Paul Yates: Keep Wellington Paranormal

September 10, 2018
Spinning off from the hit Kiwi comedy What We Do in the Shadows, Wellington Paranormal follows the exploits of New Zealand cops Minogue and O'Leary as they fight back a rising tide of supernatural mayhem in the titular sleepy city. We caught up with producer and writer Paul Yates.

This is your second TV series as producer, but prior to that you’ve got a long string of acting and writing credits. What was the motivation behind getting into production?

Control more than anything. I was at the stage of my career where I wanted to realise shows that I wanted to make rather than pitching to production companies to write the things they wanted. I’ve had a small production company prior to that for about 10 years. We mainly did children’s television and that sort of thing  – that was my bread and butter and I would do the bigger dream gigs writing. So yeah, this has been a bit of a step up for me, and the overnight success of the show, Wellington Paranormal, in New Zealand, has come as a bit of a surprise and a lovely one. They’re really loving the show here and over the Tasman it seems that Aussies are loving it too. It’s fantastic that a Kiwi comedy can cross over and find an audience with the wonderful Australians.

How did Wellington Paranormal come together?

I became involved when I went to see an early cut of What We Do in the Shadows. I’m mates with Jemaine [Clement] and Taika [Waititi] and they got a bunch of friends in to watch the show at Park Road Post in Wellington because they just weren’t sure about the cut at that stage. So we watched a cut of the film which was hilarious and very close to the version that ended up on the screen. I loved it but the thing that jumped out to me were these two very realistic feeling cops who turn up for about two minutes in the film, and to me they were hilarious.

After the film I was saying to Jemaine and Taika, “who were those two cops? They’re brilliant!” And they said, “Yeah, we’ve been talking about those cops – what do you think?” and I said, “I think they should have their own show.” And so four years later they got their own show  – because that’s how long it took to convince funders here they should do it. So it’s been kind of a long process, but we got there in the end, and that’s how Wellington Paranormal came into being.

How did you go about expanding these two characters and their particular universe in a way that could support multiple episodes of a TV series?

It was very… I won’t say easy, but it just lent itself to television. As soon as you apply police reality to something extraordinary like paranormal events, the ideas just flow easily. It’s a really identifiable format – every country in the world has their own cop reality show, so having that as a parody basis made it a really eye-opening format for people and for writing. Adding the paranormal to that was fantastic.

The format is perfect as an example of Kiwi comedy because, as you might have noticed, us New Zealanders are very low key about everything, and especially our cops. I think some of our cop shows have jumped across the Tasman – they’re very different from other cop reality shows, but definitely American ones, because New Zealand cops are quite small about everything, very understated, and that was the kind of jam that we found worked with the comedy of Wellington Paranormal – really small reactions to really extraordinary things like Satanic possession and alien invasion and zombies. It was just a perfect formula for us.

What were the cultural touchstones you drew upon for inspiration?

I guess the mockumentary concept is something that I’ve always liked and the boys, Jemaine and Taika, have always liked; we’re big fans of Christopher Guest’s work and Spinal Tap – those are things that we’ve grown up on. We love that style of comedy and it lends itself to improvisation. Wellington Paranormal really lends itself to that style and we lucked into having two incredible performers in Minogue and O’Leary – played by [Mike] Minogue and [Karen] O’Leary! Typical Kiwis – we couldn’t think of a name, so we’ll just use their names if that’s alright. So those kinds of mockumentaries lent a lot to this show, and we watched a lot of police reality shows – which are quite funny! If you watch any of them, they’re unintentionally funny. I was in France a couple of years ago on holiday with my wife, and there’s a French one! We’ve lucked into a format because as soon as you put it on, the audience knows what they’re watching – you see cops talking to camera with crazy shit happening in the background, and if you apply the paranormal to it, it’s entertaining, eye-catching.

What’s the writing set up like – do you use a writer’s room system, or is it more auteurial?

The process is very much a writer’s room. We went away up the coast to a little town called Martinborough and we rented a house for a couple of weeks, got some fantastic writers including older heads and younger talent and we sat and just hashed through the stories. Then we apportioned out each story to a writer and they went away and delivered fantastic scripts. And then on top of the scripts was Jemaine’s fantastic script editing – he really brings some extra stuff to the script that really makes it jump off the page. And then you add the other fantastic elements of two great improvisers. So although there may be one key writer on each episode, there have been quite a few more authors to some of the jokes, to the point where some of the jokes you go “Whose joke was that again? Was that Jemaine’s? Did you improvise it?” Wherever a joke comes from, if it works then it’s in.

The series is very firmly rooted in Wellington as a setting. How important was that to you?

Really important. In New Zealand a lot of television is Auckland-centric, just because it’s commercially more viable to shoot up there because it’s just a bigger city and there’s more crew up there. Jemaine and I and, until recently, Taika are Wellingtonians and we love Wellington, and Shadows was a Wellington show. We felt we had to create an expanded comic universe based in Wellington, and certainly local audiences have responded to seeing the kind of crap Wellington icons like the Bucket Fountain, and Naenae and Lower Hutt, which are really mundane kind suburbs. To us what was really funny about having a werewolf attack in Naenae in the Hutt Valley is that it’s just so mundane – it’s not extraordinary at all. To us, that’s what we loved about Wellington – it’s such a real place to us.

All six episodes of Wellington Paranormal are now streaming on SBS on Demand.

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