This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
What Netflix’s Stranger Things is to 80s sci-fi horror, Amazon’s Red Oaks is to 80s coming-of-age romantic comedy. Without slipping into parody, both are a continuation of a familiar style of storytelling featuring characters and themes we know and love. If Stranger Things takes its cues from Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, Red Oaks has made itself the inheritor of John Hughes, Rob Reiner and Amy Heckerling. (In a neat connection, Heckerling has directed multiple episodes of Red Oaks, which also stars Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dirty Dancing’s Jennifer Grey, stitching it firmly into that continuity.)
Season one tells the story of David Myers (Craig Roberts), a college kid studying Accounting—a subject he hates—who spends the summer of 1985 teaching tennis at Red Oaks’ titular upscale New Jersey Country Club. That’s where he meets rich, cynical, arty Skye (Alexandra Socha), and their economically inverted Pretty In Pink story begins.
There’s also a host of supporting characters including David’s troubled parents (Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey), his effervescent tennis colleague (Ennis Esmer), a stoner valet (Oliver Cooper), a lifeguard with dreams of bettering herself (Alexandra Turshen), and of course, the club’s high-handed president, aka Skye’s father (Paul Reiser).
It’s a strong cast, led with characteristic diffidence by Roberts, who conveys David’s confusion at life’s with the kind of understated, drily funny performance we’ve come to expect from the lead in 2010’s Submarine. It’s feel-good nostalgia in the sense that The Wonder Years, with its unsentimental treatment of Vietnam and distant father figures, is feel-good nostalgia. Never mawkish or raucous, it’s a wistful portrait of that brief window of adulthood before responsibility begins.
And, it goes without saying, the 80s soundtrack and clothes are also totally bitchin’.
As season two arrives on Amazon, we chatted to actor and director Craig Roberts about the new episodes and his experiences of directing independent British film…
You’re a director as well as an actor and obviously something of a cinephile. Red Oaks must be a dream show for a movie nerd to work on because not only is it full of references to directors like Kubrick and Kurosawa…
Yes, and Eric Rohmer…
Exactly. Rohmer, Truffaut, even Siskel and Ebert get a mention. All that, and it’s also directed by Amy Heckerling…
…and Hal Hartley.
It’s pretty great, it’s a pretty good world to be in. I didn’t actually know too much about the whole David character going into film, I didn’t know if [filmmaking] would be a massive thing for him, definitely until season two because the whole season arc of David and Skye is actually the arc of Jules And Jim Which I thought was so cool. We were going to go to Truffaut’s grave at one point in an earlier version of the thing, but we couldn’t go.
And you know, Steven Soderbergh’s behind it as well.
Is Soderbergh the source of the cinephilia in Red Oaks then? Or is that David Gordon Green?
It’s the writers, it’s pretty much the writers. Joe and Greg [Gangemi and Jacobs] and have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to films. Greg’s a director, he directed Magic Mike and a bunch of other films before then, so it purely comes from them, but the style is… Hal Hartley is a pretty stylish director.
There seem to be lots of little movie nods and references seeded in.
There’s loads. There’s a good reference to Aliens later on this season in episode six, about Paul Reiser’s character in that, which is pretty funny. There’s a lot of nods in it. I don’t think I could take them all in because I’m not very good with 80s movies actually, American 80s movies or anything 80s movies.
So acting against a John Hughes alumna in Jennifer Grey isn’t a significant…
That movie I’ve seen. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I’ve seen. And also Dirty Dancing, but I’ve not seen a huge amount. Eric Rohmer I’m fine, John Hughes not so much. I need to do some research.
Shawn Levy, who produced another 80-set streaming show Stranger Things, told me that film and TV makers are going back to that decade because they want to avoid irony, for films and TV to actually mean it and stop winking at the audience. Can you see that?
There was a lot more innocence, absolutely. We’re quite cynical now as cinema-goers or TV-watchers. As an audience, we’ve grown to have a very strong opinion of what we like as opposed to just watching it, so it’s always ‘they should have done this’ or ‘they should have done that’ and it’s like ‘well, maybe that’s not what they wanted to do’ whereas in the 80s maybe the audiences just went with it a lot more.
And I think it’s also just cool. It’s a pretty cool place to revisit. You get a lot of freedom as to what you do stylistically, lighting-wise there’s a certain look to it. The clothing and the denim is pretty cool, and the soundtrack is really great.
You mention cynicism and we’ve talked about the little nods in the series, but Red Oaks doesn’t feel to me like a cynical show. It’s not a parody or a pastiche of the time…
No, it’s not about a show in the 80s, it just happens to be set there, absolutely. I think that is a credit to the creators and directors based on the grammar that is being set. It’s not patronising. Even down to the way it’s edited, there are slow zooms when they mean it as opposed to a slow zoom that’s winking at the audience. It’s not a Wes Anderson zoom, it’s actually a zoom. Even the cross-fades, the grammar is correct for the period, which I think is a really good thing.
