Most people on this side of the pond might recognize veteran English comedian Richard Ayoade as the oddball techie Moss on the Britcom The IT Crowd, or as the odd man out from the 2012 A-list sci-fi comedy The Watch (he was the gentleman who was not Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn or Jonah Hill). He’s established himself as a novel comic presence onscreen, gravitating toward characters that feel several beats off from the norm and don’t mesh with their environments.
Behind the camera, however, Ayoade has become a specialist in the art of syncing. His debut feature, Submarine (2010), took Wes Anderson’s visual quirks and used them to make a coming-of-age film that could not have felt more provincially British. The Community episode he directed — a double-helix homage/parody of both Pulp Fiction and My Dinner With Andre — felt completely unique while sticking to the show’s in-house style. (Some have called it the “21st century’s greatest TV episode.”) And with his latest film, The Double, Ayoade loosely filters Fyodor Dostoevsky’s story of a clerk (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s life is overtaken by his more confident doppelgänger (also Jesse Eisenberg) through a Kafkaesque dystopia of tyrannical bureaucracy and perpetual nighttime.
Rolling Stone talked to the 35-year-old writer-director-actor about his new movie, working with alt-rockers and why people are fascinated with Beyoncé.
You’d been working on The Double before Submarine, right?
Yes. People don’t merely read Dostoevsky because he’s like cod liver oil or something. He’s an incredibly popular writer, and his work doesn’t feel like it’s aged. I think that’s a feature of a genius writer. He was interested in what makes people tick, and that’s the same as it ever was — in some ways, he’s the opposite of what films seem to be interested in, which is just stimulating your neural sensors. So his books feel completely contemporary, the concerns feel contemporary. The humor feels contemporary.
When we were making Submarine, there was no sense, certainly that this would be a popular film. There is no real coming of age genre or teen genre in England. There are a couple of films, like Kes and Gregory’s Girl. It’s not like in America, where there are a number of teen films. You’d have people saying, “No one watches teen films. This isn’t commercial.” With The Double, however, there was no sense of, “It’s Dostoevsky, that’s difficult.” I was never made to this feel like I was asking to film “70 Million Flies Do a Death Dance” or something.
The Double takes place in what seems to a be a much more constructed world than Submarine — a kind of dystopian alternate reality.
We had a great production designer, David Crank — he’s just done Inherent Vice and worked with Jack Fisk. It was filmed in an abandoned business estate about an hour outside of London; we made a lot of things from things that were there. Those computer banks, a lot of them were real. We augmented some of the elements, but they were based on real things, like in the sorting office; in England, they have those cubicles. Those things exist.
There’s no daylight in the film at all. That felt like function of the story, that kind of paranoia. Also, the humor is quite black, and it feels like it plays better at night. When I think of Dr. Strangelove, I don’t see much daylight there, apart from the planes at the start. It feels that it’s night, that kind of crazed-ness. Those kind of delusions seem to be dispelled by sunlight. After Hours is another example of that kind of humor.
What was it about the book’s doppelgänger idea that resonated for you? And what was behind the idea of the double showing up up — and no one notices him?
I suppose it’s just one of those things that is unexplainably funny. In the same way, I always found amazing this sketch in The Phantom of Liberty, the Luis Buñuel film, where the parents come into the classroom and say, “We’ve lost our daughter.” The teacher goes, “This is terrible!” and the daughter just wanders up and says “I’m here.” They keep going, “Well, where is she?” and “I don’t know,” and then they go through the whole day searching for her, with the daughter still there going, “I’m here!”
There’s something that either gets you or it doesn’t, and I just find it to be a brilliant idea, like Kafka’s Metamorphosis is, to me, a brilliant idea. It’s a very fundamental thing about your sense of self, which everyone is involved with on a minute level, all day long: how they carry themselves, how they want to be seen, what words they choose, how they dress, how they interact, how they look. It’s such a constant, and this is just a brilliant metaphorical working-out of what makes you unique, if at all. Why are people so interested in Beyoncé versus some other person? That seems to be the predominant fascination with our culture, picking out these people who are worthy of absolute slavish obsession.
Especially now that you can follow them on Twitter or Instagram. “I’m so close to Beyoncé! How come she’s her and I’m me?”
Yeah, it’s an odd thing as well. I was reading Slavoj Žižek, who wrote about how it’s odd when a politician tries to be human. It’s a betrayal, because they are their office. They have to say these things because this is their job. As soon as they pretend to be like us, they are definitely lying. So in a way, the more real someone tries to be, the more phony it is.
There’s also a corollary in films, which is that I find the more real a film tries to be, the more phony it is. I haven’t seen Captain Philips. I’m sure it’s great, or whatever. But the idea that you feeling the movement of the lens makes you feel it’s more real — you knowing someone is handling the camera makes you feel it is realistic, even though that is obviously making you aware that it’s a made thing. It’s not whether the building looks like the kind of building you would live in. The fact that you can, within 1/24 of a second, jump 180 degrees around an axis is one of the most surreal things about cinema. You can see that, and that’s really odd, and not normal.
