Beloved by British comedy fans as the more socially inept of The IT Crowd’s tech geeks—and by serious comedy nerds as The Mighty Boosh’s Saboo and the co-creator of the dazzling supernatural spoof Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace—Richard Ayoade is just beginning to make a splash on this side of the pond. An attempt to launch a U.S. version of The IT Crowd with Ayoade reprising his role never got past the pilot stage, but co-star Joel McHale moved on to Community, and Ayoade wound up directing the standout episode “Critical Film Studies,” in which a Pulp Fiction-themed party morphs into a more erudite homage. Ayoade, who also collaborated with Four Lions’ Chris Morris and directed music videos for Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend, makes his feature-film writing and directing debut with Submarine, an insistently funny, disarmingly touching coming-of-age story set in 1980s Wales. Drawn from Joe Dunthorne’s novel, the movie stars Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate, an unfailingly self-conscious teenager who narrates his life as if it’s a heroic epic. Notwithstanding the fact he’s never gotten past first base, Oliver is convinced he has ample “street cred,” and he hatches a foolproof plan to lose his virginity by the end of the year. Ayoade recently talked to The A.V. Club about the phoniness of realism, the overlap between Submarine’s awkward teen and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, and why Badlands is one of the funniest movies of all time.
The A.V. Club: For a film by a first-time director, Submarine has a precisely defined tone. What were you going for?
Richard Ayoade: It’s almost the hardest thing to talk about, because that’s the one thing that is what you like, really, or what appeals to you. In the novel, it was the tenor of [Dunthorne’s] voice I liked. There’s an element of it, but necessarily it’s small in the film, because there’s only so much voiceover. In the book, you’re spending a lot of time in the company of a first-person narrator, and you really get to know his linguistic address. It’s more or less your sense of what feels right or not. In this film, there aren’t laugh points. A lot of comedies are based on the reaction shot. You have one person doing something stupid and one person is generally the straight man, and the laughs generally come on the reaction of the straight man to the funny thing the other person has done. But this doesn’t really have reactions, because as far as Oliver is aware, everybody thinks he’s amazing. There isn’t anyone reacting to his vaunted thoughts, because they’re internal. So the only dislocation is one for you to read in or not.
As in, I think Badlands is one of the funniest films of all time: “Every day I wish I was carried off to a magical land, but that never happened” is one of the funniest lines in any film. It’s so funny, that film, but it doesn’t seem that it’s filled with jokes. There’s a bit where they’re both by a tree, and she says, “Oh, this is a nice spot,” and he says, “Yeah, the tree makes it nice.” It’s just perfect, the banality. I think The Shining is incredibly funny, in that kind of banality. So yeah, those tonal things, what you tune into. It’s very hard to know what it is about tone that you like.
AVC: It’s tricky to make a movie about adolescence that’s both true to the immediate experience of it and looking back with a degree of perspective, that feeling of how dire and critical and world-shaking every incredibly minor event feels.
RA: But I think everyone feels that probably all the time. It’s just that people learn to filter it in a more pompous way as you get older. No matter how ironic one’s disposition is, people take themselves pretty seriously. I think even the most jovial, self-effacing person at their core has an alarmingly serious view of themselves. When you’re in the realm of private thoughts, which you can have access to in voiceover, you can have someone take themselves incredibly seriously. It is perhaps more heightened at that time, but only because you have so little authority at that age; just any pronouncement seems very premature or not earned.
The act of seeing any film generally is you knowing more than the characters, even if it’s the classic Hitchcock shot of two people talking and a bomb being under the table. Part of the pleasure of it is seeing where people go wrong, and the irony of situations. I think that exists in any film. In Taxi Driver, you go, “Probably shouldn’t be taking this person to a porn cinema. It’s probably not a good idea. Maybe Love Story would have been good…” You’re always in the position of watching characters who are deluded in some way. For me, the films that do that more brilliantly perhaps than any, or more subtly, are the Eric Rohmer Moral Tales. What’s so good about it is, for a long time they don’t even feel like they’re deluded to you, because they seem to have a good handle on things, and then you slowly realize how different their perception of the world is to what’s actually happening, the degree to which people are lying about themselves. I think they’re very funny.
AVC: You cast Paddy Considine in a fairly extreme comic role, as this absurd New Age guru with a sky-high mullet. After Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee, we know he can do comedy, but he hadn’t done much at the time. Why did you think of him for the role?
