It Takes Two: Richard Ayoade Discusses The Double

Yasmeen Khan sits down at a round table interview with Richard Ayoade to discuss his adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella

Dostoyevsky’s 1845 novella, The Double, tells the story of a young, neurotic clerk who meets his confident, charming doppelgänger and finds his life spiralling out of control. Richard Ayoade has followed 2010’s Submarine by directing and co-writing (with Avi Korine) a loose adaptation of the book, and although the bones of Dostoyevsky’s story remain, he’s built something quite distinct and original around them.

The Double is beautifully made, dark, funny and mesmerising. It’s crafted painstakingly but with a stylish self assurance that lets you sink into its inky-black world with confidence right from its opening sequence. Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) has a series of bizarre encounters on an underground train, neatly setting up his psychological alienation. A strange man tells him ‘You’re in my place’ when the rest of the carriage is empty, and Simon moves rather than challenge the absurdity. He looks at a metal surface and sees only a blur, not a face. His suit is much too big for him. When he gets to work, an officious security guard cuts up his ID card with its photograph, for no apparent reason..

Everywhere he goes, Simon is undergoing a process of erasure, as if his environment is turning on him. And indeed, everything in the film can be read as a projection of his psychological state, a mirroring of what’s happening inside his head. This is Simon’s life, until the confident, charming James Simon shows up one day at the office and turns everything upside down. Jesse Eisenberg, wonderful as always, plays opposite himself, taking on both roles. It’s a great performance that makes it easy to distinguish the depressed, lonely Simon from the louche, attractive James, even though they’re dressed exactly alike. Mia Wasikowska plays Hannah, the woman Simon yearns for but can’t talk to; she provides a focal point for his troubles, as like everyone else, she fails to notice Simon but is seduced by James’ charisma.

The film looks and sounds gorgeous. Pools of warm light illuminate stark interiors, bare bedrooms and tiny office cubicles. Layers of sound effects wrap around the images and produce genuine scares – and genuine laughs. Visually, it somehow manages to produce a host of references; it evoking the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s 1984, the typist in the violet hour in Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as a Chandleresque noir sensibility. There’s also the baroque chiaroscuro of Fellini or Welles, and the surrealism of Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson, all four of whom Ayoade notes as influences. Such a rich visual tapestry could in other hands have become too much, but Ayoade’s skill is evident in the restraint with which he handles his narrative. For example, Instead of being beaten over the head by references to erasure and doubling, we’re treated to confident little glimpses – a blurred face here, a piece of mirrored text there, a torn-up print of a girl whose face we can’t see. The whole thing is sublimely well-judged.

From the start, the extent to which other characters (especially, but not limited to James) are part of Simon’s projections of his inner life is put forward as a question, and the film continues to examine and reexamine this problem as the narrative develops. Again, there’s a delicate balance to be achieved, and the script navigates the boundaries beautifully. The story’s well aware of its layered nature, and chooses precisely the right points at which to reveal and to disguise. One of the most striking things about The Double is the film’s maturity, especially given the charming but brash youthfulness so evident in the original book, which was Dostoyevsky’s second novel and published when he was just 25. Another is its precision and economy of structure. It’s like the polar opposite of Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michael Faber’sUnder the Skin, which is also about social alienation but otherwise couldn’t be more different. Under the Skin, for example, is almost entirely structured around its visuals, and they make up the substance of the film, rather than serving the substance the way The Double’s do. The Double is cerebral where Under the Skin is visceral, but the timing that brings both to the cinemas nearly simultaneously is fortunate as both are beautiful lessons in what adaptation can and should be.

*The Quietus spoke to Richard Ayoade at a round-table interview along with representatives from Flickfeast, The Orbital and The Oxford Student***

The visual design of the film is really interesting. It evokes a wide range of references – ‘50s, Big Brother, futuristic, but also, it’s its own thing, because it’s so individual. Do you prefer audiences to interpret it one way or the other, or were you happy to leave it open? Did you have any specific intentions?

