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Pop CultureFebruary 16, 2022

Wellington Paranormal promises a monstrous final season


With the final season beginning tonight on TVNZ2, Alex Casey talks to Wellington Paranormal creators Jemaine Clement and Paul Yates about the monstrous universe lurking beneath our capital city. 

At first, they had to get all the old favourites out of the way. Your ghosts, your vampires, your werewolves. But as the universe of mockumentary comedy Wellington Paranormal began to expand beyond season one, so too did the arsenal of creatures wreaking havoc in New Zealand’s capital city. With the fourth and final season starting tonight, creator Jemaine Clement teases an appearance from what he decrees as his all-time his favourite monster of the series: a time worm. 

“I won’t tell you too much about it,” Clement tells me over Zoom from the US, “but let’s just say… it makes time wormholes.” 

Season four is also set to include a haunted leather jacket, a mythical birdwoman played by a New Zealand icon, and the triumphant return of some old favourite monsters from seasons past. “We always try and top previous seasons with this show” says co-creator Paul Yates, also on Zoom from Queenstown, “We’ve tried to push things to the very limit with this last series to go out on a bang.” It’s a tall order considering the bizarro beasts that have already visited the Paranormal unit.

The Blob who ate Waterloo. Image: TVNZ

The third season ended with one of the most spectacular scenes ever committed to New Zealand television: an enormous glowing fatberg filled with trapped Wellingtonians. As it turns out, this was another high-ranking creature for Clement. “The Blob was a favourite movie of mine in the ‘80s, I had the poster on my wall and I wanted the fatberg to look like the poster.” After looking at countless CGI blobs, he’s convinced that theirs is the best in the business. “And I know for a fact it was the cheapest,” he laughs. 

Given that a US critic slammed the show for looking like it had been “bankrolled in Marmite” (to which Clement responds “you’d have to spread it pretty thin”) both creators are chuffed with what the series has managed to pull off on a conservative New Zealand budget. “We kind of took the Dr Who approach,” says Yates. “Small, cool effects with great interactions between characters is much more achievable than a lot of movies that are just wall to wall special effects.”

It’s also an approach that sounds a lot like early Peter Jackson, whose influence oozes from the series like cheddar dripping from the chin of the Cheese Face monster. “There’s a lot of expertise now, especially in Wellington, with making prosthetics and doing CGI,” says Clement. “There’s this whole industry of people that have worked on those big movies who can do a version on a much smaller budget and use all the same tricks.” 

O’Leary and Minogue present a haunted tentacle. (Image: TVNZ)

That expertise has been applied to everything from floating bags of chippies, to evil sentient beings made entirely of old cellphones and microwaves. The last one, Clement admits, was born of his own “consumer guilt” about electronic waste. “My house just has drawers and drawers of cables and old phones and it just looks like its all going to come together and get up.”

Another memorable character is, of course, the city of Wellington, where ghosts patrol the Mount Vic tunnel and werewolves howl in the Remutaka Range. Yates says the story team often took a “geographical approach” when tabling new ideas for the series. “We’d start by saying ‘what’s a place in Wellington that we haven’t been to yet?’.” Although you might think they have crossed off everywhere on the map, I’m told that both Upper Hutt and the Brooklyn wind turbine will have their time in the sun this season.

“In Wellington, there is something believable about the fact that you could bump into everyone, which you do,” says Clement. “It feels smaller and you get a real variety in different parts of town.” They shot an early teaser for the show in Auckland, which Clement says felt odd. “I’m not really familiar with Auckland, but the bigness of it was weird,” he says. “That’s one thing I love on Police 10/7, when they bump into people they know and they are just like ‘hey Andrew, you’re not supposed to be here’.”

Would they ever consider, for example, making an Auckland Paranormal? “No,” laughs Yates. “That would be Shortland Street.” 

Wellington Paranormal was also originally planned to be much scarier, but a couple of comical plant monsters in episode two changed the tone entirely. “We were trying to make those scary too, but the way their heads bobbled just made us laugh so much,” recalls Clement. “I was sitting there in the field going ‘this isn’t what I wanted, but I’m laughing’.” They re-edited the pilot to make it less terrifying, using Clement’s nine year-old as their family-friendly fear gauge. 

O’Leary and Minogue pause for a selfie (Image: TVNZ)

When reflecting on the legacy of the series, Yates says New Zealand television “tries to please everyone a little bit” and would benefit from making more genre-based TV. “We tell historical stories and culturally relevant stories which are of course important, but this is the first super geeky supernatural show that I’ve seen in New Zealand for a long time.” Citing the success of post-apocalyptic black comedy Creamerie, he says it’s time we told more “unique stories that are cool and different and funny”.

There’s a commercial benefit to genre television too. “The fact that it is a genre show made by movie nerds really resonates,” says Yates. “In America where you’ve got 100 million viewers, they love that stuff.” He’s referring to the enormous success that Wellington Paranormal found on US screens last year, appearing to both amaze and confuse American critics in equal parts. “I think the Americans found our accents hilarious and different,” says Yates. “There’s another layer of humour there because it’s still English but it’s… different.”

It’s a reaction that Clement is used to, tweeting at the time of their US launch that the streaming numbers were only so high because people were watching multiple times to figure out what the characters were saying. But he admits our accent has become an asset on screen over the years. “When I first started out, New Zealanders really didn’t like our own accents and there was a real cringe about it,” he says. These days, things have changed. “It’s not only not a liability any more, its actually something that people enjoy and impersonate.” 

Not your typical backseat driver. (Image: TVNZ)

When the show travelled to the US, it wasn’t the New Zealand accents that were the problem. Despite Wellington Paranormal being a family-friendly show, the CW network required additional modesty edits, including extra pixelation to conceal two taniwha making love in Oriental Bay, and bleeping a budgie that says “fuck the police”. Season one’s scene where a possessed dog snarls “your mother sucks cocks in hell” – a reference to the infamous line from The Exorcist – was deemed so offensive that the audio had to be dropped entirely, and the mouth of the digital dog completely blurred out. 

America also has a very different system of funding television, which goes some way to explaining why Wellington Paranormal will be taking a hiatus from screens after this season. “In America they just… decide… if a show is going to go on or not,” Clement explains. “But in New Zealand, you have to apply to do another year. So what we’ve done is we haven’t applied to do the next season.” Despite saying that both Wellington Paranormal and his US series What We Do In The Shadows exist in the same universe in his head, Clement admits that making two shows at once meant that he was going “a bit mad” with the workload.

Still, the ghosts and ghouls of Wellington Paranormal may rise from the grave once more. Clement says there has been interest in the format from other countries looking to make their own versions. “We’ve just started having a few meetings about it and hearing people talk about their own local mythology, so we are thinking about that a little bit.” Both he and Yates suggest there will be a return to Wellington Paranormal at some point in the future. “I know there’s a lot of fans of the show and we’d love to hopefully round things off in a proper way with Minogue and O’Leary and Sarge and Parker some day,” says Yates. 

“I’m also certain that, at some point, there’ll be something else paranormal happening in Wellington.” 

Wellington Paranormal begins tonight on TVNZ2 at 8.30pm

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