IN RICHARD Ayoade’s new book, Ayoade On Ayoade, the actor, writer and director takes on the persona of “actor, writer, director and amateur dentist” to reflect on his own cinematic oeuvre. As the blurb puts it: “Over ten brilliantly insightful and often erotic interviews, Ayoade examines himself fully and without mercy, leading a breathless investigation into this once-in-a-generation visionary.”
It’s not hard to work out how this send-up might have come about: self-promotion really isn’t Ayoade’s bag. Take his jousting with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News a couple of weeks ago. Depending on your position, it was a postmodern masterclass in flouting the conventions of the interview; or it was excruciatingly awkward and Ayoade should really stop giving interviews if he’s that uncomfortable.
Almost everyone who interviews him alludes to the fact that he’d plainly rather be undergoing a root canal procedure at the hands of an amateur dentist than talking about himself to a journalist. He’s too polite to be rude, but speaking about himself is unimaginable and discussing his work – the book, his most recent film, The Double, which has just been released on DVD, or his debut, Submarine (2010) – isn’t exactly pleasurable.
“You’re stuck in a dynamic where you have to keep talking about what you’ve done,” he says, by way of an explanation, “but it would probably be much more interesting to hear other people talking about it. You’re not really allowed to do that, you’ve got to tell everyone it’s out now and that they should go and see it.”
He sounds faintly appalled. “Even a child who’s done a drawing doesn’t look back at old ones and say, ‘Remember when I did this one?’ They just do one and they show it to you, they ask you if you think it’s good and that’s the end of it. They don’t say, ‘Do you want to see some of my earlier work?’ It’s just weird.” He pauses. “I’m aware I’m not making anyone’s job easy.”
I can’t disagree, but it’s hard to hold it against him. Partly that’s because he’s so very nice – clever and funny and (sorry to be shallow) sartorially savvy. And then there’s the fact that his Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd is a masterpiece, and the films he’s made are captivating – Submarine is a bittersweet coming-of-age story; The Double is a visually arresting, psychologically intriguing drama. Even his Bafta speech (he won for his portrayal of Moss) was a genuinely funny, autocue-free interlude in an otherwise turgid awards ceremony. And now there’s a book.
Concerned that I might try to make some kind of self-consciously serious point about the postmodern preoccupation with the self, he assures me that Ayoade On Ayoade is just meant to be funny. “It’s not a treatise on identity,” he says. “It’s just a series of what I hope are funny jokes based around a ridiculous, over-the-top director.”
For a while Ayoade wrote a column for Total Film magazine adopting the fictional persona of an outrageously self-confident film director. The gag is that nothing could be further from Ayoade’s real character. The book is also a kind of homage to other directors Ayoade loves, including Truffaut, Hitchcock and Scorsese. There’s no mean satire, no axe to grind – Ayoade is sending up self-importance so no-one can accuse him of it. In part, he was inspired by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 1961 comedy skit The 2000-Year-Old Man in which Brooks, playing the oldest man in the world, is interviewed by Reiner and improvises answers to questions such as “what was the earliest known language?” (“basic rock”). Another influence was a book by Leonard Nimoy called I Am Spock. “It was his follow-up to I Am Not Spock,” Ayoade says. “Because there was such outrage at the title of the first, he had to write another book saying I Am Spock in which he speaks to himself as Spock. It’s so boring, I use it to combat my insomnia.”
For a moment I wonder if Ayoade is implying his new book is soporifically boring? He isn’t, of course, but it crosses your mind. After all, this is the man who, despite a Bafta and a Monte Carlo Television Festival award for The IT Crowd, still doesn’t really consider himself to be an actor. Self-deprecation is Ayoade’s default setting.
This could be rather annoying, coming as it does from the president of Footlights at Cambridge, who won the Perrier Award at the second time of asking (in 2001), who is mates with Ben Stiller, and bagged Michael Caine as an executive producer on The Double. It’s all as though his career’s been a happy accident; that Ayoade just kind of ended up being an extremely talented writer, actor and director. Except that it’s impossible not to give such a towering talent the benefit of the doubt, if only he’d let you. “All the really nice people I know would come across terribly in interviews,” Ayoade says, “because any sense of evasion is perceived as difficult or weird.” I think that’s as close as we’re going to get to self-righteousness.
Born in London in 1977, Ayoade grew up in Ipswich. His dad was from Nigeria, his mum from Norway. He went to Cambridge to read law, but at university he started to write and perform and soon, inevitably, he made the journey north to the Fringe. “I always remember getting the train up and there was a certain stage when you’d smell the hops and that’s when the nerves would kick in,” he says. “I had very bad stage fright. I really like writing and all the making of it. It’s pleasurable finding out whether people enjoy it or not, or laugh. But I think nerves are in proportion to how much you care, so you’re in this strange situation where the more you care, the more unpleasant it is for you.
“I always envied people who were able to eat a giant beefburger one minute before they went on. They’d wipe away the ketchup and on they’d go. I felt very nervous from lunch. I couldn’t eat.”
And that’s the thing, Ayoade cares. He wants to make good work, work that people will respond to. It’s not about becoming famous or getting awards, which is why despite his talent for acting, being behind the camera or writing is where he is most at ease. “It’s like in Edinburgh at the Fringe,” he says, “lots of people are writing and performing their own stuff. Some people really like the performing bit more than the writing, but I always liked the writing, and performing was just a way of showing the writing. Then directing became a way of making sure that the writing came across in the way that you wanted it to.”