The promo for season two was the only moment of real irony I’ve seen.
The Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place video?
Exactly! Whose idea was that?
Somebody came in and did it, I think a British guy did it. He was British, because I said ‘This is like Garth Marenghi’ and he said ‘It is like Garth Marenghi’
I just remembered another nod in Red Oaks. Another wink. There’s the line in season two when David says ‘Who wants to work in fucking TV?’
That’s very meta. I had trouble saying that line. I was like ‘do we want to say this line?’ But we said it. Good line.
There was a similar line right at the end of Woody Allen’s recent Amazon series [Crisis In Six Scenes]. I don’t know if you saw that?
I did see it.
About creative people like him being brought low by having to work on TV.
Even that first monologue sounded like him talking about him writing a TV show. I liked watching that show. It felt like I was watching Woody Allen writing a TV show. There was something really nice about him discovering a TV show. It was good, I liked it.
Back to your directors, Amy Heckerling and Hal Ashby…not Ashby, Hartley!
Hal Ashby would be pretty cool!
As a young director, what do you think you’ve taken from the way the different directors on the show work?
They all work so differently. Hal doesn’t do much coverage at all, he shoots everything pretty much in one shot and he’s not really an actor’s director, he doesn’t really worry about that too much, he’s more about the visuals and I actually quite like that.
You don’t like being coddled as an actor?
It’s just that… I don’t need ten minutes to get into character. I just say my lines and if he wants me to look a certain direction when I say it because it’s going to look better, I’m more than happy to do that. Whereas Amy Heckerling is more into character and that works great too. She’s great. She has a lot of big things to do, huge set pieces that she controls really well. David Gordon Green is just crazy.
He’s just crazy. He’s bloody great and you just don’t know what you’re going to do in his episode before you do it and he’ll change things and make you do things that will make you feel completely uncomfortable just to get the reaction of you looking uncomfortable.
What sort of thing?
He’s always doing things. In the new season, me and Oliver [Cooper, who plays Wheeler] had to say goodbye to each other so he said ‘just say goodbye, but say it thirty times to each other’ so we’re just saying ‘goodbye, goodbye’, like robots, it was crazy, but I think it worked.
So that’s the sort of thing you can put in your back pocket for your next feature?
Yeah, if I want to do a David Gordon Green film maybe. I can’t use that on my next feature but it works for him because he does something very specific, he has that really idiosyncratic vibe. Then we had Gregg Araki who directed Mysterious Skin, he’s awesome. He was a bit of both, quite stylised and also a bit with the actors.
Talking about idiosyncrasy, tell me about season one’s body swap episode.
Yes. That was fun to do. I had a bad back after playing Richard Kind!
How did the two of you come up with those impressions? Did you and Richard rehearse with each other?
I just watched loads of episodes with him in them. We were lucky that it was episode seven so I think we had enough time to get into it. I just felt bad for him because he’s quite a character whereas I just don’t do anything! It was hard for Richard, but it was fun.
Can we expect anything similarly high-concept in season two?
We don’t really have that kind of episode in season two. We do have one like it in a way where we escape the country club in a road trip, that’s kind of the same vibe in that it feels weird.
Is there any chance of a musical episode? Your co-star Alexandra [Socha, who plays Skye] sings, Richard Kind does a bit of karaoke this season, you danced in an episode…
Musical episode? They would love that, I would not. I do not sing or dance or any of that but they’re all very good. They’re very good. They love musicals. They don’t stop talking about them. They made me go and watch Hamilton. Do you know about Hamilton?
Of course. It’s on my gym playlist.
It’s on everybody’s bloody gym playlist.
What I enjoyed about the body swap was its creative whimsy. It was a flight of fancy in one episode, then it’s straight back into the normal stream of it and nobody has to explain it.
It was also a nice thing to do to get away from all the seriousness. When you’re going into episodes six to ten, some shit’s going to hit the fan. There’s going to be a lot of resolve and exposition so to have something like that in there helps you to step out of it a little bit.
Thinking about that sort of flexibility with realism, in your directorial debut Just Jim—I’m sorry I haven’t had the chance to see it—
No, neither have I.
[Laughs] But I gather there’s some ambiguity surrounding Emile Hirsch’s character as to whether he’s real or not?
Did having that non-realistic element make the film harder for you to pitch or sell it?
The ambiguity over whether he was real or not?
