For Richard Ayoade’s second project as a director — following his well-executed debut, Submarine — he delivers The Double, a surreal tale of a painfully shy office drone (Jesse Eisenberg) who is surprised by the sudden appearance of his polar-opposite doppelganger (also Eisenberg). Beautifully shot, stylish, clever and impressively acted, it’s a confident film from a director who is still perhaps better known as an actor for his roles in British television shows The IT Crowd and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.
TIME spoke to the director about working with his cast, comparisons to Terry Gilliam and getting to cast J Mascis in his film:
When did you first encounter Dostoyevsky?
Reading Crime and Punishment when I was young. Not when I was four, but as a teenager. I’m not a buff of any kind and I didn’t read this novella until I read Avi [Korine]’s first draft. It was his idea to adapt this particular book and I read it after I read his treatment.
What attracted you to it?
I really liked Avi’s script. I really liked him both as a writer and as a person. I liked the central premise which was this figure who is so put upon and invisible that when their exact replica appears, no one notices. That seemed like such an unusual way of telling this story that ordinarily there would be a big scandal, the world would be turned upside down, but instead he’s just pushed out of existence, he just disappears. That seemed such a funny, sad and unique idea. I just really liked it. I guess you either fall in love with it or not.
Do you think the duality of the main character in The Double exists in everybody?
The story uses that device to create an antagonist who represents the parts of this person that they can’t accept or it is a projection of what he feels would be successful in the world. But I think people have many sides of them and no one is one thing. The thing Dostoyevsky said is that everyone has a side to themselves that they show to the world and one that they show to their friends and one they show to their loved ones and one that they show to themselves and one that they can’t show to themselves. I think he is brilliant at delving into that and getting to the parts of people that they don’t even show to themselves. He had a complete caustic honesty. There are these passages in The Idiot and Notes From Underground that you really feel that you’re getting into someone else’s thoughts deeper than any other writer.
Do you think you incorporated other of Dostoyevsky’s works — or at least the themes from them — into The Double?
Not consciously, but I think you’re trying to follow the thread of the story more than fold in other aspects of it. But he does have predominant concerns that probably go through all his works. Rowan Williams said that Dostoyevsky is about what people owe one another, which seems like a good response.
As a relatively new director, how was it working with such an accomplished cast?
Very enjoyable. One of the best parts about being a director is when the actors are involved and the project takes on a three-dimensional quality that is impossible to imagine when you’re writing it. It finally starts to feel possible that it could exist. In some ways a script feels like an IOU note for a long time and it’s not real. They are all really good. Jesse is in everything, in every scene in the film. so I really liked him and he’s just very imaginative and engaged and everything you want in an actor.
Jesse Eisenberg plays two characters in the film. Did you find yourself shifting how you would direct him as he switched from character to character?
We were constantly talking about it. It’s strange what directing is. In some ways it is anything. Sometimes just trying to remember what it’s meant to be about, trying to, I guess, provide an audience for it and see whether what it’s meant to be is coming across, while trying to not restrict something from happening that could happen that you hadn’t thought of. Ultimately, I remember an analogy that [Iranian director] Abbas Kiarostami said about being a football manager, that no matter how involved you think you are in the strategy and the game play and everything, at some point you are just on the sidelines, watching and willing it. Film is really an actor’s medium. They are the conduits for the story, the director shapes it, but the material that is created is up to the actor.
As an actor who became a director, is it hard to sit on the sidelines?
No, no! I was a writer and any performing that I did was generally as a way to show the writing. In comedy it tends to be writer-performers and the bulk of your time is writing and then you showcase it in someway. For me, I always had a preference to be behind the scenes and never really wanted to be center stage for long. So, no. It’s a pleasure to see these great actors and I know that I am not capable of doing what they do.
Do you see yourself back in acting any time soon?
Not particularly. It’s not the side of things I’ve actively pursued. You’re slightly out of control of it. And it’s not something I do everyday. I don’t act, generally.
So you weren’t acting when you were in The IT Crowd or The Mighty Boosh?
It’s not quite the same thing. I don’t know, it’s different. It’s a kind of performance, but I don’t feel like I’m doing what someone like Jesse is doing. It was just something that I did every six weeks, every year and a half. That’s what it was and the rest of the time, you’re writing, so it just doesn’t feel like the main thing I do, at least time wise.
There were also a lot of cameos in the film, like Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis. Is it fun being sort of the boss of the film, so you can ask people to be in the movie?
Some part of it is being a fan of a number of people and it’s great that you can have them involved. That element is enjoyable. With J. Mascis, we just asked. We knew he was amenable to acting because he’d been in Gas Food Lodging and he has this great persona and performances and the character he plays in the film had to be very memorable. I was very pleased that he could do it. Dinosaur Jr was the first band I ever saw, when I was 14. They are still my favorite band.
You’ve directed a lot of music videos, but the soundtrack to the film is quite subdued.
The idea was that unless the music exists diegetically, it had to be from his point of view, so all the music is orchestral apart from these jukeboxes that play sort of Japanese or South Korean music. It really was meant to be subjective the same way Taxi Driver is scored in that it’s experienced from his point of view. It can’t be needle drops, where you put a record on to sum the mood of the scene. The music comes after certain emotional moments, generally after something happened and the music expresses the emotion after it. A film's score, when used well, does that, rather than underscoring an emotion that should exist but isn't manifest. It should distill and reflect an emotion that's already occurred, rather than provide it.
That's quite different from when you're making a music videos.
The images in a music video can either support a song or be at right angles to it. In a way, I feel like a type of narrative is being taken care and often its own lyrical narrative and you can either create a totally different one to which that song is just a soundtrack or it can mesh. But in some ways they are strange things because they started as performances and then they became adverts.
Do you think working on them helped teach you how to direct?
The most useful thing about it was meeting our director of photography on the film. That was great to work with him on a variety of things. We got to be very close and understand one another through doing them and being in different circumstances. Also working in a very low budget way. This was not the era of Guns N Roses era of music videos. It was really low budget videos where a shoot would be just me and him and you’re making kind of a student film but that’s good for something like this because you’re doing everything. When you come onto a bigger set, like working on this movie, a lot of time what you set up ends up not being very big and you can get more in.
Going back to the jukebox playing Japanese and South Korean songs, those song choices made it even harder to figure out where this movie was taking place.
The idea was that the film was not geographically place-able. The cast had a variety of voices and accents, for example, Mia [Wasikowska] uses her own voice, which she’s never done in a film, which is half Australian and half American and you can’t place it, which I really like. I also feel that often in films you don’t get a variety of accents and that seems odd to me. My mom’s Norwegian, my dad’s Nigerian, no one had the same accent in my house, so to me each it’s strange when you hear a number of people and they all sound the same, especially in a city. So we wanted it not to be anchored, we didn’t want the music to be a signifier of an era, either.
The film has been drawing a lot of comparisons to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Yes, it has, but it doesn’t feel right to me, but it doesn’t really matter what I say because it just sounds like protestation or defensiveness. Brazil isn’t a film that we discussed unless we felt that something might look like it, but I kind of deliberately didn’t watch it. To me, Gilliam has a sort of Fellini-esque grotesque satirical side and our film is more romantic and personal and we were thinking more of Wong Kar Wai or [Krysztof] Kieslowksi, but they’re not adjectival. That’s what’s strange about comparisons, they tend to draw on the most trivial or surface things. The same way that any shot in a boot would be deemed “Tarantino-esque” because Tarantino has shot from a boot, but is that really what Tarantino is about?
The Double opens May 9th.