In terms of his cinematic education, it was Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans Le Metro that ignited his interest in the French new wave. From there he moved on to watch the films of Woody Allen, Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman. His own filmmaking began with the music videos he made for the Arctic Monkeys, Super Furry Animals and Kasabian. Both Submarine and The Double illustrate Ayoade’s cinematic influences; they are stuffed with references to films that he loves. But they’re more than clever tributes – they are emotionally literate and beautifully observed. Whereas Submarine was a gentle story of teenage angst, The Double, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s claustrophobic novella, explores much darker territory. Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a most unremarkable man – a data processor who wears an unremarkable suit and lives in an unremarkable flat. His world is turned upside down by the arrival of James Simon, a doppelganger who is everything that James is not – swaggering not stuttering, cocky not conscientious and charismatic rather than awkward and instantly forgettable. The working through of this weird situation is both gripping and unsettling.
Ayoade has made a habit of working with the same actors, and Paddy Considine, Noah Taylor and Yasmin Paige all appear in both Submarine and The Double. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate actor to play Simon James and his alter ego than Eisenberg. There’s no Hollywood star who does social awkwardness better. But the fit between the actor’s take on celebrity and the movie industry and his director’s goes beyond clever casting. It’s an open invitation for critics to see this film as an allegory of the struggle of both star and filmmaker to cope with fame.
Asked how he survives in the movie business, Eisenberg answers: “Don’t ever feel too happy. It’s easy to go through these things and feel very special and important. And at a film festival, people make a big deal of movies that elsewhere are not a big deal. So if you kind of believe the little room you are sitting in is the big wide world, it could be disconcerting when you leave that room.”
The 37-year-old Ayoade uses a startlingly similar turn of phrase when asked how he navigates the film business, albeit by way of a Jack White song reference. “I think of that song, Little Room,” he says. “It’s about someone sitting in a little room working on something they really like and then if that works you end up in a bigger room going, ‘Oh, the reason I was in the little room is because I’m uncomfortable in big rooms and now I have to…’ so you know there’s always a slight tension.”
Pushed on what he really thinks of the film industry, he’s diplomatic, which I suppose is just how I’d expect him to be. “It’s difficult to admire it as much as the nursing industry,” he says. “But there’s a place for it. It can be entertaining. It can be fun. I don’t think it claims to be a great deal more than that.”
So does he like it then – is he interested in it or appalled by it? I push because the thought of Ayoade in the brash movie industry is genuinely odd. “Which bit of it – the press bit?” he asks. No, I tell him, I can probably guess how he feels about that. But since he brings it up, does he hate meeting the press? “No, some people can talk about what they do interestingly, but it often depends on the article. I mean I sometimes find there are articles that are so difficult to wade through that even if I’m interested in the person I can’t finish it. It feels impenetrable. So it depends. I’m sure there are people who you find difficult to read, and then there are people who are just always interesting. Martin Scorsese is always interesting talking about film. But then again, I don’t feel that I don’t enjoy Terrence Malick films any less just because I don’t hear him speak about them very often.”
Feeling more nervous about him reading this interview than I ought to, I think it’s best to get back to his films. And it’s not too much of a forced link given his Malick reference and my sense that one of the real pleasures of Ayoade’s two films is in the attention to detail. In Submarine, it was the look of the film, shot in Wales in lots of natural light so as “to capture the feeling of that time of day after school”. For The Double, Ayoade used an abandoned development in Berkshire to create the dystopian backdrop and the soundscape alone took months to complete.
“We made everything ourselves,” he says, “and to me that was just pure pleasure. To make sounds in a studio and to experiment. It’s a small budget film so we could do it over a long period of time but in a very small way. Unlike a film where you can only afford Bradley Cooper for two days, for the price of Bradley Cooper I could do this for seven years.” Different characters had different shoe sounds, he explains (channelling Maurice Moss for a moment), and all the sounds from the computers on which Simon/James input data were made from animal noises and loops and using guitar pedals. “Everything was put on tape and then back so that it had a more organic sound,” he says. “These things really come across and I like that.”
Both Submarine and The Double have done well critically and commercially, but as for his next cinematic project, Ayoade sounds distinctly uncertain. Then again, he could just be being modest. “It’s really a question of what’s good enough to get made,” he says. “You never feel that you can be complacent. It’s really in the hands of audiences. People who are fortunate enough to make films get to make further films if there’s a sense that the audience is interested. If people want to see them you’ll get a chance and if they don’t, you won’t. I think that’s right. I don’t think it should be a personal art project just to satisfy yourself.”
Beneath all that self-effacement, then, we’re back to the fact that Ayoade cares about making good work. When he makes a film, he says, he wants to do so as if the person he’s making it for is his favourite person in the world, the one he most respects. It’s a lesson from his Fringe days.
“We had a director called Cal McCrystal,” he says. “He did clown stuff and he always used to say the clown loves the audience so when you look at who’s out there, it has to feel like you’re looking at your favourite auntie. That’s sort of how I do it.”
And so, although he’d never say it, certainly not to someone who’s going to quote him on it, he makes what he hopes is good because he wants that imaginary auntie to be entertained and delighted. “Thinking that what you’re doing is good isn’t in conflict with the audience liking it,” he says, “the conflict starts when you don’t like it but you think they will. That’s the worst crime.” n
The Double is out now on DVD/Blu-Ray; Ayoade On Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99