‘Never meet your heroes’ is a phrase often thrown around, and often difficult to ignore. Sitting in a small hotel room in the centre of London, listening to Richard Ayoade with his corduroy suit, dragonfly-imprinted shirt and unmistakeable shock of hair, I found myself thinking back to that saying. The man was a comedy institution, famous for his work in The IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, as well as behind the camera on a number of music videos and an episode of hit US comedy Community. A small part of me was expecting the actor, director and comedian to break out of his discussion on his latest film (an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double starring Jesse Eisenberg) to exclaim ‘Fire! Fire!’ in his distinct Maurice Moss voice, or drop the word ‘tnetennba’ casually into conversation. Instead he conducted himself in a pensive manner, stringing together references to DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Jungian Shadow Aspects and Madame Bovary as he discussed his work.
It is interesting that Ayoade chose doppelgängers as the central theme for his latest film, when he himself is so different to the character he is so widely known for. In previous interviews, online or on panel shows, he can come across with a sense of surety, almost flippancy, whereas in this London hotel room questions about personal investment in the romantic aspects of his characters bring instead a sense of awkwardness and distinct self-awareness. Personalities like himself, he says, ‘wouldn’t interest me because I have to endure that on a day to day basis. I’m more interested in people who are going into states I wouldn’t naturally go into myself just to see how they behave.’
But what of The Double adaptation itself? It is clear is that this Cambridge alumnus and former head of the Footlights invested not only a huge amount of time, but also creative and theoretical exploration into the film, especially when related to its source material: ‘A lot of Jungian ideas of the shadow preconfigured the book in a way, and Jung said of Dostoevsky that he was the best psychoanalytic writer he’d ever read. I (coming from the least read person of all time…) haven’t read anyone else who feels so brilliantly at home with getting into discomfort. There is a rapt sense of guilt about the knots people get themselves into. It’s fearless and unfiltered, and he is not easy on himself at all. Great novelists do that, they are psychologically perceptive without a dogmatic language.’
Neither is Ayoade dogmatic about his own work – viewers of The Double will see a very different, dystopian and claustrophobic feeling compared to 2010’s Submarine. The director was keen to admit that he never wants to have a distinct ‘look’ to his films, compared to, say, Wes Anderson: ‘ I would hope to never use my name in the third person. The two films also had so different source material, they had different demands. It’s impossible to think of anything specific you’re imbuing it with because the idea is just about how to show it in some ways.’
The film carries a heavily stylistic feeling that was, according to Ayoade, a labour of love: ‘The idea was broadly based on 1950s programs that had been predicting what the future would be. It was that kind of world that’s not historically accurate, more a wrong-turning. Primarily because there was something so mythological about doppelgängers it should all be dreamy. It isn’t photographic reality. We wanted the work to not be placeable so it became a lot more suffocating.’ A lot of this is not merely aesthetic, but also about the audio used for the film: ‘ The sound took longer than it did to film. We made all the sounds (the footsteps took a lot of time) because it wasn’t set in the real world, so we couldn’t use natural sounds.’ On screen it works perfectly – the eerie atmosphere that follows Eisenberg’s Simon never ceases, and remains utterly captivating.
When the comparisons between doppelgänger theory and the idea of an idealised online presence were raised, Ayoade admitted that he had neither a Facebook nor Twitter account: ‘I have no avatar to relate to. There’s a thing in Switzerland where one day a year everyone puts on a mask and can run amock by not being themselves. It’s that element that The Double represents; creating a work persona or a different way of presenting yourself is just a way of protecting yourself, and social media is just a new medium in which that self-deception can occur.’
A quick yet surprisingly limp handshake later and it was finished – I had ‘met my hero’ so to speak. Nevertheless, it felt that even after 20 minutes of conversation the ‘real’ Richard Ayoade was still difficult to pin down. He was neither the nerdy, stilted IT assistant from The IT Crowd nor the flippant and dry comedian you see on Big Fat Quiz of the Year or Never Mind the Buzzcocks. It is these images that will remain whenever his name is mentioned, and this brings perhaps with it a certain conflict of identity between public persona and creative mindset. The Double therefore comes with a personal resonance, and it is only a matter of time before we see where this takes Ayoade in the future.
The Double is released in cinemas April 4th.