Richard Ayoade perches quietly in an ornately-crafted chair at the Crosby Hotel in New York. Dressed to the nines in an outfit I can only refer to as the epitome of nerd chic, his hands rest resolutely on his lap and he awaits a barrage of reporters’ questions. The man behind this summer’s Submarine (June 3) doesn’t exactly embody the sort of director we’ve come to know in Hollywoodland. Generally, we find men and women who are just itching to speak and be spoken to. They could allow their own soliloquies to run endlessly; their excitement and passion almost overflows from every response. Ayoade is no such director, but it’s certainly not for a lack of passion or love of the craft. He respectfully listens to every query, carefully crafting a meticulous and worldly response for each inquisitor. While atypical of many successful folks in this profession, it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to those who know his work.
The London native made a name for himself as one of the stars of cult-hit and British sitcom, The IT Crowd, where he plays a socially awkward but ultimately brilliant IT expert and of late, his feature film debut is a meticulously-crafted, inherently intelligent, and genuinely hilarious piece of work. It would almost be disappointing if the man himself turned out to be a loud, outspoken individual.
But it’s not just his introverted manner that’s remarkable; Ayoade is almost alarmingly humble. He’s quick to thank those around him before giving his efforts any credit. He jumps at the chance to give the author of the novel Submarine, Joe Dunthorne, thanks as his “co-writer” on the film. It’s a bit funny, considering the adaptation is wholly Ayoade’s interpretation of Dunthorne’s original work and differs in more than a few ways from its source material. “You have a big source that you’re looking at and Joe was always available to talk – he was writing his next book which was just finished – but he always made himself available to answer questions,” was his only comment on his adaptation process.
When I asked about how he handled a complicated, precocious character like Submarine’s protagonist, he also dealt the bulk of the credit to his young actor. “I think a lot of it’s down to Craig’s [Roberts] performance, and he’s just very real and he doesn’t send things up and he’s not mugging and trying to be funny in that kind of a way,” Ayoade said. Of course this is all true of Roberts’ turn in the film – he’s almost like a miniature adult trapped in the tribulations of adolescence – but Ayoade gives almost no credit to his own adaptation or to the guiding hand of his direction. While it makes for a much more difficult interview, it’s almost refreshing to find someone so talented who’s simultaneously so unnervingly humble.
Of course, if you delve into Ayoade’s past work, you’ll find if anything, that he’s got little reason to be so humble. He’s had his hands in so many areas of film and television that it’s alarming more people don’t know his name – granted, in England, he enjoys a bit more fame than he’s experienced in the States. Besides starring as Moss on The IT Crowd, Ayoade played the comedic better half to comedian Matthew Holness in their creation of a spoof horror series called Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace as well as in a few other tangential projects. The writer/director/comedian was also part of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding’s comedy series The Mighty Boosh up until it switched from radio to television and he directed a handful of music videos, which is how he became friends with The Artic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, who scored Submarine.
Fans of U.S. sitcom Community may be surprised to know that after forging a friendship with the show’s lead actor, Joel McHale, thanks to their scrapped U.S. version of The IT Crowd, McHale lobbied for Ayoade to direct one of the most talked-about episodes this last season. “Critical Film Studies,” also known as the Pulp Fiction episode that didn’t deliver the Pulp Fiction tribute everyone was expecting, was more of a tribute to the ‘70s film My Dinner With Andre. For a film-nerd like Ayoade, this was a perfect fit. The show often comes under fire for its sometimes overwhelming pop culture references, but Ayoade doesn’t see that as an issue.
“I think Community [makes itself accessible] very cleverly in that references are never for their own sake, they’re motivated by character and they’re very careful at doing that and picking storylines that have bases in reality instead of just [being] parodic,” he said.
We could say the same thing of Submarine, which Ayoade admits pulls inspiration from such disparate areas as French New Wave cinema, Taxi Driver, The Graduate and Love in The Afternoon. “There’s no sense that you’d want it to be a collection of references or if you don’t know you’d feel alienated, they’re just characters who are aware of films, I guess, and that informs who they are,” Ayoade said of the referential practice.
As for the future, the director has a few things on his plate. In addition to The IT Crowd’s next season, Ayoade says he’s working on another adaptation, only this time it’s a bit more ambitious as he aims to tackle one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works, The Double. Of course being the comedian he is, aims to find the humor in the tortured work, but if anyone can do it, it’s him. If Submarine is any indication, Ayoade will soon be shaking the “super geeky one from The IT Crowd” moniker and joining the ranks of the other well-known hilarious Brits.