Exploring the Dark Art of Interviews with Submarine Director Richard Ayoade

richard_ayoade_getty2_630.jpgEight months or so after his film Submarine buzzed its way into audiences' hearts (and Harvey Weinstein's wallet) at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Richard Ayoade had said pretty much all he could about his feature debut. So when we sat down in New York last week to talk about the much-talked-about coming-of-age dramedy, we ultimately wound up discussing the next best thing: The discussion.

Known in the UK for his comic roles on The IT Crowd, The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (the latter of which he co-created and directed) -- as well as for directing music videos for the Arctic Monkeys, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend among numerous other bands -- Ayoade's first feature stars breakout star Craig Roberts as Oliver Tate, a Welsh teenager obsessed with bedding bad girl Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige) and keeping his parents (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) married despite the threatening life coach (Paddy Considine) next door. Adapted from Joe Dunthorne's novel of the same name, the project drew the early interest of Ben Stiller, who executive produced; Weinstein acquired the film not long after its Toronto 2010 premiere, taking it to Sundance as well last January before finally rolling it out this Friday in limited release.

Movieline caught up with the cult hero about the promotional marathon, his relationship to the conversation around his film, and why after all this time he's still not really prepared to talk about Submarine.

How many interviews are you doing today? Do you know exactly?

No. A few.

How many interviews would you estimate you've done regarding Submarine since Toronto?

I don't know... 80? 90? Quite a lot.

Does it feel like actual work doing these? To what extent is it a continued exploration of the film for you?

It certainly doesn't feel like a holiday. It's strange. It doesn't particularly come naturally to me, so it's harder than the other things connected to it. It's also largely about each person wanting to know one specific thing or wanting to hear it for themselves -- rather than there being a massive divergence in what you're talking about.

When you are on your 50th interview and you hear the 50th question about how Ben Stiller got involved, does that answer ever improve for you over the first time?

Well, that would suppose that the first answer was good. Not really. I mean, I'm not brilliant at having an easily digestible answer that I can just say. It tends to be needlessly complicated, my answers to things -- not succinct. I remember someone saying about how interviews can feel awkward, but that all people really want in an interview is for you to say things that they're able to write down -- which can reflect the film. You don't have to view it as an actual conversation. It was someone who was actually advising Ang Lee, who found it incredibly painful and difficult to talk about his films. I find it pretty painful and difficult to talk about, too. But they said, "They're not trying to torture you; they're just trying to get you to say something they can write down about the film. It's so counterintuitive because in a way, the room you're trying to escape from by writing is the room you end up back in because you're doing something that you probably aren't best able to articulate conversationally. You're then thrown back into a situation where you're trying to explain in conversation what you aren't able to articulate.

Have you discovered more about Submarine or about yourself throughout this process?

It's such a self-conscious process. I think the inherent problem is two-fold: One, it exists in a context of commerce and a context of at least not putting people off from seeing it. That, in many ways, counteracts any form of honesty that might exist in the interchange. And also, it's very hard to escape the fact that it's being recorded, and it is something that will be typed up or shaped and it is necessarily stilted as a result. In the same way that everybody fantasizes about creating a completely natural performance on film: As soon as you call cut, everybody relaxes. There's an inherent falseness to an interview. It's so alien to normal interaction. It's so one-sided in terms of one person pontificating or whatever you might call it. So it's quite hard. It's very hard to escape the thing itself, and it's hard for the job of the interview not to be "the interview." Ultimately, I think an interview, for example, about something else could be even better -- talking about another film.

Do you read interviews?

I find them very interesting with other people. Also I think it's a skill -- the way many things are a skill. Some people have a skill for being interviewed and some people don't. I think one of the things that, say, reality TV has illustrated about interviews is that seeing people who are supposed to be real shows how false they can be. Also, any prevarication is read as shiftiness. Some of the best interview subjects are people who are utterly unfiltered, and that isn't me. I am not an unfiltered person. I think a lot of the interviews -- in movie terms -- with the old Hollywood people after they've stopped being in films are incredibly interesting because they don't care. They're not making films anymore. They don't need to protect anyone. They don't need to protect an arc. It's like all of them have been in a war. What do they care? They're very interesting. Orson Welles is always incredibly interesting. And some people aren't. It doesn't mean that they aren't interesting. There are all sorts of ways people deal with it, but no one approaches it with complete honesty, unfortunately. It's very hard to. How could you?

In a promotional context, it seems impossible.

Yeah. And in general there are two types of reviews: One that presumes people have seen it -- which is probably the more interesting review -- probably to write and to read -- and one that's essentially saying, "Should you go see this film?" That massively inflects those different ways of approaching a film. It's a strange transaction, isn't it?

As much as other filmmakers' movies might influence you, do their interviews ever influence you?

I think there's an extent to which... You read interviews sometimes searching for a key or a clue, and you go, "Oh, that's why Kubrick is so great." The reason Kubrick is so great is probably not explainable, and even if it could be explained, it's probably not a quality you possess. It's interesting how that affects things. Many of the people I most admire have done no interviews, or very few interviews.

Kubrick's a perfect example.

Yeah, though he did more interviews than you'd think. Even Malick's done a couple. I think they certainly can be illuminating, but they're hard for people -- especially from a comic background. You're so used to the idea of talking about yourself being a funny and pompous thing that to step into that same ring seems slightly absurd.

When we spoke the other night [following a preview screening of Submarine], I got the impression that your natural instinct is self-deprecation.

In those terms, if you like Orson Welles, it's not hard to be self-deprecating! It's absurd not to be. I've seen other films; I'm not swaggering into the room. It really isn't for you to say ultimately. I have great sympathy with people who find it difficult to talk about their films and things they've done. And some people are good at illuminating it, and that's part of their personality, perhaps -- they've learned how to do it. But I don't know that I have that skill.

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  • Troofire says:

    There's nothing as boring as an interview in which the interviewee is mainly asked questions about his antipathy to interviews. This was a waste of time

  • So you read maybe a quarter of this?

  • edward says:

    I'm a huge fan of the Richard on The IT Crowd. But I have to agree the interview grew tiresome. Half way through he was still talking about not enjoying talking about his film. I think the interview would have served him better with some judicious editing.

  • Wandering Menstrual says:

    I guess I'm in the minority, but I really dug this interview. I found Ayoade's intelligence and humanity to be a refreshing change of pace.
    I assume Troofire would have been happier with a puff piece where Ayoade gushed and rattled off effusive canned responses about how great his cast is and how he has the best DP in the business or whatever. But I actually enjoy a little shop talk and theory every now and then -- especially from a dude who's as articulate as Ayoade.

  • Bradley Paul Valentine says:

    I would't blame the subject or the interviewer, especially when the intent is the title of the piece. You really couldn't find anything interesting in that? I understand this site is meant to be entertaining, but I come here because it is also witty and intelligence and informative, not just noisy. For that to work, the audience to be entertained sometimes has to help out by bothering to do some thinking, reflecting, to find what is good about it even if it might not be immediately identifiable.
    I think it's interesting lately I've been noticing interviews online at different sites seem to be growing in the chagrin at being part of the grinding machine actors and other talent are part of where the same questions, bland interrogation held over and over again. And the subject and interviewer's job is to in a way make a connection and make it "good" every single time, if possible. The interviewer gets really one swing while the subject is kept there all day going through the motions over and over and over.
    I think the dynamics of that is interesting as hell.

  • Man, you really nailed it. You have no idea how much I appreciate this.