Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I was a fan of Richard Ayoade's work before I ever learned his name. Several years back, a friend loaned me the British series "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace," which introduced me to the non-actor Dean Learner, who played Thornton Reed on the fictional science-fictional show. Of course, both characters were played by Ayoade, who also directed all of the episodes of "Darkplace" and established himself as a solid comic actor, writer and director in the years to come, including taking the Dean Learner character and turning him into a talk show host in "Man to Man with Dean Learner." Most recently, he directed the episode of "Community" that was an homage to MY DINNER WITH ANDRE.
Ayoade had the recurring role as Saboo on "The Mighty Boosh" and is currently the star (along with BRIDESMAIDS' Chris O'Dowd and Katherine Parkinson) of the very funny series "The IT Crowd," on which he plays the quintessential tech nerd Moss. Fellow fans of Ayode's work may find the subject and tone of his debut as a feature director, SUBMARINE (which he also adapted from Joe Dunthorne's novel), a bit different than his work as an actor, and that's actually a really good thing. The film is a subtle, darkly humorous coming-of-age story that is beautifully acted, weirdly effective and affected, and I happen to really enjoy it.
In person, Ayoade is a soft-spoken, unassuming man who has clearly contemplated SUBMARINE deal since, especially since its premiere at last year's Toronto Film Festival. He's a lot of fun to talk to, and has a wicked, dry sense of humor. When I asked him for the correct pronunciation of his last name, he just shook his head and said, "I don't know." Later this same day, we did a post-screening Q&A, and he really came to life in front of the audience of folks clearly aware of his television work. Anyway, please enjoy my talk with Richard Ayoade.
Capone: Richard, it’s nice to meet you.
Richard Ayoade: Hi, it’s nice to meet you.
Capone: So are you tired of talking about the movie yet, or has the novelty not worn off yet?
RA: [laughs] I’m not very insightful about anything and yeah, so I think it’s always more tiring for whoever is listening.
Capone: Last night, I watched some clips of you at Toronto being interviewed and I think it was more that the people who were interviewing you just did not get you. They did not understand that you were making jokes, and they were taking everything you said quite seriously.
RA: Well, they have about 100 interviews a day, so they probably just wanted me to say what it was about and just say why people should see it. I still have not managed to come up with a good reason why anyone should see it. I think there’s this real lack of adult engagement. I’m not very good at saying why someone should go and see something.
Capone: I don’t know why anyone would ask that question anyway. So, the subject of coming of age and losing one’s virginity in your teenage years has been done many, many times over the years. Why did you choose that to be the subject of your first film? What did you want to do to make it different than all the others?
RA: Well, if I had written an original screenplay, I think I would have been too worried about doing something about something in this age, because of all manner of films I guess. But I just really liked the book, because I just had a source of non-careerist or response to the book. I just read it and didn’t think “I wonder if this is the correct genre for which to start my inevitably long and illustrious career,” because in a way the first film can very much be the only film, like I don’t sort of regard this as… This could very well be the only film I ever make. Something either, you like it and you feel that it could work or you are interested enough to pursue it, and I’ve always liked it as a genre. I’ve always liked American films about coming of age, like THE GRADUATE and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and CATCHER IN THE RYE, obviously, and just loved that so much when I was that age and still do. In England--even though SUBMARINE is a Welch film--in Britain there isn’t a huge lineage of films about adolescence. I mean there are a few certainly, but there’s no such thing as this sort of teen movie, I don't feel, in England. There aren’t those kinds of John Hughes figures.
Capone: No, you get THE HISTORY BOYS or something, which didn't even begin life as a movie.
RA: Yeah! And you know there’s the Stephen Fry play called LATIN!, which is a prep school thing, and there’s THE BROWNING VERSION, I guess, but that’s kind of about that teacher. And there's IF…
Capone: I had just seen IF… recently, and there’s some of that in here for sure, but that’s about much more sophisticated emotions.
RA: Yeah, and it’s much polemical and disruptive and provocative. BILLY LIAR is another one, I guess. There was a time in the '60s when I guess because the '60s felt to be so much about younger people anyway, and the French new wave and the British new wave, because all of those directors I guess were that age--in their 20s nearly all of them. They had young people as the subject matter, but it doesn’t feel like it’s something that has really taken hold in the same way that regularly there seemed to be teen films in America.
