story. When I first saw the movie, I loved how grounded it was in the mundaneness of everyday life. Writing that episode, in particular, was really fun for me because I got to play with both. The most exciting thing for me, on the show, is seeing vampires in everyday situations, so the fun of a vampire in an immigration office just makes me laugh. But then, the idea that when Nandor shows up, he’s wearing the basketball jersey and he’s thrown into an environment where real people are just trying to live their life, and he’s the biggest disrupter within that. That’s so fun to see and write and play with. For me, it just tickles me. That marriage of the mundane with the supernatural is the core of the show, but it’s also what I loved about that episode.
I also really loved Episode 10, “Ancestry,” because it really flips the script with Guillermo. He’s been this poor, maligned guy, the whole time, who just wants to get turned into a vampire, only to find out that he’s a descendant of Val Helsing, which is so much fun. How did that all come about, and what do you think that will mean for the character, in the future?
ROBINSON: We just stumbled upon it. It was something that was pitched early on. I remember that we had talked about it and liked it because you do want to have Guillermo working towards something, and I love the misdirect that you think he may be working towards becoming a vampire and that that’s his ultimate goal, and then flipping the script and being like, “No, your goal is actually to kill vampires.” It’s the classic conflict of a status reversal. It’s probably even more satisfying than Guillermo becoming a vampire, to have him become someone who has the power to kill them all. There’s a dramatic irony there. And hopefully, going forward, we will be able to explore more of that struggle. The comedy of these vampires not knowing that they’ve invited a vampire killer into their midst is also something funny to play with. Hopefully, it will force Guillermo to come of age and start making decisions for himself, and start really figuring out what he wants to do. I do like that conflict. I don’t know how it’s gonna work out just yet, but I hope that it works out, in a big way.
I love that you also snuck in for a cameo, during the vampire council episode, “The Trial,” because how could you not. What was it like to get to be a part of that, and to witness all of that going on?
ROBINSON: That was crazy! That was actually probably the trickiest thing that we had to do while we were in production. There are so many people out there who have played vampires, so we had a hit list of who we might want, and it was so big. Reaching out to every person who’s ever played a vampire was tedious, and trying to figure it out because we couldn’t get everyone there, at the same time. We were trying to send everybody scripts, but we didn’t quite know who was gonna be involved yet, so there was a lot of writing and re-writing. At the same time, we had to shoot our vampires speaking to someone, so there were a lot of back flips and scheduling and gymnastics that we had to. But Taika directed the episode and did such a great job. Ultimately, he secured all of the people that we got, with the help of Paul and FX. I think Taika did such a great job of making that seem as cohesive as it does seem because it was very chaotic and there was lots of green screen involved. Tilda [Swinton], Evan [Rachel Wood], Danny [Trejo] and Paul [Reubens] were essentially speaking to no one, and they gave such great performances and were so funny. It was very impressive. And then, Wesley [Snipes] was my one of my favorite cameos, and we had to do that separately, just into a camera by himself. I think it worked out and looked great. It was chaos, but it was so much fun.
How was it to then make a big pivot and go work on Season 4 of Fargo? What was it like to be a part of that team?
ROBINSON: It was great. It is a pretty big pivot, but it was so much fun. Fargo and Noah Hawley, and all of the writers involved on that show blew me away with how talented they all are. They’re very talented writers, dramatically and structurally, but I was also so shocked at how funny every single one of those people were, including Noah Hawley. It was a blast to be around people that just get it. You’re inspired by being around them, every single day, you’re excited for them to one-up your ideas, and you’re excited by all of their ideas. I’m so lucky because I found people that will be my intended readers, for the rest of my life. I feel like I will always want to write with those people in mind because their feedback and their sensibilities are so great and so specific. I was just constantly blown away by how much they know, and how silly and fun they are.
What’s the immediate next step for you? Are you staying on for Season 2 of What We Do in the Shadows? Will you be on Season 3 of Atlanta, if/when that actually happens?
ROBINSON: I don’t know. I think immediately next is Shadows Season 2. Later this month (June), I rejoin those guys and we’ll start talking about Season 2 ,and then head up to Toronto and do it all again.
And then, maybe someday, we’ll get more Atlanta?
ROBINSON: Yeah, who knows? Fingers crossed. It was such a fun, great show that I’m always ready for it to come back. Once I know, I’m sure you guys will all know.
Now that you’ve written on a few different writing staffs, and you’ve done comedy and drama, and half-hour and hour now, is the next step writing and putting your own pilot out there, and developing your own TV series?
ROBINSON: I think so. I think that feels like a natural next step and I’m excited to jump into doing that, once I come up for air. That, and working on features. I have [a feature] over at Fox Searchlight right now. It’s all on the horizon, so we’ll see. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve got a pretty crazy track record right now, so who knows what’s next.
I read the description of your Fox Searchlight movie that said, “It’s a period piece set in the music world in pre-Revolutionary France.”
ROBINSON: Yes, that’s correct.
What inspired that?
ROBINSON: I don’t want to say too much about it, but it is based on someone in history, and it was just something that felt Purple Rain-y, in the right ways. That was exciting to me. So, that’s a fun one. It’s very different than anything I’ve done so far, so we’ll see how it turns out.
What We Do in the Shadows will return for Season 2 on FX.