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Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Alex Turner All Live on a Celluloid Submarine

Updated: Apr 5

Alex Turner, Richard Ayoade and Ben Stller at the New York Press Conference for SUBMARINE.

Ben Stiller, Richard Ayoade and Alex Turner

All Live on a Celluloid Submarine

by Jay S. Jacobs

Ben Stiller is known for being in blockbuster films, but lately he has been exploring some smaller films.  After last year’s terrific performance in Greenberg, Stiller is completely behind the scenes in a sweet little British coming-of-age film called Submarine starring Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine.

The movie was based on the novel of the same name by Joe Dunthorne about a nerdy boy finding his first love.  Screenwritten and directed by British actor / writer / director / comedian Richard Ayoade, who is best known for the hit TV series The IT Crowd across the pond.  Ayoade also has directed videos for the popular UK band Arctic Monkeys.  When he started making the film, Ayoade asked the Monkey’s lead singer Alex Turner to record the soundtrack for the film.

Submarine’s poster reads “Ben Stiller presents,” but the actor downplays his role as the film’s executive producer, saying he just sat back and watched the process.  Stiller also does a cameo role in the film.

Recently, Stiller, Ayoade and Turner got together at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York to discuss the film.

The novel Submarine has been compared to the J.D. Salinger novel The Catcher in the Rye and that book makes an appearance in the film. What is your relationship to Catcher in the Rye?  And did you have an awkward time losing your virginity, like Oliver does?

Alex Turner: Mine went a lot smoother than that.

Richard Ayoade: Mine was less smooth. I like The Catcher in the Rye. I think it stands up as a book. It’s well–written. I stand by it, as a book.

Ben Stiller: Yeah, I like The Catcher in the Rye, too.  Yeah, what was the question?

Did you have an awkward time…?

Ben Stiller: Yeah, yeah, it was pretty awkward.

Richard Ayoade: (joking) It feels a bit of an appropriate moment to share that information, certainly, within the context of promoting something. I really feel it’s a good time to be on to that.

Can you talk about how the music was created for Submarine? Since Alex Turner is known as part of a modern band (The Arctic Monkeys) and Submarine has a period feel to it, what direction did Alex get to create music that is supposed to sound like it came from another era?

Richard Ayoade: (to Turner) I made you live without electricity for a while. (laughs)

Alex Turner: Yeah. Candle light. Some of it already existed, like a couple of tunes that I already had, obviously, and played them to Richard and they just happened to fit in some places. A couple of other ones I wrote after I had seen after I’d seen some of the rushes and read the book. Originally, we were going to do a couple of covers. That was the plan: some John Cale tunes, this Nico song “I’m Not Saying” and a version of that tune “Howdy” because they all should know these sort of things. We ended up abandoning the covers idea. But I suppose that helped me kind of figure out what the temperature should be.

Richard, how did you end up deciding that Alex would write songs for the movie?

Richard Ayoade: I think hiring somewhat feels like a strange… (smiles) It was an extensive interview. And on the third one, he got it. (seriously) I just asked Alex if he fancied doing it, quite a way in advance — maybe even a year before it was finished. There were just gaps, really, where we knew there was going to be a whole song. I can’t even remember whether there was temp music probably in those sections, ever. It was just “to be determined,” really. And we waited until Alex had written them before we started editing those bits. Yeah, so we cut them to the music.

Richard, how did you work with Joe Dunthorne, the author when you adapted the book into a screenplay?

Richard Ayoade: I wrote the screenplay, but I’d give him drafts to read. He spent three years writing the novel, and was starting to write his next one, so he was done. I think Warp Films asked him if he wanted to write the screenplay to the film, but he didn’t want to re–enter that arena. So he was really someone there you could ask questions of and occasionally check to see how furious he was. Yeah, that was really it.

What kind of cameras did you use to film and what kind of look were you trying to achieve?

Richard Ayoade: It was on 35mm film largely, but there are lots of other types used there. There’s this one camera called an Arri 2C, which is a non–sync old camera, which we used. There’s quite a bit of Super 8, Video 8 for TV things, and other stocks. We should have put some of this information on the poster. I suppose to use a lot of natural lights, being able shoot like that and not have to light and have actors hit marks and do it in more of a documentary way.

Ben, how did you get involved with this?

Ben Stiller: It just fell in our laps. We were sent the script. I don’t know how. (to Ayoade) Do you know how we got sent the script?

Richard Ayoade: I’m not sure.

