Like his countrymen Ricky Gervais and Simon Pegg, filmmaker Richard Ayoade comes to the big screen after success in British sitcoms: For four seasons, he has played uber-nerd Maurice Moss on the award-winning “The IT Crowd,” a comedy about tech-support misfits that has made him a household name in England and among American followers of the Britcom scene.
In Ayoade’s case, though, his feature breakthrough — the coming-of-age film “Submarine,” which opens Friday — is being made behind the camera, as writer/director. Speaking over lunch in a fashionable Manhattan hotel, the soft-spoken actor gently mocks the notion that he “had the option” to star in Hollywood comedies the way Pegg and Gervais have done. Those two “are so liked as performers that there are enormous demands for them to be in other things,” he says. This is not, he adds, “really something that I have to negotiate, personally.”
The director, whose heavy-framed glasses and shrub-size hairdo suggest a man hiding from the world, doesn’t seem to be feigning that modesty. Despite his star turn on the sitcom scene, he insists that his early stabs at stand-up comedy were “pretty poor outings, not worthy of record.
“Stand-up is an incredibly hard thing to be very good at. There are a few people who are exceptional, and then everyone else,” he says. “I’ve always felt more comfortable writing and directing than performing.”
What he has written and directed here is an adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s novel “Submarine.” The official synopsis of the plot offered by the movie company: “15-year-old Oliver Tate has two objectives — to lose his virginity before his 16th birthday, and to extinguish the flame between his mother and an ex-lover who has resurfaced in her life.”
But Ayoade, 34, did perform in the early days, and with more success than he admits. The only child of a Norwegian mother and Nigerian father, he studied law at Cambridge (“a non-vocational degree seemed such an outlandish indulgence”) but quickly wound up as president of the storied Footlights comedy troupe, whose alumni include John Cleese and Sacha Baron Cohen. (His Footlights vice president was John Oliver of “The Daily Show.”)
TV and sketch comedy gigs followed, including an early involvement in what became the surrealist cult favorite “The Mighty Boosh,” a TV series whose eventual embrace of weird musical sequences echoes Ayoade’s sideline as director of imaginative videos for such bands as Vampire Weekend, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Arctic Monkeys.
Ayoade recruited Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner to pen new songs for “Submarine,” whose half pop/half orchestral soundtrack hints at the difficulty teen protagonist Oliver Tate (played by Craig Roberts) has constructing a self-image as he stumbles through his first romance and copes with his parents’ marital problems.
“The idea was that there were two strands,” Ayoade explains, “an ‘internal’ score, a Mahleresque kind of romantic view” that uses old-Hollywood strings to convey the drama in Oliver’s head. Turner’s pop songs, on the other hand, “exist physically in the world” on a mix tape the hero’s father makes for him.
The grand orchestral score isn’t the only way Oliver’s emotional point of view steers the film’s depiction of him. In a dryly funny voice-over, the youth sometimes imagines what the movie of his life would look like, whereupon Ayoade’s camera does exactly as the character suggests.
In adapting the novel, Ayoade emphasized these fourth-wall-breaking moments. “There are [places] in the book where he’ll say, ‘I imagine Big Band music playing at this moment’; things that suggested that kind of self-consciousness. I was trying to keep all those references filmic rather than use some of the literary ones that existed in the book.
“The idea is that the film is somewhat directed by him,” Ayoade continues. Oliver thinks of himself “in a tradition of protagonists and, therefore, would view himself filmically.”
Speaking of the influences on his work, Ayoade refers most often to films by Truffaut and Godard, recalling that he “started sometime around 16, probably, becoming interested in French New Wave films” simply as an easy way of studying for French class. His cinephilia may have bloomed late, but these days he’s as comfortable discussing Italian horror flicks and Budd Boetticher westerns as “The 400 Blows.”
The fine lines “Submarine” walks — its self-aware but unprecious tone, its way of teasing characters without mocking them — look like the work of a much more experienced filmmaker. Sally Hawkins, the “Made in Dagenham” star who plays Oliver Tate’s mother, says that Ayoade “knows exactly what he wants, and knows when he’s got it.”
“Some directors are just interested in the acting,” she continues, “and some are just interested in the aesthetic, what it looks like, and leave the acting to you. But Richard has an overview of everything; he’s interested in every aspect of it. I know that sounds obvious, and you’d think that most filmmakers are, but I think perhaps this is the first time I’ve been aware of it. He’s passionate, like an artist, about all aspects, and I don’t think he values one above the other.”
Ayoade is co-writing an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “The Double,” a “sort of comic” film he hopes will have the feel of Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” (“one of my favorite comedies,” he says, “if you call it a comedy”).
But don’t expect him to appear in his own movies any time soon.
“I’d have to be in a really good director’s film in order to be good,” he says. “You’d have to have somebody who could really beat some kind of decent performance out of me.”
DeFore is a freelance writer.