Richard Ayoade loves directing, no joke
If the new movie “Submarine” carries the pertly eccentric, aesthetic tinge of a French New Wave coming-of-age film like “The 400 Blows,” there are two reasons: Its screenwriter-director Richard Ayoade is a cinephile who knows those classics well, and, he stressed, so does his young protagonist.
“The idea was that the character would have that grammar in order to see himself, that he knows what a coming-of-age film is,” said Ayoade of the subjectively strong cinematic viewpoint he gives 15-year-old Welsh lad Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). Oliver considers his life an unspooling epic in which he lands a girlfriend — coolly moody classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige) — and repairs the crumbling marriage of his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor).
Neither scenario works out exactly as he’d planned. “He doesn’t really understand or engage with either [crisis],” said Ayoade (pronounced AY-oh-ah-day). “The way he gets through things is to slightly imagine himself a spy in this moment, a hero in that moment.”
A similar disconnect describes how England has seen Ayoade, who turns 34 this month. For years now, TV viewers here have been imagining the tall, bespectacled, frizzy-haired Londoner as a comic actor. Ayoade did develop his comedy chops as a member of the esteemed Cambridge Footlights, whose alumni include John Cleese and Peter Cook, and he’s best known for playing tech-head nerd Moss on the popular sitcom “The IT Crowd.”
Before that, he won a following as millionaire-turned-bad-actor Dean Learner on the horror-show spoof “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” which arose from an award-winning stage show he co-created for the Edinburgh Festival.
But even though he’s become a recognizable celebrity, filmmaking is what makes Ayoade’s true geek-heart beat.
“Hopefully it’s not to do with exerting control over people particularly,” he said. “It feels like setting up a situation where you can behave like a fan, so you can see your favorite performance in this bit, or a cameraman you like do something this way. There’s an element of you just selecting your favorite bits of other people’s work,” said the jacket-and-tie-clad director whose stiff social demeanor and studied nasal drone at an office building off Soho Square suggest he taps into Moss’ awkwardness all too easily.
Offered the chance to adapt British author Joe Dunthorne’s 2008 novel by the production company for whom he’d filmed some Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend music videos, Ayoade was struck by a tone less forgivable than the neglected-flower perspective common to so many tales of lonely teenhood. “I love those emotional rags-to-riches films,” he said. “But what was interesting is that [Oliver] felt more like an Eric Rohmer character, someone faulty, quite self-regarding. He’s trying to circumvent cliché, but he never actually knows what’s happening.”
Unlike Ayoade, whose approach to filmmaking is detail-oriented and steeped in persistence. Hawkins, a longtime chum, praises his ability to get what he wants within a narrow window of time (in this case, a little more than five weeks of filming). “He’s incredibly well-focused,” Hawkins said. “He’s interested in the tone, the colors, the visuals and the characters. Some filmmakers focus on one aspect that’s more highly developed than the others. Richard is passionate about it all.”
Though Ayoade kept picturesque yet sleepy seaside Wales as the story’s location — “It’s sort of a great mixture of being very beautiful and very industrial” — he consciously shifted the period a decade earlier than the book’s 1996 setting. This was partly to remove time-tagging nuisances he thought would distract audiences.
“I don’t want people going, ‘Why don’t they have a mobile [phone] if they’ve got a computer?’” he said. “Those specificities didn’t feel necessary.” Besides, added Ayoade, the best-realized coming-of-age movies suggest a time earlier than when they’re nominally set. “ ‘The Graduate’ is meant to be 1967, but everyone’s got skinny ties, and that college feels 1960, really. And ‘The 400 Blows’ feels more postwar than 1959. So, something about ‘Submarine’ being in the past felt appropriate.”
The language of movies and movie-going permeates Ayoade’s descriptions of things, even when wittily trying to avoid the trap of showbiz self-mythologizing. Was he funny as a kid? “No, people’s sides were intact.” When he describes his incident-free childhood — reading, playing sports, watching TV, going to movies — he can’t help but add, “As I say, not the subject of a biopic called ‘The Early Years.’ ”
It’s not surprising then that Ayoade would make so sympathetic a portrait of a boy who can so easily identify what the movie of his life might look like. Though the movie’s numerous cinematic references have seen it compared to Truffaut, Godard and even Wes Anderson, Ayoade’s point is that it’s Oliver’s headspace being rendered. “The idea was that Oliver should be seen in a certain light,” he said. “I think people do that, walk around with their Walkman on, say, and get taken over by it, imagine a broader sweep.”
“Submarine,” which premiered last fall at Toronto to enthusiastic response, played well at Sundance earlier this year and met with positive reviews from the British media upon its U.K. release in March, isn’t Ayoade’s first attempt at directing within a character’s particular viewpoint. “Darkplace,” now a cult hit among British comedy fans, was presented as the lost videotapes of a narcissistic hack writer-director’s unintentionally cheesy ‘80s fright-night show. And more recently, he directed an episode of NBC’s pop culture-savvy sitcom “Community,” which required visually riffing on Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre.”
“It couldn’t have been a better episode for me,” said Ayoade, who cherishes the French director’s work. “There aren’t too many Louis Malle homages on American TV. Also, it was shot on the same stage that ‘Citizen Kane’ was shot on. All those things are really exciting.”