Photos by Dean Rogers, videogame stills courtesy of Framestore
Nebbish bureaucrat Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is seeing double. A new employee at work is getting under his skin. He walks like Simon, talks like Simon—as far as friends and coworkers (including Simon's love interest, played by Mia Wasikowska) are concerned, he is Simon—except he isn't. For all intents and purposes, James Simon (also Jesse Eisenberg) is the definition of a nightmare.
Such sets the scene for The Double, the forthcoming feature film from director Richard Ayoade and Magnolia Pictures. Based on Dostoyevsky's 1846 novella of the same name (read the original here), Ayoade's vision takes the story deep underground, into an unrecognizable universe of cogs, coils, and conspicuous characters who all contribute to Simon's increasing confusion.
"It's not like a flat-out horror film. It's not a flat-out comedy. I mean, the book is a sort of descent into madness, and more about a kind of puffed-up bureaucrat feeling humiliated that he's not being recognized," says Ayoade in our new documentary on The Double (viewable above). "Only a writer of genius, which Dostoyevsky obviously is, would come up with something that feels so emotionally right. When you read something like that, you just fall in love with it, and you just want to pursue it."
Before they could get to filmmaking, Ayoade needed to find the right actor to balance both Simon James' and James Simon's parts at once. "The whole point is that there should be no physical difference between these two characters, yet for some reason, everyone gravitates to one rather than the other. We needed someone who was able to give that life, in a way that would work and be convincing. [Jesse's] able to differentiate characters very subtly. [...] He's one of those actors who is able to be very technically precise, as well as being emotionally engaged. The tricky thing is when they're both in the same shot together."
To create the seamless interaction between Simon James and James Simon, Ayoade and company relied on a number of tried-and-true cinematic techniques reminiscent of the works of George Meliés and Betty Davis, as well as some new ones. Says executive producer and VFX producer Simon Whalley, "The VFX in The Double is predominantly about making it look real, look like there were two people. The bigger challenge really was for Jesse as an actor to have to play off himself when he wasn't really there. [...] There wasn't any green screen. We weren't keying him off, but it was all rotoscoped. Whenever two people were in the same frame, one of them had to be cut out using body doubles, and then removing that person and putting Jesse back in. Just a combination of a lot of care and attention to detail."
But the motion control process was no cakewalk, either. "We shot it on film," explains Ayoade, "Which is not generally what you'd be advised to do with motion control. Film flutters in the gate, your image is weaving slightly, so to composite these two layers together, they have to stabilize this film weave. But we wanted it to be on film, to have that texture and grain, and to sort these things out later."
VFX supervisor Matt Clarke echoes the sentiment: "There were obviously technical issues, but more importantly, Richard was concerned about the dialogue. [...] There's next-to-nothing we could do about that if that wasn't in camera, and, thankfully, Erik [Wilson, the director of photography] got it. I think it looks great and it seems to work really well."
Ayoade and company constructed an entire world within which the film now exists. Drawing from a wealth of 18th, 19th, and 20th Century fiction, the resulting universe of The Double is a mixed bag of science fiction and fantasy tropes that mirrored perfectly the bleak, oblique chaos of Simon James' inner world. "Historically, it's not something that's ever existed and neither is it something that will ever exist in the future," Ayoade says. "The idea was to create something that looks kind of obsolete and inescapable and had a sort of dreamy, nonspecific quality because there's something fable-like about the idea of a doppelgänger. It's an inescapable thing and so we wanted it to take place in an environment where you're not being given a lot of signifiers leading you to real-world conclusions."
To fully achieve this immersion, the filmmakers first teamed up with VFX powerhouses Framestore to create both a fictional in-film sci-fi TV series The Replicator, and a first person shooter-style video game, much in the same laterally expositional vein of the in-film game in Spike Jonze's Her.
"Armed with a very specific reference from Richard Ayoade, I set about creating an overall look for the sci-fi fantasy 'The Replicator'" said Paul O'Brien, The Replicator's VFX artist. "The aim was to recreate the look of 70/80's sci-fi, early digital and film optical effects using today's technology. This included deliberately adding green fringing and drop out to scenes as well as more obvious effects such as lasers and matte paintings." The result is every bit as detailed and well-thought out as the film itself.
"There's two or three moons in the sky, you've got glowing boomerangs and glowing shields and lasers, and big haircuts," Whalley tells us of the sci-fi noir film-within-a-film. "Couldn't be any more different to the style of the rest of the film. I don't remember Dostoyevsky having the 'space detective' element in his novella."
Below, some stills from the videogame created exclusively for the film:
Considering the time and attention to detail provided by Ayoade and his team, The Double just might replace the original novella as the benchmark for all doppelgänger-related trivia. One thing is certain, however, in the cases of both Dostoyevsky and Simon James: if you ever find yourself face to face with your own spitting image, seated at a desk across the hall from you, it's probably wise to seek new employment.
Richard Ayoade's The Double is in theatres nationwide May 9, 2014.
Images courtesy of Dean Rogers
Editorial by Emerson Rosenthal