GFF – A few wise words from Richard Ayoade

I tried relentlessly to get a one-on-one interview with director Richard Ayoade but to know avail. The best I could manage was to throw some questions at him following the screening of Submarine at the Glasgow Film Festival. The resulting article is a combination of the answers given to my questions and those of others:

If you were to take Ayoade’s gawky bespectacled character from the British sitcom The IT Crowd as an indicator to his real life persona, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. As he takes a seat in front of the packed room at the Glasgow Film Theatre, he seems hesitant to speak, casually mumbling into his microphone and refusing to make contact with any of the eager eyes set on him. It is clear that the idea of a room full of people puts him on edge, as he announces, “I will slowly elevate my eyes as I reach an accepted level of comfort.”

As he begins to relax and is asked why he made the film, his answer is somewhat abrupt, “Why? Is a good question, which I won’t answer.” However, he does expand on this, “It’s not the story I wished to end my life with. Initially it was trying to make something from what is a very internal novel that is all first person in its testimony, and to see whether it was transferable to film, otherwise it would all be like the title sequence of Fight Club, just synaptic twinges, which for 90 minutes might be tough. But who knows, maybe that would have been less tough than what you have seen.”

The modesty at which Ayoade answers each question is surprising. For a man who is no stranger to success, he seems very concerned about how people will react to his directorial debut. One woman suggests the idea that his work has the propensity to be considered Cult, and his reaction is simply, “I think unpopular is the word”. This lack of certainty about his work comes across as endearing and you can’t help but immediately warm to him. He appears unsure about what will follow from this project as he awkwardly jokes, “I didn’t want to announce my retirement, but yeh, that’s it.” He seems genuinely concerned when he says, “I hope I’m not unemployable as a result of it, but who knows? Every time you finish something, you feel you will never work again, which has been true for periods after I had done things in the past. You never imagine that you will get to make something else.”

It is evident, however, that this was never an endeavour about making money and so he had focused on the artistic creativity of the film, without a thought of whether or not this would appeal to a mass audience. Again he jokes, “Sure, I look poor currently,” but he is trying to get across a very clear notion that that this is not a film revolved around commercial success. “That was in no way the intention at all. There is a likelihood that it will be more popular than some things I have done simply because they have been so unpopular. Just by law of averages, if I released camera phone footage of me eating muesli, it might be more successful than some of the things I have done. You have no expectations that it will even be released when you make it, certainly with my track record.”

Surprisingly, Ayoade didn’t approach Warp films with a plan to make the film and instead it was them who came to him. “They did approach me because the book hadn’t been published, so I literally couldn’t have approached them; I would have had to have been in the future.” It was, however, a no brainer, and after reading the book (written by Joe Dunthorne) he didn’t have any doubts about wanting to make it into a feature film. “I just really loved it and so I was pleased to have the chance to try and adapt it.”

Filmed entirely in the South of Wales, Submarine was made in a relatively short amount of time, as Ayoade recalls, “It was seven weeks and then the crew got smaller – not just because they were fleeing – the idea was that the last couple of weeks would just be Craig and Yasmin with a much smaller crew which was great. So slowly we had less and less money as we went along; it was just me and the camera man by the end.”

When asked about how Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige were cast and what what he was looking for, he replies instantly, “Them really. You want people who are as good as them.” He goes on to make a very valid point, “You don’t really know when you start, you just hope that you will find people who are good and who you feel an audience can watch. He then jokingly adds, “They both read for Oliver but Yasmin felt more suited to Jordana.”

2010 Toronto International Film Festival

The character of Oliver Tate is one whom Ayoade feels differs to his own teenage self as he jokes, “I didn’t really speak to anyone until I was in my twenties.” However, he does add that despite the majority of the character’s persona arising from how he was described in the book, it was inevitable that as a director some of his own input affected the way in which Craig Roberts performed the part.

In terms of influences, Ayoade cites Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans le Metro; a film which has become something of an obsession for the director since he first watched it when he was younger. He also emphasises the role Taxi Driver played in the making of the film. “Taxi Driver is very internal and the idea is he would see his life very dramatically and it would be through his eyes.” To a certain extent this is true in the case of Submarine as well. “The film is directed like Oliver had directed it; that’s how he would want to be seen, as this great existential figure.”

One of the many surprising features of the film is that Ben Stiller acted as an executive producer. When questioned about the role that Stiller played in the production of the film, Ayoade jests, “Catering. We fired the first caterer and you know, he cooked us a meal and it was acceptable. Even in the last few weeks, he was pretty good.” His refusal to then provide a sensible answer again iterates his awkwardness and inability to take the Q&A seriously. This is continued when asked whether there is something he always wanted to do and think may now be possible given the opportunities that have opened up for him following the making of the film. Presumably this question was a reference to film or TV projects but the answer he actually provides is superb, “Welding. I have always had this thing about joining metal, you know, with the sparks flying. Also, I always wanted to take my top off.”

As a filmmaker, Ayoade has an incredibly modest and shy nature about him. His decision not to give himself a role in the film resided in the fact that he wanted to be able to watch it back and he has no idea what sort of reaction the film has been producing, as he runs away as soon as any screening he is attending starts. It is, however, this modesty that makes Submarine such a brilliant film. The way it deals with teenage angst and sensibility is dealt with in a way that is hilarious yet endearing. For a first feature film, it is an undeniable success, we can only hope that he wasn’t joking when he said this film would be his last.