Richard Ayoade’s first feature film, the indie comedy "Submarine", is considerably darker than you may remember. It was compared often, upon release, to the films of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, largely because it featured a teenaged boy and had the wistful air of youthful abandon. But Ayoade’s interests lay elsewhere. That film, for all its twee qualities, was grounded in the dreamy romanticism of Jean-Luc Godard and others in the French new wave, and it was ultimately more melancholic than jokey. It should come as no surprise, then, that his follow up, "The Double", finds the darker elements taking a more prominent role, with the focus shifting from teen angst to a full blown existential crisis. An adaptation of a novel by Fydor Dostoevsky, "The Double" stars Jesse Eisenberg as a meek factory worker widely hated or unnoticed by those around him, who one day arrives to work to find his exact double doing and saying everything he wishes he could himself. The film is hilarious, naturally, but also quite moving and sad. It also confirms Ayoade as a legitimate talent.
We sat down with Ayoade at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "The Double" had its world premiere, to discuss influences, tone, and why Donald Trump isn’t funny.
Calum Marsh: I wanted to start with a bit of speculation. You can tell me if I’m full of sh*t if I am. In your first film, "Submarine", Godard’s "King Lear" is, I think, a big thing, right?
Richard Ayoade: Not consciously. Is that the one -- is Woody Allen in that one?
Yes. It uses a lot of seagull noises, is the thing, which is why I mention it.
Ah. No, there were just actually a lot of seagulls when we were shooting and it just became a thing that we liked. Not consciously; I can’t really remember anything about "King Lear", really. I’ve not watched it more than once. "Le Mepris", though, obviously was a big influence.
Yes, the score for "Submarine" is clearly based on Georges Delerue.
Yeah, that’s a big thing. If that film’s ever on I will watch it. I love that film, it’s amazing.
But "King Lear", no, not consciously. I was more things like "Zazie on the Metro". In a film quiz, if someone had said, “What animal sound is most prevalent in 'King Lear',” I don’t know that I would have picked seagulls.
In this one, I thought I saw -- and maybe I’m also wrong here, but I thought I saw a lot of Orson Welles’s "The Trial". Maybe you could talk me through some of the influences?
With everything, sometimes you’re aware of things that it could be seen to be like. In terms of how you want to trace it, Kafka is obviously very influenced by Dostoevsky and Gogol. "The Trial" has its antecedents in those other writers. "The Double" prefigures quite a lot of Kafka-type themes, you could say. Or "The Nose", in terms of taking an absurd object and literalizing a kind of metaphor in that way and taking it seriously can prefigure "The Metamorphosis" or things like that. So, the thing from "The Trial" was not so much the production design, which on that is just epic and incredible. They used that Paris station, didn’t they? The vast desks and all of that stuff. Actually, in the script, originally, as Avi Korine wrote it, it was more like that, in a big metropolis. The idea was to make everything much smaller and more claustrophobic. In a way, it seemed funnier, eventually -- the idea that you’d have a doppelganger in a very small office and no one would notice. That there’s only eight other people and they’re all at least 60, why wouldn’t someone notice that another person looks exactly like someone when it’s not King Vidor’s "The Crowd" where they’re literally faceless. It felt, in a way, funnier the smaller the world, in some respects. I think, maybe, the first ten minutes of "The Trial" is the best thing Welles has ever done, which is not any small feat if you’re Orson Welles. But it’s so funny, the start of that film.
With the cops interrogating him.
It’s amazing. It’s so relentless, so well-choreographed, how low the ceiling is, the kind of excuses, the mounting tension, the fact that he immediately feels he’s in trouble, the decision of where he’s going to change, the kinds of words that he stumbles over and they keep quoting back to him. It’s so brilliant and that definitely was an influence on it.
There’s that great scene in "The Double" when -- actually, it reminded me exactly of that scene in "The Trial", which is when he’s trying to get into the company ball. In that scene, everything he says is taken and twisted around to some incriminating.
In a way, there’s something of "After Hours", which, again, has a Kafka influence in it, and even has the scene from Kafka quoted directly in it by the doorman. He says that, “I’ll take this, just so you would not have felt that you had done all that you could.” Yeah, it definitely had that. Although, oddly, that particular scene was rewritten in the moment in that way of doing it, from Sally Hawkins doing it in that way. Those kinds of frustrations and illogicalities.
I didn’t think about that, but I love "After Hours". That comparison makes sense. What I think the two have in common is that feeling that the world is conspiring against you in some way, though taken to an absurd degree.
But also that it’s not very pointed. What I like about it is it’s one of the things that has been drawn more to my attention through people comparing it to "Brazil", which, again, with say, somebody comparing "Submarine" to "Rushmore", it’s not like they’re comparing it to "Porky’s" or something. Not that I dislike "Porky’s", but they’re comparing it to something that’s good. It just feels inaccurate in some respect, and more to do with production design ultimately, and even then I don’t think is particularly analogous. What I like about the Dostoevsky story is that it’s more that no one cares. No one’s really persecuting him, there’s no conspiracy, it’s not Big Brother like in "Brazil", it’s not "1984", with a slightly more repressive regime, with a malevolent part.
Nor is it even really bureaucratic. It’s very benign and general.
