By Andrea Gronvall

THE KIDS AREN’T ALL RIGHT: An Interview With Submarine Director Richard Ayoade

The Gronvall Files

British actor, writer, and director Richard Ayoade turns 34 this month, around the time that his feature directorial debut Submarine—a big hit in the U.K.–arrives on this side of the Atlantic. Based on the acclaimed novel by Joe Dunthorne, the movie is a whip-smart coming-of-age comedy set in Wales, about a very bright but morose 15-year-old student, Oliver Tate, whose determination to lose his virginity is matched only by his fixation on saving what he sees as his parents’ crumbling marriage.

Newcomer Craig Roberts glowers, stumbles, and wisecracks his way through elaborate ploys to seduce his misanthropic schoolmate, a pretty firebug named Jordana (Yasmin Paige), while barely disguising his contempt for and anxiety over his depressed dad (Noah Taylor), who seems oblivious to how much Oliver’s mom (Sally Hawkins) has perked up since her old flame (Paddy Considine) moved in next door. Misfit Oliver imagines himself the star and narrator of the movie of his life, and film fan Ayoade tosses in plenty of clever references to world cinema.

The writer-director cut his comedic chops performing in the Edinburgh Fringe (where he first met pal Hawkins years ago), graduated to TV stardom playing a computer geek on the very funny British series The IT Crowd, then segued to directing music videos. He recently helmed an episode of the NBC sitcom Community. The Weinstein Company launches Submarine on June 3; a promo tour brought the soft-spoken, modest Ayoade to Chicago on a recent grey, rainy morning. Over tea we talked about his movie, and quite a few others that he loves.

Andrea Gronvall: You’ve pulled off a neat balancing act. Submarine is funny and sad, angry and touching, and you’ve captured the voice of Oliver Tate, the hero of Joe Dunthorne’s novel. I know there’s no way you could fit most of the book in a film your length, but how faithful were you to the dialogue?

Richard Ayoade: It’s difficult to say. You get to a point where you’re not quite sure whether things are in the book or the film. You sort of digest the book, and, hopefully, know it very well; then you start to not worry too much about it because you might do a disservice to it. A lot of dialogue from a book does not directly translate, for some reason. Eric Rohmer is a very interesting example. You know, his [six] Moral Tales are all adapted from short stories that he’d written.

AG: I love Rohmer.

RA: Yeah, I think he’s amazing. And what he said was that very often the prose dialogue that he wrote wouldn’t translate to film; it just had a different register. But when he wrote something like, “They came in and said hello, and then talked a bit about the weather,” that could translate as dialogue. {As for adapting Submarine], there’s no description of Oliver in the book, and you don’t exactly know what his room’s like. And how people respond to him is entirely implied in the novel—you know, disparity between his testimony and what you imagine was the case.

Whereas in the film if he’s speaking to someone, you know what they think, and you know it before he does. You see their reactions.
There’s a juxtaposition between his sort of hubristic statements and what you’re seeing. But that’s happening straight away; there’s no way to pull your punches. I remember The Swimmer, which is quite an interesting adaptation, because you never quite have the same obliqueness that’s possible in prose. It’s very hard to not show too much in a film.

AG: The Swimmer, wasn’t that Burt Lancaster?

RA: Yeah, from a John Cheever short story. With prose, you can just describe a couple of things in a room to give you the impression of what it’s like. In the film, you see the whole room, and every bit of information in that room will be part of the narrative. You can’t get away from that, and it exists throughout the scene. You can throw it out of focus, or not emphasize it as much, but the surroundings exist.

AG: You accurately convey that sense of being at a breaking point that so many people reach at Oliver’s age. His obsession with his parents’ separating strikes me as a form of psychological projection, in a way.

RA: Right.

AG: He is at that age where it won’t be long before he’s the one separating from his parents. But this absolute obsession that he has is conveyed in the start of one of those almost throwaway comedic lines, “During one of my routine inspections of my parents’ bedroom….” He’s practically stalking them, even before we see any real signs of their breaking up.

