THE DOUBLE Interview with director Richard Ayode

After the hyper-kooky SUBMARINE, Richard Ayoade goes deep, deep down with the Dostoevsky adaptation THE DOUBLE.

There’s little doubt that a movie like THE DOUBLE will divide audiences. And it’s clear too that Richard Ayoade likes that kind of math. Having graduated from highly-acclaimed cult sitcoms GARTH MARENGHI’S DARKPLACE and MAN TO MAN DEAN LEARNER to hallowed hit sitcom stardom, thanks to his very convincing turn as computer geek Maurice Moss in THE IT CROWD, it was always plain that Richard Ayoade was more than just a pretty weird-looking stooge. Beneath those Norwegian and Nigerian features, and that Harpo-worthy hair, there laid a mischievous and mildly disturbed soul. It was there in Ayoade’s debut feature as a filmmaker, 2010’s silly love sonnet, SUBMARINE (think HAROLD AND MAUDE via Wes Anderson). And it’s very much to the fore with THE DOUBLE, Ayoade teaming up once again with writer Avi Korine for a, yep, quirk adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dark, eponymous 1846 novella.
Jesse Eisenberg is the beleagured, sweaty-palmed Simon, a constantly-ignored data processor cog in a dark, dank office. The only sunlight in Simon’s life seems to emanate from the mild pixie dream girl Hannah (Wasikowska), who works in the photocopier apartment. Life is grim, and lonely, and Simon’s feeble attempts to get close to the object of his growing desires take a turn for the better with the unexplained arrival of his dashing, instantly-popular doppelganger, James (also Eisenberg). The latter promises the former that he’ll guide him through the seduction of Hannah in return for Simon doing all his boring, old paperwork. Naturally, their Cyrano plans don’t quite go to plan…
Coming across as Woody Allen’s Winston Smith, Eisenberg can handle the Jerry Lewis pratfalling perfectly well here, but when it comes to the Dean Martin swagger, he’s all at sea. Perhaps that’s what Ayoade wanted, given that his film never lets even a crack of sunlight in, as our meek anti-hero slips further and further into anxiety and desperation.

For a comedy it gets a little dark in places, being far more ERASERHEAD than THE NUTTY PROFESSOR – that must have been a concern commercially.
Richard Ayoade: You worry that people might find it boring, or that they might not feel it’s worth staying in the cinema for, but I’m not worried about how many laughs were there. Because you never know what people will necessarily laugh at. There’s a certain grammar to laughs in films at the moment, where you show something absurd and then you show the reaction, and the laugh comes from the reaction shot. That happens in all sitcoms, where someone says something funny and then you cut to someone looking at them annoyed, or stony-faced, or annoyed, or quizzical, and the laugh is on their reaction.

You’ve had some experience in the sitcom field, right?
RA: Well, yeah, but it’s like FRIENDS. Sometimes you go, well, Chandler’s pretty funny, maybe they should be laughing at some of his jokes. But Chandler says something funny, and then one of his friends just gives him a look. Which I have no problem with, but part of the premise of this is that no one reacts to things as though they were odd. So, you can’t build laughs on a reaction basis, which is generally the signal that it’s okay to laugh. I like in TAXI DRIVER that there isn’t that kind of reaction, or there isn’t in AFTER HOURS, and there isn’t so much in ERASERHEAD. You know, it’s kind of held, and that’s something that I’ve always liked.

How did you decide on the look of the film? Shades of BRAZIL, a grim retro-future with computers that look like they run on coal. You’re never quite sure what’s real in this nightmare vision.
RA: I think because a double is an impossible mythological idea, that you don’t… Like, a fairy story, you have a general structure – a magical kingdom, an enchanted forest – but we wanted that Dennis Hopper feeling, where it could be any diner in America. It’s not mired by particular signs where you can go, oh, that’s that place in New York, off Fifth Avenue, or something. For something more dreamy, you don’t want it to be set in one place. I like that about old films. I like that with SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, that’s Hollywood. It’s not any specific place. Everyone had a general idea of what a farm was, what the West was, what Hollywood was, and that was really great for stories. There’s something also wonderful about something like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, where you’re dealing with real streets, and real clothes, and real people. But this didn’t feel like it would benefit from that kind of photographic reality, where you recognise King’s Cross, right now. It’s not that kind of world. It’s more dreamy.

