The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg, is an absurd retelling of Dostoyevsky’s novel about Simon James, a clerk whose life unravels when he encounters James Simon, a man who has the same face walking around and living the life he wishes he had. Filmmaker Richard Ayoade shifts the action to a cramped city of perpetual night where Eisenberg’s Simon toils away at work, survives scrapes with office security, and attempts to avoid emotionally-fraught confrontation with his ailing mother, all while pining for pretty copy girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska).
And Ayoade thinks this is all hilarious.
“This invisible person, and just them slowly disappearing, it just seemed to be such an interesting premise for something,” he explained during our chat at the Sunset Marquis Hotel restaurant in Los Angeles recently. “How do you hold onto a place in the world, what’s unique about you, what makes other people recognize something in someone and not someone else? But, it’s funny, I really found it funny.”
That sense of humor is… off. But there’s something appealingly “off” about Ayoade. That’s not really the right word.
The 36-year-old Brit is almost painfully shy, prone to very direct and on-point responses. When he presented his first film, Submarine, three years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival, the audience had to lean on the edge of their seats to hear the short, polite, and self-deprecating responses about the coming-of-age story which Ayoade adapted from Joe Duntorne’s novel.
Ayoade wasn’t sure about tackling another novel for his second film. He’d been working on figuring out what his next project, and with The IT Crowd at an end while none of his other TV projects taking off (“People weren’t asking us to make any TV shows, so I felt really lucky to get to make something else”). He’d been reading other scripts but nothing was clicking.
Then he picked up The Double and met Avi Korine, the writer behind the surreal Mister Lonely, and it all came together. “Well, initially I just really liked Avi’s script, and just his… you know, just his address in it was funny to me, and I never read anything that I really liked, you know? And then I met him, and just liked him a good deal, and it was essentially just this idea [of a double].”
For his lead, Ayoade chose Zombieland and upcoming Batman/Superman star Eisenberg, impressed with his range in those films and his early work in The Squid and the Whale. “He has this quality that I think such actors like Jack Lemmon have, whereby they look the same in all of these parts, so people somehow feel, “Oh, that’s Jack Lemmon in the film”, but Jack Lemmon’s doing really different things in these films, and the same with Jesse.”
“So, because the two characters have to look identical, you need someone who could internally animate them, rather than, you know, there are certain actors and they can be good, but the really physical changes between parts.”
The look of The Double brings to mind Gilliam’s Brazil, a kind of bomb-out, empty place of drab colors and outdated, churning machines. “[We wanted] to have a work and home environment that was not something that could be readily escaped; you didn’t get the sense that this is just a bad town and there are some good towns over there. It was the sense that this is the whole universe; that there’s nowhere else to go. I guess that’s what we wanted to have.”
Ayoade says that they were lucky to find an abandoned business estate in the English city of Hoben which Ayoade says served as the perfect backdrop for the dream-like quality of the film. “There’s an enormous post office sorting place that’s now closed down, which had these tiny cubicles which people would work in, and they had chutes that the letters came down, and everyone was really in these small boxes, and so there’s elements of things we were researching we just knew existed in the real.”
“There’s an enormous post office sorting place that’s now closed down, which had these tiny cubicles which people would work in, and they had chutes that the letters came down, and everyone was really in these small boxes, and so there’s elements of things we were researching we just knew existed in the real.”
James, the sociable, ultimately sociopathic double in Ayoade’s second film is almost the perfect mirror image of its director, best known here in the U.S. for his role as Moss, the socially inept computer tech in The IT Crowd. Ayoade sees some virtue in James, who he describes as egoless. “[James] just isn’t concerned about what other people think of him, and it’s more that he’s free from a lot of things that aren’t necessarily in and of themselves very noble, which are, self-consciousness or this sort of undue concern with how the world sees you.”
Does that make Simon the too nice and too shy Simon the “good” guy? “I think there’s an element of those things which aren’t very nice, which can be like, you’re more concerned about your comfort in the situation, and your, you know, sense of justification than how the other person is thinking. It can be an undue emphasis on your own worries, on some level.”
The Double is in theaters and on demand now from Magnolia Pictures.