Richard Ayoade interview: The Double and social awkwardness

As his latest film, The Double, appears in UK cinemas, we chat to director Richard Ayoade about its making, social awkwardness and more...

“Maybe Brad Pitt doesn’t know what it’s like to be unpopular,” actor, writer and director Richard Ayoade tells me, his voice quiet and reflective, “but most people know what it’s like to have no one interested, or to be lonely, or to be knocked back, or to regret.”

Ayoade’s referring to his new film, The Double, a brilliantly surreal and poignant drama starring Jesse Eisenberg. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky, it’s about a painfully shy young office worker (Eisenberg) and his polar opposite (also Eisenberg), who’s outgoing and confident. Unfolding like a science fiction nightmare, The Double is like a visual representation of anxiety and awkwardness, a portrait of a man who feels utterly out of step and unable to connect with the world around him.

It’s Ayaode’s second project as director, and follows his stunning debut, Submarine. But where that story of a lonely outsider was an exterior, rhythmic film, The Double is all claustrophobic interiors and jagged sound effects and edits. Superbly shot and brilliantly acted, it’s an assured film from this still relatively new director – yet in person, Ayoade is softly-spoken, self-effacing, and always ready with a thoughtful answer. Here’s what he had to say.

Speaking as a somewhat socially anxious person, I felt as though you’d read my mind when you made this film.

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Well, thank you very much.

I thought of it as a kind of dystopia of the mind. Is that how you intended it to be read?

It’s all from his point of view, so yes. It was trying to be very subjective and not to present it as objective reality. You’re very much in his head. I think the book does that. You’re emotionally taken to places that aren’t very rational, and you almost can’t work out where you are in reality – but [I was] trying not to do it in a way that was annoying or confusing, where you’re in no-man’s land.

I like very subjective films, like Taxi Driver, that have a strong point of view from one character.

Does The Double reflect your own worldview, or maybe your feelings when you’re in public?

I sort of felt, when I first read Avi’s script – and then we were working together on it – and the book, is that when something’s really well-written, you feel completely engaged and immersed in what that character’s going through. It’s the same in The Godfather – you’re completely following that character, even though it’s not the kind of behaviour where you might do the exact same thing. Emotionally, you feel completely engaged with it. A lot of times, people talk about their films as though it’s a selling point that they’re relatable, as if you want to see a film about someone like you.

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That’s something I’d never seek out – oh, this person’s like me except in a film. Like, it’s more that something either feels right or not. You just sort of feel it subconsciously somehow. All the situations in the book where everyone’s laughing at him. It’s not that I’ve ever necessarily been persecuted or anything, but you know that feeling. I think people – maybe Brad Pitt doesn’t know what it’s like to be unpopular, but most people know what it’s like to have no one interested, or to be lonely, or to be knocked back, or to regret. I think you know those things, even if it hasn’t in this exact way to you. So I definitely felt it when I read it, yeah. 

So when it came to the way The Double looks and sounds – which is incredibly distinctive and powerful – did you have those things in your mind from the beginning, or did those visual and aural ideas come later?

It always changes, and changes so much when everyone becomes involved, like the costume designer and makeup and cinematographer and the editor. All these people bring their abilities to it. There might be some people who can think of it and then it’s just a matter of getting to the precise thing they had in their head, but I feel I took so much from the people who worked on it.

From the story we had a sense that it should be in a specific world. Because there’s something mythological about doppelgangers, and also that it needed to be at night all the way through, because there should be something nightmarish or dreamy about it. And that it shouldn’t have too much realistic detail, so you can go, “Oh, that’s the office I work in”. You have to accept it as an alternate world, almost like science fiction in a way.

I recently saw Her, and I really liked the design of that. I felt completely… I didn’t really question it. It felt like a real place, and the technology wasn’t important, in a way; it just provided a great context for you to go into the story and this interesting relationship.

I guess, in a way, [The Double] has similar aims to that film. And maybe the production design that David Crank did has similar aims, even though it’s gone in a completely different direction.

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Doppelgangers aren’t uncommon in cinema. Did you think about other films with doubles in them? For example, Double Impact?

Yes, yes. I haven’t seen Double Impact, to my shame. But I think my editor did some work on that, I think. I remember him saying to me that he did some work on it in the 1990s. And I think he said it was quite difficult to get a body double for Jean-Claude Van Damme, because he has quite a specific physique. But I watched Dead Ringers, and just in terms of the technology – there are certain things you want from the person who’s playing the double.

Because there’s flat-out motion control, where you have Jesse Eisenberg and no one else there, and then another Jesse. Then you have the shots where you’re shooting over the shoulder of somebody, and that’s a real-life double. And often, actors have one – Chevy Chase has a body double, so if he’s not available for an over-the-shoulder shot they can get the double in and he can appear in it.