RA: The idea, broadly, was that it should look like, say, ‘50s programmes predicting what the future would be. So it’s not historically accurate, and it’s not a prediction of what will be, more a wrong turning. Because there’s something mythological about doppelgängers, it felt it shouldn’t exist in the real world and that it should be dreamy. So it’s all at night, it’s black. The designer, David Crank, said that in an Edward Hopper painting, you never see the wires between the telegraph poles. There’s a kind of subtraction to those images, so there’s room for you to imagine things in them. It’s not photographic reality like you would get if you just shot in an ordinary street and you’d see exactly what it is and as a viewer, you’d go, ‘OK, they’re on Bond Street, so this is the kind of thing that happens on Bond Street.’ We wanted the work Simon did to be not placeable, so you wouldn’t go, “Well, you know, obviously if he concentrates more on this area of data entry, he can succeed,” or, “Why doesn’t he move?” It had to feel suffocating.

He feels trapped, doesn’t he? We’re stuck there with him.

RA: Yeah. That was the idea, really, that it would be a kind of… not a specific place.

There’s a big stylistic shift from the British realism of Submarine to the Lynchian nightmare world of The Double. Are you trying to establish a definitive style, or are you experimenting?

RA: Joe [Dunthorne]’s book was so different to this, they just had different demands. So it’s impossible to think of anything you’re specifically imbuing it with. So much of it is in the idea, and you’re just trying to work out how to show it. It’d be different if they weren’t adaptations, or if you were someone like Eric Rohmer, who writes six films along a similar theme. I really like Louis Malle, and he did all sorts of different things, documentaries, and then something like Zazie in the Metro is different to Black Moon. They’re so different, it would be impossible, probably, for them to have ended up looking alike.

What was it like directing Jesse Eisenberg in these two disparate roles?

RA: He’s really great. A lot of it is trying not to get in the way of actors. You can’t draw out something that isn’t there and that they don’t have. And the task and the main job was his. There are certain technical aspects of directing… there’s a thing, motion control, which I guess a lot of people will be aware of. It’s a computerised rig that moves the camera and then repeats the moves over and over. Then you pick one take, and he has an earpiece, and performs the next character. He has to remember all these eyelines, and the pace at which the previous take was spoken. But what you’re doing, technically, is quite straightforward in some ways, it’s just time consuming.

But really, it’s him. It’s not like you’re telling him how to do it. You talk about it and rehearse, but he’s just one of those actors who’s technically very adept. It is a really hard thing to do because it goes against every actor’s instinct, which is to try and be in the moment, but you have to respond to something that just isn’t there. Also, no one ever gets to see it until the edit. it physically doesn’t exist. So it’s crazy, it’s one person just speaking out loud, then there’s a gap, then he’s saying something else. It’s really odd. But actors are used to recording scenes out of order and against green screens, so they’re used to that technical aspect of it.

Do Oliver in Submarine and Simon in The Double reflect anything personal for you?

RA I just like both… It’s so strange adapting something. If I was doing The Godfather, I wouldn’t go, “You know, I really relate to Mafioso types.” It’s more if you feel something is well written or a character’s good, you inevitably see yourself in it. I’m not a spendthrift Parisian, but you see yourself in Madame Bovary. So it’s not like you go, “Oh, this really represents me and my personality.” That 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 that I wouldn’t go into naturally myself, because it’s interesting to find out how they’d behave.

Dostoyevsky said this thing, that there’s a part of you that you show to the world, and then there’s a part of you that you show to people who are close to you, and a part of you that you show maybe to your wife or the one person that’s closest to you, and a part of you that you’d only show to yourself, and there’s a part of you that even you don’t know about. So there’s probably no behaviour or character that you wouldn’t be able to feel some kind of relationship to. You watch Taxi Driver and you can follow it, you don’t go, “Who are these people?” even though it’s a psychopath.

Dostoyevsky was the starting point, but you’ve added elements, for example, the dystopian context. How experimental do you think the writing process was?

RA: Well, a large part of the book is satirical of 19th-century Russian bureaucracy, which didn’t feel appropriate to dwell on, and wasn’t, for us, the most interesting thing. That someone is so lowly and invisible that when their double shows up, no one is bothered by it. That they can just be replaced seemed emotionally interesting but for something where its source isn’t English or American or a recognisable world, it felt like a good idea to create another unrecognisable world. It doesn’t feel like we have any business discussing 19th-century clerical Russia. So we wanted to create a different way of housing it and, I guess, concentrate more on this romantic story between Jesse and Mia’s characters.

