To call Richard Ayoade’s new movie The Double a future cult classic feels like damning it to be ignored. But like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and David Lynch’s Eraserhead, with which it would share a theoretical Netflix microgenre (“Surreal Black Comedies Set In Ridiculously Bleak Urban Landscapes”), The Double is the kind of film you imagine people are going to continue to happily discover over the years.
The dark fable, which opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and in more cities in the following weeks, centers on a man so forgettable that when a new employee who’s physically identical to him arrives at his workplace, no one notices the resemblance. Starring Jesse Eisenberg as both Simon James and James Simon and Mia Wasikowska as Simon’s co-worker and crush Hannah, The Double is as grim as it is dryly clever, a social anxiety nightmare in which a doppelgänger shows up to prove how much more popular and successful you could be if you just weren’t so… you.
The Double is based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th-century novella of the same name, though Ayoade and his co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony of Spring Breakers notoriety) have taken the tale in a different direction after the introduction of the mysterious doppelgänger, from “schizophrenic descent” into an exploration of loneliness and invisibility. “The thing that we liked about the story is that the two look identical, but everyone for some reason just likes the other one,” Ayoade explains. “They always would pick the other one. If they both told a joke, they would laugh at the other one even if they said it in exactly the same way. That was part of the nightmarish aspect of it — there’s no reason. His manifestation is about Simon’s state.”
Landing a big, crowd-pleasing punchline doesn’t seem like a pressing concern for Ayoade, for whom cult classics have been something of a specialty. The London-born, Cambridge-educated writer, director, actor, and comedian was one of the forces behind Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a terrific and terrifically strange British horror comedy series that pretended to be a never-broadcast ’80s show finally being aired and intercut with present-day interviews with the cast members. The single six-episode 2004 season built up a devoted following online (and it can be and absolutely should be watched on Hulu).
Ayoade was also part of the original cast of the TV incarnation of The Mighty Boosh, though he ended up turning his role over to Darkplace co-star Matt Berry after the pilot, returning to play shaman/DJ Saboo in later seasons. His best-known role in front of the camera to date, however, has been in The IT Crowd, a British sitcom created by Father Ted’s Graham Linehan about the basement-dwelling IT team of an otherwise slick London corporation. Ayoade played the cheerily awkward Maurice Moss opposite Chris O’Dowd’s more easygoing but just as geeky Roy Trenneman on the series, which aired in the U.S. on IFC and is currently streaming on Netflix).
The IT Crowd, which ran from 2006–2010, was targeted for a U.S. remake by NBC that had Ayoade reprising his role as Moss opposite Joel McHale as Roy. Though it was picked up to series in 2007, the remake was canceled before it ever went into production, and the pilot has since turned up online as another fascinating (if not particularly adept) example of television that never came to be.
Ayoade did, however, get the opportunity to work with McHale when he directed a Season 2 episode of Community — “Critical Film Studies,” in which Danny Pudi’s Abed takes Jeff Winger (played by Ayoade’s could-have-been co-star) to a restaurant for what turns out to be an homage to My Dinner with Andre.
“He’s so brilliant in that show and so suited,” Ayoade says, in a way that was perhaps less the case for the part of Roy. “I remember thinking, You are so handsome and a computer nerd. How would I have met you? You’re too handsome for me to even encounter outside of Hollywood.”
“But maybe that’s not a problem here,” he muses of American stars. “You have really handsome people. If David Schwimmer can play a geek, I guess he can as well.”
Despite a few of his own flirtations with Hollywood, like his part alongside Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller (an executive producer on Ayoade’s directorial debut Submarine), and Vince Vaughn in the 2012 comedy The Watch, Ayoade displays no urgency to break into the U.S. mainstream. He embodies what might be called the extreme opposite of urgency. He says he’s had offers to direct a studio movie, but doesn’t know how serious they were, since he turned them down. “I need a really compelling reason to leave the house,” he says plainly. “I really like being in my house, and seeing my wife, and increasingly I just don’t want to leave.”
