Richard Ayoade takes a ‘Community’ detour before ‘Submarine’ hits America

The great thing about Friday’s movie releases is not only is there a good movie to recommend, if you live in Los Angeles and New York there are three.  For a majority of moviegoers, they’ll have the chance to enjoy “X-Men: First Class,” but at least for one weekend, before they expand, the big city art house scene will get the first taste of Mike Mills’ “Beginners” and Richard Ayoade’s hilarious “Submarine.”

I first wrote about “Submarine” after seeing the comedy at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival praying that a distributor would take a chance on the very original and creative adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s novel.  The Weinstein Company happily acquired the picture and have smartly fashioned it as alternative fare for the summer season.  Last week I spoke to director Richard Ayoade about his cinematic debut which has quickly spawned a growing cult fanbase.
“It’s not I supposed what you would call a pulpy novel where you find a great scene that you think you’d want to film,” Ayoade says of the appeal of bringing “Submarine” to the screen.  “I felt that because the [lead character Oliver Tate] was so well drawn, hopefully you could work out a way to translate it with something small that is visual and based on behavior.  Sometimes I think it’s more interesting to try and adapt something that doesn’t seem like it’s easy to adapt.”

But it’s Ayoade’s tonal choices that makes the movie work and it all begins with Oliver Tate (a talented Craig Roberts), the teenage hero of “Submarine.”  A young man living in the small coastal city of Swansea in the U.K., Tate is too smart for his own good, but intent on losing his virginity by 16 and, eventually, stopping his mother (a fantastic Sally Hawkins) from having an affair on quiet, but depressed, old dad.  Along the way he finds a headstrong and controlling girlfriend in Jordan (Yasmin Page) whose affection he nearly tosses away for reasons that will only make sense in the context of Ayoade’s skillfully crafted film.  According to Ayoade, he didn’t relate at all to Tate, but was instead “baffled” by his behavior.

“One of the reasons you like Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’ is because you go, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have killed him,’ I felt a film where people behave like me would be a very boring film.  I really wanted to understand this character,” Ayoade says. “I don’t think I related to the Christian Bale character in ‘The Fighter,’ but I’m certainly fascinated by that character and think it’s brilliant and really interesting.”

As strong as newcomer Roberts is in the lead role, it’s really Sally Hawkins who steals the show as Oliver’s reserved, but caring mother (well, caring as much as she can).  Most moviegoers on this side of the Atlantic know Hawkins from her Oscar nominated performance in “Happy-Go-Lucky” or last fall’s “Made in Dagenham.”  Her work in “Submarine” will seem like a big departure to most, but not to Ayoade.  He notes, “She’s one of those people who can do anything. She’s just really imaginative.  She’s just got a very big range. It would never be a concern she could do it at all.  I guess, to me, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ seemed to be the exception in the way as in it’s not quite how I imagined her before seeing that film, but I guess that’s become a kind of key note performance [for her].”

Ayoade continues, “She’s a bit like Diane Keaton in a way. People who do comedy don’t tend to do much other stuff, but they really can. When you think of Diane Keaton you think of how great she is in all those Woody Allen films, but in the ‘Godfather’ it’s such a different performance. So, like Keaton, Sally’s one of those people who can do anything.”

Almost completely unknown in the U.S., Ayoade has been a key player in the British comedy scene for years writing, directing and starring in TV series such as “The It Crowd,” “The Mighty Boosh” and “Man to Man with Dean Learner.”  Currently working an adaptation of “The Double,” Ayoade took some time out earlier this year to direct one of the more acclaimed and memorable episodes of NBC’s “Community” this season, “Critical Film Studies.”

The almost 34-year-old London native says that because the show was such a “one-off” it gave him more freedom to do something different than a typical “Community” episode.

“It was shot on a set that had never been in the show before.  It had the allusions of ‘My Dinner with Andre,’ so it had a certain stand alone nature of that episode,” Ayoade says. “It’s also got the Russo Brothers on it who are great directors and they look in, but I was amazed by how undidactic they were. They were incredibly welcoming and the actors as well.  It was a real pleasure.  And I was just like, ‘Don’t tell me anything.’ I think when people feel confident who they are they aren’t worried about people making suggestions because they know whether they are right or not. People who aren’t confident get very heavy handed and controlling.”

Of course, one of the biggest questions from that particular episode was who on earth convinced Chevy Chase to get in full head-to-toe leather gear? Spoiler alert…

“Well, he wasn’t in the leather outfit a lot, because there was a body double a lot,” Ayoade admits. “So, when you couldn’t see his face we thought, ‘This couldn’t possibly be good.'”

Smart move.  And as to whether he’d return for another guest directing gig, Ayoade says, “I wouldn’t presume.  I think it’s down to timing.  I love it.  I think they were happy with it.  I don’t feel particularly exiled.”

Unfortunately for “Community” fans, judging from reaction from the industry to “Submarine,” free time may soon be hard to come by for Ayoade.

“Submarine” opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday. It expands across the country over the next month. Don’t miss it.

For year round entertainment commentary follow Gregory Ellwood on twitter @HitFixGregory.