Did you have a recommended viewing list for actors Jesse and Mia?
RA: No. BRAZIL was something we brought up in terms of something to avoid, not because the film is bad, it’s just that Gilliam is an adjective, like Tarantino or Scorsese. It would mean copying Gilliam, and although he’s great, this didn’t feel like a Felini-esque, satirical grotesque. It wasn’t on that scale. It was loneliness, and small. Jesse doesn’t really watch films at all, and he never watches himself, so, I gave him some Buster Keaton to watch. And then he would tell you that he liked one particular bit of a film. He’s not a film freak, at all. Mia is much more that way inclined, and I gave her PUNCH DRUNK LOVE to watch. It’s not really about, you’re going to be doing this sort of thing – it’s just a shorthand. I suppose for them it was really the set, and the locations, and when they were there, it was night. So, that had a certain feel, and it would have made the story more real for them.

If SUBMARINE looked like it was entirely shot on Polaroid, THE DOUBLE feels like it could have been shot entirely in one dark, dank basement, with a few costume changes. I know you had an abandoned warehouse for your set here, which would have helped concrete your world, but it’s often in the edit suite that you really see what you’ve created…
RA: Yeah, you never know until the end. And everything is hard, in a way that’s ultimately interesting. Philip Roth once said, ‘Writing’s not hard, it’s a nightmare’, and so, you know, you can’t say it’s hard in the true sense – that would be pathetic – but it’s nightmarish. It’s of your own making, and who the hell are you to complain? It’s a weird obsession, and it’s never quite right… The great thing about a film is that you’re surrounded by people that you really like, and who are interesting and brilliant, and all of whom you are taking their advice on everything. You have actors who are imbuing things with life that felt dead before, and a cameraman who can make something that looked ordinary suddenly look extraordinary. And the costume designer, who weaves their magic. So, you have all of these people, but you can still struggle with the worry that it might not all work. It’s such a strange way of doing something. Factory-like, and so prolonged – 53 days to make something that’s 90 minutes. It’s absurd. And you manage just over a minute and a half a day, and it’s embarrassing.
But yeah, it’s very difficult to know what you’re making, and no one would ever intends for a film to be awful, but, often it is…

You’ve been rubbing shoulders with some very heavy hitters, with the likes of Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill, and you’ve got two very big stars leading your little movie too. Do you feel an obligation to have success, given that this window of great opportunity right now…
RA: You don’t want the people who have been kind enough to invest in your work to be financially decimated. But really, there’s no way to insure that something is popular, and success is such a hard thing to know what that is, particularly. I guess both of these films have been made in Britain, and this film came from America really, in that it was Avi’s idea to adapt the book – and I feel grateful to him – so, I don’t feel any kind of proprietary thing over it… I’m not sure that there’s an answer in that rambling sentence, but, you know, you make something as though it’s something that you really love, that someone is going to really love it. It’s like you’re making it for one person, rather than a group of people.

Have you told your investors this…?
RA: Not yet, no. If you think of trying to please a large group of people, that begins to feel a little dehumanizing. Like you’re working in advertising, where they might go, ‘Hey, this is what kids want’. And that’s not always a good way to to go. When you try to please lots of people, you end up with The Monkees, who were kind of good. If you aim to please yourself first, you end up with The Beatles. I think if you make something that you really like, there’s a good chance that other people will like it. Who would have focused-grouped The White Stripes – they seem like a terrible idea, but they’re great.
So, you never know. It could be awful, the stuff I do, but I’m not trying to please everybody. I just don’t know how you’d do that. No one has the imaginative capacity to work out what two million people will love.

THE DOUBLE is at cinemas from April 4th

Words: Paul Byrne