Capone: Maybe you say this in the movie and I just missed it, but I had a really hard time pinning down the period this film is set in, because at first I thought it was in the '60s and then I thought maybe there were some '80s references in there. Is there a period? Are you deliberately ambiguous?
RA: Not really. There are some things that anchor it in a very specific time, like during one Q&A someone said, “CROCODILE DUNDEE [which is mentioned in the film] is 1987,” and so I’m happy for it to exist after CROCODILE DUNDEE came out. In a way, that film just seems like beyond time. It slightly felt very old fashioned even then. But I’ve always loved METROPOLITAN, and that had the title card: "Manhattan Christmas Vacation, Not so Long Ago." So even though obviously it was filmed in 1990, they tried to use older New York taxi cabs. But if a new one popped into frame, it wouldn’t destroy the film, and we weren’t about to try and paint out a modern looking car if one drove by.
But it didn’t feel as if it needed to exist in one time period, and because all coming-of-age things I think are always in a kind of remembered past, like THE GRADUATE doesn’t look like the height of the Summer of Love; it’s more like 1961, the Nichols & May era. And same with THE 400 BLOWS post-War rather than 1960. They're always kind of in the past, and it feels somewhat absurd for me as a man hurtling towards his death to be talking about people of that age in a contemporary manner.
Capone: Was there any exorcising of your own teen angst through this film at all?
RA: I guess, again, because it was based on a novel, you just very quickly are interested in that character and you just see it through that character’s eyes and you certainly infect it.
Capone: You did adapt it.
RA: Yeah. You're in the way of it, and so things that interest you end up being in it, but I think weirdly writers have an almost anti-confessional urge, because it’s trying to be mediated through something else that is isn’t saying “This is directly who I am.” The confessional urge is much more of a sort of psychological one like a chat show thing. You don't get the sense.
Capone: Was Ben Stiller [whose production company Red Hour Films made this film] is involved prior to the film being made or did he involve himself once it was part of Toronto?
RA: Yeah, I mean he read the script. He and [producer] Stuart Cornfeld read it, and they were just very encouraging, and I think they really wanted to try and bring it to people’s attention, I guess. That’s what they thought they would be able to add in that way.
Capone: Tell me about finding your two young leads. Craig Roberts, he reminds me of a HAROLD AND MAUDE-era Bud Cort. I think they look almost exactly the same, which is why I kept putting it in the '60s in my head.
RA: To me Bud Cort looks really like Paul McCartney, and so for me it feels like a Beatles-y look, which I guess is that horizontal sweep, which is also quite Welsh. Everyone has those swoops in Wales. We didn’t have to style Craig’s hair; it’s what he looks like, but yeah I guess it’s one of those things that it’s like a lot of people said, “Is the red coat a reference to DON'T LOOK NOW, and it wasn’t in anyway intended, but yeah it’s not sort of an insult in comparison.
Capone: I assume there was a massive audition process for those two in particular.
RA: Yeah, it’s one of those things that you wish there was a better anecdote for, but it really is just a sort of long process and just audition a number of people. You see a lot of really great people, but there’s just something about those two together that felt really right, and I just personally really liked them.
Capone: Did it come down to a series of two people auditioning?
RA: No, there wasn’t a sort of STAR WARS thing, partly because it became sort of clear, and we did do a sort of long screen test really--even though they were kind of cast--but like a two-day shoot where we were sort of testing stuff out where it just became quite clear that they would get together. I like that they sort of look alike in a way.
Capone: That’s true. And they dress alike, because they are wearing uniforms. I consider people like Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, and Noah Taylor pretty big-deal actors. They're great actors certainly. Did they know you through your television work?
RA: I knew Sally just personally, and Paddy I had met, because he had done stuff with Warp Films who produced this. Noah, I didn’t know but was just a big fan of going back to FLIRTING and THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE. He should be in an Aki Kaurismäki film.
Capone: He was just in a small film that came out last year called RED, WHITE & BLUE.
RA: Oh yeah, I haven’t seen that yet.
Capone: He's an evil bastard in that movie, but it’s really good.
RA: I would love to see that; he’s great. He is so good and such a source of pleasure to be around. I was just very fortunate to have them do it.
Capone: They add something to these smaller parts that you really kind of pay attention to them. Oliver is so open with his emotions, both before and after this relationship that he has, were you worried about striking a balance and making him not look too pathetic? Or was pathetic what you were going for?
RA: I think he feels by declaring what you think his position would be that he can get around of actually being open. I suppose if you meet someone, and they tell you everything about themselves straight away, you know they are actually not being honest; it’s a preemptive strike. I think his openness is a kind of an attempt at distilling what the cliché is and I don’t think he actually tells you what his real feelings are. He's good at giving the impression that he is being open with you in terms of his narration, but I think he’s actually very guarded in terms of his genuine feelings.
Capone: I don’t remember the exact line--and there may be even more than one--where he references this idea of his life as a movie. Is that from the book?
RA: Well, the book certainly suggests moments like that, not moments that are the same as in the film. I think there’s a bit in the book when he says, “I imagine big-band music playing,” and certainly the idea of him viewing himself from "up there" is absolutely what I really liked in the book. And it does it a lot with literary devices as well, like he will write a some literary criticism of an email, for example. But with the film, it was to try and make those all film references. I’m pretty sure the documentary crew lines are from the book, and I think like the zoom-out thing, that isn’t in the book, but those things are absolutely suggested by the novel.
Capone: I love that, because that is I think how a lot of teenagers see their lives, like they're being watched. I remember a cousin of mine ,who is only about a year older, said, “Do you ever feel like your life is a movie?” I’m like “Yes!” and I thought he was identifying with me, and then he said, “Yeah, it’s not.” That was kind of just like “Wow! Adulthood: begin.”
RA: I think there’s a great bit in MAGNOLIA when Philip Seymour Hoffman…
Capone: “This is the scene of the movie where you help me out” Yeah, when he’s on the phone. That’s right, I remember that.
RA: I remember it, because like everyone, I’m obsessed with Paul Thomas Anderson. But Oliver saying so many times you're in a situation and you feel like you have been betrayed by films, and you’ve seen it in a film and it’s hard to approach it in a genuine way, and I think that’s one of the things he has a character. He’s seen someone have their first relationship in a million coming-of-age films and he’s seen someone get cancer in a film and he’s seen the concerned look that you are meant to do and he’s seen people break up, but all of that knowledge, which comes from a sort of passive… well, it’s not even passive.
You are involved in narratives when you are watching them, but it doesn’t mean that you have gone through it yourself, but it gives you a strange distanced feeling, a kind of dissonant feeling that you are not quite there. AMERICAN PSYCHO as well sort of… in a far less bloody level, but I think that’s such a great film. There is something about his very much not being in the moment and not being him sort of declaring and listing and that thing that was very much meant to come in with… I don’t know…
Capone: That’s a product of narration too. You force a certain structure onto the story.
RA: Yeah, I mean you 're commenting on things, but it’s also someone who is unable not to realize that they're in the situation they are in and it sort of extends to making something, because you're not in the moment making a film; you're collecting tiny bits of footage over a long period of time. It's a completely mechanized process in some ways.
Capone: I want to bring it back to the parents again. Oliver feels responsible for holding together two relationships--his and his parents. It’s so rare in a coming-of-age film that we have such high-profile parents. And he respects them so much. In so many of them, we almost don’t see them, but they are so much a part of his story, and he feels so responsible.
RA: Well I think you do. In any divorcing relationship, I think the child always feels responsible in some way and partially it’s the thing that you are the center of the universe, but what’s interesting is he doesn’t help at all.
Capone: That’s right.
RA: Nothing he does has any effect, and you don’t know anything that’s going on between them. All you know is what Oliver knows, which is very little. Also, I think he somehow feels more confident, because he’s in a relationship now, and he’s obviously done it so well that he can impart some wisdom to his parents.
