The Life Aquatic with Richard Ayoade
Submarine is a breath of fresh air, a British film that dares to brush off the two shackles that have bogged down our national cinema for more than three decades: Social Realism and a perverse anti-intellectualism. It mixes the fastidious design and composition of Wes Anderson and Aki Kaurismäki with the urbane cool and existential angst of Jean Pierre-Melville and the Cahiers de Cinema crew. It’s one of the British films of the year.
Its director, Richard Ayoade, best known as über-nerd Moss in The IT Crowd, has been quietly carving out a reputation as a fine music video director, creating witty mini-movies for the likes of Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys and Alex Turner’s side project The Last Shadow Puppets. Based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel of the same name, Submarine is a coming-of-age tale that wears its themes of love and loneliness on its sleeve, focusing on the life of fifteen-year-old Welsh schoolboy Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a wannabe Albert Camus, who is dealing with the disintegration of his parents' marriage just as his own first love with the coolest girl in school, Joanna (Yasmin Paige), is blossoming.
One damp afternoon, I go to a Glasgow hotel to meet the man behind this thrilling debut, and his two charming leads, Roberts and Paige. Here’s what they have to say.
I guess your film doesn’t follow a British tradition in terms of its look. What were your influences?
RA: Well, I think there are a number of British films that it’s like, but I guess they’re older – Lindsey Anderson’s If... and some of those British New Wave films and, even though he’s American, the Joseph Losey films. But, because Oliver views himself as an existentialist, my main style influence was more French New Wave. Those films are the epitome of intellectual cool, which Oliver would regard himself as being – privately.
Is that what appealed to you about playing Oliver, Craig?
CR: I just thought: I’d love to do this, the character is so utterly cool. Plus it was just really hilarious. So many scripts try too hard to be witty and fall flat. Richard’s script was naturally funny... so I started begging.
Oliver is a character who puts on a persona. As an actor did that appeal to you?
CR: I put on a persona all the time. Usually I go for a hard gangster-rap persona – like Marshall Mathers. That’s the sort of guy I am – I’m from ‘the streets’.
RA: That’s also my persona.
What about you, Yasmin? How was it playing Oliver’s dream girl – a kind of Welsh, teenage femme fatale.
YP: I suppose I didn’t really see her like that, but I think she did like having control over Oliver – she enjoyed being quite cruel to him. I think she liked that he viewed her as this dangerous, slightly scary girl.
Were there any significant changes from the Joe Dunthorne book in the adaptation?
RA: The book is first person and it’s all in Oliver’s head, so necessarily it becomes third person when it’s filmed – it becomes more objective. There’s no description of Oliver in the book, physically; in the film there’s a precise person... which is Craig. Craig’s face exists in it, and you know what it looks like. Filming it adds detail but also reduces people's ability to imagine it for themselves.
I also wanted to ask about the period, the mix of old and new – when it is set is very ambiguous. Do you see the area that it's set [Barry, Wales] as a kind of land that time forgot?
RA: I think all places are a bit like that – my mother is Norwegian and bits of Norway look really modern and there are bits that look really 60s. There’s this Whit Stillman film called Metropolitan and it starts with a caption that reads, “Manhattan, Christmas vacation, not so long ago”. I like that as a time period. In that film they try to use older cabs but if a new one passed through the shot they didn’t commit suicide or anything.
We never sat down and said: OK we’ve got to make everything look like 1987 or 1993 (which is probably when the book was actually set). It was more that we felt it wouldn’t really benefit from being completely contemporary. It felt like it existed somewhat out of time and from Oliver’s point-of-view he would know that a coming-of-age story needs nostalgia – he’d have seen The Wonder Years.
And Alex Turner’s music adds to that period ambiguity. Were you involved with the music?
RA: Alex does not require song writing assistance from me. He’s capable of doing it without guidance. You sort of vaguely say what it is and he knew the script and where the characters would be, so I just left it to him.
One of my childhood heroes, Noah Taylor, has a part in your film as Oliver’s marine biologist father, Lloyd. And Oliver could quite easily be a Welsh Danny Embling [the iconic character Taylor played in John Duigan’s The Year My Voice Broke (1987) and Flirting (1991)]. It’s great casting.
RA: Danny Embling, yeah, that was one of the great things about having Noah, you could imagine that he’s already been that person when he was that age and Lloyd would be like an older Danny Embling, and that Danny Embling would have a Danny Embling-type son.
And I suppose the the other performance we should discuss is Oliver’s neighbour, played by Paddy Considine – who’s just amazing. How did he get involved?
RA: Just persistence. I always wanted him to do it and thinking of him really helped when writing the part. He was really involved in creating that character. In the book it’s a capoeira teacher but Paddy is such a great improvisor that he really took it in an interesting direction [the direction being an over-sexed new-age guru]
Craig, there’s been a few comparisons between you and the great Bud Cort from Harold and Maude. Have you heard that before?
CR: Yeah I have, but I think it’s really just because he’s a similar character
RA: I think what’s interesting is that very often the comparisons between things are done on a tonal level. If two films are both deadpan, for example, they’re compared regardless of tone. For me, something like Dogtooth felt quite similar to films that are comic, but it would never be compared to comic films because dark becomes a category, so it becomes compared to darker films. So they go, “David Lynch is our 'dark guy', we’ll compare it to him.” But, in a way, that film felt quite Wes Anderson to me in terms of the composition, and the stillness of it, and the performance style. And so, if you’ve got a hero of Oliver’s age there’s a certain linage of film with heroes of a similar age that it’ll be compared to. I can understand those comparisons, but I always slightly imagined the film as something like Taxi Driver, except with a fifteen-year-old who doesn’t have access to guns.