Jemaine Clement on “Humor Me” and “Wellington Paranormal”

The Actor, Comedian, and Conchord talks about his latest projects

Jan 12, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Since he posed for an Under the Radar photographer wearing a nude suit ten years ago, Jemaine Clement’s star has continued to rise. The comedian/musician/actor – whom we first interviewed as one half of the duo Flight of the Conchords – has appeared in a wide variety of projects, from indie films and TV shows, to major motion pictures such as the Steven Spielberg-directed The BFG, Disney’s Moana, The LEGO Batman Movie, and Men in Black 3. He also added “filmmaker” to his resume by co-directing the cult vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows with writing partner Taika Waititi; he’s directing a spinoff TV show, Wellington Paranormal, which will debut on New Zealand television sets later this year. He’s currently a series regular on the Marvel Comics adaptation Legion, and is plotting Flight of the Conchords’ return to the screen.

In his new film, Humor Me, releasing in New York today from Shout! Studios, Clement plays Nick Kroll, a newly-divorced playwright whose wife has kicked him out of their apartment and taken their son on a months-long European vacation with her new, wealthy beau. Long unable to finish his newest play, Nick’s financial straits give him no choice but to move in with his aging father, Bob (Elliott Gould). He hasn’t seen eye to eye with his dad – who relies on dirty jokes to avoid serious conversation – since his mother passed away, but their cohabitation in a New Jersey retirement community forces them to confront their differences. Meanwhile, he starts to fall for the daughter of one of his elderly neighbors (played by musician Ingrid Michaelson.) Humor Me is a thoughtful comedy, and provides Clement the opportunity to play a character more sensitive and grounded than the roles we typically see him in.

Humor Me’s director, Sam Hoffman, is the creator of the popular web series Old Jews Telling Jokes, which inspired both a book and an off-Broadway play, and produces and directs the CBS drama Madam Secretary. Before writing and directing his feature film debut, Humor Me, Hoffman served as an assistant director on films such as The Royal Tenenbaums, School of Rock, Donnie Brasco, and Groundhog Day.

Jemaine Clement hopped on the phone with us from New Zealand after a late night of filming the TV show Wellington Paranormal. You can read part of our conversation about his latest projects below, and look out for another article on him in Issue 63 of Under the Radar.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Do I understand that you were up all night shooting? You’re just just starting your day there, right?

Jemaine Clement: Yeah. We were shooting until, like, 4 a.m.? It wasn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be. We thought we were going to have to go until 5. We finished early.

What were you working on?

I’m shooting a TV series in New Zealand called Wellington Paranormal. It’s set in a police station, about police who investigate paranormal things around Wellington. They always turn out to be real.

I’ve read a little bit about this. Are these the same actors, the same cops, from What We Do in the Shadows?

Yeah, yeah! We didn’t really know them. A lot of people in that movie were friends of ours, but we didn’t know the people playing the cops. When they came in, they just cracked us up so much. We were laughing more than any other day on that film. We said to each other, “These guys, they should be a show.”

You co-directed What We Do in the Shadows. Are you directing this, as well?

Yes, I’ll be directing.

You’ve worked with Steven Spielberg since then, on The BFG. Did you pick up any directing tips from him?

I probably should think of Steven Spielberg more when I’m doing this. He’s a very kind and supportive director, and sometimes I’ll just go up and just immediately express my disappointment to my actor. [Laughs] He’s probably a good model, I’d say. The other thing about Steven Spielberg is that he, like, paints with his imagination as he’s filming. He’s coming up with things as you’re filming, and it’s quite interesting to watch.

And from what I've gathered, your new film, Humor Me was a project on your to-do list for quite a while. Was it a matter of just finding the right time in your schedule, when it worked?

Yeah, that’s right.

You’ve been getting more and more Hollywood projects. I know you can't turn these opportunities down, but does it ever get frustrating when there are projects like these that you want to work on, and then you get called to do something like Legion, or The BFG?

Well, that’s exactly what happened. I was going to do Humor Me, and then I got a call for The BFG, and I had to call and let Sam down. Luckily, we were able to come back to this. So, yes, I’d say sometimes it does. It has nothing to do with the size of the project, but what it’s about. There was a show where I loved the idea of it, and I couldn’t do it recently.

This is your director, Sam Hoffman’s, first feature, but he’s already so accomplished as an assistant director, and in TV, and with his web series [Old Jews Telling Jokes]. I'm wondering if you can describe what he was like as a director?

He’s really enthusiastic. People like that, you want to help them. He’s full of energy. He’s very thoughtful, as well.

And how was it working with Elliott Gould? He's been acting longer than either of us have been alive.

I really loved working with Elliott a lot. I hoped that he might influence my own performance. His approach to acting is very natural, and real, and I also found him hilarious.

You describe his approach as natural. Can you expand a little on that?

He was never trying to find the comedy. He was funny when he wasn’t doing anything. With my approach, I always think about how to make it funny. What to do when we’re doing it. He didn’t have any of that. It was new.  

Your other co-star, Ingrid Michaelson, has a music career which really took off right around the same time you were making music with Flight of the Conchords, and doing the TV show. Did you guys manage to bond over your experiences as touring musicians?

[Laughs] We talked about music a little bit, but no. That’s something about a small film like this, you don’t get to hang around having long chats about things. You have to keep moving on.

Right, right. This was, what, a three-week shoot?

Yeah.

You filmed in an actual retirement community on Staten Island. How was that, as a shooting location?

I enjoyed it. A lot of people were quite interested. It was a lot of older people, and it was some excitement. There were a lot of people sort of poking their necks out. I met some lovely, senior people.

Was Elliott a big star there?

Yes, yes he was! People were really excited to see him. [Speaking in a high-pitched, little old lady voice] “I heard Elliott Gould is on my street!” When he was on set, people would show up.

Could you see yourself living out your twilight years in one of those plush retirement communities?

I don’t see that for myself. [Laughs] I see a more hermit-like existence, but I’m not sure.

The movie is structured around these pillars, these dirty old man jokes that Elliott's character is always telling. Did you know someone, or have anyone in your life like that? I feel like in most families, there’s usually an uncle or someone who always has a raunchy joke on hand.

Well, no one in my family really went around reciting jokes. I did have a friend in high school would write every joke he ever heard down in a book. If you told him a joke, he’d make you tell it again and again while he wrote it down. He’d stop you and be like, “And then what happened?” He’d write more, “And then what happened?” [Laughs] When I see that friend again, I’ll have to ask him if he’s still a joke enthusiast. I never remember jokes, and as a comedian, that’s something you get asked about a lot. I’d really have to wrack my brain. It’s not the joke I remember, but just little images from it.

Your character, Nate, doesn’t really see the humor in his father's jokes at first. I remember always thinking my own father's jokes were very cheesy. You’re a comedian, a professional funny person, but does your child find you funny? 

Yes, but probably decreasingly so over the years. [Laughs]

We already talked a bit about Wellington Paranormal, which I'm excited about, and I hope we get to see in the U.S. not long after it debuts in New Zealand.

It’s airing [this summer] here, not too long from now. I’m not sure about when it’ll go elsewhere.

Where do you and Taika Waititi find time to work together?

Well, he didn’t work on this. [Laughs] He was supposed to work on this, and then he got Thor. We were supposed to do a few episodes each, but then he got too busy. But we are doing another project in the States, a pilot, in just over a month. We’re going to direct it together in some way.

I'm looking forward to that. Hopefully we get to hear more about it soon.

It will at least be a pilot. If it doesn’t get a series, it might be one of those things online in a few years. But I’m pretty excited about it.

Taika had teased a What We Do in the Shadows spin-off just about the werewolves. I know you're both extremely busy – is that something that's just in the planning and ideas phase at this point?

Oh, yeah. That’s like, the occasional E-mail, a couple of ideas a month, to stash away for the moment. [Laughs] But that’s the way we came up with the first movie. We’ve got a couple of things we’re doing, and then we can start working on that. It’s possible that we could be getting to it eventually.

When we talked about What We Do in the Shadows, you told me about how you directed scenes by describing what was going to happen beforehand, and letting the actors just go with it. Is that something you’re doing at all in Wellington Paranormal?

No, we use a script. They do improvise a lot, though, so it has a lot of the same feel. There are moments where we ignore the script.

I take it that Sam was pretty open to a few improvisational moments in Humor Me, as well. Did he let you suggest lines?

I don’t remember if there was improvisation. I’m so used to doing that it surprises me when people expect me to read lines now. I find myself doing a thing where I’ll come on and start doing improv, and then Elliott will start saying his lines and I’ll be like, “Oh, okay! It’s this kind of thing, okay!”  [Laughs] Sometimes writers spend a lot of time and put a lot of thought into getting their lines right exactly where they want them. You have to know when it’s appropriate, and when it isn’t.

And you’re heading off to Sundance with a movie in January. Can you tell me about the movie you’ll be promoting there?

Yes. It’s called An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. It’s a very different movie from Humor Me, but similarly I read the script and said I’d love to do it. And then I saw the director [Jim Hosking’s] other movie, The Greasy Strangler, which is very original – one of the most bizarre films. [Laughs] This film’s very different from that one, but with some of the same style, still. But yes, it’s by the director of The Greasy Strangler.

That film is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen – it reminds me a lot of what might have been a cult film in the sixties or seventies. I think it does have a cult audience, as well. A friend of mine saw it, and said to me: “I just saw this film, The Greasy Strangler, and it was my favorite film, but I can’t think of one person I can recommend it to.” [Laughs] I thought that was a good description. Some people are going to love it.

And do you think this new one will be a similar situation?

No, this one’s quite sweet. I think it’s going to be more relatable to people.

(www.humormemovie.com)



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