His latest film, "The Double," takes a Dostoyevsky novella and turns it on its head, creating a quirky, cerebral-yet-darkly funny take on the drudgery of work and the promise of love. Star Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as both sides of the doppelgänger, carefully fine-tuning his performance to create two unique characters who share more than just the same face.
Moviefone spoke to the director and star during TIFF, discussing everything from the source material to the challenge of playing two very dichotomous characters.
Moviefone Canada: Were you sitting around and thinking, hey, that Dostoevsky guy was pretty funny?
Richard Ayoade: It was [co-writer] Avi Korine's idea to adapt the book. He's a big Dostoevsky fan and initially he thought it would be a really good part for an actor, something with that premise. It's Dostoevsky's second [work] and isn't pleased with it either, which is a good tagline for the poster: "Even Dostoevsky didn't like this, and he wrote it!" What seemed funny to me about the idea is that someone has the person who looks exactly like them and [almost] no one notices, but even when people do notice, it doesn't bother them. It felt like a Monty Python premise -- a very ridiculous situation to be in. There's yet to be a Dostoevsky-based sitcom, but it's probably down to rights issues.
As a performer, you're constantly watching yourself onscreen and seeing the other person onscreen, doing the double performance. How much of a challenge is it?
Jesse Eisenberg: Technically, the way we would do it is we would shoot one side of it and then I'd have to watch the tape back so I could understand how to interact with the first character. That's just generally not something I like to do. I don't like to watch the dailies because it can be distracting, but this is kind of necessary.
Ultimately, it was a really fun thing to do because you can take your own pace. It's the kind of thing, when you're working with an actor who's not incredible, you wish they would do things a little differently so you could do what you want to have done. When you're working with an actor that's amazing, it transcends the need or desire to change what they're doing because they're giving you something amazing and you can react to it.
But with this, I can set my own pace, I can do something with one character to highlight something in the other character. It gave me a lot of leeway in that way, so I guess it wasn't that difficult.
Did you take home some of the characteristics of your character that day? Were you confident on days when playing that side, slightly neurotic on the other days?
JE: Yes, it just ends up infiltrating the feelings you have about yourself. With the more character confident character, James, I felt better about those scenes, just because while you're acting it you feel good about yourself. I think every actor does that, even if they're not immersing themselves in it, you're feeling the emotional experience of the character you're spending 12 hours a day with.
In terms of switching back and forth, it was a lot of fun. It kept it fresh, you don't run the risk of becoming boring or stale. The way movies are shot is so laboured that by the end of the day you're doing the same scene over and over again, and it's boring. But this didn't have that kind of experience.
RA: And also, you're never not in it. You couldn't be in something more, apart from when you remake the "Nutty Professor." It doesn't just take twice as long, it takes 3 times as long because you have to choose and watch it back...
JE: But you develop a momentum. The exhausting thing for an actor is sitting in the trailer for the whole day waiting to go on set. You become tired, bored and by the time you get there, what you do is less good by virtue of waiting so long to do it. This was not the case here, we built up a momentum and just carried on like a creative experience that feels uninterrupted.
The film seems both out of place and time.
RA: There was a decision early on that you wouldn't see sky, so it's all either inside or it's night, which is a slightly unreal experience. There's one half daylight/dusk thing but basically no daylight, so it was all meant to be in a kind of dreamy feel. What I find frustrating is when people ask, "Who am I meant to relate to in this film?," as though it's supposed to be an arcade game where you're at the centre. The movie is meant for you to see how you would react as this character, and if the character doesn't react as you would react, there's something wrong with it, and it needs to be fixed.
Part of the charm of the film is leaving some of the storyline up to the audience's interpretation.
RA: It's almost the opposite aim of Oliver Stone, where he has one specific thing he wants you to feel and believes that his films are better with the commentary, and you wouldn't want anyone to have one specific interpretation. It's like medicine, one specific result. Any time you tell a story you hope people don't interrupt you and go OK, so what did the table look like that you just mentioned? People don't want that kind of specificity generally, it's simply a function of how well cinema does realism, but there's nothing more phony than realism, in a way.
Like Terry Gilliam's fascination with the '50s, there seems to be a lot of 1980s-style promise in the film.
RA: It seems like the '80s was the last time anyone had any hope that things were getting better. And it was a funny time when everyone thought computers were going to be great, and everyone was going to be able to do what they wanted and no one was going to have to do any work anymore. There was real confidence that, in retrospect, is funny. It was quite '50s in a way, all very boxy and macho and powerful.
What films did you watch in prep for this role?
JE: Richard sent me Buster Keaton.
Did you watch stuff like "Dead Ringers"?
RA: I spoke to [David] Cronenberg about motion control.
JE: [I watched] "A Man Escaped." Every time I watched a movie, I just wrote to Richard and asked why.
RA: You just weren't listening appropriately. I found that weird after I sent you "Porky's" though. It was on point.
Is that part of both of your processes? To see other works while you're on a particular project?
JE: In acting, it's hard to take inspiration from others because you're limited to yourself. You can't try to copy someone else, it's just bizarre. When I watched the stuff he sent me, I didn't know what to take from it. I can't act in that way. I've had this conversation with so many people who talk about Marlon Brando as a significant inspiration, and I just don't understand. I guess maybe some actors allow for some things to change their perception of what acting can be, but in terms of taking direct inspiration, it just seems impossible. It seems like you're asking me to do something inauthentic.
"The Double" opens in theatres on June 13.