With The Double, British filmmaker Richard Ayoade has taken one of Dostoyevsky’s stranger works and made it into a film that is quite possibly even stranger. In it, Jesse Eisenberg does double duty as a nebbishy nerd named Simon whose sexy, subversive doppelganger, James, begins taking over his life. It’s not clear if James is Simon’s life coach or nemesis, especially when he begins cozying up to Simon’s office crush Hannah, an outspoken and exasperated woman played by Mia Wasikowska. Beyond the dark, paranoid heart of its source material is a dry wit and romance that’s impossibly weird and wonderful. Ayoade, who went from studying law at Cambridge to writing and starring in TV shows, is probably best known for his character Maurice Moss on The IT Crowd, and for costarring alongside Vince Vaughan and Ben Stiller in The Watch. His first feature, the stylish comedy Submarine, debuted to near universal acclaim. Here, we talk to him about his latest film, writing female characters, and the secret to being a good filmmaker.
Your movie is different from the novella, and the end isn’t as ambiguous the original.
Well, the ending in the book is quite indecipherable, or it’s hard to exactly know what has happened. The main thrust of the story in this film is the romantic love story between Jesse and Mia’s characters, which didn’t exist in the book. So I guess primarily we took the premise of someone who’s so meek and mild that their double appears and no one notices, that they’re so invisible no one cares, but in our [movie], this double takes over his life more and intercedes in that romantic relationship. Dostoyevsky wasn’t happy with the ending of his novella, apparently, and there is something not quite right with it. Since we’d already transposed it into a different time and added this other character, it just couldn’t end in the same way as the novella.
Hannah is such a bold female character. Could you talk about coming up with her? I noticed in Submarine the female character is awesome as well.
I’m pleased you found that, because I think in both those films, what is hard, and I guess it’s like the Betsy in Taxi Driver problem, which is that if you have something from a flawed male perspective, it can feel like the character is meant to be what that person is seeing, so you have to create a character that’s independent of that gaze, even though you know that you’re only going to be primarily seeing [her] via that gaze. A lot of it is writing things that aren’t going to be specifically alluded to or seen in the film, so it has all of its dimensions, you hope, and that in general those characters kind of have a strength that the male characters lack, or they’re more — they’re just less deluded, and they’re more able to admit that they are angry about things. I think both the male characters, if you ask them were they angry about things, they would say that they weren’t, but I think they actually are both very frustrated and angry but unable to admit it to themselves, you know.
There’s a thing that Dostoyevsky said, which is that everyone’s got a face that they’ll show the world, and then they have a face that they’ll only show people who are close to them, and then the face that you’d only show your wife or your husband, and the face you would only show to yourself, and then the side that you wouldn’t even show to yourself. And so, yeah, I think Hannah is more able to face herself than Simon.
You’ve got Chris O’Dowd and Paddy Considine popping up in this movie, who are both part of the same British creative scene as yourself. You guys just pop up in each others’ stuff. Is that pretty informal?
A bit, but in a way it’s because you want all those parts to have the best chance, and in a way, if you can have Paddy in something you do, you just have him in it because he’s just always great. And all of these people that Jesse’s character Simon encounters have to be very strong and a formidable opposition to him, so you want a group of very strong actors, rather than there being some kind of unofficial apartheid between movie star actors and non. Actors are really happy to play small parts, if the thing is interesting. They’d rather play a small, interesting part than a main part that was dull and boring. Ben Stiller did a cameo in Submarine. As long as the thing that they’re doing is clear and interesting and of appeal, they’re very happy to do it.
How much of Submarine‘s great sound and production design is what you write and what you want, and how much of it is the production designer or the sound designer?
It’s a combination. Everything I’ve done has been done via this company Hackenbacker and Nigel Health, this mixer, so he makes an enormous contribution, but you have an idea of how it will be that does start with the script, and this [script] I wrote with Avi [Korine], and the whole idea of the world is from Avi’s initial ideas as well. As you go along, you just end up funneling things as being either good for the film or not so good, and you just keep going until you feel it’s okay. Dave Crank’s the production designer. Everyone is completely involved and responsible jointly for it, but you sort of need a governing idea for everyone to be working towards so that you’re not just choosing stuff that you yourself just like. You just go, I like these kinds of sounds. Can we have these? And that governing idea, I guess, does come from the script and the premise.
Have you studied filmmaking? You have a law degree,and more of a literary background. How did you do this?
Um, well, um, well, you’re not making it yourself, and you’re around a number of people who have years of expertise. But really it’s just opinion, which anyone could have. You just have opinions or something, really. But I remember David Fincher saying that without his team he’d just be someone with a load of opinions, and I think that’s kind of a good description. A director’s just someone with a lot of opinions. And yeah, I will have an opinion on what socks people should wear, because you want everything to be communicating something to do with the story. Otherwise it’s just random, and I feel that in a lot of films, I don’t know, they could be wearing anything. Their clothes look brand new. It just feels like it has no purpose, and so yes, you just want everything to have a kind of purpose that adheres with the story.