June 10 marks the release of British director Richard Ayoade’s first full-length film Submarine, a dark comedy about a 15-year-old boy, Oliver Tate, who struggles with his parents’ marital troubles and losing his virginity. Ayoade has also directed an episode of the television show Community and music videos by artists including Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The director sat down with North by Northwestern to discuss his latest film.
When you were considering whether you wanted to adapt Submarine for the screen, what piqued your interest the most in the subject material of the book?
I suppose the character of Oliver Tate primarily, just his voice and the tone of it. This is quite a populated genre and so, you know, I would never have done it but for the book. It’s happened anyway, but people would immediately go, “Oh, it’s Rushmore, if it’s a 15-year-old boy of intelligence.” I love Rushmore and so it would’ve been too frightening. But, because I can read the book and just enjoy it, it felt that that was OK. It was sort of just responding to that.
Why did you think Submarine had the potential to be presented as a film? You liked the book, but what did you think could translate well?
I didn’t necessarily think it could at all, because the book’s very literary and sort of bookish and uses the form of the novel a lot — and that’s part of the address, you know, it’s very aware of its form. A lot of things that people would probably enjoy about the book can’t be translated directly to a film. It has lots of sort of formal innovations that you try and find visual equivalents for.
Were you targeting a specific audience with Submarine?
No, not at all. You just don’t really think of demographics, or anything like that. You just have an ideal reader in mind, in terms of whether it’s comprehensible or whether it makes any sense, but you don’t think, “Oh, this will appeal to 50-year-old nuns based in Swaffham.” I remember watching Sideways and really loving it, and from somebody who has no knowledge, no particular interest in that world. It doesn’t really matter. Was [Sideways] targeted at someone in England completely far away from that culture? It’s that somewhat esoteric interest: Something that’s quite specific can be of wide interest, something that’s very general can be of no interest — it’s very hard to tell.
The film presents teen romance in a much different way than is common in a lot of teen romance films today. How did you go about making that decision in tone and how did you decide to present Submarine in that way — this much more realistic way?
The idea with the film is that it’s quite subjective and told from the main character’s point of view, and for a long time the film is seen as though he’s in a film. It’s not that he thinks he’s in a film, it’s just that he’s so aware of film tropes that he can’t not be aware of the clichés of films and the coming of age genre. In a way the filming of it was responding to that. There’s a lot of French New Wave influences and British New Wave influences. He’d be aware of The Graduate and would in many ways be pretending to be like people in films.
One thing that I found really interesting when I was watching the film was the dichotomy between these really absurd, funny moments that shift quickly into really serious topics like adultery and terminal illness. That’s a delicate balance, so in the screenwriting process and directing process how’d you go about handling it?
All of that is present in the book. It’s funny, but there’s marital discord and illness and things like that. I suppose it’s really not approaching them as different, so that you don’t go, “Well this is a funny scene and this is a poignant scene.” You just try to play what seems correct and what feels right — and potentially something could be funny and depressing at the same time. In The General you have a sort of slapstick scene in the middle of the battle where people are actually dying, and it’s completely strange congregation of different elements. You don’t go, “Is this funny or is this sad?” — it just either makes sense, or it doesn’t. That’s all you’re trying to do is just hoping it works, really.
I’m curious about some of your influences — in the press release Harold & Maude was listed. Also in the film there’s a scene where Oliver gives Jordana a stack of books with Shakespeare and Nietzsche and The Catcher in the Rye. What were some of your influences when you were filming Submarine?
The idea was that [Oliver] would be aware of a number of things. Part of how you construct your persona is through you know, films and interests, and things that you’ve read and things you admire or want to be like. There are some fairly direct things that Oliver would be interested in, like French New Wave, and he’d want to be like a heroic existentialist figure like Jean-Paul Sartre. In terms of this type of film, The Graduate is a pretty inescapable shadow that no film can really emerge from. Mike Nichols is a pretty big influence I’d say and Buck Henry’s writing, his screenplay for The Graduate.
Another thing I found interesting in your background was that you did music videos with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend. How did you take some of the small experiences you might have gotten directing those videos and apply them to Submarine? Or could you apply them at all?
The best thing about doing those videos was really meeting those bands, and meeting [Arctic Monkeys frontman] Alex [Turner], and that leading to his doing the soundtrack for [Submarine]. I met the cameraman who was the director of photography [for Submarine] while doing those music videos. There are things that you are certainly able to try — you try not to sort of abuse them as demos for things that you’re trying to do later. Mainly it’s about focusing on something visual rather than verbal, which from more of a writing and TV background things can tend to just be very verbal and not visual.
What did you find valuable in Alex Turner’s contributions to the film?
I just think that his songs are great. There are lots of sort of happy accidents and coincidences between lyrics and things that happen visual in the film that weren’t planned. It’s strange because we know each other quite well, so it was odd. It even seems stupid to say “working together,” because it didn’t feel really like that, it just felt like me receiving a bunch of very good songs having done nothing. It was my favorite part of it.