Jemaine Clement is an actor, writer and director known for his acclaimed work in music, film and television. In 2007, he, James Bobin, and Bret McKenzie co-created Flight of the Conchords for HBO, which would go on to receive multiple Emmy nominations, including for Best Comedy Series and for Clement personally as Best Actor in a Comedy Series (2009). As a performer, he has since gone on to have major supporting roles in films such as Gentlemen Broncos, the Rio franchise, and Men in Black 3. In 2014, he co-wrote and co-directed What We Do In The Shadows with the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi; the comedy received near-universal praise and toured the international festival circuit.
In 2015, Clement took the lead role in People Places Things, which had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Jim Strouse, a winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, the feature stars Clement as Will Henry, a lonesome graphic novelist in Brooklyn struggling to balance his recovery from a recent break-up with his responsibilities as the father of young twin daughters. The supporting cast includes Regina Hall, Stephanie Allynne, Jessica Williams, Michael Chernus, and Gia and Aundrea Gadsby. People Places Things, a release of The Film Arcade, opens in theaters in the United States, and becomes available on Video-on-Demand and iTunes, on August 14, 2015.
In New York City for the film’s premiere, Jemaine Clement spoke with Sean Malin of C.M. Film Commentary and Criticism about drawing his own kites, conflicting masculinities in People Places Things, and the heinous neglect of theremin players in the cinema. This interview, made possible by Jim Strouse, Falco Ink, and the Sundance Institute, has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication. For our interview with the filmmaker, click here; and for our review of the film, here works better.
Sean Malin: I read that you split your time between New York, where [People Places Things] takes place, and New Zealand [where you were born]. Is that true?
Jemaine Clement: New York is kind of my “new” hometown.
SM: Does that count as bicoastal living?
JC: I’m bihemispherical.
SM: The choice to stick with your New Zealander accent in the film is inspired – it lends the character of Will Henry an immediate authenticity. [Mr. Strouse] has said that the character was originally meant to have a Midwestern “thing.” Did you wrestle with whether or not to use an American accent for the character instead?
JC: Yes, I even worked with an American dialect coach in New Zealand and a different dialect coach in New York. Jim’s idea for the character was always that he was not from New York. And I think my American accent comes off kind of annoying, so eventually the accent kind of…well, it sounded like Jude Law in Spy [2015, dir. Paul Feig.] *Laughs*
SM: I saw Jared Hess’s film Don Verdean at its World Premiere at Sundance earlier this year, and in it you play an Israeli character, Boaz. Your accent there didn’t seem, shall we say, as natural as the one in PPT – it’s a broader accent, played for laughs. What were the differences in your approach to those characters’ voices?
JC: For the Israeli accent, I had one dialect coach and a tape of one Israeli man who actually has a kind of unusual voice. I kind of based my voice on his. I really did want to make it sound Israeli, but I had so little reference that sometimes I had to make it up.
SM: Will is written in some ways from the filmmaker’s personal life, but there are other through-lines to the people you have played before: for example, as a graphic novelist, Will is a bit of an outsider and a loner, not unlike “Jemaine” in FOTC. How much of the character required meeting in the middle between yourself and the way Will was written?
JC: Whenever you are a character in a movie, it’s always a composite: sometimes you base the role on someone you know in real life, and sometimes a character in an old movie. Eventually, a character might be based on four or five different people at one time – and then you bring yourself. It is always a mix, but the trick is trying to make it into one fully believable person.
SM: I read that you studied drama at university in New Zealand. How much of your “process,” as it were, comes from your dramatic training at Victoria University of Wellington [where Clement met Conchords member Bret McKenzie]?
JC: Ah, actually, I’m not dramatically trained. I took a film course at university but it was more about theater theory and film theory. It did not have much at all to do with acting, and I didn’t even finish it.
SM: Academic theory plays a major role in this film, especially in conversations between Will and his love interest, Diane [played by Regina Hall]. There’s a fascinating dialogue between yours and Ms. Hall’s characters where you discuss the literary importance of graphic novels.
JC: That’s exactly the kind of thing I did at university, but more to do with film and theater.
SM: So before making the film, what was your personal valuation of graphic novels as “Art” with a capital “A”?
JC: I am a real fan of graphic novels, and I enjoy books and “original” novels as well. But you can really connect to a graphic novel in a different way, especially if the authors are – like [Will] – the people writing it and drawing it. A lot of work goes into them. When you see a drawing that is not exactly perfect, it tells you something about [the person drawing]. You see a lot of their personality, how they visualize things, what their attitudes are towards the world.
SM: You contributed some of the visual work in the film, including a hilarious set of graffiti and some lovely hand-drawn kites. At Sundance, you mentioned that you drew a lot when you were young and had some aspirations to do it as an occupation. Has your work in the film opened any doors for you to pursue animating or drawing professionally?
