Richard Ayoade's Double take
The IT Crowd star is relishing his new role behind the camera. His latest, The Double, is a Kafkaesque office drama inspired by Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name
‘Ah-gav-eh, you say?” Richard Ayoade is evidently unfamiliar with the lower-carb, all-natural honey substitute that a Dublin establishment has served with his tea.
Yep. Agave syrup. It’s a sap known and loved by all those who spend indecent amounts of time in health food stores. It’s also precisely the sort of substance one might expect a hyphenate comic-actor-writer-director based in Soho to rubbish as being ‘so 2012’.
But Richard Ayoade doesn’t behave anything like the hyphenate comic-actor-writer-director conjured up by such preconceptions.
“I grew up in Ipswich,” he offers, almost apologetically.
Today, he has stopped off in Dublin for The Double, a Kafkaesque office drama inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name. The picture is a real doozy: imagine Terry Gilliam’s Brazil recreated within the stifling confines of the Berberian Sound Studio .
(Indeed, with eerie neatness, Ayoade’s second film as writer and director premieres at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival within hours of the unveiling of Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem .)
The Double ’s creator seems a little uncomfortable with the notion that anyone might compare his new “little” picture to Gilliam’s masterpiece.
“The only time Erik [Wilson], the cinematographer, or David [Crank], the production designer, and I discussed Brazil was when wondering how to avoid making our film look like Brazil . Because both are set in an office and both are grey and both are out of time. But we didn’t want it to have that kind of scale. I’ve always liked certain condensed films like Persona .”
He jumps back and takes a beat: “Not that there’s anything wrong with the scale of Brazil. But we were thinking more of the loneliness and quiet of In the Mood for Love. Not that our film is a . . . em . . . I wouldn’t compare . . .”
He trails off and looks properly sorry. He shouldn’t. The Double is a very fine picture, one that deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love or Gilliam’s Brazil. The hermetic qualities of Ayoade’s film, which stars Jesse Eisenberg as a timid office wonk driven crazy by the arrival of a cocksure doppleganger, might equally have sprung from the British sitcoms that brought the comic star into public consciousness. Watching The Double , one immediately recalls just shut-off, shut-in classic TV as Porridge or Steptoe and Son.
“A lot of is a function of money,” he nods. “You just have one set. But you hope, sometimes, to limit things and the location as a way to intensify something else. A lot of the films and shows I like have that quality and those limitations. Part of the cliché of a good sitcom is that people are trapped. If you know they can head off to France, it ruins it. I like small worlds and limited routines. I know that goes against the direction of most movies. Because there’s an almost competitive urge to make everything as epic as possible and to give people their money’s worth. Here’s 50 robots instead of 10. Here’s as much stuff as possible.”
The Double ’s rather unsettling placeless qualities are intensified by an international cast – Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, James Fox – all using their own accents: “a kind of Esperanto movie”, says Ayoade.
Still, even with that American drawl, one can’t help but notice that many of the protagonist’s problems seem to spring from his very English sense of reserve and politeness.
“I’m not sure that his politeness is borne out of concern for other people,” says Ayoade. “I guess I feel that altruism has an element of politeness to it. But he’s just afraid and meek. In a way, he’s quite self-centred. Not in the worst possible way. But he’s highly self-conscious in a way that’s not an attribute. His politeness doesn’t come through generosity of spirit. It comes from reserve.”
There must have been special challenges in directing one actor playing two parts?
“It was harder for Jesse than for me. The technology hasn’t changed much since the time of Georges Méliès. You film the scene and then you film it again. The difference now is that it’s computerised, so there’s no shift between the shots. What’s hard is for the actor to remember where they are looking and to remember their earlier performance in enough detail to respond to it, as if spontaneously. I imagine there are some actors that would find it horrible to respond to audio in an earpiece and to be locked in like that.”
It’s difficult to picture Ayoade -– unassuming, softly spoken and seven new kinds of modest – slap-bang in the Big Com era of the 1990s, when stand-up tours played out in sold out megadomes. “It’s not as if I’m Rembrandt,” he shrugs. “I’m just doing a very basic level of stuff that’s probably not too remarkable.”
But he has, as the comic sphere goes, done remarkable things. He was president of Footlights at Cambridge; he won the Perrier Award in 2001 for an early incarnation of cult favourite Garth Marenghi ; he was named as Outstanding Actor in a Comedy for his iconic performance as Moss in The IT Crowd at the 2008 Monte Carlo Television Festival.
Away from the comedy circuit, his CV is even more glittering. Submarine, Ayoade’s debut feature film, was produced by Ben Stiller, a co-star from The Watch , his first major studio role. The Double is produced by Michael Caine. As the director of rock promos, Ayoade has worked with Arctic Monkeys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kasabian and Vampire Weekend .
His head ought to have been turned by the rockerati or Hollywood. But instead he’s keen to let others take (at least some) credit for his work.
“You have an idea. But it couldn’t exist without all the other people involved. Otherwise you wouldn’t have ridiculously long credits at the end of movies. They all made it. You have a sense. But it’s like shopping. You have an idea what you want. But you might find something better. Or you might have to make do.”
In the same spirit, Ayoade clearly loves film and can talk a fantastic game on the Nouvelle Vague and Ingmar Bergman. But ask him if he’s a buff and he retreats.
“I wouldn’t say buff. Not really. It’s just that my dad fixed TVs, so I always had a TV and video recorder in my room when they used to show old films and great films on TV. I do like Ingmar Bergman and Roy Andersson. My mum lives in Norway at the moment and there is something familiar about those films.”
Born in London and raised in – oh yes – Ipswich by his Norwegian mother and Nigerian father, Ayoade read law at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, before his stint at Footlights set him off upon a road hitherto untravelled.
Was he in other respects a rebellious youth?
“No. I was the kind of teenager who relied on my parents for lifts. I lived with them. I required resources. I would never have dared go to an 18 film before I was 18. And they’ve lovely people.”
Were his parents concerned with his career change?
“I think anyone would have been justifiably concerned. I’m sure they would have preferred for me to be a lawyer – just because you’ll live better. I don’t think when I was seven, they were sitting around hoping for me to get some weird job with no security – in an area that isn’t even particularly popular.”
Maybe. But much of Ayoade’s fan base has arrived late to the party. Nathan Barley, The Mighty Boosh and Dark Place have all enjoyed long post-TV afterlives. The IT Crowd is currently a huge Netflix hit.
“I don’t know what it feels like to be successful straight away. I imagine if I was Madonna in the eighties, I would have been aware that something was going on,” says. “But I don’t know that feeling. I’m not really aware of when my shows are on. How people watch stuff in general has changed. But you try not to think about it. I don’t know how to make things people like particularly. My ideas aren’t that populist. And then you come up against the hard wall of your own ability. You hope some people like it. But in an awful way it wouldn’t necessarily change what you did anyway.”
The Double opens April 4th