Like a lot of very funny people, Richard Ayoade isn’t terribly funny in person. That’s not a knock. Comedy is a serious business, and the people involved in it need not necessarily be “on” when the cameras aren’t rolling.
That’s particularly true for Ayoade. One of the brightest lights of the current British comedy scene, Ayoade is known stateside, if at all, for playing the nerdish techie Moss on the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, in which his every line is delivered with a delightfully nasal shout.
In person, he’s soft-spoken, shy, polite, self-effacing, allergic to flattery but appreciative of compliments. Speaking with him, one immediately gets the sense that he does interviews with a profound reluctance, believing the work should speak for itself and yet grateful people are showing interest. Especially Americans, very few of whom know who he is, much less that his last name is pronounced like this: AYE-OH-AW-DAY.
Ayoade was in New York to promote Submarine, his well-received feature debut as a writer-director. Based on the 2008 novel by Joe Dunthorne, the smart and amusing coming-of-age saga concerns a lonely teen (Craig Roberts) as he enters into his first romantic relationship, courtesy a mordant classmate (Yasmin Paige).
Asked if it was autobiographical, Ayoade’s response is typically reserved: “It’s not autobiographical for me. I’m sure unconsciously there are elements of myself that wound up in it, but mainly it’s just that I liked the book and I liked Joe’s character and I worked out the best way to make it interesting for an audience.”
Ayoade is not physically in Submarine, and intentionally so: In other interviews he has asserted that he’s a terrible actor. And yet he’s a very popular performer. Apart from The IT Crowd, he’s appeared with The Mighty Boosh and in Nathan Barley and the rock opera parody AD/BC: A Rock Opera, which he also wrote and directed. Perhaps most greatly, he co-conceived Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace with Matthew Holness, a fellow member of Footlights, Cambridge’s prestigious theater troupe.
An outgrowth of a pair of award-winning stage shows, the 2004 TV series pretends to be a terrible sci-fi/horror show from the ’80s, complete with hilariously poor production values and worse acting, none “worse” than Ayoade, whose line readings were awkward and gestures wooden. (He resurrected his Darkplace character for the 2006 faux-chat show Man to Man With Dean Lerner.)
Darkplace was also his first directorial work, though he’s reluctant to delve deeper. “Matthew and I have never really talked about that show except in character, so it seems weird to talk about it without him. Because it’s a show about people pompously talking about some great thing they did, it seems silly to pompously talk about it yourself.”
Ayoade has since directed a number of music videos, for Vampire Weekend, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Arctic Monkeys, whose frontman, Alex Turner, provided the songs for Submarine. This work impressed Warp Films, who hired him for the film.
Adapting Submarine wasn’t easy. “It’s very bookish and literary,” he explains. “One of the main things you’re thinking is to make something that’s very verbal into something that’s visual.” Submarine, luckily, wound up very visual. For one thing, it was shot on film, not video. “With a lot of digital stuff, you have to have quite a large technical backup crew. Film is still very simple to use. And I like the look of film.”
Ayoade also took a lot of inspiration from the French New Wave. The movie he’s seen the most is Louis Malle’s 1960 kaleidoscopic slapstick Zazie Dans le Metro. (Malle is a big hero of Ayoade’s, and when he directed an episode of Community—the Season 2 highlight “Critical Film Studies”—he was ecstatic that it involved an epic homage to Malle’s My Dinner With Andre.) Elsewhere, the doomed, lush score pays homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt while Jean-Pierre Melville’s hitman classic Le Samouraï materializes in a shot of Roberts walking purposefully under a bridge.
Submarine also has a character who, while likable, can also be selfish and cruel to others. “He can certainly be unsympathetic,” Ayoade admits. “I think he has an intelligence that allows him to get out of moral responsibility, and that’s not a very good quality. In some sense the film is about him trying to take responsibility for what he does.”
At the end of our chat, Ayoade does make a joke. Remarking on his shyness, I ask what he’s like on set. He deadpans, “Very aggressive, violent, undermining. William Friedkin.”
Submarine opens Friday, June 17, at the Ritz at the Bourse. Click here for showtimes.