With its deadpan humor and documentary style, “What We Do in the Shadows” could easily be summed up as “The Office” for vampires.
Which means it’s the job of costume designer Laura Montgomery and production designer Kate Bunch to create a setting and a look that are both grounded in the ordinary and genuinely creepy.
“I was a big fan of the movie, so I was really excited to join the show,” says Montgomery of the film that inspired the series. “I think the most important thing for me, because it’s such a fantastical setting, is for the costumes to be grounded in truth. The tone of the show finds its humor in everyday things.”
Montgomery doesn’t just dress her vampires in the flowing white shirts and high collars viewers might expect. Sometimes they’re wearing the sweatpants of someone they drained. The costume designer will also use a character’s backstory in her designs.
Take Nandor the Relentless (played by Kayvan Novak), a vampire and former warrior. Montgomery outfitted him with oodles of buckles and a cape that can be used to make fights more dramatic — or sillier.
In the case of Guillermo de la Cruz, a human “familiar” (played by Harvey Guillén) who faithfully serves the vampires, we see his wardrobe evolve along with his character. He starts the series in soft, oversized sweaters; as he becomes bolder, we see him in rugged-looking fabrics, boots and a tight-fitting shirt that makes him look like “more of a badass.”
Guillén loves the collaboration with Montgomery and the sets created by Bunch. Each gives him new ways to flesh out his character through the season.
“[Laura Montgomery] and I talk about the color palette,” says Guillén. “We talk about how my character’s clothes all started with earth tones and browns, and then we moved into small bits of teal.”
Guillén and Montgomery worked together to make sure his costume was grounded in the story and arc of his character. At the beginning of the series, de la Cruz is afraid to stand up for himself and tends to look down and away when the vampires look at him. As his confidence grew, Montgomery designed a stronger silhouette for him. Guillén and Montgomery believe audiences pick up on these subtle changes, and it also helps the actor show transformation in his character.
When Guillermo and Nandor have physical fights with each other, it’s up to Bunch to create breakaway props that can convince an audience the fight is real while also making the whole event even more hilarious.
“It’s all completely immersive,” says Novak of the production design. “For an actor it’s helpful that it’s 360 degrees and it’s not like just one side and then cameras on the other side.”
With a 360-degree set, it’s possible for Novak and the other actors to walk into every room. They’re able to pick up the props and interact with the set. Bunch is keen on layering her sets with the kind of immersive detail that Novak describes as “forensic.” It’s all part of balancing the supernatural lives of the vampires with the daily tasks they have to complete in their current lives.
For Bunch, there are physical challenges like working with a large number of practical candles, which can melt props if they’re not carefully chosen, and making the Staten Island mansion seem believable and otherworldly at the same time. The items on set also have to work well with candlelight in case they need to be seen as part of a plot point. With so many darkly colored items on set, a little glitter or sheen on props or costumes can make them pop in a dim room.
When the production designer worked on the wellness center that Nandor visits when he tries to embrace a healthier lifestyle, 1980s-style neon aesthetics came into play. The vampire arrives in his usual garb while the space was inspired by movies like “Perfect,” which featured lots of spandex set against a brightly colored gym background.
“I love the whole vampire thing, but I also love when we get to do something like that, because it gives us a chance to do something different,” says Bunch. “It’s a great contrast to the dark colors of the house and where you’d expect to see vampires. It gives you a new vibe and something to research. And you still have to figure out how this space will work for vampires. You’re looking for ways they can move around, how it can be funny and, if there are any special parts of the scenes, how you can use the space to tell the story.”
Inside the mansion, Bunch works closely with the writers to create spaces where the actors and stunt performers can have physical fights and not sustain serious injuries. The show relies on a lot of physical comedy, so it helps the actors to have space to fly, move around and perform stunts.
Montgomery and Bunch collaborate so all the details are there for the actors and the viewers. Inside the house, color tones are dark. Exterior shots are at night, and are also very dark, so Montgomery often pulls in jewel tones that still fit the storyline of the vampires but shine just enough to be noticed against the background.
“It’s a lot of trial and error with this show because you want it to be authentic so the audience believes they’re vampires with a past,” says Montgomery. “Kate [Bunch] and I are always looking for details we can add and weave into what we do, so the fans who look carefully will find little things we’ve placed in the costumes and sets for them.”