And so it was interesting to see how it was shot, and because you know as you’re watching it that what you’re seeing is a physical impossibility, you’re watching it more closely than you would normally watch coverage in a film. So you’re going, “Are they really looking at one another? Does that really look like his shoulder?” Those are questions you wouldn’t normally ask, so you have to be more precise about it. And also maybe more sloppy about it, because films always have mistakes in them, and in a weird way, that’s what makes them feel real. Because films are shot in a certain way, you can’t have correct continuity. And I think that what gives certain films their energy – for example Martin Scorsese’s films – is the lack of continuity, so something that makes you aware that it’s been made almost feels more real.

So for example a documentary, where you feel the cameraman’s presence, and you know it’s artificial, makes it seem more realistic. You have all these counter-intuitive things. But that’s a long answer. It’s something we were very mindful of – how do you make sure we know there’s two of them, and how do you move the camera in a way that you would with two actors rather than one. We don’t want it to look as though we shot it for effects, I guess. 

The reason I mentioned Double Impact was because, to differentiate between the two Jean-Claude Van Dammes, they had one with slicked-back hair and one without gel…

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Right! Well, that’s good. That’s as much as you need.

It’s a good visual shortcut. So how did you go about subtly differentiating for the audience the difference between the two Eisenbergs?

It was important that there shouldn’t be any visual difference between them at the start. Because part of the premise, or the joke, or what’s sad about it is that they’re identical, but everyone likes one more than the other. And there’s no reason whatsoever why. Well, okay, Simon’s got a better haircut, or his clothes are better, or he’s speaking louder, or he has a deeper voice. But really, there’s no reason. And it’s that nightmarish aspect that appealed to us.

The only thing that really differentiated them was Jesse’s performance, and the different attitudes he brought to each character. What was amazing was, in the edit, we always knew which character he was, even though he was wearing the same clothes. He modulates his voice between the two, but not in a really caricatured, obvious way. But instantly you’d know.

So yeah, all credit to him.

It’s a stunning performance. This film is very different from Submarine in look and tone, even though it has certain aspects in common, like the outsider protagonist. But as a filmmaker, do you think you’re the type of director who’ll want to do something absolutely different with each film?

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It’s so hard to imagine that you’ll get to make another film [laughs]. I was so grateful I got to make this one. It seems to me so amazing, the prospect that you could make another film, and it’s hard to know what it will be. I don’t know exactly. These were two very different sources, though, I guess. Joe [Dunthorne’s] book is really good, but very different to the Dostoevsky book. So they’re always likely to be very different.

I can’t imagine doing another film like this because of how singular that book is. But I like being in that world and being involved in it, yes. 

Can you imagine doing something quite big and Hollywood-like if the opportunity were to come up?

I’m very happy to have made these films, and I’d be happy to make films like this if I were able to. It’s not like a specific ambition at all. And in a way, the scale of something isn’t really in your mind when you read it. For example, I wasn’t reading Joe’s book and going, “Oh, well this is this budget range”. Maybe later when you start thinking about it more, you go, “Okay, well this is a different kind of thing.” It’s more how you respond to it, or have an idea that you like.

I think people who direct big films have a very difficult job, because you really have to please a lot of people, probably in a way that wouldn’t come very easily to me, I don’t know. I can’t imagine being asked, really!

It’s quite unusual for a British film to deal with a character’s psycho-geography, if you like. Do you agree with that, and if so, why do you think that is?

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No, I agree. I suppose there’s a strong social-realist tradition in English cinema, and that has a more objective lens on it. A more documentary type of lens. Which is interesting, because there are other directors in that tradition, like Kozlovsky, who end up going along an objective line of filmmaking.

I’m interested in that question, but I don’t know the answer. Also, maybe… maybe the kind of big, English novels existed at a time before novels went really interior. And that interiority is more of a feature of the American 20th century novel, and European novels. And maybe that isn’t the English tradition, which is more descriptive and in a social tradition. But when I think of first-person novels and that colloquial address, it’s more American, perhaps. I don’t know, what do you think? 

I think you’re right. The Double reminds me of European writing and filmmaking. I haven’t read Dostoevsky’s novel, embarrassingly, but the film reminds me of Camus and Kafka. Existential and absurd. But also it reminds me of American filmmakers. Its sensibility doesn’t necessarily feel British.

It’s not a country of existentialism, England, is it? It’s more a kind of reasonable, or satirical culture. I’ve often thought that since Powell and Pressburger, there’s been a kind of crisis of protagonists – which sounds like the most pretentious title for a dissertation ever, ‘The crisis of protagonists’. [Laughs] It’s hard to have an everyman. I was amazed when Ewan McGregor was in Trainspotting; I just thought, this is the first time in ages there’s been a front-foot everyman who doesn’t have to drastically apologise for their own existence, like Hugh Grant does.

The idea of an English Tom Hanks isn’t conceivable. I think it’s hard to have a first-person, because who would be that first-person that people could feel they’d relate to? Do you know what I mean? Being an English person, and also being the centre, it’s not a very English attribute. They’d rather be on the fringes.

Well, it looks as though I have to go now. But could you tell me whether you’re going to make a Garth Marenghi film? Please tell me you are!

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I don’t think so, unfortunately, no!

Damn! Well, I had to ask. Richard Ayoade, thank you very much.

The Double is out in UK cinemas on the 4th April. You can read our review here.

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