RA: I think he’s trying to mount a preemptive strike against being from a broken home, so that if [eventually] he is from a broken home, he won’t be upset about it. That’s often what people do: they try to rehearse the worst-case scenario mentally. You sometimes wonder what exactly are his intentions. I think that for all of his ideas of wanting to be an adult and being taken seriously, he’s very much missed the privileges of being younger, of being a child, in a sense. One of the ironies of adolescence is that you want to grow up, but the adult world isn’t that attractive, either.

AG: Right. Holden Caulfield didn’t want to grow up to be one of the phonies. And in The 400 Blows, the Antoine Doinel character is so full of rage at his parents and society. This similar rage that Oliver feels in your film could easily tip him into becoming a monster, but that doesn’t happen.

RA: He’s so clearly out of his depth. He’s sort of pretending he knows pretty much about how things are because he’s seen films like The 400 Blows, or [has read] The Catcher in the Rye. He knows that he’s going to go through a period that is going to be troublesome–his first relationship with Jordana (Yasmin Paige)–that will be a transition.

AG: Do you feel he’s meaner in the book?

RA: In some respects, yes–if only because Craig Roberts is very sympathetic: his personal charisma alone is such that you can forgive him quite a lot. I was watching Tippi Hedren talking about Marnie recently, and she was saying, you know, “It would be very hard for an audience to believe that I would be resistant to Sean Connery.” Who was the writer who started that screenplay? Evan Hunter, and then another [Jay Presson Allen] finished it; she thought the audience would excuse Connery’s character of rape [Hunter objected]. That’s such a strange idea in films, that if you like the actor enough you’ll excuse all sorts of behavior. You don’t excuse his character, but he certainly holds your sympathy far longer than he ought to, ordinarily.

AG: Well, the character of Jordana helps deflect some of the disapproval we might feel about Oliver’s more extreme behaviors, because in some ways she’s a more flinty character than he is.

RA: They both have these very protective shells around them. Everyone has a persona; what they project to the world is not necessarily the same as what’s beneath the persona. That is very tricky to latch onto at that age, to know who you are. You have to let things occur to find out.

AG: Did you ever see George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient, with Peter Sellers and Angela Lansbury?

RA: Yeah, it’s great.

AG: People are comparing Submarine to Wes Anderson, and of course your references in the movie to Salinger and Truffaut are overt. But there’s a certain tonal delicacy in The World of Henry Orient that’s also present in your film: this wonderful sense of adventure these two kids feel as they discover each other, that’s followed by betrayal.

RA: I do really like that film, and I suppose you never know what you may unconsciously take along. J.D. Salinger takes people at that age seriously, and realizes that they take themselves very seriously as well. The Graduate also does that so brilliantly, I think. For me, Flirting was an influence, perhaps because of Noah Taylor being in it. But genuinely, Taxi Driver was more so, because it’s so subjective, where someone has a kind of mythological view of himself—and it felt funny to have that aspect in a 15-year-old.

AG: You’ve stated elsewhere that there aren’t many coming-of-age films made in the U.K.

RA: Adolescence feels like quite an American construction. From Mark Twain on there’s this idea of American adolescence, in a way unlike English notions, which are more Victorian, in that there’s more of a direct split between childhood and being an adult. There’s no real equivalent to My So-Called Life–that sort of romantic, American, suburban adolescence—or The Outsiders, or Dawson’s Creek. I love Dawson’s Creek.

AG: Interesting! Why?

RA: Because I really like Kevin Williamson. I think certainly the first two Scream films are really well written, and The Faculty is brilliant. He’s just an incredibly exciting writer. I haven’t seen Scream 4, but I thought that the series Dawson’s Creek was epic. There was an awareness of the nature of films, and the making of them, that films are things that people look at a lot. People sort of view themselves in terms of films. You wouldn’t have a film like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in England. That sort of idea seems so, I don’t know, indulgent.

AG: If you were to act in a film by an American director, whom would you most like to work with? Who would you like to be directed by?

RA: Well, I don’t necessarily wish myself on him. Paul Thomas Anderson, but he would have to have fallen on real hard times to hire me.

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