Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Chris O'Dowd, Noah Taylor
Director: Richard Ayoade
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 93 minutes
Synopsis: Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a timid soul who lives alone, suffers an awkward relationship with his unsympathetic mother, and labours virtually unnoticed at his deadening office job. Starting a conversation with his attractive colleague and neighbour Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) is almost beyond his capabilities, though he does sometimes observe her from his apartment window through a telescope. The threat of vanishing completely seems to stalk Simon. His own mother has trouble remembering who he is when he visits her care home; the security guard at his office refuses, day after day, to recognise him; and the area in which he lives is beset by suicides (Officers investigating these mark Simon down as 'a maybe"). 'I'm permanently outside myself," Simon observes. 'You could put your hand straight through me." Others agree: a colleague tells him that he's 'pretty unnoticeable… a bit of a non-person", and one of the fellow residents of his mother's care home tells him 'You're not right." This resident, however, also provides him with the odd gift of a knife – and the enigmatic advice to 'make the cut deep."
There's reason for Simon to feel even more 'outside himself" – but also a glint of hope – when a new arrival joins his workplace. James Simon (Eisenberg again in a double role) is, as his name suggests, Simon's mirror image: ostensibly the same, with an identical physical appearance, but with diametrically opposite character traits. James is as confident at work as he is with women: a philanderer, a rakish risk taker and the life and soul of every party to which his meek lookalike has never been able to get himself invited. James also moves in across the street from Simon, within the sightlines of his telescope.
Initially James seems to be a source of guidance for Simon, advising him on his romantic life to the point of talking him through a date with Hannah via an earpiece. Simon reciprocates by helping James to succeed at work - for all the newcomer's popularity and bravado, he's no grafter, and has little idea what his job is meant to entail. When James commences relationships first with the boss's young daughter Melanie (Yasmin Paige), and then with Hannah herself, Simon's loyalty is challenged and it runs out altogether when James asks him to assist in keeping his conflicting love interests apart. Simon asks James to desist in his courtship of Hannah, using his knowledge of James's professional incompetence, but James responds with a threat of blackmail: he'll expose compromising photographs of himself with Melanie, and tell the world that it's Simon who's with her. In his increasing desperation, Simon discovers that he's connected to James via more than appearance: when James causes him a minor physical wound, the mark appears on both of their bodies.
Hannah, meanwhile, suspects that James is seeing other women, and asks Simon to find out for her. Simon opts to intervene indirectly: knowing that James is with Melanie, he calls Hannah, pretending to be Simon, and asks her to come over. When she does so, James sends her away; Simon sees all through his telescope.
At work, however, Simon seems less substantial than ever: his ID card is taken away from him, and he's told that 'according to the system", he's never existed at all. Simon tries to report James to their superiors as an inadequate worker, but he cannot make himself heard, and he is finally ejected from the premises. At home, through his telescope, he sees Hannah prone on her bed. He breaks into her flat and finds her unconscious, a suicide note left behind. He takes her to hospital and is told that she has suffered a miscarriage. On her recovery, he takes her home; she is far from grateful, rather declaring that she hopes to try and again, and suggesting that Simon might be best served by doing the same.
Simon receives a phone call letting him know that his mother has died. Upon arriving at the nocturnal funeral she has requested, Simon finds James there, and attacks him. Once again, their physical interconnection is apparent: when Simon punches James his own nose bleeds. This gives Simon an idea. Following the funeral, he goes to James's apartment and handcuffs his double to the bed. He telephones the police and tells them that he has observed a neighbour 'about to jump". He then returns to his own apartment and jumps from the window. Because of his detailed knowledge of a previous suicide, he knows how to angle his jump to avoid death. Badly injured, but satisfied that he has destroyed his rival; Simon is taken to hospital in an ambulance. James, meanwhile, lies undiscovered, bleeding from his own head wound.
Release Date: May 8th, 2014
Robin C Fox and Amina Dasmal operate their Alcove Entertainment on the basis that the creative talent leads the process – always. Their partnership with Harmony Korine as producers on 2009-s Trash Humpers came about because, as Robin C Fox has it, 'we hunted him down, and told him that whatever film he wanted to make, we'd do it!"
In 2007, Robin C Fox and Amina Dasma met Hamony Korine's brother, Avi Korine, who was working on a script adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella The Double. It struck the producers that this story of a solitary, troubled man whose life is upended by his over-confident alter-ego might appeal to another name on their creative wish-list – the British writer, director and performer Richard Ayoade, then yet to make his debut as a feature director.
'We'd been stalking Richard Ayoade," Robin C Fox ruefully recalls, 'using every method we could think of to get him interested in something… but it was difficult, because he's got taste! With this script, we thought at last we might have something on which he might not go so cold and quiet. We saw that it would suit his sensibility – both his sense of humour, and his understanding of the subject matter." They also saw, however, that the project would need time to evolve: 'Richard Ayoade wasn't just going to come in and shoot someone else's script." But, says Amina Dasmal, 'if we feel excited, we go at the pace the talent needs. It's about supporting the process, if you want the best. Of course there are days when you want to be shooting rather than waiting – but it's incredibly fulfilling when you do read that next draft." It helped that co-producers Film also 'believed in Richard's ability to deliver what was in his imagination", Amina Dasmal says. 'They're in a different category and rightly so. They were genuinely brilliant to work with."
The result of letting Ayoade pursue his vision to the hilt is a film that resists obvious commercialism, and genre categorisation. Fox points out that concern for the supposed demands of the market is reduced by 'spending time around people who talk about market conditions, and seeing the abject failures that spawn from that!" Amina Dasmal notes that the producers use themselves as a guide: 'This is a film we want to watch, so there's an audience out there." If the world in which The Double takes place is an unfamiliar one – claustrophobic; jittery; at once futuristic and redolent of a non-specific, dusty past – its emotions are accessible. 'Loneliness and feeling undervalued are universal," says Robin C Fox 'as is romance". 'The love story is very beautiful," Dasmal adds. 'Richard Ayoade really surprised us with how he captured it." Richard Ayoade also impressed with his confidence in making his imagined environment into a real space. 'He can go into a room," says Robin C Fox, 'and completely capture what he's trying to create."
Australian rising star Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre; Stoker; The Kids are All Right), who plays Hannah, was interested in Richard Ayoade having seen his feature debut Submarine, which she describes as 'brilliant". Her interest in his second directorial outing was further stimulated by her friendship with Harmony Korine, who encouraged her to look out for his brother's script when it came her way. Working with Richard Ayoade was, she says, 'really amazing. I haven't had an experience that's been this fulfilling in all areas. His direction is so clear, and he has a really sensitive way of dealing with actors and getting the best out of us." Moreover, Richard Ayoade's treatment of the material, and the clarity of his vision of the atmosphere of the piece, surprised her. 'He's elevated the material in a way that I didn't really expect – he had a really unique way of seeing things," she says. 'It's not completely specified what kind of world we live in here, and Richard Ayoade's brought such a strong vision to it." The ambiguity of the story's time and place, she feels, reflects a story that says different things to different people. 'There are so many ways of seeing the idea of someone who's exactly the same as you. It's subjective – so everyone who sees the film will have a different view of what it means."
That's a sentiment echoed by Richard Ayoade's lead actor: Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award nominee Jesse Eisenberg. Working on The Double was 'the most interesting experience I've ever had", says the star of Zombieland, The Social Network and Now You See Me. 'The stuff Richard Ayoade was doing was amazing. Every room, every scene was located in this ambiguous place and time. And he never wanted anything to be standard. Often, an actor comes with his own strange ideas, and the director takes them and shapes them into a normal movie scene. Richard Ayoade takes actors' strange inclinations… and pushes them farther. It's an approach that brings rewards. Something about the way he works makes it impossible not to engage completely. That applied to all of the actors, even those who came in for one day."
The actor's own interest in working with Richard Ayoade stemmed from his own uncharacteristic response to Submarine, which was sent to him as background before the Double had a completed script. 'I don't watch movies," Jesse Eisenberg laughs, 'so I just put it in to watch the first five minutes. Not only did I watch the whole thing - I watched it two times in a row. I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. Every moment was full of emotional richness, and funny, and real – it was just unique. Then I met him and realised why. He has this unique sensibility, this aesthetic that is totally his own."
The Double also presented Jesse Eisenberg with a challenge: that of playing two characters in one film. 'I thought it was a really interesting acting opportunity," he says. 'Richard Ayoade's goal was not to create a traditional comic dichotomy between -good' and -bad' characters, but something much more psychologically complicated." Shy, dysfunctional, resentful Simon and his cocksure mirror image James are, says Jesse Eisenberg, 'not so much different people as different manifestations of the same psyche. So for me it was about coming up with different gestures and voices to convey the visceral experience of each character. Once I figured out the emotional tone of Simon, James came more quickly. Simon isn't traditionally hapless and well-meaning, he's emotionally fraught and inept; and James isn't evil and malicious, he's charming and capable. Simon's emotional response is histrionic, so he lives in a dystopian world. James lives in the same world, but for him it's utopian."
An actor who lives his parts vividly, Jesse Eisenberg noted his own variable feelings embodying each character. 'If my day ended with playing Simon, I would go home miserable," he recalls. 'It was a relief to play James, because Simon was so self-hating and miserable. I definitely took on their traits. I was full of ideas playing James, but playing Simon, I was so shut down; and I would want to do the scene over and over again…"
An additional trauma for Jesse Eisenberg, who never sees his own films, was having to watch parts of his own performance in order to piece together scenes in which both characters appeared. Despite his Richard Ayoade fandom, he says this is as close as he will come to watching The Double. 'I was in a Woody Allen movie [To Rome With Love]," he points out, 'and it's the only one out of his forty-plus movies that I'll never see!" Experience doesn't help with his aversion to seeing himself on screen ('it becomes worse"), and nor is it assuaged by acclaim or awards ('I just think I'm being tricked").
Richard Ayoade is happy to be among the tricksters. 'He was great," the director says of Jesse Eisenberg, 'and just sort of perfect – there was no-one else we offered it to. There aren't many actors who could play both parts, and have that precision. He's technically brilliant, but also spontaneous and instinctive – great actors can do both." And great stories, Richard Ayoade believes, can easily support the co-existence of humour and melancholy. 'I'm not sure there's such a strong division between what's uncomfortable and what's funny," he says. 'The novella is about someone who's going mad, but at the same time it's funny; it's pompous; it's silly. A lot of things I like have that tone."
Producer Robin C Fox says Richard Ayoade is 'incredibly good at referencing", and sure enough the director name checks a vast number of film texts that helped to inspire The Double's extraordinary visual and emotional tone, among them Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, David Lynch's Eraserhead (both of which he describes as 'very funny), Orson Welles' The Trial and Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit. He further notes a sense of Scandanavian kinship (he is half-Norwegian) with the melancholy, deadpan-comic worlds created by Sweden's Roy Andersson and Finland's Aki Kaurismaki. Within British cinema, he notes, The Double has fewer clear antecedents. 'There are so few British films that aren't in a realist tradition. British films have tended to be more about social problems than existential ones. The best ones are parochial, specific – and made on low budgets. Fantasy has sets that require building!"
The Double's environments are cramped, intense evocations of Simon's inner reality, rather than the elaborate stuff of the sci-fi spectacular; but the film's physical world was nonetheless a challenge to construct. 'To not locate things geographically or temporally," Richard Ayoade says, 'is infuriatingly difficult. We spent five months just on the sound. For most films, it's a simple process of recording things with fidelity to the realistic. For this, it was the opposite: everything had to happen in a not-real space."
Cinematographer Erik Wilson, who previously worked on Submarine, also had to shelve concerns about naturalism. 'Submarine was all natural light, but this was lit so differently," explains Richard Ayoade. 'It just shows you how good Erik is." Direction, too, had to be 'more controlled", because of the use of special effects and motion capture.
Richard Ayoade's air of mild bafflement about what he's made extends to the willing participation of his varied and eminent supporting cast, the international mix includes British veteran James Fox, and Hollywood stars Cathy Moriarty and Wallace Shawn. 'It seemed unbelievable they might do it," Richard Ayoade marvels. 'I don't really understand it myself. London is attractive to Americans…" Submarine provided Richard Ayoade with almost a complete set of returning case members – Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor have substantial roles in The Double, while Craig Roberts, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine all appear in cameos – but, he claims, not much ballast. 'It's surprising how little you learn!" Perhaps channelling his inner Simon just a little - or relying on his very British realism - he notes that 'You never feel like you're doing it right. You're just slowly trying to work it out."
Release Date: May 8th, 2014