Capone: With the two younger leads, was chemistry important there, or was it more important that they maybe didn’t have chemistry?
RA: It was important, I felt, but it was more important not to have a bunch of scenes where you see meet-cute-type relationship moments. So a lot of their relationship is sort of played out in this montage, which is very much through his lens, so that Jordana is slightly mythical and over there. You don’t really see her being very real, except when it gets difficult, because I guess you’ve just seen those scenes so many times. It didn’t feel important in this, that it feels that it going well should some how be off screen for this or not verbal in a way, but you know them having fun is quite a nonverbal section.
Capone: Speaking of “verbal,” they both have very unique, specific rhythms to their speech. That feels like the product of a great deal of rehearsal, is that the case? Did you work on that?
RA: Yeah, there was a lot of rehearsal. They both have good voices. and that is one of the things that I just think is very important in actors--their voices and how you can listen to them and the pace at which people speak. I think there’s a de facto naturalism that releases information slightly too slowly for films, I think. It’s slightly more quickly and intense. But that’s kind of right. That's George Lucas and STAR WARS [laughs]--a bit more intense.
Capone: It’s kind of fun from seeing your TV show…do people pronounce it "The I.T. Crowd" or "The It Crowd"?
RA: I think either is fine.
Capone: Like many British shows, it took a couple of years for me to even hear about it before I saw episodes of it, but it’s kind of fun seeing some of you guys come over here. You directed an episode of "Community", right?
Capone: How did that happen?
RA: That happened through Joel McHale. There was a pilot made of the American "IT Crowd," and we met on that. So it was probably through him getting me in…
Capone: Was he producing it or something? What was his involvement?
RA: He was in it.
Capone: Oh, okay so it’s been that long since they made the pilot.
RA: Yeah, four years maybe.
Capone: I didn’t realize it was that old.
RA: I think he probably, very nicely tried to force them to let me direct an episode. I think Dan Harmon had seen some things I'd done as well. I really like his stuff.
Capone: And I should have said this off the bat, I think "Garth Marenghi" is one of the funniest things I have ever seen; it is so great. And then to have Chris [O’Dowd] be in BRIDESMAIDS this last weekend. Nobody knows who he is, and I’m like he's on this show that I’ve seen a few episodes of.
RA: I haven’t seen BRIDESMAIDS yet, and I really want to see it. He’s great. I mean, both Chris and Katherine [Parkinson] are really good. Chris is brilliant; he is such a good actor.
Capone: What types of comedies do you enjoy? What are you drawn to?
RA: I mean, I like Jacques Tati, I’m quite old fashioned. But I really like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s stuff. Anything they do is great
Capone: Are you going to make it to New York and see their musical?
RA: I would like to see it a lot. Yeah, I’ve not heard anyone not say, “It’s brilliant.” Have you seen it?
Capone: No. I hope it tours, because that’s the only way I’m probably going to get to see it.
RA: It sounds great and you know stuff that a lot of people like, like Richard Pryor and "Monty Python." I really like PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and I guess that’s a comedy.
Capone: It definitely is.
Capone: Anything on the British front?
RA: Yeah, but in a way it’s strange, because it’s like talking about people you know in some self-aggrandizing way. Chris Morris. Everything he does is brilliant. He just did FOUR LIONS.
Capone: I love FOUR LIONS.
RA: Yeah, but its strange, because I know him so it’s so strange talking, especially in a world of Google Alerts, where you go “It’s quite weird that I am hear talking about someone that I know and going "Chris Morris" as though he’s a can of beans or something. And yeah "The Mighty Boosh" I like, but I’ve done stuff with them but I liked them before I did stuff with them, so I’m not saying, "I like the stuff I do." I’m quite bad at keeping up with contemporary comedy. I really like "Community." Maybe I’m just old and not really in touch with stuff, but it doesn’t feel like there are tons of comedy shows on, but maybe I’m not plugged in enough to what’s going on.
Capone: "Community" is the hot-ticket right now in this country, especially this season they just wrapped up, it was phenomenal. It was so good. But anyway, they're wrapping me up here. I will see you tonight. It was great to meet you.
RA: Thank you very much. It was nice to meet you as well.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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