‘Submarine’ at 10: an oral history of the Alex Turner-soundtracked indie

The team behind Richard Ayoade's cult classic reflect on a decade of Oliver and Jordana, Sophie Williams listens in

“This film is timeless,” says actress Yasmin Paige. “It’s a universal story of that first encounter of love, where you’re just completely not aware of who you are.” She’s talking, of course, about Submarine – the perfectly awkward coming-of-age drama that was released 10 years ago next week.

Adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s acclaimed novel of the same name, the film has become a cult classic thanks to its open-hearted portrayal of teen life in Welsh suburbia. Initially shown in just 59 UK cinemas, Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut gathered steam via word-of-mouth and soon won a wide release after box office-busting first-week ticket sales. With a pair of complex characters in Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a painfully idiosyncratic 15-year-old struggling with the breakdown of his parents’ marriage; and Jordana Bevan (Paige), his quasi-pyromaniac girlfriend; Submarine stood out from a crowd of stereotypical high school romcoms – and set the tone for a wave of quirky British comedies that would follow (Sing Street, The End Of The F***ing World and more).

Submarine
Oliver (Craig Roberts) and Jordana (Yasmin Paige). CREDIT: Alamy

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In early 2008, the Swansea-born Dunthorne, then studying at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was scouring the web for new music when he stumbled upon a job advert asking for interns at indie movie outfit Warp Films. After persuading his housemate, a film student, to apply; he got him to show the Warp boss his newly-finished manuscript of Submarine. It was an instant hit.

Even before the novel was published in February that year, Burke had optioned the screen rights, and swiftly roped in Ayoade – who had directed Arctic Monkeys’ freaky ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ music video for Warp the previous year – to work on the screenplay.

For Dunthorne, who had long been a devoted fan of the label and its roster of left-field artists including Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Plaid, the quickfire turnaround felt like a miracle. “It all happened weirdly quickly and easily,” he tells NME. “Looking back, I can see how lucky it all was but at the time I just thought: ‘OK, so this is how the film industry works!’”

Richard Ayoade
Richard Ayoade, who made his directorial debut with ‘Submarine’. CREDIT: Alamy

But this was no fluke. Warp’s producers and Ayoade, best known for oddball sitcoms The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh, were smitten with the melancholic tale of young love. Even better, they seemed to really click with Dunthorne’s self-deprecating brand of humour. “I felt like [Ayoade] really connected with the story of Submarine and had a clear vision of what he wanted to do with it,” says Dunthorne. “He made the story his own, which is much more important than trying to be faithful to the book.”

Following a series of audition tapes in summer 2009, Ayoade, who was keen to keep the action close to Dunthorne’s Welsh roots, invited Roberts and Paige to record screen tests around Barry Island, south Wales, where sequences of the movie would later be shot.

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“We spent two or three days running around Barry Island with [cinematographer] Erik Wilson and Richard, just shooting a bunch of stuff. It was very free,” Roberts says. “They had a script – but it was nerve-wracking because we didn’t know if we had the part. I remember Richard had this joke with me; ‘Michael Cera is waiting at any point to come in – so don’t mess it up!’”

But for Paige, who grew up in inner city London, this experience – regardless of the uncertain circumstances – was truly a formative one: “Richard literally filmed us being kids. It was the first time that I’d really been around nature,” she explains. “He shot us climbing trees and running across the beach on a Super8 camera; I had never done either as a kid, so I felt like I was getting to experience this freedom through the character of Jordana. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”

Ayoade’s spontaneous approach permeates Submarine itself, with a few key scenes – including the New Wave-style ‘Two Weeks Of Lovemaking’ montage – featuring extensive improvisation. Roberts, who last year directed his second feature, heartfelt drama Eternal Beauty, credits Ayoade’s direction as a profound influence on his career since.

“[Ayoade] had such an interesting way of looking at Oliver Tate’s life, and it’s like he was in a movie that he’d want to see… I think that’s why Submarine felt so fresh and so original,” he says. “I owe so much to him; I feel like he opened my eyes to cinema.”

Submarine
Jordana strikes up a formative romance with Oliver, but problems at home push them apart. CREDIT: Alamy

He adds: “I think [Submarine] also resonates with people because it’s so well-made, and it has a nostalgia to it. There’s no mobile phones; there’s no new technology; it’s kind of stuck in a time. There isn’t anything specific about it: it’s not the ‘70s or ‘80s, it’s just kind of a mashup.”

In recent years, the film’s continued popularity could be attributed to its melancholic soundtrack, written and performed by Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner. The hyper-romantic, six-track collection has racked up over 192 million combined streams on Spotify – and has introduced many to Submarine that may have not found it otherwise.

Owen Pallett, whose swooning, carefully crafted orchestral arrangement for the baroque-pop song ‘Piledriver Waltz’ is a highlight, stresses the importance of Turner’s involvement to the film’s continued success. “There are many contemporary rock songwriters who I admire, but none more than Alex,” he says. “He’s consistently surprised me, delighted me, and there seems to be no limit to his lyrical inventiveness… It would be impossible to overpraise him.”

Today, the film’s most-discussed feature is its soundtrack. But the magic of Submarine is still rooted in its deeply personal core story about two young outsiders searching for their place in the world. From a first kiss which provokes a near-panic attack to the anticlimax of their first sexual experience together, Submarine is filled with hugely relatable moments – especially if you’re around the same age.

“Whenever I talk about Submarine or see myself in that film, all I feel is happiness,” says Paige. “But I don’t think I realised how successful it was until very recently. People from different countries will send me messages on social media and they always, always want to talk about Submarine. I feel like the film really touches something in them because it is a movie of escapism.”

Dunthorne agrees: “The amazing thing is how far it’s reached,” he says. “I’ve met real hardcore fans in Taiwan and Brazil and Belarus and Spain. In Shanghai, I met one of the translators who’d written the Mandarin subtitles of an illegal copy of Submarine. She did it with her friends after work – a labour of love. It’s incredible to me, to think that this all started in my box room in Norwich!”

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