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Writer Stefani Robinson’s star continues to rise. After writing an incredible pair of episodes for Atlanta’s second season, Robinson transitioned over to the high-profile film-to-television adaptation of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s beloved What We Do in the Shadows for FX, where she’s pulling double duty as both a writer and co-executive producer.
With the finale having just aired, we chatted with Stefani about her love of the movie, night shoots in Toronto, the goddess Beanie Feldstein, hating ska music, working with Jemaine & Taika, a status update on Atlanta Season 3, and much more. Spoiler Alert for the first season of What We Do In the Shadows, as we go deep into some of the series’ latter episodes, including the finale.
So, I wanted to talk briefly with you about how you got involved with the show to begin with. I know you have a deal over at FX, but was there something specific about the project that drew you to it? Why this show?
I became involved shortly after the pilot. My good friend Paul Simms was the showrunner and had helped Jemaine [Clement] with the pilot. [Paul] was actually a producer over at Atlanta, and he is someone that I know and love—and I love his work. I think more than that, I was really excited by the show. I was such a fan of the movie; it was one of the first movies I saw in the theaters when I came out to LA. I distinctly remember going and there weren’t a lot of people in the theater [laughs] at Arclight Hollywood—but I loved the movie. I saw it at like 3pm in the afternoon; I was laughing so hard and it was just really silly. But it was also so cinematic, which is what I love about it. I think that’s what drew me to it: On top of being a lighthearted sitcom—because that’s basically what it is—it makes sure that it’s utilizing the medium in a really cool way, with all the blood and the flying and the bat transformations and everything like that. It was just something that was visually exciting, but also something that made me laugh. I think it’s really hard to find a marriage of those two things.
Because the show has its own world and predetermined tone—which is a little different from something like Atlanta where you and Donald and the rest of the team were creating that world—was it hard to transition to a project where that was the case?
I don’t think it was that hard. I think we were lucky because Jemaine Clement was so involved. He was there in the writers’ room, he was there for all of the shooting, and it’s sort of hard to go astray when the guy that created the movie is there in the room with you, you know? [laughs] He’s such a great guy and I really do love him. I think he’s so funny. I think everyone involved in this show wanted it to feel like the movie—that was very important. Everyone [in the writers’ room] had seen the movie and loved it, and people more so loved the tone of it and what it felt like. Everyone was able to pick up what Jemaine was laying down and what he and Taika [Waititi] had created.
So in addition to being a writer on the show, you’re a co-executive producer on it. Can you speak to that a bit and what that role entails?
So, I actually wrote on the show and was present for the writers’ room. Tom Scharpling [co-writer and co-executive producer] and I went to Toronto for the entirety of production with the crew and the actors and Jemaine and Paul Simms and we were there writing on set. But more than that, we were producers. It was our job to be around for tech scouts, location scouts, production meetings, costume fittings, camera tests . . . making sure we were available for the actors if any problems arose. Supporting the production was most important. So it was this kind of switching of the hats where you have the opportunity to be really creative. But then in the same moment, you had to be very diplomatic, very technical, and very corporate—in a way—about what was going on and to keep the production moving smoothly. I loved it. It was such a good time. It was very cold, with lots of overnight shoots. Vampires don’t go out in the day, so you can’t shoot in the daylight. So we became vampires ourselves, which is interesting! I was reading something about the movie Interview with a Vampire [where] Brad Pitt was talking about how miserable he because he never saw the sun—and now I know exactly what he was talking about [laughs]. There is something that happens in your brain when you haven’t properly seen the sun in months.
You mentioned the cast, which leads me to Beanie Feldstein. She’s featured heavily in Episode 8 and is just having one hell of year between this and Booksmart—
Oh, yes! So funny. She’s really awesome.
Were her vampiric physicality gags in Episode 8 scripted? Or was that you and Beanie figuring stuff out together on set.
I think there’s a little bit of both! I will credit a lot of our crew on set. Stunts, special effects, prosthetics, and blood really helped. This sounds trite and kind of silly, but I really think it was just purely a collaboration of all of the above and a lot of that was on the page. You are writing a lot of these sight gags and are looking at the [vampire] transformation, and it’s up to the crew to make that happen. But it’s also up to Beanie to sell what’s happening to her, and I think she did such a great job. She’s such a great actress and I think she throws herself into anything and she doesn’t second guess anything—[if] she doesn’t understand, she’s very vocal and clear about what she doesn’t understand. She’s willing to try things, which I think is really cool. She was just such a joy. She gave it her all. I think a lot of that is just her being a fucking awesome actress and an awesome person.
Her and Nadja’s (Natasia Demetriou) relationship is really interesting and then we get to see it explored to a deeper extent in Episode 8. What was important to you about that partnership?
That’s a really good question. I think what was important to me was tying in this old-world vampire with someone who lives in America in 2019. It is a visually shocking thing to look at—you’re looking at Beanie, who is so cute, she looks like a college student and she’s very sweet and you don’t want anything bad to happen to her. Then you have Natasia, who is very beautiful and elegant. She’s wearing these incredibly old-looking costumes and has such an old-world accent, and is hypersexualized in the show—and hyper-sexual. Natasia’s character is such a sexual being, and I think that’s a good thing. Making sure the two of them were falling in love with each other as friends in a believable way was important to me. Which I think it did! I’m saying a lot of flowery things, but the two of them are so fun to be around. It’s just making sure that the relationship felt believable—while also silly and funny—was important.