I just didn’t tell anybody. I basically said that he was real and didn’t tell any of the money people, and then when I started shooting it, I would just put little hints to show that he’s not real.
A bit of stealth film-making!
Yes. Kind of stealth because I knew it would be… I suppose there are movies like Fight Club where… but they’re a lot more commercial than what I was making. I was making a coming-of-rage movie where this kid has this friend and there’s no answer as to whether he is or isn’t real. All the evidence says is that this kid is breaking down and then this American guy turns up and helps him, but like the Pied Piper in some respects doesn’t get paid back, so tries to kill him. ‘It’s a Pied Piper coming-of-rage movie’ – you could tell how that would go down in a pitch.
So I just said ‘It’s about this kid growing up who meets an American guy—Emile Hirsch—and then with choices of performance and the score and the sound design I started controlling as to what was real and what was not.
Is there a sense then, with financiers, that you can’t show too much imagination?
I’m not saying you can’t show imagination because you can show imagination. The people that do show it, like Jonathan Glazer and Richard Ayoade, can. I was making a movie that was part of a scheme so it’s not that I was limited on showing my imagination, it was more that I was developing it and I hadn’t developed that part so I was purely developing it afterwards.
Is introducing elements of ambiguity in stories like that important to you? You’ve said before that you feel social realism in British filmmaking is too prevalent.
Yes. I will stick by that. I think there is a lot of social realism. There are two sides in the UK, there’s a lot of either period drama or social realism and there doesn’t seem to be any in between. People cry out for diversity, well, stop making period dramas. It doesn’t make any sense at all.
There is a lot of that, but obviously the people making those social realism films, like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, they’re the best at doing that. It’s in our national DNA. But I kind of want to make movies that are in between. I think Jonathan Glazer does that very well. I think Richard Ayoade does that very well. I think Edgar Wright does that very well. But they don’t really carry any British influences in their DNA I don’t feel, it seems a more American tradition.
I love Paul Thomas Anderson and stuff like that. I’m shooting another movie in March and that’s the kind of movie I want to make. I don’t mean in respect of it being an American movie, just that the amount of work that goes into a Paul Thomas Anderson movie is incredible and I feel that a lot of people don’t do that.
Once you’d made Just Jim, what was your experience of getting it out there and seen and reviewed?
To make any movie is a treat, it really is. You don’t really expect that amount of people to come together and help you make something that you’ve imagined, so that’s cool. But putting it out there is a very strange experience. It’s like waking up on Christmas Day but you don’t really have any presents. Like you wake up on one of the best days of the year because you’ve got a movie out but nothing’s really changed, the world’s not going to change, your movie’s just out there and it’s not a huge difference. Getting it reviewed, I don’t really know what that means. I’ve learned to not pay attention to it I suppose.
Who taught you that?
Myself, reading some of them! It is what it is, it’s part and parcel. Like promotion and all that kind of stuff is part of doing it. There’s no saying what’s right and what’s wrong. I’ve learned to avoid that I suppose.
What else have I learned from it? I’ve learned to be as ballsy as possible, having done it. I’m very happy with what I did because I stuck to my guns and so if some people liked it and some people didn’t like it, I think that’s fine.
I also find it very strange, I suppose, that people don’t pat people on the back enough for just trying to do something. If somebody’s trying to do something then that’s fine, that should be applauded as opposed to being ‘yeah but it’s not this or that’. It’s very weird. I probably will have no reviews for my next film, that would be great.
It’s Graham Linehan I think who said not to read reviews ‘because the bad ones hurt and the good ones don’t help’.
Yeah, and also, Taxi Driver had one-star reviews when it first came out and now that movie’s like a masterpiece, it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. It just doesn’t make any sense. But also, critics take on the life of becoming a celebrity as well, it’s not so much about actually giving a good review as appealing to their demographic, and showing what they like, I feel. Which is fine.
What can you tell us about your next feature?
I can’t really say anything about it. Apart from that critics are going to love it! No. It’s called Eternal Beauty, that’s all I can really say.
Have you written it?
I’ve written it and I’m directing in and I’m not in it. I can’t really say what it’s about. I film it in March in Wales. It’s shot in Wales, it’s not set in Wales.
Wales is standing in for…Saturn?
Yeah, Saturn, that’s it.
Would you direct an episode of Red Oaks?
We’ve talked about it but I don’t know. It’s hard because I made a vow to never direct something I’m in again, so it would be hard to do it.
What led you to that decision?
I acted in the last film for budget reasons really, it wasn’t to be a Woody Allen or anything, we just had very limited money so it was easier. I’m sure the movie would have been seen slightly differently had I not been in it. So for that reason and also because there are other actors that I prefer. I don’t want to make a movie then go into the edit room and have to watch my bloody self back. I couldn’t think of anything worse!