RA: I knew he was really funny, and I think I’d seen a video of him doing Le Donk. I can’t remember where I saw it. It might have been just at Warp, but it was just a thing of him breakdancing. He’s really funny in A Room For Romeo Brass, I think, and even in Dead Man’s Shoes, which is very intense. He’s just so good. There was no one else I thought of for that, as in I didn’t go on fully with the writing until he’d read a bit of it to see whether he could do it. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t done it. I would have had to have written it differently. He really goes into it. We did a whole video that Graham, his character, would have done; his whole system and his whole lineage and all of that, we’d work out and film as a video and write it out so there’d be reality to it. Because you only see the film through Oliver’s point of view, a lot of the work had to be to make sure that everyone else playing their characters could do them properly. The linguistic flourish of the book is good enough that there are times when you go, “I’m not sure what Jordana thinks at this point”—because, for the purpose of the novel, it wasn’t important to know. But for the actor, they really do have to know that stuff.
AVC: Teenage coming-of-age movies are a dime a dozen in the U.S., but you’ve said they aren’t as common in the UK. Obviously you get some of the same movies.
RA: Yeah, they come out. The American films are popular in England. Rocky, that kind of stuff. We’ve seen that.
AVC: The influence there is pretty clear. Did you have a sense of wanting to play off the genre, or bring something new to it?
RA:I think Oliver Tate has that, in that the character is aware that those films have taken place and would attempt to declare the cliché as well as subverting it. Even if he’s not successfully subverting it, he would be attempting to. The character’s well aware of the lineage of coming-of-age things, and tries to head it off at the pass.
AVC: There’s a fine line, which runs through a lot of things you’ve done, between being self-aware and simply being precious or parodic. How do you find that balance?
RA: It’s a hard thing to decide on. It’s interesting, say, with Community. I think they strike that balance very well, in that they manage to do things that are clearly referential, but have them be motivated by character rather than simply something existing. I remember in the writers’ room, them talking about the Pulp Fiction briefcase—how that could, in the My Dinner With Andre episode I directed [“Critical Film Studies”], conceivably be something that Jeff would have bought, and how that can lead to that kind of situation, rather than going, “How are we going to get some situation whereby someone has an allergic reaction and you need to plunge a hypodermic needle into them?” I suppose it’s trying to motivate things from character as much as possible. There’s a thin line between it simply looking like you are referencing things because you think they’re cool and the camera psychologically being sympathetic to the manner in which this character wishes to be seen. Oliver’s sort of declaring his life to be like a film, therefore the camera’s sort of trying to ape the manner in which he would wish to be seen. And clearly the manner in which he wishes to be seen is limited by your knowledge. If you had no knowledge of coming-of-age films, you wouldn’t be able to do it, but neither are you trying to sneak in that shot from John Woo’s The Killer that you’ve always liked, because that would not be appropriate.
AVC: The most self-aware moment in Submarine is also an admission of failure, where Oliver pinpoints a moment in his life as the perfect place for a crane shot, but admits that his biopic will probably only have the budget for a shaky zoom out.
RA: That’s one of those things you just take a gamble on and hope it’s okay, and it’s just a guess. I don’t know why, for example, in Shoot The Piano Player, that moment of “I made my mother drop down dead. I’m telling a lie” doesn’t jump me out of the film. You just go, “Oh, I really like that.” It’s not repeated, and there’s no motivation for that; there’s no justification for it. If someone sat [Francois] Truffaut down and went, “Okay, on a Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, eye-level camera, reality level, how do you justify yourself for this?” I don’t know what could be said, other than, “I like it.”
AVC: Desire has a lot to do with it.
RA: Ultimately, whatever inflection your personality gives the stuff that you do is the thing that will either make people detest it or like it, possibly. I remember reading, for example, when The Straight Story came out, that David Lynch was obviously playing with the idea of yellow markers in the middle of the road, but slowing them down. I was sort of feeling, “I can’t imagine that David Lynch was looking at that and chuckling to himself.” Some people have preoccupations.
AVC: David Lynch’s work seems very much to be driven by what he wants to see onscreen. He’s a smart filmmaker, but he still has that small-town Montana quality of, “Gee, that looks nice.”
RA: Clearly it can be very damaging to everyone to be too transparent. In conversational terms, transparency is merely another genre. You’re in the transparent genre. It’s like realism, maybe the most phony thing in the world, especially because most interviews seem to exist in the context of commerce, that you have an interview and it says, “Hangover 2, coming out Friday.” The reason for the transaction was sales, and that’s why sometimes it’s so interesting to read reviews after the fact, or it’s interesting to read Pauline Kael now, talking about Rohmer. You go, “Okay, this is what I thought, and this is what she thought, it’s kind of interesting.” But under the pressure of somehow trying to cajole people into seeing something, it’s very difficult. Self-consciousness is such an awful thing anyway—to further hurl yourself into the ring of third-person-ness is perhaps dangerous.