Exactly. No one cares. No one’s really doing that much. Papadopoulos, the boss, walks around saying, “We need to give a big push.” No one’s doing anything! He just makes that speech everyday. Simon’s the only one who’s actually interested and who wants to get ahead. It was never meant to be an Orwellian nightmare of big states. It was more that you’re kind of dwarfed emotionally in cities and the main problem is loneliness and, you know, who cares about you. Things that are more the concerns of "Seinfeld".
I felt this way about "Submarine", too, which is that, although it’s obviously billed as a comedy, I thought that, although it’s very funny, it’s also very sad. "The Double", especially, I thought was very moving. How do you approach tone when you’re making something like this?
I think that the book has that. I suppose that things I’ve always liked most has that feel to it. For so many people, "Catcher in the Rye" is their favorite book and it’s because the funniest thing in it is also the saddest thing in it, you know? Him describing that wall when he goes to Phoebe’s school and someone’s written, “Fuck you”. It’s really funny and his analysis that probably everywhere in the world there’s a wall with that written on, it’s funny but it’s also sad. You do think, “I don’t want my sister to see that.” Just the atmosphere is kind of sad but also funny. I think those things really affect you. I find that "Taxi Driver" is like that, or "Badlands".
They have that feeling and they feel more, I don’t know, this -- I just like things like that a lot. Even things like -- I don’t know, "The Apartment" is so sad, at times, as well as being very funny.
Well, it hinges on a suicide.
And I think that’s the nature of things, in a way. It’s probably no accident that the people in the worst circumstances tend to be the funniest. There’s a direct relation. There’s not a lot of really funny, very rich people. “You know, this guy, Donald Trump, is the funniest guy you’ll every meet.” It just doesn’t tend to happen. There’s no link between it. There’s something about how terrible things are that is why people make jokes, in some way. There’s something funny about someone having to explain to someone else that they exist, a funny and sad thing.
Do you ever feel like you’re making something that you watch as it’s coming together and think, “This needs another joke here” because it’s getting too dark, or “This moment might not seem dark enough,” or anything like that?
No. I mean, you’re generally trying to make it make sense. You’re hoping to have as many things do both at the same time. Generally, the things that stop just to do jokes are always the things that go in the edit. No matter how funny they are, it’s one of the things that, probably, has resulted as opposed to the Preston Sturges era, when every comedy was under 90 minutes, to now, where you see comedies that are two hours and twenty minutes. It’s because you have the plot and you have 15 minutes of improv interspersed between the plot. I find it wrong that something should be two hours and twenty minutes, if it’s a comedy in that way. It just feels like something’s going wrong in that way, if you’re stopping to do a bunch of bits. You hope to be doing the story and that things are funny at the same time. I can remember in, say, a film like "Naked", where it’s just all quite bleak and it’s funny and frightening at the same time. His speech about the apocalypse and the bar code is funny but frightening. There’s no difference between them. I really like those.
That’s a film that, despite being so depressing, I constantly watch. Anytime I want to watch something, that’s what I want.
It’s just got such an energy about it. There’s just no difference in life. I think, often, these things are very helpful categorizations for people deciding whether they want to see a thing. I think that, partially, it’s good and it’s bad. In one way, you can go, “I’m going to watch "Bridesmaids" because I know it’s going to be funny and it’s going to do a thing,” and it is really funny and it’s great. But I think one of the difficulties that has happened is that people have been so routinely burnt by films that they want so much reassuring information before they see it, because they know it’s probably going to be terrible. “Tell me everything. This person’s in it, they’re not trying to do a thing that they don’t normally do. Okay, I think I can take a risk on it.” It makes it harder to do something that hasn’t already happened.
I feel like part of the appeal of the movie to me, in terms of production design and the look of the film, is that it sort of has a real, palpable texture to it. There’s that one image of his machine that prints out copies that has a label-maker name on it and it seems like it’s just been cobbled together out of spare parts. What was the approach there in terms of trying to construct a world?
There are a few things. One was that it should look a little bit like how people imagine the future would be, but in the past. So, in the 1950s, when people said, “In 50 years, everybody will have this,” and they’d cut to an enormous computer and they would say, “This will add things up for you.” It’s a thing that’s too big to do this one task. It’s the sort of things that would never have existed. There never would have been computers this big, but they’re not from the future either, nor are they from the past. Also, there’s an idea that everything would be slightly standard issue. Like, you’d get a suit but there’d only be three sizes, and so he’s too small for a suit because most people are bigger than that, so he’s swallowed by his suit. All the phones don’t have proper numbers on them. They’d have a different code. I just wanted to prevent everyday signifiers where you went, “Oh, that looks like my car.” I feel realism is really great for some things, but for most things it just gets in the way. You just end up going, “He wouldn’t live in a house like that,” or “How come she’s wearing those shoes?” You get drawn into all of these questions that stop you from following the story, where you’re simply trying to place it. It’s become an obsession, I feel. People just want to know where it is. “Where does he live? What town is this? What’s this?” Which is not how you’d ever tell a story to a friend, where you’d just go, “Okay, there’s these three men.” “Where do they live?” “I don’t know, one lives in Boston.” “What part of Boston?” “I don’t know.” “How old is he?” “I don’t know!” They’re only things which get in the way of telling a story. It was to have it have a dreamy feel to it. Going places.