Richard Ayoade’s new film The Double is a black comedy based on Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name, in which a man (Simon, played by Jesse Eisenberg) is pushed to breaking point following the appearance of his doppelgänger in the office where he works, and the apartment block where he lives. Meeting in Dublin’s Residence Lounge during the Jameson Film Festival, we discussed subjectivity, scopophilia and Hugh Hefner with a director who is emerging as one of Britain’s most accomplished cinematic craftsmen.
One of the things that stood out for me about the film was its ambivalent subjectivity, with regard to perspective and its principal character: was it important for you that the story was told in this manner? It’s quite different from the novel.
I’m not sure what the literary term is for that sympathetic third-person but yeah, the novel is in the third person, but it seems to drift in and out of the main character’s head, it feels, it seems to changes location and it’s quite difficult to know where you are. Outside of some film like Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake where the camera is literally the main character, you can’t ever be completely subjective in a film, but insofar as we could make it subjective, we wanted it to be with Simon. I suppose like, say, Taxi Driver.
Taxi Driver occurred to me while thinking about the film, actually! It has that sort of ‘stretching of subjectivity’, David Bordwell calls it, that Scorsese does so well. It was only the morning after watching the film that it occurred to me, regarding this aspect of the film, or how the story is told, that it was a lot darker, or a lot sadder, than I had given it credit for. Do you think this is a pessimistic film?
I don’t feel it is. There’s that Kubrick quote where he said that he thought that The Shining was ultimately an optimistic novel because if there are ghosts, then there’s something after death, so that’s optimistic. But, not in the same vein, I feel this film is optimistic because Simon does something he needed to do which is, I guess, connect to someone else. So in that regard, the fact that he begins doing that I feel is optimistic. But it’s not going to be made into a musical! You know, I’ve never particularly thought about it: whether something’s sad or happy doesn’t seem to affect whether I like it or not. I mean, something like Citizen Kane, which is incredibly pessimistic about human nature and power and corruption, I really like. Whereas something that could be seen to be very optimistic and ends on a high, I could find to be the most depressing thing ever, just because it’s rubbish. You know, I don’t find Dostoyevsky’s books pessimistic, they just feel good. If something feels like it connects to wit in some way then, I find that optimistic.
You mention the idea of making a connection. One thing that jumped out at me in terms of trying to place this film in a social context is that, in modernity, as our experiences of sociality and of life in general are increasingly mediated by looking — social media, surveillance, CCTV and, here, Simon’s telescope — do you think this is a film about the human consequences of that?
I guess they’re both related. I mean, it’s a good question, and one that I will only answer badly because I’ll just be thinking off the top of my head, and it deserves a better answer than that. I think in terms of the novel, you know from reading it, it’s a lot about one’s standing, and what’s important, and what’s seen to be a good status, and we weren’t following that more satiric side, of the aspirations of the bourgeois or anything like that. It felt like, to us, maybe what was more interesting to us, just in terms of what we could show — because it’s not something I can understand particularly acutely, 19th century Russian social strata — was that sense of being overlooked and how that affects someone’s pride, and their sense of themselves. Why do they want someone to recognise them? And then the question, what do they see in other people? What makes them value other people? I guess in that sense, the idea is inherent in the idea of the verisimilitude of a double. As in, what’s the difference? If two people look the same and behave the same, what is the difference between two people? Where does consciousness reside, and why do people connect to one person over another person? In some ways I suppose it’s a very… it’s limited, every way of perceiving someone else is limited in some way.
I remember this really funny thing Hugh Hefner said. Not that I’m a student of Hugh Hefner, but I used to do this character called Dean Lerner and I had to read loads of stuff about someone who was like that. And Hugh Hefner said, “Don’t worry if you break up with a woman, another woman will come along. For women are merely blank canvases onto which we project our desire.” There’s something just amazing about that. But that’s his credo. That’s kind of the dominant position, I’d say, essentially. That’s what other people are: just blank canvases. It could be anybody. And I suppose I find it interesting that someone can think that.
Those kinds of attitudes are there in the film, aren’t they? James [Simon’s double] tries to push that kind of attitude on him.
And also in Simon, in a way, in that he’s interested in someone he doesn’t really know [Hannah, played by Mia Wasikowska]! And also, you know, what is it that makes you interested in someone else, and can you separate it from your own self-interest?
It’s that sort of subjectivity we were talking about that struck me in terms of Simon’s relationship with Hannah, and it’s similar to Taxi Driver in the sense that you have this potentially misogynistic narrative playing out, but which is eventually ironised. Do you think this happens on the strength of the performances?
