Richard Ayoade is best know for his role as Moss in the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd, but in 2010 he broke out of TV acting mould and directed an independent British film called Submarine. Now he’s back as a director again, this time working with renowned American actor Jesse Eisenberg, who hit the big time with his Facebook-themed film, The Social Network. Here both the actor and director talk about the challenges and pleasures of creating their comedy horror doppelganger film, and the more existential side of developing split personalities for acting.
How did you face the challenge of playing the two sides of your character?
For me it is like playing two different roles that exist in the same scene. It would be the equivalent of playing two different roles in two different movies. The difference with a movie like this is that
they really can't exist without each other, they are two different sides of the same psyche; one has an excess of what the other one lacks. Simon feels uncomfortable in his own skin, whilst James has an excess of confidence and is egoless. They both couldn't really exist on their own. In terms of the acting, it was playing two different roles in a shorter space of time.
Which character are you more like?
They aren't really full people, they couldn't exist on their own, and if they did they would be a real danger to themselves. James self-destructs because he is egoless. Simon is wracked with insecurity, so I wouldn't like to be like either as they are half people.
Presumably you're a big Dostoevsky fan?
I think that he is a good writer. I have always tried to support him in bookshops. The idea was Avi Korine's idea, and he wrote the first couple drafts of the script before we began working on it together. When I read his script I just really liked it. The conceit of the script felt original to me, and it was also something that I hadn't really encountered before. I liked the idea of taking something that is very supernatural and playing it in a very deadpan way. There are mounting gothic concerns, and yet everyone around the character of Simon says nothing about it, which is something that I find very funny and interesting.
Where did the choices in sound design come from?
We just didn't use environmental sounds because it is set in an alternative reality and you couldn't record the sounds because they didn't exist. Existence is a key thing in reality. We made every atmosphere from scratch, were lots of layers and multi-tracking sounds. It actually took longer than the shoot, four months in total. Then there is the score by Andrew Hewitt, accompanied by songs by the Blue Comet.
Was the idea to have an environmental score rather than a big sweeping score?
Well, it is called Mickey Mousing, isn't it? Underscoring stuff using music to say the same thing as the picture. Generally the music happens when there is no dialogue, and you have large relatively long instrumental passages where there is no score, but there is no under-scoring because I don't really like it and it makes it feel like a computer game.
Being a David Lynch fan, I found a lot of Lynch in your movie: the atmosphere, and the strangeness. Is he someone who influences you?
I like him a lot, and in terms of sound he is amazing. Also, it is the feeling that his films provide, a sense of dreaminess and people doing stuff because they are compelled to. People in his films don't act how you would act, which is often the experience I get with many films, where the main character is doing what you would do, like saying, 'Well, I would have punched him!' and so the main characters feel that they are unique and in strange situations.
There is a balance between humour and horror, was that something that was decided at script stage?
I don't suppose that you are necessarily aware of it that much because you are thinking more about the situation and what would be most interesting in the situation generally. If a scene has got only one sense, it feels boring or clichéd. Lynch or Polanski might be a good example of this that the scenes that are the most frightening can also be the funniest. In Chinatown, when Jack Nicholson gets his nose cut, I think is really frightening, but weird and funny, especially when he
calls him kitty-cat. It is a mixture of multiple emotions, and I think that is interesting. I was never thinking, 'Oh, this needs to be more frightening,' or 'This needs to be funnier.' You are just dealing with what is best for the character and the scene.
Did you watch any other doppelgänger movies in preparation for this film?
Technically you just need to know what needs to be done, there are certain things such as if you are going to do a scene with two people played by the same person you can't have the lights changing in between takes. I saw most of the films that have doppelgängers from a technical point of view. Films like Dead Ringers (1988), and such like, but not from a character or tone point of view. Things like, 'Oh, they are doing this shot because it is easy.' Sometimes you are
watching films in order to learn what might not be successful, as much as you are working out what works.
Not really, the stuff that we discussed was more along the lines of characters dealing with loneliness or worlds that seem systematically unfair to them. Simon's plight almost exists irrespective of the doppelgänger; the world seems opposed to him. The doppelgänger is a
manifestation of that in the same way. Things such as how the elevator doors don't open to him, or how his colleagues ignore him, that his work cubical is at an inconvenient height for him to walk through freely, it is all manifestations of existential inconveniences.