Ben Stiller: I don’t know what happened, but our production company, Red Hour, got sent the script. My producing partner, Stuart Cornfeld, read it and called me up and said, “This is a really good script.” They asked if we’d like to be executive producers on it. I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Do we have to do anything?” He said, “Probably not. Just be there for them and do whatever to support it.” And I said, “Okay. That sounds good.” I read the script. I thought the script was great. It was really simple. It seemed to have a real voice. I hadn’t read the book. And I saw what Richard had done. I was familiar with and very much liked Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. I thought that was funny. I thought that was different from what he’d done from what I’d seen. I might have checked out a video or two. Basically, I said, “Sure, this seems like a good thing.” Then we just were there. We got dailies sent to us. We talked on the phone, maybe. When the dailies started coming in, that’s when it got really exciting for us. We were already very supportive of the script, but then he shot this film test. He had a couple of days of shooting a film test. Literally, this film test came in and it was like a movie. (to Ayoade) Is it actually in the movie? It seemed like there were scenes that…

Richard Ayoade: Yeah, there were some scenes it was. There’s one scene under the bridge that we picked it out. Then a couple of scenes, but we didn’t use all of the screen tests.

Ben Stiller: It was amazing. It was literally, “This is crazy. This is great.” Then the dailies started coming in. We’d get dailies every day, and I started looking forward to seeing the dailies and just thinking, “This is going to be amazing.” (to Ayoade again) I was very happy with the way you put it together. I came to England to do my little, little mini piece on the TV, and that’s when we had a chance to sit down. That was it. We were lucky enough to be sent the script and to be there to support it in any way.

The film had a French New Wave feel. What directors influenced you for the feel of the film?

Richard Ayoade: A lot of those French New Wave directors. I suppose Louis Malle in particular [one called] Zazie dans le metro, which we saw, and it guaranteed that it would have a feel for that. It’s one of those where there is an altercation, a lot of hissing. I particularly like them and [Jean–Luc] Godard, [François] Truffaut, all those people. But one of the main influences on this was Taxi Driver, which seems a violent thing, but that’s because it’s very internal and you have this unaffected voiceover of a character who is always saying the least important thing. Just the juxtaposition of the voiceover and what’s happening, I think was done so well in that film and that was the big thing that we had in mind.

Can you talk about the casting process and how important it was to find the right lead?

Richard Ayoade: (smiles) Not very important. We really would’ve taken anyone. Yeah, actually it was just laziness. It was the first person we saw. Lunch was there. It was getting cold. So we called it a day. Yeah, that’s how that worked out. I wish there were a better anecdote than auditions. It’s not a great story. We were just lucky to find those two [Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige]. They had a charm to them, and you wanted to work with someone like that.

How many people did you see?

Richard Ayoade: I think a few hundred on tape, probably. Quite a few. There were quite a lot auditions in which you test one thing at a time, really. What was important was that he just had the voice that you can listen to, because the voiceover was so going to be so important. He has a good detective–y verve.

As a writer, or even as a director, was it tricky to have a main character that is not totally believable?

Richard Ayoade: For me, that’s what was interesting: that he couldn’t particularly be trusted, and that you could juxtapose his statements with some form of reality that you’d shown. So that was one of the things I liked best in the novel: that you had an unreliable narrator, somebody very linguistically idiosyncratic.

Can all three of you share your thoughts on Craig Roberts specifically?

Ben Stiller: I found him really interesting to watch when I started watching the dailies. He has this… He’s young, but yet he has an older quality – not mature, but he’s almost like a young old man, which is great. (laughs) This sense that he has character. He has character and is interesting to watch. I felt when I met everybody, I felt that Richard had created this bond with the actors, [him] and Yasmin. The young actors – besides the other great actors who were in the movie – but these young were the core of this movie. I felt he created some sort of connection with them, where they all felt very much as responsible as he was for the movie. They were all in it together. That’s really a special thing. I felt that a couple of times on movies as an actor, where you feel that for the director, and you want to do anything for the movie and for him. I really think that’s just a genuine camaraderie that comes out of wanting to do something good and having respect for what he was doing. They’re smart kids. They all seemed to get that. They all seemed to be in it for the same thing. That was a really nice feeling to experience when I came on for the day that I was there.

Richard Ayoade: One of the main things, I suppose, with Craig and with Yasmin was just liking them – and that being important. Wanting to work with people you get on with and who you like. Hopefully, that translates. I’m not a terribly sociable person, and so I have to really like people to work with them. They were just a pleasure. I couldn’t ask for more. They’d been acting since they were seven, so they had been on more film sets than me, and they were incredibly comfortable. They were great.

Alex Turner: I only met him a couple of times, Craig. I think he’s great in the film. I think they both are. Everybody is. He’s a funny chap in real life. He came up to me, quite confident, and said, “You realize that we look an awful lot alike.” I mean, we do kind of have similar bags under our eyes. No, he’s great.

A lot of coming–of–age films have the parental figures on the periphery, but in Submarine, the parental figures are multi–dimensional characters. What did you think was needed to be adapted or changed about the parent characters from the novel to the movie?