You’ve done several videos for Arctic Monkeys, as well as Vampire Weekend and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and though those bands don’t have a lot in common, they all have a strong sense of performance and persona.
Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting, Karen [O] starting to work with Ezra [Koenig], at the Oscars. I thought “This is really strange.” They kind of complement one another, their voices. It’s really great to see it.
It’s interesting to me the personae people have. It exists in a more widespread and accessible way. One of the most ridiculous things you can do is look up someone’s series of tweets. You go, “What is this?” What is it, exactly? It’s public texting. It’s the most self-conscious act it’s possible to make. It only exists to be witnessed, and so each thing is kind of a mini-performance. Like everything, it’s mutated into the thing that it becomes: It’s just celebrity. It’s why everyone loves hearing about people not being able to get into somewhere, like, “Don’t you know I am?” The reality is that if someone doesn’t know who you are, you aren’t Keanu Reeves. You’re just some dude in a beanie. Who are you? That, to me, is a funny question.
How did J Mascis end up in The Double?
He’s my favorite musician and I knew he could act. He was in Gas Food Lodging; you could just tell he’s a great performer. It felt specifically important that you remember that character. He has one or two lines, and he’s incredibly memorable, his voice, in a very small amount of time, registers. That was key in all the characters, the smaller parts, that they just needed to be very strong, very quickly. We were just fortunate that he agreed to do it.
Did you do The Watch between directing these two movies?
Yes. It was after Submarine, after I did that.
That’s obviously an entirely different scale of production.
I’d say it’s a companion piece! [Laughs] I don’t know how I got in it, really. I just presume everyone else was busy! I think Akiva [Schaffer], who directed it, had seen some shows I was in. Ben [Stiller] I knew, because he executive produced Submarine. Who knows? But yeah, I’d never really been in anything “professionally,” as such. I knew everyone whose shows I’d been in, or I’d co-written or was directing. So it was interesting to see something on that scale, where someone can use Steadicam more than once on a film, those kind of things.
Did you take anything away from that experience going into The Double?
I don’t know, it was odd because when it came out we were still shooting The Double, so I wasn’t really aware. I didn’t see it. And then it started to become an affectation that I hadn’t seen it. I only went for a couple of days for press. I could go a quarter of the way up the red carpet, and then I had to leave before anyone else got there — like the shortest prom ever, leaving at 7:00 p.m. It’d be weird to go and see it in a cinema, yourself, and I can’t just sit in my house and watch it. I generally try to avoid watching things I’m in. So I’m aware of its existence in the world. I’m aware that it’s not, perhaps, seen as mid‑period Fellini.
I like all the actors in it, and I like Akiva — for me, when I’m in something, my job is just to serve the director and do what they want. It’s kind of like giving a tissue sample. You have no idea what will be done with it. That’s the experience for me of being in something that I’m not involved in the writing or directing of. You kind of go, “You seem happy, okay!”
There’s a sense that runs through a lot of things you’ve done of being in the world but not of it, whether you’re playing an alien or, on The IT Crowd, a tech nerd with limited social skills.
Because you’re so interested in the thing you’re currently doing, you’re not seeing it in a kind of lineage or anything. I guess I’ve always liked things that say what they are, like The Catcher in the Rye which says, “I’m going to tell you what happened.” There’s something I find reassuring about that.
To me, there’s something very funny about very handsome movie stars pretending to be in real situations. It’s one of the funniest, most surreal things, this incredibly handsome person going, “You know, I think I might pack in my job as a chef.” It’s just hilarious to me. Whereas I love that Singin’ in the Rain has that [self-awareness] in it; it makes it so I can enjoy it as a result. Everything is artificial, is not real, and I find that is an inherent part of any experience.
I remember this thing Martin Scorsese says that everything has two processes: It’s recording and shaping. You’re aware of what’s being recorded, how it’s being recorded, is it on film, whatever it is, and how they’ve chosen to shape this. I think you can enjoy those decisions, and participate in them, and still be involved as well. Otherwise, the logical end of it is that you literally are Michael Corleone, and you literally do feel that you’ve killed someone. You have no sense of who you are.
Very few people wrote about Submarine without mentioning Wes Anderson, and very few will write about The Double without invoking David Lynch and Terry Gilliam. You don’t seem especially concerned with hiding your influences.
I think most everyone has been in that situation, really, since the first people who made films. In the atmosphere of commerce, there’s a desire to go, “What’s this like?” I’ve used this analogy before of My Bloody Valentine coming out and people going, “What are they like?” “Maybe a bit like The Jesus and Mary Chain? It’s got a lot of feedback.” But it’s not like that. You need some kind of orientation. Submarine was definitely more like Wes Anderson than it was Porky’s. Also, there’s an extent to which you could take any story, and you go “This is this person’s territory.” If you do a heist film where people make any pop culture reference, that’s Tarantino.
In a way, I don’t know how much it really matters, because I don’t think anyone’s truly able to be someone else entirely, whether they want to or not. For me, Gilliam is Fellini-esque, in that way, but he’s his own thing, with a kind of grotesque scale to it. Whereas this felt more about a romantic yearning, and a lonely thing.