And as for the IT Crowd remake, which would have brought them to L.A. for a stretch of time? “At that stage we were relatively mobile. We weren’t as decrepit as we currently are, just worn down by age,” the 36-year-old explains.
“Directing a film is making decisions, and you don’t get to make so many on a studio film. That temperamentally suits some people and not others,” Ayoade continues. “I think you’d need to feel that you were necessary, and I can’t imagine why I would specifically be necessary on a film like that. Loads of people really want to do it. I’d rather be at home.” The Double and Submarine were “a good enough reason to leave home… for a short period, in England. That’s the governing criteria.”
It’s Ayoade’s work behind the camera that drew him to New York to promote The Double, his second film as a director after 2010’s acclaimed coming-of-age dramedy Submarine. Sitting in an airy conference area in the offices of distributor Magnolia Pictures, he notes that these days, what he sees of the U.S. consists mostly of rooms like this. That sense of the strangeness and anonymity of the mechanics of travel and of urban living is something that has shaped the film, which he says is “about someone trying to be recognized by and trying to connect with someone else without really being able to, which I think is what most people are trying to do.” It’s “a major failing,” he adds, “especially in cities and how geared to avoiding all human contact cities really are. You have this incredible concentration of people studiously ignoring each other.”
Simon, The Double’s protagonist, is shown living one of those lives of claustrophobic isolation, taking a rickety subway to and from the cramped studio in which he lives and the labyrinthine data processing corporation in which he works as a lowly clerk. The only light in his life is Hannah, the copy girl he has a crush on but is too shy to ask out. Instead, he settles for spying on her neighboring apartment. The film’s set — an evocative purgatory of permanent night and anachronistic, run-down technology — is meant to create a “dreamy feel,” Ayoade says. “It’s kind of a ghost story in some ways, or a horror story.” It’s a world that’s all-encompassing and oppressive by design. “We wanted something which felt completely hermetically sealed, with no clues as to an alternate path that [Simon] could take.”
The Double is a darker and more sharp-edged movie than Ayoade’s whimsical directorial debut Submarine (also streaming on Netflix), which starred Craig Roberts as Welsh teenager Oliver Tate and attracted comparisons to Wes Anderson. Oliver’s concerns about his parents’ marriage and the moody classmate he’s fallen for seem less dire than the existential ones of Simon, who dwells in a universe in which there’s a special police division assigned to solely dealing with the frequent suicides. But the two films do share a subjective point of view, showing the world as their misunderstood protagonists see it. It’s an approach that’s always been near and dear to Ayoade’s heart. “It’s one of the great pleasures to be able to see one person’s point of view,” he says. “And I just think it’s a very interesting thing to be able to spend time in the company of a particular perspective and see the contrast between what that person is willing and what is happening. It’s something films can do particularly well,” he continues, citing filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski.
Both Submarine and The Double are also exuberantly stylized and visual, which isn’t always the case for someone moving from a more writing-based television background to film. Ayoade credits the music videos he directed first, for bands like the Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, for providing him with a “buffer to try some different things.” “You’re doing something that’s entirely visual,” he says of the videos. “That was a great thing, to be thinking of how to do, because there’s a sense when you’re writing that you can rely on people saying things rather than you showing it.”
The list of musicians Ayoade’s worked with is one of the many reminders throughout the conversation that, despite how soft-spoken, self-deprecating, and unapologetically film-geeky he is in person, he is undeniably hip as well as talented, both as a creator and a performer. But when it comes to the latter in particular, he consistently talks down his gifts — “It’s a completely different function … but it’s not the one I feel I have most aptitude for,” he notes of his acting. When asked if he’d ever star in a movie he’s directing, his self-deprecation shines at its brightest. “I couldn’t imagine not being able to source someone better,” he says. “So I can’t quite imagine it.”