Writer, actor, and director Richard Ayoade has done it all and, surprisingly, kept an unfairly low profile. His first feature film was 2010’s Submarine, a hyper-aware coming-of-age dramedy that made a small splash in indie circles. His second feature, The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska about a man whose doppelgänger shows up at his office without anyone else seeming to notice, played in March at this year’s New Directors/New Films and will be released in theaters this Friday on May 9th (You can read my review of the film from the ND/NF here). I sat down to talk with him about his influences, the concept of the uncanny, Eisenberg’s talented range, and why Dostoyevsky is as funny as an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
SH: Well first off, I thought the movie was great, and to start off I wanted to get a better sense of the genesis of the film. I know the idea to make the movie began with co-screenwriter Avi Korine who wrote a first draft, but when did you join the project and when did you decide during that collaborative process that it would be your second directorial feature?
RA: Well I first read his script in 2007, I think, before we filmed Submarine. We filmed Submarine in 2009, so I had only maybe just started writing Submarine and I met Avi when I was doing this music video for Vampire Weekend. So I was in America and I could afford to go to Nashville [where Korine lives] which wasn’t too crazily expensive, and we talked about it and I had some ideas about how to restructure certain things and he did another draft. I probably started to re-get involved in two-thousand and…gosh maybe it could have been 2010 and maybe I read the script in 2008? But yeah, it was awhile and took a long time.
Actually yeah, the film [Submarine] came out in 2010 so I was kind of working on it from after I met Avi—and he was doing the absolute bulk of it initially—and then I wrote a draft, and then he came to England and we wrote one together. That was kind of the best period—the period where we made the most progress in cracking it properly. And after that I would sort of write it and it started to come together as a shooting script as it were. But Avi always came to the shoot, and it was really great working with him. I hope to work with him again.
And when did you first read the Dostoyevsky novella the movie is based on?
After I read Avi’s script. I just had it as a sort of trophy book on my shelf, so I hadn’t read it before. I knew it comes together with “Notes from Underground” or “The Gambler,” so it’s one of those kind of things, you know? It’s hard to follow the book. It has a weird ending and it’s written in a kind of—I’m not sure what the literary term is—it’s, um, sympathetic third person? It flips in and out of his consciousness and out of reality. I guess in a way primarily we took the premise, but we didn’t kind of—there’s no satirical attack on bourgeois values or anything. I guess the film ended up being more of a romantic story, a love story of a character who can’t get over himself and is obsessed with Mia Wasikowska’s character, and the double intercedes in that way. Whereas in the book it’s primarily about his work, which didn’t feel enough—you know, the idea of going mad because he doesn’t get promoted seems…
And you added things like the mother.
So correct me if I’m wrong, but I think specific influences play a big part in your films—which is not to say they’re unoriginal. I mean to say that you can take specific examples of influence—like the Georges Delerue music or Jean-Pierre Melville posters in Oliver’s room in Submarine, or the kind of dead-end bureaucratic humor of Terry Gilliam’s films in The Double—and apply them to your films. So is influence something you’re overtly conscious of when making your films, or how intentional do you like those influences to be?
I guess it’s part of why you’re interested in it at all. I don’t know, but for me I just wouldn’t know it existed but for seeing films. That kind of purity is impossible in a way unless you’re D.W. Griffiths or something. As in probably the reason you’re interested in it is because you saw films and you liked them, and they made you feel a certain way. I remember something that Stanley Kubrick said which was that probably a truly original mind wouldn’t be able to work in film because it’s a classical medium now. There’s a grammar that’s been established. Like a reverse shot pattern is a bigger copying trope than anything else where you go, “You can shoot this person and then reverse 180 and shoot that other person.” It’s so weird that that even works—the idea that you could cut between two angles that would be impossible to discern from any point of view. I mean what is that?
I guess it’s just fundamental?
Yeah, and you just go, “That’s real.” But if you do a track zoom then that’s Hitchcock. So, in a way, for me it’s kind of inescapable. The things that you really like are there all the time, and also certain subjects already this far in have their masters. If you’re into suspense I imagine Hitchcock is going to become involved. If you’re into, I don’t know, comedy and you have no knowledge of Chaplin then something’s gone wrong. I guess there are these touchstones, but also there’s another level where characters themselves—particularly in the case of something like Submarine—are aware of cinema. I remember really loving Kevin Williamson and the first series if “Dawson’s Creek.” I was obsessed with that series because…
Like how Dawson was obsessed with films and Spielberg and all that?
Well yes, but also because it was one of the first things where people watched films and talked about them, and to me it wasn’t meta. It just felt right. That’s what my friends and I would talk about. We’d watch films and go, “Did you see that?” and wanted to be like the people on TV, and it felt really great. I loved it, and so in Submarine we wanted to have someone who saw their life as if they were in a film, and so that sort of thing particularly became important for that one.
Well that’s something that I appreciate about your two films so far, is that they both outwardly embrace that sort of thing.
And the New Wave too. I love how they managed to embrace all those influences. It’s something like every writer after Hemingway has got a bit of him in them. They just can’t go back in some ways.
Yeah, yeah exactly. So, switching gears a bit—in the past in interviews in things you’ve graciously said you’re not good at acting, but to me you’ve uniquely shifted between small British panel shows, to something like a big Hollywood movie with Ben Stiller, and then to directing music videos and films. Is their one thing you prefer or do you enjoy being able to do all of those things? Obviously talented people have the ability to be multifaceted, but I appreciate the way you cover all of those things.