But in a way, it’s like a dream that isn’t particularly realistic, where the emotions feel stronger than they do in something that’s packed with verisimilitude. The job is collecting material and then shaping it to create the most intense effect. And if you’re not having to place it in the real world, then you go, “Well, if this wall’s grey, it will make the scene sadder,” or, “If this light is here, she will look more beautiful,” or, “If this sound is there, it will feel more uncomfortable,” so you’re heightening it at any opportunity.

It was like a post Freudian interpretation of a pre-Freudian text, in a way. All the dream stuff, it is psychological.

RA Well, he kind of prefigured a lot of the Jungian idea of the shadow, that’s what that book is about, in a way, that what you can’t admit about yourself will out. And I think Jung said, about Dostoyevsky, that he was the best psychoanalytic writer he’d read. I say this from the position of the most thinly-read man in the world, but I’ve not read anyone else who seems so brilliantly at home in discomfort and that kind of wracked sense of guilt, and in a funny way as well. It feels completely real, the knots people get themselves into on a real unconscious level and completely fearless and unfiltered. He’s just not easy on himself at all. I think really great novelists do that, they are psychologically very perceptive without there being that kind of dogmatic framework to it.

Sound is a huge part of the experience of the film, from those beautiful ‘60s Japanese songs to the very layered, stylised sound effects. How did you approach the sound design?

RA: The idea was there would be two elements to the soundtrack. One, a score, which Andrew Hewitt did, which is instrumental and based on Schubert and that is an inside the main character’s head. And then the industrial sounds drift in and out of perspective. Sometimes they’re just ambient, but they always feel connected to how he feels. Yeah, the sound took longer than it did to film, you know, it took four months, and we made all the individual sounds, all the footsteps.

There’s a fantastic bit where the sounds of footsteps don’t really match the people who are walking on screen, but it takes a while to realise that, and then the sounds carry on after they stop walking. It’s so effective.

RA: Those things, yeah, we spent a lot of time on it. Again, because it’s not set in the real world, I felt it couldn’t be documentary sound. On Submarine, we did no sound effects work at all, it was all recorded at source, and this, every single sound was made afterwards. It was all guitar pedals and echoes.

I imagined you doing it all in the Berberian Sound Studio.

RA:. Yeah, it was this place, Hackenbacker, where I’ve done all the sound things I’ve been involved with. In a way, it’s quite unconscious sound. It acts on you without your permission and you tend not to decode it in the same way that you do with images. You’re looking for the connection between two images, whereas you tend not to look for the connection between two sounds. You can stack sound in a way you can’t with images, so that’s interesting, having 20 layers of sound each doing a different thing and having a different repeat or rhythm.

James acts like a wish fulfilment for Simon, like the sci-fi hero he idolises on TV, at least initially. In the light of the fact that our online personas on Facebook and Twitter could be seen like James, as more confident versions of ourselves, do you think Dostoyevsky’s novel is a bit more relevant today?

RA: I think it’s definitely emotionally relevant. It feels there’s no separation, no sense of that kind of personality existing in a prior time at all. When I read it, it just feels like Larry David, you know? The same kind of humiliations and status anxieties and foibles that anyone has. So it feels completely contemporary to me. In Notes from Underground, there’s a brilliant story where someone bumps into him and he spends the next three years trying to bump back into the person who bumped into him, and then he makes sure he has his best clothes on in case there’s a scandal and so he doesn’t look ridiculous, and it really is like Larry David. I’m very neurotic so I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, so I have no avatar to relate to in any way, but I think… There’s this thing in Switzerland, isn’t there, where everyone, for one day a year, puts on masks and goes crazy in the town, and they don’t have to abide by their normal persona.

I think there’s always been that element, that everyone has a work persona, people have different ways they present themselves and different ways to protect themselves, and so social media’s just another medium in which that self deception occurs. In a way, it feels like the newness of that is not very significant, any more than when everyone became literate and could describe their day for posterity however they wished to. They could say, “Another triumph of a day! Everyone loves me!” It’s another way of doing that, or subverting it. That’s the power of the book. When something’s good, it’s always good, I think.

Novels show us that people have always been just as neurotic.

RA: Yeah, well, he’s your man for that.

The Double is out in cinemas now

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