I suppose bossing Paul Reiser and Jennifer Grey about might get awkward too?
No, I’d love to do that. I’d love to boss Paul Reiser around. He deserves it.
One of the nice things about Red Oaks for me is its brevity. Ten episodes a season, twenty-five minutes each. Bang. Done. Your first film was 84 minutes long.
Yeah, well, I didn’t choose it to be 84 minutes [laughs] It would have been three hours if I could have gotten away with it.
So you don’t feel that bloated run-times are a modern curse?
No, I don’t know. It is of the new generation to have everything instantly and for things to be quicker, hence why Snapchat [points at his phone] exists.
You’re on Snapchat?
I’m just Snapchatting all the time. All the bloody time.
I am on it actually but I don’t really use it. But that and for instance, Tinder and all those kind of things just make you want things instantly, that’s what the short form is conforming to, whereas with an older movie like Goodfellas, that was two and a half hours long and it’s not bad because of it, it’s great.
Again, it’s the fact that we’re getting so opinionated I think. We’re just like ‘no, I can’t do that’. That’s why I respect people like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson because their movies are still that long and they have a right to be that long because they’re great.
Also, 84 minutes is a good runtime to have sometimes. You don’t want a three-hour comedy.
You said earlier that you don’t do anything on screen. There’s obviously a bit of British self-deprecation there, but it reminded me of something Mark Kermode wrote about you. He said your deadpan persona was Buster Keaton-ish.
I think that’s amazing.
Yeah. I think that’s amazing and it sounds like I’ve paid him to say that, that’s a ridiculous comparison, but very nice. I don’t know. I suppose that’s just the way I feel more comfortable with acting. I find introverted people more endearing sometimes. I never understand why people are confident, it makes no fucking sense to me at all, it really doesn’t. So I suppose when I act like that I would hope that people would find that more endearing.
And it’s also The Graduate. The Graduate changed a lot. Without The Graduate people like me wouldn’t be able to be leads because that movie was one of the first to really show that the introverted person could be endearing, as opposed to somebody like James Dean.
Or somebody that needed to go through a transformation to bring them out of their shell?
Yes, exactly. So that’s a big thing.
It’s clear to us what you bring to the role of David in Red Oaks, but nonetheless, it’s something of a quirky decision to have cast a Welsh boy as this New Jersey kid. Did they tell you what quality it was they were looking for in the character?
I think it was The Graduate kind of thing. That Dustin Hoffman kind of vibe. I think again it’s just doing nothing, to be honest, just standing there looking scared. It’s the blank-faced, rabbit in the headlights look. I don’t know why people don’t do it more really, I think it’s probably because it does feel quite weird to not do anything. I probably got it because there are not many people doing it. Other people like to actually act! That’s probably why. No, I don’t know why they employed me.
You know that wasn’t my question! It’s just one of those unspoken things that for almost every role there will have been a shortlist and it’s rarely mentioned in public or talked about who else was up for a part, until much later anyway.
I know they were looking for a while and Evan Goldberg, who writes with Seth Rogan, he was talking to David Gordon Green and I’d done Bad Neighbors with them and they got me to audition and that was it really. It’s weird.
Not weird. You’ve worked as an actor from a really young age. You were in Tracy Beaker at what, nine?
I think I was about ten or eleven, yeah, pretty young.
And there was Being Human…
Oh yeah, I did like two episode of that. That was fun.
Two episodes and the web series.
Oh yeah, I can’t remember any of that. It was all fun. It’s weird, I’ve been acting for fourteen years. That’s a long time.
I haven’t done anything for fourteen years, and I’ve easily got a decade on you.
I feel like I should retire soon. I think that’s why writing and directing feels a refreshing change. It’s kind of where my head’s at at the moment.
I didn’t really know what I was doing for the majority of it, to be honest. I did it because my parents wanted me to do something and not be locked away all the time, so I did that. I think they asked me to do it because they thought it would bring me out of my shell. So I did that. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until about eighteen, nineteen. And I still don’t know what I’m doing.
Did that come with Submarine?
Yeah, it was that. It was working with Richard Ayoade and seeing how passionate he was for it all was definitely inspiring. But I still don’t know what to do, and I don’t know how much of a long-term thing it can be.
Directing or acting?
Acting. I just don’t know. I constantly want to keep changing. In some form of storytelling, whether it be that or doing something else, I don’t know.
You know you’re starting to sound more and more like [his Red Oaks character] David.
[Laughs] Yeah, I am actually.
Which feels like quite a natural place to have to wrap things up. Craig Roberts, thank you very much!
Red Oaks season 2 is available now to stream Amazon Video.