Certainly with something like this you aren’t doing it on your own by any means.
I’ve got sort of a complete infrastructure of all these great people who I’m cannibalizing the talents of, but I suppose I feel the greatest aptitude for writing or directing. [Jokingly] It’s pretty difficult when working with people like Jesse and Mia to think you’re particularly an actor [Laughs]. You know, they really can do it, and I’ve never thought of myself as an actor. I’ve been in things and I’m grateful to be in things and I’ve enjoyed it, but I probably find performing easiest when I’ve written it simply because it’s already something internalized. But, you know, it’s really hard to act. No directors become actors despite the fact that it’s better paid and there’s more recognition. You know, Fincher is not becoming an actor, whereas a lot of actors can direct pretty well.
It’s just a very particular ability that’s to do with your physiognomy—like how easily your face can be read. It’s like a balletic ability that you really need to be working on all the time, and I really feel like a kind of gentleman amateur [laughs], you know, coming up to town for the day. So, yeah, but with the thing I’m probably most know for performing-wise, Graham [Linehan, creator of The IT Crowd] is a really good writer and it plays to a limit in my range that’s appropriate for that.
I wanted to say that “tone” is something that’s come up a lot about The Double in interviews that I’ve watched or read. I think it’s strange that people are so surprised about it because I think even parts of Submarine operate in a darkly comedic or surreal place. So instead of specifically asking about tone I wanted to ask about the concept of “The Uncanny”…
…the Freudian concept that something can be both familiar and alienating at the same time, and how you went about creating that specific atmosphere for the film or whether it was simply evident in the source material.
It partially is, but I guess things—um—like this isn’t something that we thought about while making it but there’s a good Slovoj Žižek piece on Lost Highway [directed by David Lynch] and in it he says that one of the things that is—I think Lost Highway is brilliant, like really weird. I remember reading two-star reviews for Lost Highway and thinking “This is insane,” and you say, “How could it be better,” you know, “This is ridiculous.” But he said about it, which I think is really true, is that you have the conscious and subconscious treated equally without any differentiation between their respective realities. So it’s not like you have this and then something underneath it, they’re both just side-by-side. So a scene where the Mystery Man says, you know, “I’m at your house,” is treated as normally as someone ordering a cup of coffee. It’s not like, “This is weird,” and suddenly we have creepy music and the camera pushes in. It’s done in the same way. In fact [Lynch] is more likely to have weird music over someone just drinking a coffee and it not being odd.
So there’s that element where people don’t respond, in a way, to confirm something being strange. There are no reaction shots to something being odd or, say, when Simon is in the old peoples’ home in the movie and there’s a thing where he says the price hike seems unfair, and the man behind the desk just goes, “Yup, seems a bit unfair.” It’s just someone not responding in a way that you’d expect and not feeling the situation as you’re feeling it. Ordinarily that person would go, “Oh, I’m sorry,” but he just feels none of the awkwardness you feel he ought to be experiencing. So it creates a strangeness in that it looks like a regular scene, but there’s something wrong and something isn’t operating as it ought to.
Well that sort of plays into my next question because I was curious…[Publicist says to begin to wrap-up]
…I was curious as how sort of daunting it was to try to get humor out of something like Dostoyevsky that someone would might not immediately think is funny? Is it a matter of zeroing in on those awkward moments to maybe give the audience permission to laugh? Because I find the fundamental conceit of the movie—a double of you that no one around you notices is your double—is just absurdly funny.
I think he is funny. Dostoyevsky is deliberately funny. There are very few writers who don’t use humor and it’s weird when someone doesn’t. You know, something like “Notes from Underground” is like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. In that book someone bumps into the main character at a bar and doesn’t notice him, and he feels so slighted that he decides that he’s going to bump back into that person, so he tries to find the appropriate time to track him down and he dresses up in his best clothes in case there’s a scandal, but the person he bumps back into doesn’t notice him. You know, this is a Larry David situation, and Dostoyevsky, as a writer, seems brilliantly able to get into those petty moments where people get angry over trivial and silly things. I think because it’s Russian literature and it’s in the canon it seems as if it’s weighty and big, but he has endured because he’s interested in people and their foibles and the small things. Very rarely is he loftily engaged with huge geo-political matters. It’s all quite personal.
[Jokingly] Basically I think he has a long Russian name so people think it’s all quite serious, but, like, it’s no more serious than Woody Allen would be if he were “Allen Konigsberg” the great dramatist.[Publicist motions to wrap it up]
Alright, well if that’s it…if I could just ask one more question because I wanted to mention Jesse Eisenberg. I could go on and on, but he’s such a unique sort of actor in terms of his range—he mostly reminds me of Dustin Hoffman…
I was curious because he plays both sides of Simon and James so well and so distinct that I was curious if you found it difficult to find someone, or even think about finding someone, who could do both sides of one personality like that?
Well he was the only person we thought could do it in terms of his age, and, you know, someone who didn’t just rely on physical transformation to differentiate character. He always feels like—people always think of him as playing himself even when he’s playing vastly different characters. Dustin Hoffmann and Jack Lemmon have that ability as well in that attitudinally and by their emotional attack they’re completely different. So even in the edit on a still frame you could immediately tell which character Jesse was playing, and that’s major in a photo to know which it was when they’re dressed the same, with the same haircut, and with the same lighting. You could just immediately know, and yeah I can’t think of anyone around that’s better than him at the moment.
Great, I think that’s it. They really want me to wrap it up now.