Richard Ayoade: The novel, in a way, possibly deals more with the parents than the film so all that is very much – I’m going to use the word explored, because there is too long of a pause for me to think of a less annoying word – in the book. It was just very important. It informed how he behaved. He was very much his parents’ child and very affected by that. It felt important.

What were your favorite coming–of–age films?

Richard Ayoade: The Graduate? Is The Graduate a coming–of–age film? That’s great. The 400 Blows. I really like this film A Ma Soeur by Catherine Breillat. There are loads. Lots of my favorite films are.

Alex Turner: I suppose The Graduate. Certainly in the way they used the music in the film. I like the idea that it is sort of one voice [Simon & Garfunkel] singing all the songs in the film, and the way in The Graduate each song kind of plays out in its entirety, usually. That was a key to Submarine. And Harold & Maude, too. I loved it.

Richard Ayoade: The Last Picture Show was great.

Ben Stiller: The Towering Inferno.

Ben, you grew up in the era of John Hughes’ coming–of–age films. Were you a fan of his?

Ben Stiller: Yeah. I was a little sort of semi-post age-wise. Yeah, no, actually weirdly, my favorite John Hughes movie is Planes, Trains and Automobiles [which is one of the rare Hughes films about adults]. This made me think really more of the Salinger books. That’s what I connected with. Obviously, The Catcher in the Rye but also Franny and Zooey. Just that voice in those Nine Stories books that I always find sort of heartbreaking. That came through in the writing when he was writing the screenplay. I do think that the music is a huge part of it too, in that sort of Hal Ashby–esque way. (to Ayoade and Turner) The way you guys were able to collaborate, it’s really great in the movie. It gives the movie a voice. The images are so amazing in this movie. Coupled with the music, it’s just beautiful.

How is Zoolander 2 coming along?

Ben Stiller: It’s kind of coming along. I mean, we have a script that we like. We’re just waiting for the studio to figure it out, but I think we all want to do it. We’re raring to go. I’m not quite sure where the studio is at, but hopefully, it’ll come together.

Richard, what’s next for you?

Richard Ayoade: Just writing. I’m working with a writer called Avi Korine on an adaptation of The Double by [Fyodor] Dostoevsky.

Ben Stiller: There aren’t enough Dostoevsky movies.

Ben, is there a difference in how you look at script as a producer, compared to when you look at a script as a writer or as an actor?

Ben Stiller: Actually, I was an executive producer, which is one step more removed. Honestly, it’s the same thing you look at. As an actor, obviously, you look at it in terms of more of yourself being in it, which is a whole other thing. But just to read a movie and try to visualize it, I find the director is a huge element in any movie. A writer/director, it is a tough thing to gauge when someone hasn’t directed a movie before. You just don’t know. Sometimes it will be a great script that’s written beautifully, and then the director who has also written it does not have the facility to translate it. Ultimately, you just have to take that chance. I don’t know how you do it. So it was just looking at something as a piece of material, and you go, “This seems like it has integrity. It’s good. It could be funny.” It seemed cute. There is humor in it. There’s humor in Richard’s other work. He just seemed like a really thoughtful guy. Honestly, after that, it’s just taking a chance. You just don’t know. I’ve had to go both ways, in terms of working with first–time directors. I feel like we were very fortunate that he happened to be incredibly talented. (to Ayoade) You like hearing that? I would say usually it doesn’t work out like that. Honestly. Do you know what I mean? We lucked out.

Alex, what is it like to write for a character, compared to the way you write songs for your band?

Alex Turner: I think I was definitely aware, but like I said, half of the songs already existed, in a way. Then some were written after I was aware of what the film was. It was more about not making them about the character too much, or being able to avoid it being like a narration. I just wanted it to sit in the background a little bit more. If it can help complement what’s going on without it being too direct, that was like the balance we were trying to strive for, certainly in the lyrics and the tunes, that was the bottom line. It was great. I enjoyed doing it because it was very different from what I do with the group. A lot was stripped–back and it was allowed to be like that because you had this great film going on in front and all this wonderful energy. So you could just be an acoustic guitar and this melody and that coupled with what’s going on in the screen, hopefully, is a good blend. Does that make sense?

Earlier you said you weren’t a very sociable person. Almost all of the projects you’ve done are about socially awkward people. Is that a conscious decision?

Richard Ayoade: All of my decisions are self-conscious. Yeah, I don’t think I’d be the natural director for the Bon Jovi story. I suppose it’s what you’re interested in as well. I just really liked this book, and so you don’t have some idea of a trajectory or “This is my territory.” It is quite different, in some respects, from the things I’ve done. I have a very limited range, and that probably comes into why I play a lack of ability.

Can you talk about the difference between directing American television compared to directing your first feature film?