JC: I still love to draw, and I was doing it a lot when we were making the film, so they called on me to do a little of it onscreen. Ironically, most of the stuff I drew didn’t make it onscreen, and the stuff you do see, I didn’t actually draw. But I did learn some about the material, questions I’d had for a long time, like what kinds of pens [graphic novelists] use and what kinds of ink.
SM: As someone who respects the form, why do you think cinema in general has neglected to pay close attention to graphic novels, especially given their recent popularity and artistic maturity? Aside from a few exceptions, there are virtually no films that give graphic artists their fair shakes – certainly no Mr. Turner-like stories or graphic novelist epics.
JC: Yes, I think that’s true, and it’s strange, too, because graphic novels and film are both so visual.
SM: Does People Places Things step into that void a bit?
JC: Yeah, it does, and I also think there will be more adaptations of independent comics and graphic novels in film soon. Possibly, it hasn’t happened yet because that’s not been where the money is. Even when there have been some very successful graphic novels, sometimes their writers need to teach to make enough money – that’s still true with some of my favorite graphic novel artists. My favorite graphic novel of all time, for example, is One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry, and she also teaches and sells her artwork.
SM: The dichotomy between graphic novel writing and teaching is powerful in this context, especially for how it defines the mixed emotions Will has towards his art. The fact that your character is able to teach young artists while pursuing his own creative work makes him emotionally mature in a way few of your characters up to this point have been. Appropriately, you’ve been getting comparisons to the career changes that people like Woody Allen made with Annie Hall  or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show [1998, dir. Peter Weir] and Eternal Sunshine [2004, dir. Michel Gondry]. Was there a direct strategy in place to expand your foothold in drama when the project came along, or were you surprised in being thought of for this kind of role?
JC: I had not asked my agents to look for this kind of script or anything like that, but the [work] has dramatically progressed, I suppose…I do like to see this kind of film in the real world. I watch a lot of these kinds of films but until getting the script, I hadn’t thought to be involved with them. Even so, I might not have ended up in the film if I had not found the script funny: it was the comedy of it that was attractive to me.
SM: Still, I was at the film’s world premiere, and there was a woman there who you referred to in a later interview that stood up just to say, “I don’t have a question but I just have to tell you, Jemaine, that your performance was so beautiful and this and that…” You’ve said that those reactions nearly make you cry.
JC: *Laughs* Ha, yeah, yeah. To return to things I wasn’t expecting, I was surprised by people after screenings coming up to tell me about their real-life problems, which I have not had to deal with before. Of course I’d hoped for this, but I found [the reaction] very overwhelming. I grew up with my mother, not my father, and usually in films or on TV shows, that [situation] is shown to be a real hardship. But it’s not really what it’s so often seen as, you know? And I thought it was good to show that, yeah, maybe these kids [Will’s children, Clio and Colette, played by Gia and Aundrea Gadsby] have it a little harder than some [as kids of a single father], but they’ve still got their lives, and they’re going to live. I thought it was important to portray that.
SM: It actually seems like things are a little harder on Will in the film, especially when his long-term girlfriend Charlie [played by Stephanie Allynne] is getting ready to marry her next lover, Gary [Michael Chernus]. The film pivots on this scene where Will and Gary confront one another, and these almost protean masculinities come out. Have you ever felt the same primal need Will feels: to punch a guy in the face at a wedding?
JC: At that point, it’s obvious that those feelings have been bubbling up and that punching Gary is something he has been thinking about for a long time. I think of that [scene] as being like when, one time, I was punched in the street by a total stranger.
SM: Oh, no! Really? In real life?
JC: Don’t worry, it’s all right, I’m all right. The interesting thing is that when it happened, I was not angry. I just didn’t know what had happened. But I had biked to where I was, and I had to bike home for like ten miles or something. At the time, I wasn’t angry at all, but if I saw the guy now, you know…that is one of those things that takes a while for you to realize exactly how you feel about them. *Laughs* In Will’s case, it takes him over a year before he says, “I really hate this guy, I really do.” But a wedding is neither the time nor the place for that kind of thing, is it?
SM: Is there such a thing as the right time or place to hit the fiancée of the mother of your children?
JC: *Laughs* No, but it’s probably pretty tempting for a lot of people. You have to grow and not do that.
SM: You are married yourself and have a young son. This is a pretty sophisticated and soulful movie. Has your son seen the film? How does he feel about it?
JC: He saw it with me at Sundance. I had to cover his eyes in a couple places, but we watched it together. He clung to me extra-tightly when he saw me being Dad for other kids. That was a little funny for him.
SM: As an actor, a writer, a musician, and a filmmaker, you have dipped your toes into many different creative fields. Graphic novels are still somewhat of an outsider art, as we’ve discussed, but increasingly, they are nearing appropriate measures of public respect and acknowledgement. In your estimation, what will be the next big art form to get its serious due in film or television?
JC: My friend Kristen Schaal was talking to me about a film about the relationship between the inventor of the theremin and the world’s best theremin player. She was thinking about writing a film about that. *Laughs* And I would actually be quite interested in that.