Richard Ayoade is well known to fans of British TV as geek genius Moss on The IT Crowd, while his cult credentials extend to roles in Chris Morris’ acerbic classic Nathan Barley and the surreal comedy series The Mighty Boosh. What the rest of the film world may not know — and are about to discover — is that he’s also a talented and original director, having shot music videos for the likes of Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This week, Ayoade’s debut feature Submarine surfaces in cinemas, following on from its recent critically-acclaimed run in the UK. Based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne, the film charts the strange odyssey of 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) — a peculiar miscreant in the lineage of Holden Caulfield, Antoine Doinel and Max Fischer — as he falls for a quixotic girl (Yasmin Paige) and tries to keep his parents (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) from splitting apart. Though it carries on the tradition of idiosyncratic coming-of-age cinema, Submarine also leaves its own imprint by staying true to the emotions of its characters.
It’s interesting that you talk about Taxi Driver, in thinking about the “lonely character journey” of Oliver in Submarine. There are a lot of cinematic references in your film, like the Melville and Truffaut kind of stuff — were these just things that were subconsciously in your head?
Richard Ayoade: Well, the idea behind that was because the book is very much aware of its own form. Oliver would want to be seen in a certain way, and would want to be seen as a slightly French existentialist hero — so it would refer to Melville and Godard and Truffaut. And the difficulty is to make it avoid, like, you’re just doing the running shot from 400 Blows because you think it’s cool, and rather because that is the manner in which the character would like to be seen — he can’t see himself free of the infection of cinema, that self consciousness. And that’s part of his problem.
I read an interesting thing that Paul Thomas Anderson said, where you have all these moments where you feel like films have betrayed you because you’re in some emotional moment but you’re seeing it in a film, and you can’t avoid knowing that this is the kind of thing that has been dramatized. And if you’re aware of the clichés of dramatic moments, you somehow are trying to remove yourself from them in your own life. It’s a weird thing. I guess that’s what I found interesting about the idea of doing this, and the book in general: the idea that you being able to identify clichés doesn’t mean that you won’t be subject to them. You know, every band knows the Spinal Tap cliché but every band will probably end up going through it.
To your credit, the film seems less about affectation than emotional honesty.
Well I think that, even if things are contained within references, you can still feel. You exist in a world of references anyway, and sometimes I think film can be a weird ghetto where no one is aware of film. So the fact that he’s aware of the context of coming-of-age films and would see his life as a film doesn’t mean that the emotions that he experiences aren’t real — hopefully.
I hate to use this word, but there have been a lot of so-called “quirky” coming-of-age films — did you worry at all about that, or try to separate yourself from it?
Yeah, you do worry about it, and in a way reading the book gave me confidence — as in, I wouldn’t have attempted anything in this vein [without it]. I read the book, liked it, and didn’t feel that it was a problem in my enjoyment of reading that book; so I thought if I could translate some of the feeling I had in reading it, then it would be okay. And ultimately what can you do? I mean, every area of culture is overpopulated, and I think sometimes you can get paralysed by the feeling that everything’s been done before — because it has, in a sense. I think, even if you wanted it to be exactly like something else, you would end up getting in the way of it. It’s like — and I’m not saying I’m like this; I always have to do these little caveats because I’m using references to things that I think are really good — but The Beatles trying to copy Elvis didn’t make them like him, exactly. Even when they were trying to be like Little Richard, they still sounded like Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
We’ll put that caveat in there, otherwise you’re in all kinds of trouble.
I am not comparing myself to the Beatles. [laughs]
– May 2011