Richard Ayoade: American television is very much created by the writers, just the volume of it. The writers are so key. You’re just trying to do something that serves that script. And in general, film isn’t script, really. The episode of Community that I directed, it was quite clear, because it was about My Dinner With Andre, so there was a creatively visual way of dealing with it. The other was like Pulp Fiction. They’re very visually recognizable, so it’s relatively clear. It’s just the scale of it. There’s a lot of writers, high volume. The cast has been in that zone for years, and do 22 a year, so you probably can’t ruin it. I mean, that’s what my pitch to them was.

What were your favorite scenes to film or watch in Submarine?

Richard Ayoade: I can take it or leave it.

Alex Turner: I like the part where he gets on the bed, and he lies on the bed, and he tells her to shut her eyes. And he’s taken Jordana upstairs, and he says, “Okay, open your eyes,” and she says, “Oh, my God, you’re a serial killer.”

Was that “serial killer” line in the book?

Richard Ayoade: I don’t think that’s in the book like that. There’s a bit when she does come around, but it’s based on them reading his diary, so it’s kind of different. I don’t really know. I’m very bad. The credits. I like that because it has two of your songs. (points to Turner) And it was just blue. I enjoyed that section. And it means the film has ended. That’s the stage where I can relax.

Ben Stiller: There are so many images in the movie that I really love. And there are so many funny scenes, too. The sequence where they kiss with the Polaroid camera: When I saw that the first time, I was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that in a movie.” The subjective nature of the movie where you’re just seeing so much through his eyes and through his narration. Just the jokes – and there are so many jokes within jokes, too, in the film – with him talking about how the film would be seen, how he would make the movie, but how the movie is actually being made. All that stuff is really fun, too. But just on a simple, emotional level: the ending I love. When they go out to the water, there, that scene. I remember reading the ending in the script and thinking how simple it was. Then just seeing the images he ended up with was just so not what you would necessarily see in a movie about romance between two people and how it ended. It allowed you to fill in what you wanted to fill in there. I loved that.

In England you are a star and people love you…

Richard Ayoade: Let’s back up on both of those…

So, people don’t just fall down on the street because of your IT credit?

Richard Ayoade: They remain erect.

As a director, were you very polite, like “Would you like to?” What is your directing style?

Richard Ayoade: (smiles) I shoved people. “Would you like to…?” seems to be an incredibly polite thing to say. Yeah, I think I can imagine that phrase appearing in my mouth. (laughs, then serious) I really like Orson Welles’ films, so it’s quite easy to be self-deprecating if you see other films. It seems somewhat impolite to go around, and also inaccurate. Why should I be trusted talking about something like that? It seems ridiculous.

So you were a diva on the set?

Richard Ayoade: (laughs) Yeah. Violence was the key throughout the production. (points to Stiller) He saw it on the day he was there.

Ben Stiller: (tongue–in–cheek) There was a lot of screaming off–camera. (Then seriously) My feeling is it reminded of when I worked with Wes Anderson once. Wes is a very quiet guy who commands a lot of respect on the set; because I think everybody there respects him. I felt like that right off the bat. It felt to me like Richard is the kind of guy where he’s not going to bully you. But he’s going to ask you politely, and you’ll probably do it because you trust that he has an incredible vision, and you want to be there. That’s the feeling I got that everybody had around him.

Richard Ayoade: Also, I feel there’s nothing worse than telling actors what to do in front of everyone, because then on the next take, everyone’s waiting to see if you do that. It just feels like the worst thing. “Oh, can you do that a bit quicker?” Then everyone just watches. He wasn’t very quick that time. It’s just the worst thing. I’d only ever privately tell people stuff for the scene. And more often ask what they feel is right. Normally, by the time that we’re filming, if it doesn’t work, it is always the script. It’s very rarely the actor who can’t do it because it doesn’t work. Generally, they end up telling you how it should go.

Richard, can you describe your relationship with Warp?

Richard Ayoade: Well, they’re a music company. That’s how they started, and then they went into films. They did Dead Man’s Shoes with Paddy Considine. Shane Meadows directed. Then Warp did some of [The Arctic Monkeys’] first videos, I guess. So when I first met Warp and was talking about scripts and things I was writing, I just mentioned that I wanted to do music videos. I really liked Arctic Monkeys, and it just happened that they had a new record coming out, and it was just really fortuitous, really. It was great. And they are quite small and cottage–industry–ish. They’re really good. They produce good films, like Paddy’s new film Tyrannosaur is just tremendous. I think all of Shane Meadows’ films are really good. I like them.

So do you think you’ll continue to work with Warp?

Richard Ayoade: Yeah, absolutely. I think so.

Copyright ©2011  All rights reserved.  Posted: June 1, 2011.  

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#1 © 2011 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

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