AVC: Are you speaking as a person, or the filmmaker, or both?
RA: I think both, really. As soon as you have a Sasha Fierce, something’s a bit weird. This actually is my Sasha Fierce now. I sort of go and mumble into a corner, psyching myself up. There’s a real distillation of inarticulacy; that’s my character that I adopt. As soon as I leave the room, I’m moonwalking, punching the air, doing all that kind of stuff.
AVC: Submarine has some specific signifiers with regard to its era: the fact that the father gives his son a mix-tape with love songs on one side and breakup songs on the other, or that Paddy Considine’s cheesy video is on VHS. But one of the key ways period pieces, especially ones about childhood, can evoke nostalgia for a period is by using pop songs from the time, and you don’t do that. You use original songs by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner instead.
RA: Songs have such a wealth of association with them that it didn’t feel right. As soon as you hear that, you’re waiting for “Walking On Sunshine” or something. If someone says, “I’m going to play you a song that’s going to be happy,” it’s either going to go with it, or going to go against it, and you have your associations with that song, whether it’s been used before. Also, on a financial level, you know this is a song they could afford: “There’s a reason I’m not hearing Led Zeppelin right now, because they don’t have enough money for Led Zeppelin.” I like the idea that none of the music pre-existed the film, and that it was somewhat more hermetically sealed, and didn’t immediately evoke a set of norms that people already had.
I suppose it was to have two strands of music, one which was orchestral, which Andrew Hewitt did, which is very much like a Georges Delerue, overly emotive, Mahler-esque kind of score that Oliver has in his head in a self-aggrandizing way, and the songs that I suppose are from this tape that his father gives him. The time period, obviously there are things that are inescapable signifiers, like Crocodile Dundee or whatever. The book is specifically dial-up-modem era, but somehow that just fades away in the novel. You don’t keep reading it, going, “God, this is so 1996.” But in a film, the production design would remain, and it feels like it’s constantly radiating information that’s important. It didn’t feel important for it to be anchored to that time, but it certainly did not feel that it was now. There’s nothing in the novel or anything in the way the characters behave that seemed to take account of social media. It was a more nostalgic time. Often, places aren’t really up to date anyway. Often in period films, everything is of that moment, whereas there’s probably more 1950s décor in the 1970s than there was 1970s décor, unless you were really wealthy. Most people’s stuff is old; you don’t just buy new stuff. I like that feel that it was somewhat of another era, really.
AVC: You’ve mentioned things like Taxi Driver and The Squid And The Whale as influences, but there’s a lot of French New Wave in Submarine as well: the red and blue title cards are very Week End, and the tracking shots of Oliver running down the road are a direct nod to The 400 Blows. Those are movies that are themselves about having grown up on movies.
RA: Absolutely. I think the idea of “cool” was probably distilled in the ’60s. It’s not really gone past that, particularly a certain kind of intellectual cool. I think one of the reasons people are interested in the ’80s, certainly from a writing point of view, is that it feels like the last pre-ironic decade. Especially in terms of people being funny, self-awareness can be funny, and there can be something funny in someone continually trying to co-opt things into their awareness, but it’s annoying as well. It’s a hard thing to latch onto, because seeing something entirely in inverted commas can be unsatisfying.
I suppose for me, this character is someone who would view himself as somewhat intellectual and also identifies quite closely with his father, who would be from that time and would view himself as being a student of that. That just is my experience; people know those films. It’s not like you reference them and people go, “I have no idea what the French New Wave is.” It’s very much about youthfulness and that kind of exuberance.
AVC: We’ve been talking a lot about self-awareness, and I don’t want to give the impression that Submarine is entirely self-conscious in the way something like Napoleon Dynamite is.