Well, I think every story needs a point of view. That point of view can sometimes just be the author’s point of view, but this is really through Simon’s point of view, and he’s a character with a very limited view of the world. Part of that limited view of the world is how he sees Hannah, how he can only see certain aspects of her. And it’s a very difficult part for an actress to play because they have to do all of this work to create the character, and then you’re only going to be seen through the lens — literally, in many scenes — of this other character. So yeah, in the same way that Cybil Sheperd’s character [in Taxi Driver] can be seen as a kind of male fantasy, what is being shown is someone watching this other person, like in Vertigo.
I think it’s a very hard thing to perform, and I think Mia is able to suggest a whole life that exists. That’s something you work out in the script as well, hopefully, that isn’t shown. But I don’t know that the characters have to be seen in all of their facets, because if you’re taking the point of view of one character, then it’s very rare that one character perceives other characters or other people in all of their facets. You don’t really see [Michael] Fassbender, for example, being… the bits where he was quite nice in 12 Years a Slave. They didn’t go into that. So there’s an element of every character hopefully serving a bigger narrative and, in a way, they all represent different bits of one person. You know, the [famed child psychologist] Bruno Bettelheim thing – that every story is a fractured psyche trying to reconcile itself – that’s what the conclusion [to this film] is.
I saw this James Stewart film, [either] The Far Country, or maybe it was Bend of the River, where it had such a kind of steamboat, ‘yessuh’ servant character that you’d slightly wince, but it’s very rare that I’d watch something and feel, “Oh, that’s a bad representation of a person,” because, I feel like hopefully you identify with all the people in it. So you watch Peter Boyle and Robert De Niro [in Taxi Driver] and you feel for Peter Boyle’s point of view and you feel for De Niro’s point of view and, I don’t know, you’re in this weird position where you’re arguing from both sides.
That’s that ambivalence we were talking about earlier on, maybe that you have to have faith that the audience is able to break down that binary between observer and observed in Simon and Hannah and to sort of see beyond it.
Yeah, I mean hopefully the audience is watching someone watching other people in that way! That’s what I really like about Rear Window: you’re put in the same position as this character, and judging them on very small things. You know, what is Miss Torso’s life? Is that a misogynistic character, or are you objectifying that person? And how implicated are you, in viewing? Are you trying to offload the blame on someone else for what you yourself are thinking?
I’m wondering what your decision-making process was in setting this film, as opposed to how it is in the novel, in no specific time, or specific place.
I guess it felt that, because the doppelgänger is a slightly mythological idea, that it wouldn’t be suited to a specific scenario, or setting. There’s something about films, because they photograph things exactly how they are, that if you set it in, say, this town, that you have a certain set of expectations that come with seeing this place, and this time, and of what can happen in this place and this time, and there would be certain reactions that would be commensurate with that kind of a place. I wanted it to be more like a dream, where people would react in ways that wouldn’t be expected, and wouldn’t be motivated by social status or what class people are, or that kind of thing. I’m interested in that. I think it can provide a different experience, sometimes. It just didn’t feel to me a kind of social realist film, it didn’t feel like it would benefit from that.
You have the thematic concerns of the script being reflected at the level of aesthetics, with the lighting for example, which you couldn’t necessarily do with a social realist approach.
Yeah, and in a way, part of what you’re saying with social realism in some ways is: “This really happened.” And there’s a heightened nature sometimes to horror, and it has happened less in comedy, but I think actually, comedy often benefits from. You know, there are some things that benefit from being made very realistic, but a lot of comedy would benefit from just being faster, and not trying to ape normal speech patterns, which is interesting and good in The Office, but not necessarily for anything. I think by taking it out of that world, you can treat it differently. Like Punch Drunk Love I feel is in a slightly different world to ours — no one speaks that fast — but it’s good, for that reason.
Some of the film’s more comedic moments involve Simon coming into conflict with bureaucracy, or systemic stuff: is that sort of comedy, synonymous with Kafka, something that has always interested you?
Well, I like it in Kafka, but it’s not… There’s something [comedic] about anyone’s desires being thwarted, whether it’s wanting to not fall over and then falling over or seeing obstacles and there being nothing you can do about them.
I’ve recently started reading the short stories of George Saunders, which are about a particularly American sort of corporatism, and they’re very interesting, and they feel quite Kafka-y, and it’s more that you want to get a character into trouble in some way, and what they do when they’re in trouble. How people behave when they’re in trouble is quite telling I think. But again, I have no particular satirical interest in having a go at bureaucracy or whatever. To me, what’s funnier is, how does the person who is subject to it react? You know, there’s a kind of standardised, “Computer says ‘No!’” which I’m not massively interested in. I don’t know that show particularly well, but I wouldn’t go, “Oh yeah, that’s really sticking it to those people, buying computers.” I’m more interested in, “What does the person do?” Seeing the person complain: how someone complains I think can be very revealing. Or how quickly someone gives up can also be funny.
Richard Ayoade’s The Double goes on release on Friday 4th April.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall