Stefani Robinson is an accomplished writer who, at twenty-eight, already has four Emmy nominations, including two this year for FX’s What We Do in the Shadows. Here, she talks to Awards Daily about crafting this year’s Emmy-nominated script, “On the Run.” She also talks about the other major FX shows with which she is involved and what future movie she is working on.
Awards Daily: This is a bit of a multi-prong question. In your episode “On the Run,” a big part of it is a new character, Jim the Vampire. Where did the idea for this character come from? What was it like working with Mark Hamill? And will we see more of this character?
Stefani Robinson: Jim the Vampire is a great guy. He was actually a Jemaine Clement idea, but at the time Jermaine brought the idea to the writers room, it was a little bit more nonspecific: the Jim the Vampire. Jemaine knew early on that he wanted Laszlo pursued by somebody, and as we talked in the writing room and the character kind of shape-shifted, Jemaine had ideas about what he wanted the person to be. In the writers room in the very early stages, we had a little bit of an idea of who we wanted to cast or how to cast the character. But eventually, as we got closer to production, the script sort of settled itself into what we see on screen. There was thought behind it, but it was sort of a process getting there. I think where we ended up was great because we give such a loving but unintelligent vampire who’s very, very sweet but not the smartest guy in their universe.
Mark Hamill was awesome. It was so great. It was one of those things where I feel like I haven’t completely internalized working with him. The process is just so crazy. It’s a pretty remarkable thing to come to work every day, and Luke Skywalker’s there. That aside, Mark Hamill is so talented, so prolific, having him there with that voice and the costume was pretty surreal.
AD: I have to admit at first I didn’t recognize him, and with the voice I kept getting hints of Joker, so I was, like, why do I recognize this? Oh.
SR: Exactly! It is a little Jokery in the voice. But you’re not the first person who I have heard say they didn’t recognize him. I think it’s more of a testament to Mark and how talented he is, how he totally lost himself in that character. It was an amazing thing to watch happen. We didn’t give him direction. I don’t think we told him how we wanted him to play the vampire. The creation of Jim the Vampire is some credit to Mark and his talent as an actor to make that character feel so strange.
AD: Are you bringing him back?
SR: I hope so. I think the cool thing about our show is that everyone you see has an opportunity to come back whether they die or not, or whether they run off or not. I think for me I’d absolutely love for him to come back.
AD: Another thing in your episode I noticed are several defining jokes: Laszlo disguising himself with the toothpick, and everyone falling for it. Laszlo being in a sort of 80s “save the team” motif movie. Then the singing bass that he gives to Jim in the end. Do you remember where the inspiration for those jokes came from?
SR: Those actually came from the writers room. I think that the kernel of the idea that we just thought it would be funny to see Laszlo, specifically Matt Berry, in a world that feels so different than the world we see him in. Thinking about Laszlo specifically, he is very posh, dandyish, a British aristocrat whose relationship with Staten Island and America don’t really match up. That’s part of the core of the show, why it’s funny, but I think taking that idea a step further, we got really excited about seeing this character in this small time bar that feels like the 80s, like you pointed out. That feels low stakes and down home, and very American, as I guess is the best way of saying it. It felt like a fish out of water in a way we really, really enjoyed.
Speaking about the actor Matt Berry, it felt like something I hadn’t necessarily seen him do before. It just felt like a world he doesn’t explore in shows like Snuff Box or Toast of London, and those shows are so incredible and he’s so funny. There was this attraction to throw him into a situation that is opposite of him. I think a lot of the jobs from the writing came out of that, and a lot of the excitement about what would be fun for Matt to play.
AD: I definitely saw that. It seems like we got some growth with him and he usually stays very himself.
SR: Yes, exactly! Which was so great to see. It was pretty crazy to see him dancing with the jukebox. That is so not Matt Berry but also is very Matt Berry.
AD: So, at 27 you have two Writing Guild Awards and four Emmy nominations, so first you’re making this all up like underachievers. But what has given you the confidence to do what you were doing at such a young age?
SR: [Laughter] That’s a really good question, I don’t know. A lot of it is doing it. I think that from a younger age, from high school onwards, I was one of those lucky people who knew what they wanted to do right away. I just said yes to it, and luckily I had supportive parents who understood what I was passionate about. They went out of their way to throw me into programs or after school activities that were geared towards writing, and I would go to camps in Georgia where I would learn how to operate a camera and stuff like that. I think at least some of that confidence came from just the act of doing constantly. No matter what I was doing, going to school for screenwriting, which I did, or when I was doing jobs where I wasn’t a writer, I was going out of my way to write. The hardest part is just doing it. It’s a simple answer, but I think the bulk of it is I’m going to sit down and write this thing. Whether it’s bad or good, you got to just do it.
AD: I was looking for this online, but I couldn’t find a straight answer: are you going back to Atlanta?
AD: Okay, so do you have any ideas about that show that you want to share?
SR: We finished writing season three to four during the middle of this pandemic. We were writing through the first couple weeks of the lockdown. We got a lot done, but unfortunately it’s one of those things where we were supposed to start shooting this spring but because of the pandemic have not been able to. So, like a lot of Hollywood productions, there’s a lot of talk in how to move forward. So yes, I was back. It’s great, but I won’t tease too much because we are a very secretive bunch, but stories have been written.
AD: I saw another project on your IMDb page Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Can you tell us anything about that?
SR: Yes, that is a movie I am doing with Fox Searchlight Pictures. It’s loosely based on the historical figure Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. And he is celebrated, or was celebrated at the time, and often a forgot or not taught about fencer, composer, and violinist. He is a very fascinating guy who lived a pretty insane life. He is someone I’ve known about for a really long time, and it didn’t occur to me until a few years ago that nobody’s really heard of this person who has lived about twenty exciting life times. He died in obscurity. He is not really taught in schools and nobody really writes about him. There are only a few biographies. I really dove into him, and there are a lot of unknowns. Not much of his entire music catalog exists. Anyway, he’s this fascinating guy, I wrote a script about him; we just recently attached Stephen Williams, the director and executive producer and recent Emmy nominee of Watchmen, to direct. He is so incredibly smart, fascinating and has been the most incredible partner on this journey. We’re both really excited about Chevalier, but content aside, just working with each other has been such a blast and I love him. I don’t want to work with anyone else.
AD: I read how much you were enjoying doing What We Do in the Shadows with just some of the stuff you were able to get away with quote on quote on the show. I’m curious if there is a mythical creature or concept that you want to play with but have not had a chance to do yet?
SR: There are so many; that’s a really good question. I feel like mummies for sure. I feel there’s a way to make that work. I’m a big mummy fan, and by mummy I mean the 90s Brendan Fraser The Mummy, one of my favorite movies. So that way I feel like we’ve got to make mummies work. One I said before, and I do often say, is finding a way to make the Jersey Devil work. It’s not an answer most people expect, but he is a mythical creature so he belongs.
AD: You touched on this, but do you have a process for your writing?
SR: I don’t. I think if there is any process it’s just do it, which I kind of touched on earlier. I’ve heard a quote and I may be butchering it, and maybe it’s not a quote, but the hardest part of writing is writing. There’s this idea that writers have so many ideas and stories they want to tell. They have whole worlds inside their minds and have so many perspectives, opinions, and observations about the world they’re living in, whether it’s real or not. But I think without actually sitting down and typing it all out and doing the work, even if it’s incrementally every single day, those things I find don’t get done. So for me my only process is just to make sure if it’s an assignment or for myself, I just sit down and just do it, even if it’s terrible.
AD: I read that you’ve been working on FX’s Fargo and curious if that has been a different experience for you?
SR: Yeah, Fargo was awesome and hopefully it’s coming out soon. I know they had to shut down due to COVID. It was an interesting experience walking onto a show. It already had three seasons beforehand, and there’s a built-in fan base and lore and style and everything like that. I’m a fan of the show as well, which was also really cool but also a bit intimidating to walk into something pre-established in such a special way. It was great. It wasn’t that different of an experience than the other comedy writer’s room that I’ve been in actually. I think it was all about the story, which is something no matter what room I’m in I feel like is most important to me. The other writers that I worked with were some of the smartest, best writers I’ve ever worked with and, if anything, I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to meet them and hang out with them. It was a really interesting writers room, and we were telling a very specific story, so it was therapeutic in ways, fun in others. It was an experience.
AD: Sounds like you have a lot on your plate overall, but are there any other projects that you wish to pursue?
SR: Oh, that’s a really good question. I think I’m a little bit shortsighted with everything that’s happening and swirling around. I will say we are writing season three of What We Do in the Shadows–that’s been where my head’s at and things are taking shape. I have an overall deal over at FX so the hope at some point is to just get into more TV, whether that’s me writing my own thing or seeing what else is coming down the pipeline. So, yeah, a little short-sighted right now, but excited to see what else happens when time opens up for me.
AD: You have gone through this rodeo before with the Emmys, but what is the experience like waiting for the Emmys and getting a nomination?
SR: It was crazy! I’ll say I have been so busy and just living through coronavirus in America, there are things that have just completely slipped my mind. I was totally aware the Emmys were happening but were not on my radar in the same way and just being preoccupied with everything else going I totally forgot the nominations were coming out. So the day they did come out, my phone was blowing up. I was, like, ‘What is going on? What is this?’ Then putting the pieces together like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ Like the Emmys, of course!
This is the perfect timing because with everything that’s been happening–being cooped up in my home, which while I’m thankful that I’m able to work and that’s such a nice thing, but other than that, with the stresses of living during a pandemic you will find any reason to celebrate anything. It was an amazing surprise and I’m still celebrating, and such a nice thing to happen in the midst of all this craziness. I think it’s been a little bit more meaningful than it has been in the past because it just puts things in perspective. It’s again a reason to celebrate and we need a lot of those.