This week marks the release of Richard Ayoade’s second directorial outing with The Double, and firm proof that the actor has become a force to reckon with in the world of British filmmaking. The product of his efforts, an adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella in which a lowly office worker is tortured by the sudden appearance of a radically more extroverted doppelgänger, is a masterclass in inducing paranoia and claustrophobia. Ayoade has created a dystopian future which moulds into a nightmare for the meek and humble, whilst still weaving in the same brand of self-effacing humour seen in its predecessor Submarine.
In light of these achievements, and the fact that Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace will always hold a special place in my heart, it was an absolute pleasure to sit down with the man for a roundtable discussion of his latest work. It’s clear even from the briefest conversation with Ayoade, that even though he so modestly confesses himself to be the “most thinly read man in the world”, there is an ocean of insight lying behind those trademarked glasses. His adoration of film stretches beyond the encyclopaedic into a deeper understanding and connection to the works which have moulded him as a filmmaker. He’s that kind of person whose conversations you always seem to edge into at parties in the vain hope that if you make enough mental notes, you might just be a more intelligent and cultured person for it. Richard Ayoade unfortunately didn’t make me any smarter in our short time together, but, hey, he was still a pretty cool guy to chat to.
The Double at once evokes a wide range of references, from the fifties to Big Brother to the futuristic, but also it’s completely its own thing because it’s so individual. Do you prefer people to interpret one way or the other or were you just happy to leave it open? Did you have any intention of how people should interpret the way it looks?
Richard Ayoade: The idea broadly was that it should look like, say, in the fifties when they had programmes predicting what the future would be. That kind of world had come to pass so it’s not historically accurate and it’s not a prediction of what will be, but more a wrong-turning. And primarily, it was because there’s something mythological about doppelgängers so it felt it shouldn’t exist in the real world and that it should be dreamy, so it’s sort of night, and it’s black. The designer David Crank said that in Edward Hopper paintings you never see the wires between the telegraph poles, so there’s a kind of subtraction to those images; you have a lot of dark in them so there’s room for you to imagine things. There’s not photographic reality like you would get if you just shot in an ordinary street and you’d see exactly what it is and as a viewer you’d go o.k., they’re on Bond Street so this is the kind of thing that happens on Bond Street. And we wanted the work he did not to be place-able so you wouldn’t go, well, obviously if he concentrates more on this area of data entry he can succeed, or he can go and do this, or why doesn’t he move. It had to feel suffocating. So that was the idea really, that it would not be a specific place.
While there’s certainly thematic similarities between Submarine and The Double, I felt like stylistically there was quite a big change between Submarine’s New-Wave sensibilities and The Double’s kind of dystopian Lynchian horror. Are you in search of a definitive Richard Ayoade style (like Wes Anderson has done) or do you want to be more experimental with your use of style?
RA: Well, I hope to never say my name in the third person [laughs]. It’s more the sources are just so different. Joe [Dunthrone, author of Submarine]’s book was so different to this, so they just had different demands. It’s impossible to really think of anything that you are specifically imbuing it with because so much of it is done in the idea, and so you’re just trying to work out how to show it in some way. It’d be different if they weren’t adaptations, possibly, of if you were some sort of Eric Rohmer, who writes six films along a similar theme and they’re all in Paris or some place. But I really like Louis Malle and he did all sorts of different things; documentaries, and then something like Zazie dans le métro is so different to Black Moon. I don’t know, it’s hard to say.
What was the experience like of directing Jesse Eisenberg in two very different roles? He’s fantastic as both, he’s got great chemistry with himself. What was it like on set, getting these two very different and complimentary performances out?
RA: Well, it’s mainly that he’s very great, so a lot of it you’re trying not to get in the way of actors and you can’t particularly draw out something that isn’t there and that they don’t have. The task and the main job was his, but there are certain technical aspects of directing; there’s motion control which I guess a lot of people would be aware of, a kind of computerised rig that moves the camera and then repeats the movements over and over. You pick one take and he has an earpiece and he performs the next character to that character while having to remember all these eye-lines and the pace at which the previous him had spoken. But what you’re doing technically is quite straightforward in some ways, it’s just time consuming. Really it’s him. So it’s not like you’re telling someone how to do it. You kind of talk about it and rehearse, but he’s just one of those actors who’s technically very adept as well as being very involved. It’s a really hard thing to do because it goes against every actor’s instinct which is to be in the moment but you have to respond to something that just isn’t there. Also, no one ever gets to see it until the edit, it just physically doesn’t exist so it’s crazy; it’s like one person speaking out loud and then there’s a gap and then they say something else. So it’s really odd, but actors are used to recording scenes out of order and against green screen and if this were in a film you’d have a wide shot and then you’d do all the singles, and then you’d have to remember where you were in the wide shot and what energy. So they’re used to that technical aspect of it. The answer is, it’s not that different really; the main job was his.
Oliver in Submarine and Simon in The Double have sort of a stilted awkward, romantic element that is recurrent. Is there a personal attachment for you that’s really brought these characters to life?
RA: It’s so strange adapting something, which I hadn’t done before Submarine. You just like something; so I could imagine having, like, The Godfather there and I wouldn’t go, hmmm, I really relate to the Mafioso. It’s more just if you feel something is well-written or you feel the character’s good, you inevitably see yourself in it. In the same way that, you know, you see yourself in Madame Bovary or something; I’m not a spend-thrift Parisian frequenter. It’s not like you go, oh, this really represents me or my personality particularly because that wouldn’t interest me; I have to endure that on a day-to-day basis so I’m more interested in people who are going into states that I wouldn’t go into naturally myself because it’s interesting to find out how they’d behave exactly. Dostoevsky said this: that’s there’s a part of you that you show the world, and there’s a part of you that you show to people who are close to you, and there’s a part of you that you show mainly to your wife or the one person that’s closest to you, and there’s a part of you that’d you only show to yourself, and there’s a part of you that even you don’t know about. So there’s probably no behaviour or no character that you wouldn’t be able to feel some kind of relationship to. As in, you watch Taxi Driver and you can follow it. You don’t go, who are these people? You go, I can kind of follow it, even though it’s a psychopath killer. So, yeah, in a way it’s more just if you feel the writing of something is interesting or engaging rather than wanting to spend time with someone who’s like you.
