A Gentle Man: Interview With Richard Ayoade

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As you’ve probably noticed if you’re a regular reader of The Velvet Onion, we’ve been making quite a fuss about The Double, the new feature film from Richard Ayoade. A couple of weeks ago we were lucky enough to be invited to meet the man himself, to talk to him about his latest film and to find out why he’s glad that it hasn’t yet been compared to ‘Nutty Profressor 2′. Velveteer Mog reports:

© Michael Leckie

The real Richard Ayoade is something of a surprise. Prettier, younger and slimmer than he looks on TV, the initial impression is more hipster than geek. He’s also quite possibly the best-dressed person I’ve ever been in the same room as; a peeping sliver of lemon sock perfectly matches the colour of a butterfly’s wings in the pattern on his shirt.

His answers to questions are similarly considered. Polite, softly-spoken and humble, the word that probably best describes Richard Ayoade is “careful”. Not the bad sort of careful that implies control freakery, but the decent sort that means “full of care”. The sort of careful that matches socks to butterfly wings.

He’s here to talk about his new film The Double, his wonderfully idiosyncratic adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella, which stars Jesse Eisenberg in dual roles: as the downtrodden Simon James and the charismatic James Simon. Co-written with Avi Korine, Ayoade was first sent the script in 2007; the film was shot in 2012 and is released in the UK this week, so it’s been a long time in development. What attracted him to the project in the first place? “I thought the premise was really unique and interesting; the idea of a double that no one else notices.” He says.

However, translating a complex story like The Double into celluloid comes with its own challenges; Ayoade notes that films of books can often end up as a diminished version of the original printed form. So how did he compensate for that? “In the book you have a great deal of psychological insight into the characters, so [in the film] you have to create visual moments to bring that to life,” He explains. “You have to think of things that will illustrate their personality, even though those things aren’t in the book, and even though they take the story in a different direction.”

© Studio Canal

This is one of the reasons why he weaved a love story into the spine of the film, feeling that it presented a more believable catalyst for the emotional unraveling of the central character, Simon, than the loss of his status at work (which he experiences in the book) would. “While I relate to him as a character and to his disintegration, I don’t know that anyone feels that way about work.” He pauses, then adds apologetically, “I could be wrong, because I don’t have a proper job, but it doesn’t feel as important as not being recognised by someone who you love.”

Jesse Eisenberg has reported that he was heavily influenced by the two roles that he played, to the extent that he felt depressed after spending the day filming as the downtrodden Simon. I ask Ayoade if he was similarly affected as director. “No, because you’re outside of it, you’re not inhabiting it emotionally. For instance, I can’t imagine a director crying at an awards ceremony – it’s just not that close to the surface, it’s buried. Whereas actors are able to bring their emotions to the surface more readily; if they’re crying, they’re crying, and it is going to get to you. Jesse’s going through it every day for three months, whereas I’m on the outside.”

© Studio Canal

His respect for and appreciation of his cast’s contribution is plain to see; does he think that his own experience in front of the camera helps him to better understand his actors?

Once again, he’s keen to play down his own talents: “I’m not an actor in that sense. I’ve been in comedies, but what lead actors do is completely different to what I’m doing, where I’m more or less waiting for someone to finish what they’re saying, then I say something. Lead actors are doing something much more complex and involving.”

However, he accepts that his personal experience enables him to be more sympathetic to the pressures that actors are under, and he makes sure not to talk during scenes and to give his cast positive feedback after takes. “You can’t give off distress signals that everything’s going badly and not expect them to be affected by it,” He says.

Would he ever consider directing himself in a major movie, given that he’s done so previously in comedy productions such as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Man To Man with Dean Learner andADBC? His humility comes to the fore: “I couldn’t imagine not being able to think of someone better. There would have to be an outbreak of influenza or…I don’t know…a global strike..” He flounders slightly, clearly horrified by the notion that he could ever replace a ‘proper actor’ in a role. “But then I’d be a scab, which would be another thing to deal with – so I can’t really see it, no.”

© Indiewire

A large percentage of the shoot took place at night, which meant that crew and cast existed on three or four hours sleep a night for several months; something which can’t help but contribute to the characters’ frayed edges as the action unfolds.

But when asked if the shoot was hard on everyone, Ayoade is slightly bemused. “It just sounds absurd talking about a shoot being hard. You think ‘Really? It was harddoing this make-believe thing for a period of time?’ It’s like complaining about playing cowboys and Indians. It just seems ludicrous.” His hyper-awareness of the oddness of his job and the privileges it bestows is refreshing.

Much has been made of the set design and cinematography in The Double, which defines a visually unique and yet ambiguous world, imbuing the film with a strong sense of other-worldliness. Ayoade describes it as, “The future as imagined by someone in the 50s, so it would be wrong and not historically accurate, and not something that would happen in the future or in the past. A left turn of some kind.”

He explains that he likes constructed worlds in films, preferring to steer away from realism because it can get in the way of the story. “They present reality in so much detail and so accurately that there’s too much information. I prefer ‘old Hollywood’ to ‘new on location Hollywood’. Movie stars look weird in the streets – there’s no one in the street that looks like that, because someone would be going ‘You should be a movie star!’”

© Studio Canal

Reviews of The Double have been universally positive, although critics seem to be intent on describing it in terms of its likeness to other films. I wonder if this irks him, given his desire to swim against the cultural current in general. Once again, he flashes his signature lack of ego, noting that the purpose of a review is to advise people whether a film is worth seeing, so comparing The Double to another film that people have already seen simply makes it easier for them to decide. “It’s never been compared to any films I think are terrible,” says Ayoade. “It’s not like they’ve said ‘This is a bit like Nutty Professor 2’.” It’s a very gentle dig, but it’s the first time that he says anything negative about something other than himself, and it sounds rather shocking.

© Studio Canal

One aspect of the film that distinguishes The Double from much of contemporary cinema is the degree to which it doesn’t explain itself, preferring to leave the viewer to decide certain things for themselves. Like the book, one fundamental question which the film leaves unanswered is the true nature of this strange doppelganger who appears – is he real, or is he a figment of Simon’s imagination?

With the interview drawing to a close I take the opportunity to ask Ayoade’s what his intention was: did he mean for James to be real? First, he asks me what I think, then hesitates before answering slowly. “It’s a tricky one. It’s like asking ‘Are vampires real?’ For the purpose of this, he’s real.” He pauses, before adding quietly, “ …in a way.” It’s as if he’s really not too sure himself.

And with that he’s gone.

The Double is now on general release in UK cinemas.

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