Arguably best known as the man responsible for the Channel 4 faux-’80s sci-fi parody “Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place” and as the shouting nerd Moss in “The IT Crowd,” you’ve likely seen British comedian Richard Ayoade‘s work behind the camera, yet been completely unaware. The Arctic Monkeys have recruited his talent for a triple-threat of songs (“Fluorescent Adolescent,” “Crying Lightning,” “Cornerstone”), not to mention they commissioned him to direct their live show “At The Apollo”; indie-pop staples Super Furry Animals put him to work for “Run Away” which starred BFF Matt Berry; and hipster approved group “Vampire Weekend” hired Ayoade to helm videos for debut album singles “Oxford Comma” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” So yeah, not exactly any obscure, Plan-It-X Records musicians on his CV.
But despite his impressive and layered resume, his feature film debut “Submarine” still took many by surprise. The film finds Ayoade painting an amusing tale of maturity and coming-of-age, while veering away from the subject’s tired clichés and instead finding an influence from the French New Wave with its emphasis on pronounced editing and strong colors. Ayoade injects the kind of Jarmusch-ian earnestness that has been sorely lacking in the majority of idiosyncratic cinema of late, creating a film that is inventive but whose emotional notes ring very true. We recently chatted with the director and he shared with us the films that made an imprint on “Submarine” and what might be coming up next.
Narrating as if he was a witty character worthy of existing as a member of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) escorts us on his quest to repair his parents’ sex life/relationship (his family played with terrific turns by Noah Taylor and the always fantastic Sally Hawkins) and the courting of unpopular-thus-obtainable Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige). Oliver is heavily involved with his own imagination, ignorant of his actual naivete and of the obstacles he faces — including an old flame of his mother’s coming back into the picture (Paddy Considine) and the potential death of his girlfriend’s Mother from cancer — and it’s going to take more than Hal Ashby movies to make him wise enough to deal with these situations.
“The idea was really that Oliver was being seen in the way that he wished to be seen. He would have an awareness of those films and that type of cinema because that kind of ‘60s cinema was very focused on young people and had an exuberant quality to them,” Ayoade told us, giving a heavy nod to the fabricated mindset of “Billy Liar.” “That movie has a small-time feel and someone that’s in their own head and fantasizing about himself being a great person but is maybe somewhat more cowardly and small than he’d wish to think of himself as being.”
Despite all of these inspirations, “Submarine” never feels like it’s aping them, instead having the character dreaming of his own reality and the true reality crashing back. Oliver is constantly placed in awkward situations, ones that need to be handled with maturity and provide no escapism. At one point in the film the aforementioned cancer diagnosis looms heavily over a holiday meal and Oliver struggles with how to handle the situation.
“At that point he’s terrified of the emotion required to go through this very difficult thing, and he’s not really prepared. There’s a politeness when people have guests and they’re not really going to be open about it, but it’s lurking underneath… like a bomb under the table, ready to go off. I felt that would be his worst nightmare, having to endure something real, in that respect,” Ayoade said.
Still, at its heart, “Submarine” is a comedy and finds humor in the darker corners of life. For example, Oliver dreams up a convoluted scenario to help his girlfriend cope with death that is both appallingly ignorant and darkly amusing. “I think he’s so used to reading about behavior and how it can be controlled that he always thinks he can control other people by some form of intelligent solution, which is always emotionally off,” noted the director. But he’s not afraid of offending audience members, because that’s not the point of its inclusion. “I thought it was funny and it felt indicative of his particular pathology that felt important. I suppose what’s funny about it is not [the actual plan], but just that he thinks that will help.”
But not everyone tolerates Oliver’s daydreaming and he finds an antagonist in the new-age mullet-wearing Graham (Considine), an old friend of his mother’s who moves in next door. While the new neighbor spends most of his time fornicating with his hippie girlfriend in the yard and indulging in drugs and his own far-out philosophy, the boy sees him as a man attempting to woo his maternal figure away from his depressed father. “We wanted him to appear sort of like how Robert De Niro appeared in ‘Cape Fear‘ and have him be an enemy to Oliver. It’s on quite a low level though, a character that doesn’t have much sway in the world,” Ayoade explained. But Graham is such a particular caricature that there surely must be something more to his make-up: possibly a real world parody or critique of someone? “I suppose we were thinking a lot of David Icke [British newscaster-turned-conspiracist], of course not quite on that kind of scale, Graham’s mores a minor actor in a show that went a bit mad.”
But with the film just about to head into theaters, Ayoade shows no sign of slowing down and is already at work adapting the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella “The Double” with Avi Korine (brother of Harmony Korine, co-writer of “Mister Lonely“) about a Russian government clerk who begins to notice a doppelganger embarrassing him in various social and work-related situations. The filmmaker was taken by the humor and weirdness of the story, but as far as adapting it goes, he won’t ground it as a period piece. “Well, it’s one of those things where I don’t know how you would adapt that story faithfully. It’s so internal, about someone’s descent into madness,” Ayoade said. “Also, the elements that are more satirical about a counselor in 19th century Russia don’t feel particularly personal now, people don’t go ‘Oh, those privy counselors!’ It’d be pretty odd, you’d always have to start with a bunch of footnotes.” Seeing as the story’s core is the breakdown of the main character, substituting his profession and locale won’t detract from anything and it actually avoids the blandness usually associated with straight-forward adaptations. But what about embracing the tale’s more jocular side? Sounds like a good fit for Ayoade himself right? “That would be unacceptable, anyone but me. Well not anyone, but most people. There are many people I’d rather sit and watch than me.” Looks like we’ll have to wait for that new series of “The IT Crowd” for more of the man’s absurd comic performances.
“Submarine” hits theaters on June 3rd.