Interview: Richard Ayoade on the Cold, Distant, and Young Anti-Hero of ‘Submarine’

By  · Published on June 10th, 2011

Submarine is the coming-of-age tale of a cold, calculated, and pretentious teen by the name of Oliver Tate. Oliver, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, could easily come off as a downright off-putting and self-absorbed kid. He starts off as an arrogant and creepy kid dealing with what seems to be the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Oliver’s romance that comes out of seeking pure lovemaking turns into something genuine. His parents’ love is dying, and he can’t fix it. Through nearly all of this, Oliver stays near-emotionless and blank. His transformation and revelations are shown through writer-director Richard Ayoade’s unique visual eye, which also never sugarcoats Oliver’s oddness. Ayoade has crafted a young protagonist that while many will love many others will question his sanity… a rare type of lead these days.

Here’s what Richard Ayoade had to say about not writing too much style, the moral ambiguity of the film’s characters and, of course, Oliver Tate.

Are you enjoying your press day?

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know who the people are I’m talking to, but it’s good.

[Laughs] Is there anything that’s surprised you about the discussions the film causes?

I don’t know, really. Generally I think people are too polite, in terms what they actually think. I’ll probably never find out what people really think. Also, it becomes very hard to read about often, because there’s a natural polarization that takes place in the discussion about things. You’re not sure whether people are talking about what they think more than trying to win an argument with someone.

Understood. Jumping into the film, when it comes to your writing, how detailed are you? Do you generally try to express your visual ideas?

It depends. One of the main things is that you want it be readable, so you tend not to put lots of camera stuff down. That would just make it boring to read. You have an idea of what you’re going to do and you might describe the general feel of a sequence, but I try not to get into too much detail. You do a shot-list, and then you go through it quite carefully with the various technical departments. You describe it and show references, if necessary.

Certain elements can really affect how certain parts come across [in the script]. Like, if something is mainly handheld or not handheld, then that can really change how something feels. Those type of things wouldn’t necessarily be in the script, but I think you’d get the idea of it [in the script].

Is the tone and feel of the film pretty similar to the novel’s?

I think the tone, hopefully, is a million miles away. It’s very different because the book is based on an unreliable narrator, and a lot of the pleasure in reading the book is you filling in the gaps of what Oliver is saying and what is happening. In the film, you’re seeing the difference between what Oliver is saying and what’s happening. You’re not really having to infer it, so it becomes a slightly different game. It becomes more behavioral and more objective than the book.

While writing, do you have a clear idea for what you want when comes to certain sequences or, like, even Jordana’s outfits?

Well, there were certain things I knew she was going to wear. I knew that each character was going to wear a certain color, but you try to leave enough room that you can find things out as you’re filming it and doing the prep for it. Also, there’s other people’s ideas ‐ namely, the actors ‐ but, also, the head of the department. As the ideas come up, they either feel right or not right.

Do you consider Oliver rightfully pretentious?

He’s certainly very intelligent, but he just isn’t emotionally advanced. I think he thinks intelligence will get him out of having to interact, emotionally, with people. But it doesn’t.

Since he is so cold, was there a fine line in writing the film when it came to not having him come off too distant?

You’re aware of it, but it’s mainly whether you believe he’s interesting or not. It’s like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver; he’s a very unpleasant character, but he’s completely compelling. Also, Benjamin Braddock is pretty horrible in The Graduate; he’s mean to people and self-obsessed. I think there are very few instances where you can’t understand a character or have sympathy for them if they feel real and believable. You’re relying more on that, rather than having someone who is meant to be liked.

Did you think it was important to make all of Oliver’s more questionable decisions come off as well-intentioned?

Yeah, he’s relatively optimistic. I also think because of his youth you forgive him a lot. I think someone that was a few years older wouldn’t be as funny or forgivable.

Would you label Oliver a “nerd”?

I would say he’s not, because he’s too aware to get called out as being a nerd; he’s in a slightly different category.

What category is that?

He doesn’t quite know, and I think that’s a part of his difficulties. He doesn’t really fit in, so he’s not in a big enough subgroup to be categorized.

I guess, I saw him as a nerd because he’s very cocky and an outsider, like certain nerds.

Well, I think there’s various definitions. I think it depends on your view of a nerd, but for me, it’s always the Rick Moranis-like nerd; someone incredibly puny and has no social awareness, but I think Oliver is very socially aware. He may not be popular, but he knows why nerds are bullied, and he tries not to be that. I guess, the only reason for that differentiation is because he’s so aware of it, so he tries not be [a nerd], although he doesn’t always succeed at it.

Doesn’t Oliver have that type of confidence, though?

I think he has a type of confidence, but it’s compensating for a fear. I think that type of knowledge and attempt at swagger is, generally, not real confidence. He’s trying to construct a persona.

Like Oliver, his parents are very cold and distant. Did you want to find a similar gray area for all the leads?

It’s not a fully functional situation, I suppose. They all have their flaws, but they all have their meanings as well. I think one of the things enjoyable about watching films is seeing people work things out, and you’re kind of a participant in seeing how they try to stumble to some type of conclusion.

I know I gotta wrap up, but I was wondering if there’s possibly anything about the film you haven’t been asked about yet, and that you would like to talk about?

I suppose, the references that people think it’s referring to are ones that I understand, but the ones that are very overt haven’t been picked up on. In a way, I’m more interested in seeing whether they’re ever picked up on, so maybe I shouldn’t mention it. It’d be kind of boring to list them [Laughs]. I’m intrigued if someone is ever going to mention them. I’m going to see.

Submarine is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.