Interview: Richard Ayoade Talks The Double
Three years ago, I was covering Sundance and scheduled an interview with first time feature director Richard Ayoade. I’d seen all of The Mighty Boosh, as well as The IT Crowd, and knew very little about Ayoade other than he was a skilled comedic actor, and that I very much liked his debut at Sundance, Submarine.
When we sat down to talk, I was nervous and started out by asking if the film was filmed in Wales. He said yes, and I said “Well, my next question is…” and he said, “‘What was it like to film in Wales?’” which annoyed me deeply, since my question was much more complicated. I got un-nervous and said “No, actually, Flannery O’Connor has this idea that people can only really present a place they know well…” And as soon as I mentioned O’Connor, it went from being a run of the mill stilted conversation to something much more interesting. (That interview can be found here.) I still count this interview among my very favorites that I’ve ever conducted.
Ayoade’s new film, The Double, co-written with Avi Korine and based on the novella by Dostoyevsky, stars Jesse Eisenberg as a lonely man trapped in a rather colorless world, existing day to day in an office, toiling at tasks that seem pointless, loving a beautiful girl (Mia Wasikowska) from afar. One day, Eisenberg’s doppelganger appears and begins to shake up the very order of the universe. The Double is strange, dark, hazy, remarkably funny at times and unbearably sad at others.
As I walked up for this interview, I had my little speech prepared to remind him that we’d met before, but as the publicist introduced me, Mr. Ayoade, always incredibly polite, pointed out that we’d spoken at Sundance. I was surprised that he remembered me, which of course threw me, and I proceeded to ask a very silly question about whether or not he was “excited” about the new movie coming out. Dumb. How could someone even answer that?
RA: Well, I guess it came out in Toronto a while ago… I mean, it’s the thing we wanted to do…
AMM: …it’s done.
RA: Yes. And… [pause]
AMM: it’s a dumb question.
RA: Not at all. I’m pleased, with it, insofar as I’m able to be pleased with the bits that involved me. And I really like the cast and what everyone did on it, but this element of it coming out is so bizarre. Just it being watched, such a strange experience and whether … I don’t know, you feel like, you just want to slightly be out of the way of it. Hopefully in a polite way, the way when you write something, and you give it to someone to read you don’t want to stand there, watching them read it.
AMM: This movie for me, well, I noticed more frequently references, the sound reminded me of Eraserhead, an easy comparison, and then there’s Magritte paintings… I was wondering while watching about the place of references in films. Sometimes it seems like something snide intellectual people use to band together against other people. For instance, with True Detective, if you haven’t read certain, different books people would say you couldn’t quite get all the references. So, I was wondering, with adaptations and references, what it is to properly enjoy something, how much more enjoyment you can glean if you don’t see the references?
RA: I think it’s a very complicated question. There’s several stages of it, someone the other day was saying Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina have the same plot and you go “Oh, maybe…” but it doesn’t seem to be a problem. I think there’s an element, well, and this is itself a reference — something like — Bogdanovich, probably quoting Orson Welles, saying that a certain kind idea of originality is one of the biggest problems at the moment, and before, no one was so pompous to think that they were original, but now, maybe because there’s almost a commercial advertising, grandstanding “Brand new, never seen before,” thing, that something trumpets its own originality. There are certain things where the author is deliberately alluding to something, like T.S. Eliot deliberately going “this,” but lots of people have quotes, and then there’s people who exist in the lineage of something else…
AMM: I think about that in music a lot, the lineage of David Byrne, you can hear when he kind of got more interested in world music, and where that comes from and where it ends up going.
RA: But whether that’s a reference or whether you are, in some way… The things people make reflect their interests, and if part of what they’re interested in is other culture, then that’s going to come out. I suppose I think of a reference as something like The Simpsons or Family Guy where it’s like the reference is this, and you need to get it in order to get this. You know, there’s people who go, “Oh, in Blue Velvet when he’s in the cupboard, it’s such a reference to Hitchcock, you can sort of also go, “Well, maybe he’s just in the cupboard.” He doesn’t seem to be someone who’s specifically doing that, but he’s probably not the first person in the world to think of someone being in the cupboard.
AMM: That’s the fear too, is ascribing too much value to something that doesn’t inherently hold it…
RA: I think in a way it can be more a problem for the viewer, and sometimes an occupational hazard for people writing about films who see lots of films, and they inevitably bring that to their viewing of films the same way that anyone who’s interested in something brings that to something else. Often the first few films of any director is “Well, what are they like?” I remember the first few films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it was like, Scorsese, Altman, Scorsese, Altman, and then I had something where I thought “Magnolia isn’t really that much like Altman?” There’s certain directors that become emblematic of a certain kind of structure that allows them to use a short hand handle, so, multiple story strands is forever Altman, that’s just Altman. But I don’t know if that necessarily is Altman any more than that is Max Ophuls, you’re not going to write Max Ophuls now, because not enough people know Max Ophuls.
AMM: Have you seen [Ophuls’] Lola Montes?
AMM: I have this weird idea that Britney Spears music videos kind of relate to Lola Montes.
RA: Well, who knows.
AMM: Especially her song “Circus.”
[Ed. note — Oh my god, Amanda, let it go.]
RA: Maybe it’s also Jumbo, the Doris Day one. I think most people have forebears of some kind, because on a basic level, most people become interested in the thing they’re doing probably because they like other people doing that kind of thing. I think it’s almost impossible to copy something else, it’s not really something to worry about. If it is a precise copy it will always feel bad. When you see the bootleg Beatles, you can only think about how they are different than the Beatles, despite them being exactly like the Beatles, you think of the differences.
AMM: It’s like Theseus’ ship, if you rebuild the whole ship with different wood, is it still Theseus’ ship? Is it the idea of the thing or the actuality of the thing.
RA: I certainly wouldn’t feel or hope that there’s anything in [The Double] that required anyone to know something else.
AMM: I don’t think so… but I would think, “Oh, that kind of reminds me of the Brothers Quay animations.” and so on.
RA: Those are two people I’ve never seen anything of them, I kind of know maybe they’ve done some Kafka, maybe? People say this is Kafka-esque… Well, on a literal, temporal level, Dostoyevsky can’t be accused of… he was an influence on Kafka, for sure… it’s hard to know what that is, exactly.
AMM: I like art that’s inclusive and things that can point people towards other things. I guess that’s a fault of criticism, too, it can be an excuse pushing other people down or out…
RA: But in a way, it’s also being true to how some writers are, some writers are like that… you must know the Jonathan Franzen essay on “The Recognitions” [Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books] the systems writer versus contract writer. I don’t think it matters necessarily. I don’t know that some of the most popular people are trying to be inclusive. James Cameron is really weird, I think. He’s a really weird man. His preoccupations are strange. But he’s the most popular director in the world. But, he’s quite a strange fellow. The Beatles are quite an odd group, Liverpool, this specific time — quite strange, incredibly popular. People you think everyone should like, people don’t like.
The Double is now in theaters.
Amanda Mae Meyncke also thought The Double was like A Short Film About Love by Kryzystof Kieslowski but forgot to say so at the time of this interview.