Dostoevsky, The Double, and Punk Rock Gestures: An Interview with Avi Korine

Screenwriter Avi Korine’s second film, The Double (recently released on DVD and Blu-ray), is a grim, surprisingly funny spin on Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, starring a pair of Jesse Eisenbergs and directed and co-written by Richard Ayoade (Submarine, The Watch).

The palette is gray, the humor is black, the protagonist can’t be trusted. I think I heard it described as Catch-22 meets Office Space, which is a start, but The Double somehow feels even bleaker than those stories. The horrors of war dwarf any one man’s struggle, of course, but at least Yossarian was (ostensibly) part of a larger fight against the Nazis: a larger cause. Simon’s plight feels not just hopeless and absurd but pointless and small in a way that Yossarian’s and even Peter Gibbons’ never did—which might belie the fact that The Double is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Korine says the film and its source material ask, “How can we stay sane and human in an insane and inhuman world?” We spoke about Dostoevsky, Ayoade, and leaving the casting to the professionals.

EVAN ALLGOOD: What was the hardest part of adapting Dostoevsky’s novella into a screenplay?

AVI KORINE: Well, I guess I never really thought I was adapting the novella, more like I was inspired by it, using the frame and a bit of the tone and feel of the characters. I find writing anything terribly hard, and working on this was at times painfully difficult.

Dostoevsky’s The Double is incredible—as all of his works are—but it was written early in his career and has a bit of a wild and unfinished feel for me. Maybe that’s why it didn’t feel as fraught as using The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment as inspiration might have, something I could never really imagine doing. It had never really felt like a foundational literary experience for me, like those books had, but more an expression of powerlessness and desperation that I could relate to. Although, having said that, over the last couple of years I’ve found that I own about half a dozen copies of the book, almost all from before I started the script, so it must have had a deeper resonance for me than I initially realized.

I suppose the biggest challenge is communicating the inner world that is so powerfully expressed in fiction onto screen and making that compelling. The drama of the story is largely the creation of the main character—in my version, Simon—a battle that he is fighting within himself to the utter disinterest of the outside world. It can be difficult to translate that inner struggle onto the screen.

EA: Do you find writing an original script easier than writing an adapted one?

AK: I’ve never really done a direct adaptation, so I can’t exactly say. Before I start writing a script I always try to have a few key waypoints or markers in mind to head toward, but I’ve never found that things end up going precisely where I expect them. I imagine it would be easier if you had all the key moments and turns clearly mapped out before starting, but I haven’t had that experience yet so I can’t say for certain. I don’t know that I’ve felt much difference when more directly inspired versus something original. I tend to just write until I can’t bear to go on any longer. 

EA: What were some of the biggest changes you made to the original story, and why did you make them?

AK: A lot of the differences are obviously just a reflection of the worlds the stories are set in. Dostoevsky’s Russia had serfs and house servants that don’t exist in the world of the screenplay. The novel doesn’t really have any female characters. I think, though, that it’s pretty faithful to the feeling of the book, or at least how I interpret it. How can we stay sane and human in an insane and inhuman world?

EA: As you wrote, what actor or actors (if any) did you have in mind for the part of Simon/James? In general, do you have actors in mind when you write a script?

AK: Almost never. I generally try not to be too descriptive or limiting when writing character appearance, maybe to keep possibilities open. There’s also a really specific skill to casting, and I don’t think I have it. A screenplay is such a contingent form—ultimately it goes through the frame of a director, actors, and all the incredibly important technical workers on a film—that I think it’s usually better to think of the screenplay like a feeling or a world that others will eventually be inhabiting and building with their own visions.

Jesse Eisenberg had never occurred to me as a possibility until quite late in the process, but as soon as he was mentioned I felt certain he would be the perfect choice. That he had never occurred to me is probably evidence that I should continue to leave the casting to the professionals.

EA: Besides the source material, what books and/or films did you look to for inspiration? 

AK: As far as the visual style of the film goes, I’d like to say I was a part of it, but obviously Richard Ayoade and the production designer, David Crank, along with dozens of other very talented people in the arts department, were the ones who really created the world of the film. I was incredibly gratified and pleased with the look, and I’d like to think part of it came from my vision, but I feel very fortunate to have had so many talented people work on the film so I can’t really claim much credit.

I was influenced by graphic novels; a key scene was partially inspired by Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. Most of the other influences are from film. I watched many films with doubles: Dead Ringers and a bunch of others; it’s a very common theme. Flannery O’Connor, my favorite writer, dealt with the theme of doubles and the divided self quite a bit. There’s probably a bit of Hitchcock’s Rear Window in there. Part of an earlier version was influenced by Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, though it was cut out during the rewriting process. I’m sure there are many influences I’m not even aware of. 

EA: Why did you decide to show another doppelganger (the doctor at the hospital) in the film?

AK: That was a decision by Richard, I think in part simply because the actor, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, is very talented and deserved more screen time. For me it’s indicative of Simon’s loosening grasp on reality and the feeling that he’s not the most stable narrator. I think it really works, but that was all Richard’s decision.

Richard was incredibly generous in running things by me all the time and keeping me involved in the process. I was on the set for much of the shoot, likely far more than most screenwriters, but ultimately it’s the director’s vision that comes through. I feel very fortunate that Richard was attracted to the script and took the film to places that I never originally envisioned.

EA: The ending is a violent departure from the book. How did you arrive at this conclusion, and why did it feel right?

AK: I think the end went through several different versions, but they were always big and dramatic. Richard and I worked on the ending together over several revisions and it felt both dramatic and natural. It’s a lot to ask of someone to invest their time in something you’ve created, so I think it’s always best to go for the punk rock gesture.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.