You mentioned sight gags earlier; I think one of my favorite jokes in that episode is the guy that Beanie’s character continually interacts with turns out to be in an awful band called Ska La-Land. How did it come together? Are you a secret ska fan?
[Laughs] I am not a secret ska fan. Not at all. The name of the band was actually the brainchild of Tom Scharpling. I think director Jason Woliner and I realized, “Oh, shit. We need a name for this ska band,” and it should be a joke at first. We asked Tom to come up with some names and in like, two minutes, he had thirteen ska band names. It’s probably the funniest list of anything I’ve seen in my life. It was hilarious. It came about just as a joke that ended up sticking in the writers’ room. I forgot who brought up the ska aspect of it, but I think everyone involved hated ska. I think part of it was, “Who would we be okay with her [Beanie] killing?” It should be the lead singer of a ska band. I’m sorry if you like ska!
Speaking of Simms and Scharpling: For the finale, it’s not uncommon to see a bunch of writers credited together on a script, but that one is a real murders’ row of talent between you, Jemaine, Tom, and Paul. How did that particular script come together?
We hadn’t written the finale when we [all] went out to shoot in Toronto. I think it was partially because of our schedules—and partly because we had been working on production for so long—that Paul was like, “We’re all writing this episode.” We all split it up. No crazy fancy story, but we knew what story we did want to tell. At that point in production, we were all very aware of what the characters were like and what they sounded like—we’d spent time with the actors—so it felt natural for us to just jump in and just knock it out.
The other thing that I think is natural about that finale is how it ties together so many of these plots that I think, in maybe some other shows, could have gestated for a little while longer. Like the stuff with Gregor (Jake McDorman) coming up again, and then how he’s dispatched over the course of that episode. It zigs where I think other shows might zag in a really interesting way. Were these arcs always going to be laid out throughout the course of the season? Or that was something that was written in from the very beginning?
I think with Gregor, in particular, that was something I think had a natural end, just because much of his storyline is [that] he is, in a way, fated to have his head chopped off. Every time we bring him up, that is what we talk about. [Laughs] I think the natural conclusion for him was to have his head chopped off [because] you are constantly talking about that character ending. The stuff with Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) being a vampire killer, that’s something we stumbled upon in the writers’ room as we were writing. That stuff that seemed, in the moment, really satisfying to us. It is a really silly, funny show. I think we are really thoughtful about things, but I think at the same time, we try not to be too thoughtful. It’s not our intent, at least with this show—and I mean this in the best way possible—to do the expected thing. I think the format of mockumentary allows for, as you said, these zigs and zags. Anything can happen because we are, in a way, trying to be like “real life.” We have the luxury of justifying anything with the idea of “Well, that’s just what happens. It’s a documentary.”
How was working with Taika? What was his process like?
Oh, Taika is great! He’s such a professional and so great. He’s one of those people that knows exactly what needs to happen, comes in, [and] lays it all out. Watching him and Jemaine work together specifically, is so fun. They’ve known each other for such a long time, even predating the movie, [and Flight of the] Concords—these guys are just friends. When they’re together, they make things feel like it’s summer camp, you know? They’re not trying to make everybody laugh—they’re trying to make each other laugh. You know going in that these guys are friends, and that they’ve known each other for a really long time. But when you see it happen, it’s literally them looking to each other for validation in the coolest, most professional way possible. It’s like, “Oh God, this is so cool.” At the end of the day, it feels like, “Oh, yeah, we’re all just buds hanging out at theater camp, and we’re gonna do a goofy thing and we’re gonna film this goofy show to watch with our friends later.” And that is something I’ve never really experienced before on a set. Taika is great, but I think that relationship with Jemaine is also pretty incredible. Jemaine is fucking awesome, too.
This year, we've seen Donald and some of the Atlanta team really expand their reach with projects like Guava Island or the adidas and Mo'Nique vignettes. What's it like to watch the team bring narratives outside of Atlanta to life, and are you planning to take on any similar projects?
I think it’s great! I think they’re doing so well, and I’m excited to see what they’re doing. I always get excited whenever I stumble upon something or hear that they’ve released something because they’re just great guys. They’re very, very smart, inventive and hungry, so there’s nothing but happiness for them. I wish them all the success in everything they do. I’m very fortunate to be working with them on such a great show, and Donald does a great job of assembling smart people. I’m never surprised when I see that they’re doing something cool.
I don’t have any plans to work with them specifically, but it definitely could happen. But at the moment, I’m doing my own stuff. I just sold a movie for Fox Searchlight, and I’ve been working on original stuff on FX. I’m sure at some point all of our paths will cross, and they’re so much fun to collaborate with. The door is always open both ways for either of us.
Can you give us a status update on Atlanta?
The writers’ room hasn’t started yet! I don’t know when it’s happening, so hopefully it will be at some point.