Do you think there’s a sense of escapism then by placing this in a very dystopian context, in a way, creating these mildly impossible figures? Is that an experimentation that’s going on?
RA: The book, a large part of it, is satirical of 19th century Russian bureaucracy, which doesn’t feel appropriate to dwell on, and that wasn’t for us the most interesting thing: which was someone so lowly and invisible, that when their double shows up, no one is bothered by it. That they can just be replaced easily. That seemed emotionally interesting and it felt like a good setting for it. For something that: the source isn’t English, it isn’t American, it’s not a recognisable world; so to create another unrecognisable world, it doesn’t feel like we have any business particularly or interest in discussing 19th century clerical Russia. So we wanted to create a different way of housing it and, I guess, concentrating more on this more romantic story between Jesse and Mia’s character. But in a way I sort of feel like in a dream, that isn’t particularly realistic, the emotions we feel may be stronger than they do in something which is packed with verisimilitude. You’re going for something which heightens the emotion. Even in a documentary they’re still cutting to that close-up that they shot two hours out of sequence to heighten that emotion. Their job is collecting material and then shaping it to create the most intense effect, really. And if you’re not having to place it in the real world then, well, if this wall’s grey then it will make the scene sadder. If this light is here, she will look more beautiful. If this sound is here, it will sound more uncomfortable. So you’re sort of heightening it at every opportunity.
I thought it was like a post-Freudian interpretation of pre-Freudian text in a way, the dream stuff, it’s made more psychological.
RA: Well I think he kind of pre-figured a lot of the Jungian idea of the shadow. It’s what that book is about in a way, what you can’t admit about yourself will out. I think Jung said about Dostoevsky, that he was the best psycho-analytical writer he’d read. I say this from a position of the most thinly read man in the world, but I’ve not read anyone else who seems so brilliantly at home in, and gets into, discomfort and that kind of racked sense of guilt in a funny way, and it seems completely real, and just the knots that people get themselves into at a real unconscious level. Completely fearless and unfiltered as well, he’s not easy on himself at all, you feel. I think really great novelists do that, they are psychologically very perceptive without there being a kind of dogmatic framework.
Simon idolises the sci-fi hero that he watches regularly on TV, I get the sense that he wants to be him, and James in a way, at least initially, is that wish fulfilment come to life. In the light of the technological revolution, and the fact that our online personas on Facebook or Twitter are idealised versions of ourselves, do you think Dostoevsky’s novel has more relevancy today?
RA: It’s definitely emotionally relevant, reading them it feels like there’s no separation, there’s no sense of that kind of personality existing in a prior time at all. When you read it, it just feels like Larry David, it’s the same kind of humiliations and status anxieties and foibles, it feels completely contemporary to me. Notes from Underground, there’s a brilliant story where someone bumps into him and he spends the next three years trying to bump back into the person who bumped into him, and then he makes sure he’s got his best clothes on in case there’s a scandal so he doesn’t look ridiculous. It really is like Larry David. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter so I have no avatar to relate to in any way, but I think; there’s this thing in Switzerland where everyone one day a year puts on a mask and they go crazy in the town, and they don’t have to abide by their normal persona. So I think there’s always been that element; people have different ways they present themselves and different ways to protect themselves. And so, I think social media is just another medium in which that self-deception that happens in every conversation occurs. In a way, it just feels like the newness of that is not very significant, any more than when everyone became literate everyone could describe their day for posterity however they wished to, and they could say: “another triumph of a day. Everyone loves me.” You can write whatever you want and that’s another way of doing that, or not, or subverting or however you interact with it. It’s more that, what’s in the book, I think if something’s good it’s always good.
The sound design was such a huge part of the experience of the film, and I was just wondering if you wanted to talk a bit about how you went about it.
RA: There was going to be two kind of elements to the soundtrack: a score which Andrew Hewitt did which is instrumental and based on Schubert and, in some ways, is a kind of “inside his head” sound; and then the industrial sounds drift in and out of perspective. Sometimes they’re just ambient but they always feel connected to how he feels. The sound took longer than it did to film; it took four months to do the sound. We made all the sounds and all the footsteps.
I love that bit where the footsteps aren’t really reflecting the people who are walking, but it takes a while to realise that. It’s so effective.
RA: We spent a lot of time on it, and we sort of made all the sounds because, again, it’s not set in the real world so it felt like it couldn’t be documentary sound. With Submarine we did no sound effects on it all, it was all recorded at source. With this, every single sound was made afterwards; it was all guitar pedals. It was this place, Hackenbacker; they’ve done all the sound on things I’ve been involved with. But, yeah, in a way it’s quite unconscious sound, it acts on you without your permission and you tend not to decode it in the same way you do with images. You’re kind of looking for connections between two images whereas you tend not to look for the connection between two sounds, or you can stack sound in a way you can’t with images. So that’s interesting, you know, having twenty layers of sound, each doing a different thing and having a different repeat or rhythm. So, you know, it really comes through on the iPhone, which is the best form to watch this in. We won’t get those four months back.
The Double is out this Friday, 4th April 2014.