RA: Oh no, no. It’s kind of interesting to me as well. For me, it’s not a combative position at all. It’s something I find really interesting, and partly why I go to stuff. I find it somewhat creepy when I see things that feel like they have no idea that anything existed other than it. Sometimes films can be like a weird ghetto where nobody talks about films. I remember how impactful Scream seemed. You’re going, “It’s aware.” And you go, “Okay, it’s the ’90s, and this is the first time people are saying they’ve seen something that’s aware of its form?” It seems so obvious that things are aware of their forms, whether it’s some gothic novel that says “Let me tell you this story,” and will reference other novels and how stories are normally told in novels, or Nabokov. I find it really exciting, because it’s kind of, “Let’s get the stupid thing out of the way that this is actually real life, and let’s get on with enjoying a thing.” Even if something is real, there’s something about you go to the cinema, there’s the red curtains, people want to be there for the trailers. There’s a presentational aspect to “Ta dah!” that I think is interesting.
AVC: There’s a point in Submarine where Oliver realizes he isn’t just living a script, that he’s doing things that will have consequences and will shape who he is for the rest of his life.
RA: I think that’s the thing. I think he thought he could say, “Well, I’m about to have my formative relationship, then that will end, and I then I will go on,” and by being able to identify the cliché, he could circumvent its effect on him. But that’s not how it happens. I remember reading something Paul Thomas Anderson said, that you can often feel betrayed by films, because you’ve seen this moment dramatized before in a film, and I guess that’s what the moment in Magnolia where Philip Seymour Hoffman says, “This is part of the movie where you help someone out” is about. There’s no way of putting the genie back in the bottle, that kind of awareness of dramatized moments; you can’t erase it. In the most horrific circumstances of natural disaster, one of the main things that people are saying, “God, it looks like a film.” The moments when you should feel the most connected to things, there’s this awful, dissonant, alienating thing that occurs. I think that’s slightly what Oliver’s suffering from. He almost can’t take moments seriously, because he’s seen them before. To me, that seemed interesting, and isn’t done that much. Scream kind of did it. I think those first two Scream films are incredible, and The Faculty. There’s a real pocket of brilliant writing that Kevin Williamson did in the first season of Dawson’s Creek, which I loved. I really loved Kevin Williamson. I felt that reading the book, and I suppose in the film, it was to concentrate it more to the filmic aspect rather than the literary aspect.
AVC: There are moments when Oliver has to act, and he over-processes the decision to the point of being paralyzed. When his girlfriend’s mother goes into the hospital, he comes up with an elaborate rationale as to why it’s better for him not to visit.
RA: Yeah, and I think he ends up using it as a crutch to avoid doing what he really ought to be doing. I think he’s very frightened of the emotion in that situation, and also, for all his attempts to say that he wants to grow up, I think he’d be very distraught to lose the privileges of childhood. I think you’re aware at that age that there’s a lot of annoying things about not being in charge of your own life, but the prospect of paying an electricity bill is so depressing. You just go, “I already had electricity before this. Now I must fund it personally.” Something’s happened.
AVC: Do you relate specifically to that aspect of the character, that tendency to process or shield through things?
RA: I think that it’s something you’re aware of. Reading it, I was very baffled by his decisions. I didn’t feel like, “Well of course you’re not going to go to the hospital.” I was going, “This is insane, why aren’t you going to the hospital? It seems so easy.” I always imagine that moment as being a bit like Travis Bickle taking Betsy to the porn film. When you first see that, you go, “You’d won her. She was interested in you. What are you doing?” But of course, there’s a self-destructive, pathological need to prevent that working out. I felt, similarly, Oliver doesn’t want to be in an emotional relationship, and therefore has to effectively sabotage it.
AVC: He acts disappointed when he realizes, “She’s gone soft. She’ll never burn my leg hair again.”
RA: Again, that’s rationalization. He doesn’t want someone to be punching him for the rest of his life. He does want that kind of connection, but he probably doesn’t know what to do with it, and it’s frightening, and he certainly doesn’t want it under the circumstances that mean he has to watch her mother die. I just think it’s too overwhelming, and he just shuts down.
AVC: A quick Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace question: The idea of faking a terrible low-budget show from the ’80s could be fairly low-hanging fruit, but your direction has a lot to do with helping it transcend parody. It’s terrifically dense at points, in terms of just how many technical errors you can cram into a small space. How specific going in were you about things like bad overdubs and continuity errors?
RA: It was pretty specific. What’s odd with that, because Matt [Holness] and I have never even spoken about it outside of character—somehow it feels improper, because, especially for a show that is about a bunch of pompous people talking about something they did, to re-enter the room of people pompously talking about the thing about pompous people seems too silly. We had very good sound people in that. They’re the experts at making things sound wonky. When we first played it, someone tried to swap the stereo track round. They said, “Oh, it’s back to front,” and we said, “It’s meant to be back to front.”