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Remember quirk, the dominant mode of early-to-mid-2000s independent comedies? It gave us a broad smattering of works, some of which have persisted in the cultural consciousness (The Royal Tenenbaums), while others, not so much (Napoleon Dynamite). After a brief hiatus of perhaps a half-decade or so, it looks like uber-quirky comedies may be making a comeback, at least for the time being: this summer sees the release of Miranda July’s follow-up to quirkfest Me And You And Everyone We Know, The Future, which features a narrating cat and a conversation with the moon; her husband Mike Mills’ follow-up to the marketed-as-Napoleon-Dynamite-esque Thumbsucker, Beginners; and Submarine, the directorial debut of British actor/music video director Richard Ayoade.
Ayoade, who stars in the hit British TV show The IT Crowd, got his directing start doing videos for the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend; his turn to feature films is marked by a debt to Wes Anderson and, naturally, early New Wave flicks, as well as the tradition of teenage-angst-confessionals that dates back to Catcher In The Rye. Submarine (based on a novel by Joe Dunthorne) follows 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) as he attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of a relationship with a very temperamental classmate, Jordana (Yasmin Paige). The film also features Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) as Oliver’s mom, who may be having an affair with a former flame (Paddy Considine) who lives next door, dresses like a ninja with a mullet, and does bizarre new-wave seminars about the power of his mind. Yep, it comes with the territory in this comedic sub-genre. I had the chance to sit down with Ayoade at the Crosby Street Hotel to have a chat about the film.
Tribeca: Submarine has a really formalist flair to it, especially apparent in the opening sequence in the film, when we’re introduced to Oliver for the first time. How did you conceptualize of that sequence and style?
Richard Ayoade: The novel is a first-person novel, very much based on an unreliable narrator’s testimony, and a major pleasure of the book is you filling in the gaps in his account of the matters. The film is necessarily more objective, because you see what happens on some level; it felt like the film would have to work more as a juxtaposition between his testimony and what is actually happening, and making the audience observe the dissonance between the two. The opening section is Oliver setting out his story, establishing his milieu. It’s someone trying to treat relatively small moments with the feverishness of a gangster film or something like that.
Tribeca: It reminded me of some early French New Wave films to a certain extent, as well as some Wes Anderson.
Richard Ayoade: I’d say the New Wave influence is pretty overt—Godard, Truffaut, Eric Rohmer—those seem to be particularly about young people. I suppose with Wes Anderson—I love Wes Anderson, but he’s so stylistically distinct that I know, when I see a Wes Anderson shot, that it’s his. I don’t feel that so much in this film. It’s almost difficult to—if you do any symmetrical shot, that can be Wes Anderson—but also Jean-Pierre Melville, Aki Kaurismaki. I knew, because it was about a 15-year-old boy, it would have a certain Rushmore connection. I’d be happy if people who like Rushmore like this.
Tribeca: It’s in the tradition of that teen-narrator-with-a-certain-brand-of-wit story, which I guess goes all the way back to Holden Caulfield.
Richard Ayoade: Yeah. What’s interesting about Holden Caulfield is that he has a far more honest romanticism than Oliver Tate. This character would be aware of himself within the lineage of Catcher In The Rye; he’s constantly standing outside himself, watching himself, very disengaged. I feel like one of the real strengths of Wes Anderson characters is how engaged they are, how filled with hope they are, like Max Fischer or Owen Wilson’s character in The Darjeeling Limited. Oliver is telling you privately what he knows, but he would never say any of these things publicly. It’s a very British thing to pretend to be less intellectual than you are, hide any money, any privilege, anything that is self-aggrandizing in any way. It’s hard to have British protagonists sometimes, for that reason. They’re very un-protagonist-y.
Tribeca: I loved the moment where he talks about, “This is where we’d go to a crane shot, but my life only has the budget for a zoom out,” and then you do, in fact, zoom out. Was that in the book?
Richard Ayoade: It wasn’t, but there were certainly things in the book that would suggest that kind of approach—moments where he talks about how he imagines big band music playing in this moment, and so on. There’s a consciousness of how this could be reported, or how this could be transported into legacy. The book is very aware of its bookishness, it uses lots of literary devices—he’ll write a literary criticism on an email, or use a fun font for a bit to make it sound less harsh. Like using a Super 8 montage in a film. What’s very difficult is that no one can really talk about a film within a film without it being a postmodern gesture. But someone not talking about films, ever, is slightly weird as well—having characters not aware of media seems a bizarre situation. I don’t know how you quite get out of the idea of it. We’re so saturated with media.
Tribeca: Bearing that in mind, to what degree was the film’s tone present in your mind when you read the novel, and to what degree did you have to create it?
Richard Ayoade: It was certainly witty and idiosyncratic when I read it; it’s a really good book. It would not exist as a film but for the book. Nothing in it can really be considered yours in that way. What holds the book aloft is Joe’s linguistic brilliance and the particular unreliable narrator trope, which just isn’t directly translatable to film. Even if you wanted to fully replicate the book, you couldn’t. It probably has quite a different feel from the novel. What interested me most was Oliver’s voice, it felt like that was distinctive about it, and hopefully this was able to preserve that. It felt like it just wouldn’t be as effective from a third-person standpoint.
Watch the trailer: