“Are-you-ARE-dee, as in the letters R,U,R,D” says director Richard Ayoade with the patience of someone asked many times how to pronounce his surname.
That’s been many times in recent years, because Ayoade has popped up in many places, as an actor on British TV (“The IT Crowd”) and Hollywood film (“The Watch” with Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill.) He’s also a writer and director with the darkly comic coming of age film “Submarine” to his credit, and now the even darker “The Double” which opens locally this weekend.
“The Double” stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a forgettable office drone working in a nightmarish office where no one pays him any attention. When his boss asks him if he just started working there James replies, “Yes, just seven years ago.”
But life takes a very strange twist when a new employee, James Simon, starts at the office. Simon is everything James is not: confident, outgoing, and liked by everyone. Only James seems to notice that Simon is his exact double.
The story is based on a novella by Dostoyevsky and originally adapted by Avi Korine, who brought the script to Ayoade.
“What it had was this great central premise, I felt,” Ayoade told me recently. “You have this character who is so unremarkable and invisible and unnoticeable that when his double appears no-one else can really tell that anything has really altered, and even when he points it out to other people, no one finds it very interesting. And that seemed to me very funny and a really great metaphor for how our concerns are not those of others, and how we see ourselves and what makes us unique.”
As the story unfolds, Simon James watches in horror as his double not only worms his way into the confidence of their boss (Wallace Shawn) using ideas he has stolen from Simon James. The double also worms his way into the heart of Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who Simon James has long worshipped, even as she has ignored him.
When I suggested to Ayoade that the story is a manifestation of a nightmare many people have had, he agrees.
“And I think it’s very prevalent, especially now in cities,” he said. “Where you are in a place with millions of people, all ignoring you, and in fact it’s impolite to directly engage anyone’s eyes. It seems a challenge. And so you are surrounded by people but in this very lonely state.”
Ayoade credits Jesse Eisenberg for his remarkable performance, or maybe that should be performances in “The Double.”
“He is a very versatile actor,” Ayoade said. “Like Jack Lemmon he’s not an actor that looks very physically different from part to part, thus far.”
Ayoade points to actors recently lauded for remarkable transformations they have made for certain parts.
“But perhaps greater congratulation ought to be afforded to their dietician,” he said.
Eisenberg, he said, brings something else to his performances.
“Jesse does these very different characters from an internal point of view,’ Ayoade said. “To the extent that in the edit when we had a freeze frame of him we always knew which character he was. Like he just looked different, the look in his eye was different.”
“The Double” cranks up the nightmare feeling through it’s use of a dark steampunk design. Ayoade said he asked the art director to develop a look of how people in the 1950 would think the future would look.
“So everything is wrong,” he said. “You have these enormous computers that only do one thing, rather than what we have which is small computers that do lots of things. So we wanted to make a world that was obsolete that historically did not exist, and will not exist in the future because it is already out of date.”
The crew shot the film in an abandoned business estate outside of London. Ayoade said they were attracted by the crumbling brutalism of the offices they found. “They kind of feel hostile. They are buildings whose purpose is to serve themselves somehow, rather than the people in them.”
Ayoade is not sure what he’s going to do next “filmwise” as he puts it. He has written what he calls a humorous book on film making, and then is “just writing to see what sticks.”
Knowing Richard Ayoade whatever does stick is likely to be very good.