Several years ago Harvey Weinstein came across an obscure British television comedy called “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” — an absurdist series that ran for just six episodes in 2004 before it was canceled. The show, set in the 1980s, was a parodic combination of gory sci-fi horror and medical soap opera, and Mr. Weinstein, who was then co-chairman of Miramax, dreamed of bringing the title to America. “I thought it was the funniest, coolest thing,” he recalled recently, on the phone from the Cannes Film Festival. “I went over to London to try and buy the show and convince the guys to do a movie of it.”
Nothing came of that trip, but last year Mr. Weinstein was at the Toronto International Film Festival when he heard that Richard Ayoade — the young comedian who had helped create “Darkplace” as well as acting in and directing it — had made a coming-of-age movie called “Submarine,” which was screening at the festival. The film, which Mr. Ayoade (pronounced AY-oh-aw-day) wrote and directed, tells the story of Oliver Tate, an intelligent but awkward kid dealing with a turbulent first love and his parents’ increasing estrangement. Mr. Weinstein said that the movie put him in mind of “The Graduate,” and the Weinstein Company reportedly paid just shy of seven figures for the North American distribution rights to “Submarine,” which arrives in theaters Friday.
Over breakfast at a cafe in NoLIta recently Mr. Ayoade, speaking with what proved to be characteristic humility, confessed that he was taken aback by Mr. Weinstein’s belief in his work: “I still feel strange calling him Harvey.”
Mr. Ayoade is little known outside Britain, but he has a passionate cult of admirers. After “Darkplace” he acted in several celebrated TV comedies, like “The Mighty Boosh” and “The IT Crowd.” In 2007 NBC commissioned an American version of “The IT Crowd,” starring Mr. Ayoade and Joel McHale. “I familiarized myself with his work and realized I was dealing with a genius,” Mr. McHale, who now stars in NBC’s “Community,” said by phone. “I don’t burst out laughing if I’m in the middle of something. I just don’t break very much. Richard is one of the only people that can make me not be able to function.” When a change in network brass sank the remake after only a pilot had been shot, Mr. McHale said, “the saddest part to me was that America was not going to know Richard Ayoade.”
Mr. Ayoade, 34, characterized the cancellation as a potential blessing in disguise. He’s happier behind the scenes, he said, and he was pleased that, with “Submarine,” his first real introduction to American audiences would be as a writer and director. “I’m a terrible actor,” he said, eating scrambled eggs. “I’m too self-conscious.”
Mr. Ayoade, who speaks in a soft, pinched voice and wears thick-rimmed glasses beneath a mass of curly hair, was in town to talk up his movie, but he is allergic to self-promotion. “He is the most self-deprecating person you’ve ever met,” Mr. McHale had warned, and Mr. Ayoade didn’t disappoint. “I’m not a fan of me,” Mr. Ayoade said, “and I can’t become one.”
As a teenager in his native London Mr. Ayoade dreamed of playing guitar in an indie-rock band like Dinosaur Jr. Describing the path that led him to comedy instead, he said, “You try to do something else and can’t be taken seriously doing that, and you end up being a comedian.”
He enrolled as a law student at Cambridge (“I liked jurisprudence”), where he befriended a fellow freshman, John Oliver — now a “Daily Show” correspondent. The pair began writing and performing a two-man show that prized ridiculousness above all else. Mr. Oliver recalled: “We did this chase scene through 12 different movies, just running on the spot on either side of the stage, cutting between soundtracks. It doesn’t really make sense describing it, and it didn’t make a lot more sense actually watching it.”
They soon joined the university’s Footlights Dramatic Club, a student-run comedy group whose graduates include John Cleese, Eric Idle, Emma Thompson and Sacha Baron Cohen. Shortly before graduation Mr. Ayoade and Mr. Oliver landed agents, and went on to become roommates. (“He was very tidy, and he liked to cook,” Mr. Oliver said.) With a fellow Footlights alumnus, Matthew Holness, Mr. Ayoade developed “Darkplace,” which had originated as a stage show, for Channel 4.
What unites Mr. Ayoade’s performances is the abiding warmth he demonstrates toward his characters, despite their flaws and shortcomings — an empathetic quality that comes in handy as a director too. On “Darkplace” he portrayed an arrogant horror publisher who moonlights as an excruciatingly bad actor. “You become affectionate towards the characters you play,” Mr. Ayoade said. “You don’t think they’re idiots at all.”
His affectionate streak is offset, though, by his bone-dry, minimalist delivery. “He’s able to deliver lines by just saying them; he doesn’t have to do much to get enormous responses,” said Mr. McHale, who recently “begged and screamed” until “Community” hired Mr. Ayoade to direct an episode. The result, based on Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre,” was broadcast last March. Mr. Ayoade, a devout cinephile, was a good fit: he peppers conversation with references to Paddy Chayefsky’s screenwriting and Jacques Tati’s late films, and “Submarine” nods to Godard, Bergman and Melville. “He’s a complete film scholar,” said the actress Sally Hawkins, who has a supporting role in “Submarine” and has been a friend of Mr. Ayoade’s for several years.
He began writing the script for “Submarine” in 2008, adapting a serio-comic novel of the same name by the Welsh author Joe Dunthorne. Like the book the film is highly self-reflexive. Oliver frequently leans against the film’s fourth wall, remarking on a shot or a plot point, an element that Mr. Ayoade stressed was more than a stylistic flourish: “Oliver thinks he’s so aware of the clichés of life that he can circumvent them by cataloging and codifying them. But you can’t.” The film’s tone is, unsurprisingly, dry. “He told me to bring the performance down,” said Craig Roberts, who plays Oliver. “He wanted it to be as serious as possible, and that’s where you get the laughs.”
“Submarine” was financed mostly by Film 4, the UK Film Council and “two regional Welsh funds,” Mr. Ayoade said, and it took seven weeks to shoot. Though he was making his feature-film directing debut, his experience with television and music videos (he’s directed humorous clips for Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) had prepared him. “He has an incredible visual sense,” said Ben Stiller, a “Darkplace” fan who signed on to the film as an executive producer, hoping his name might help draw an American audience. “Every shot is a beautifully composed photograph.”
In a recent Vanity Fair profile of Mr. Weinstein, “Submarine” made an inauspicious cameo. After a lackluster reaction at a New York test screening, Mr. Weinstein was quoted as saying, “There’s a problem with the film,” adding, “I’ll fix it.” Today, Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Ayoade say that no substantial changes were made. “There’s no button that can de-Welsh the accents,” Mr. Ayoade said.
“I think there’s an unjustified fear that American audiences are going to struggle with English things,” he added. “But we should pretend for the purposes of this story that the movie’s been completely overhauled: it’s leaner, tighter.”
He waited a beat, and the tiniest hint of mirth flickered behind his glasses. “And everyone in it is played by Ashton Kutcher now.”