Ayoade’s debut feature is a confident and beautiful film which brings Joe Dunthorne’s novel to the big screen in great style. Craig Roberts, in particular, stands out as he embodies our lovestruck narrator Oliver Tate as he navigates and exaggerates his first love affair.
Ayoade was a genial and gracious man to speak with, keen to shine a light on those around him and champion the collaborative process of film making; it will be extremely interesting to see what he turns his hand to next.
HeyUGuys: Firstly congratulations on the film, I’ve not heard a negative word about it. How is it for you as a first time director coping with the attention and the positive reception?
Richard Ayoade: Yeah, it’s very pleasing that a lot of people have responded to it and the book was very well received so it’s one of those situations where a lot of the credit has to go to the source material. It feels better than everyone hating it.
Was it a collaborative process from the beginning?
I think you only have to stamp your authority as a director if you feel you don’t have a say in things whereas with Submarine because it wasn’t a huge studio film it wasn’t a situation where I was being forced to do things I didn’t want to. In this situation you want to hear what everyone has to say as much as you can because you’re not being defensive, you’re hoping to have everyone contributing as much as possible. Joe [Dunthorne] would read drafts of the scripts and he’d give comments and was welcome to come along for as much as he could stand. He’d quote that the first day on set is the most exciting day ever and the second is the most boring, and he came on set twice, so that turned out to be true. But I couldn’t have asked for more.
Was the writing, or in this case the adaptation, of the film the most enjoyable part of the process for you?
In some ways the best part is when the actors get involved – that’s when it starts to feel it begins to exist. For a long time a script can feel like an IOU note and you have periods when it’s really going well and times when you can’t stand it. The writing is hard, not that it can’t be enjoyable but very often it’s hard with brief breakthroughs and then back to the grind.
How was it working with Paddy Considine and Sally Hawkins to create the characters on screen, given they already exist on the page?
Because the novel is first person you only have Oliver’s description of them and because he is unreliable and selective you aren’t really sure what the other characters are like. There’s a lot of work in the script and in rehearsal and even in the filming of it to nail those characters down so they could exist in an objective world and not just in the head of the main character. The actors are completely responsible always for creating the characters, through their personality and their approach.
One of my first impressions as the film unfolded was that Oliver was, as you said, an unreliable narrator and perhaps that he was a fantasist who was embellishing a very ordinary first love affair, is that an understandable reaction?
Yes, and in the film you can see how people are reacting to Oliver more directly than you can within a first person narrative where the reactions of people around him are always reported by him. So, unless you’re going to do Lady in the Lake and have the camera as the person and having that camera can see the fantasy version of everyone else. You become more aware of having to juxtapose his view of things which comes through voiceover or his behaviour on his own to the reactions of the other people.
It felt almost like a dream at times, and the use of Super 8 footage compounded the nostalgic feel. It’s as if Oliver was deciding how to see it – how he would remember it.
Yeah, exactly. He s trying to see the world through a particular lens which is kind to him and the language of nostalgia is quite codified and he would be using that language.
And much of the film is shot using natural light and yet when these vibrant sequences come up on screen that seems like a signal that something else is happening – is that how you saw the film from the start?
We were definitely going to shoot with natural light as much as possible and the plan was to film it as though Oliver was in charge of the direction of it, how he would direct his own biopic. He would infuse it with the Gallic romanticism and be very kind to himself and portray himself as very heroic and the more heroically he presented himself the more true it would appear. So a lot of it was planned but when you get into the edit the editors have a huge say and lots of ideas so it always changes right up until the end.
Given that Oliver is clearly cine-literate and there are a number of references to other films in Submarine. Towards the end when you have Oliver imagining himself running onto the beach towards a figure in a red coat waiting with their back to him I couldn’t help but think of Don’t Look Now…
That wasn’t intentional at all and it’s certainly not how you would film it if you were trying to do a reference to that because it doesn’t have that same type of horror or suspenseful feel that does.
Another of the film that you’ve mentioned being an influence is The Graduate and thematically the juxtaposition of the old and younger generations and the approach of adulthood and the realisation that life never really gets any easier – was that something you enjoyed exploring?
Yes, one of the things that feels interesting about the character that Noah Taylor plays is that he was probably like Oliver when he was young. And even to the extent that Noah played Danny Embling in Flirting and The Year my Voice Broke and that character being an intellectual dreamer of sorts. There are definite similarities and it’s a question of whether Oliver is going to break from that mould or not, in the same way that Benjamin Braddock will end up becoming like his parents or whether he has significantly broken away. That’s the nature of any coming of age story, especially when juxtaposed with the parents you get the sense that they’ve been through that and you wonder what will you be when you’re their age.
Like Benjamin Braddock Oliver isn’t an easy character to like, did putting him in the centre of the frame for the whole film mean you had to consider if the audience would have trouble identifying with him, or in wanting him to succeed?
Often I think this notion of investing in characters is just strange and very ‘Hollywood’. The idea that you are the same as the character and you’re the person flying through the air and shooting down the other pilots and you feel exactly the same… whereas I don’t feel anything like Travis Bickle, and I find him very interesting. It’s simply that I found the character interesting so it never occurred to me whether he was likable or not, it never worried me. Kit Carruthers was very compelling in Badlands and in a sense you do like him but it’s not about identifying with him. It’s a strange thing, like a questionnaire – ‘Did you like the main character?’ – it’s a very leading question.
There are a couple of projects you’ve been attached to for your next project, one is the Dostoyevsky story, can you tell us what you’re doing next?
Yeah, I’m working on The Double which is the Dostoyevsky project, writing it with Avi Korine who came up with the idea for the adaptation and we’ve been working on that. That’s really what I want to do next.