Jesse Peretz has come a long way since his early days playing bass for Boston band the Lemonheads, who he continued to work with, directing their music videos before moving over to filmmaking with “The Chateau” in 2001, starring Paul Rudd and Romany Malco. Both actors would go on to star in Judd Apatow’s directorial debut “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” There’s a great story that Peretz shares in our interview below.
After a few other movies, Peretz moved onto directing for television at just the right time when the medium was taking off, being behind the camera for such shows as “Nurse Jackie,” “Girls,” “New Girl” and most recently, the Netflix series “GLOW.” Peretz was even nominated for an Emmy for directing the pilot of the latter, as well as directing the final episode of Season 2.
Peretz has returned to the movies for “Juliet, Naked,” an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel about a British woman from a small seaside town whose frustration with her marriage leads to a friendship with an American rock star. Rose Byrne plays Annie, whose husband Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) is a devout fan of alternative rocker Tucker Crowe, who vanished from the public eye after a gig twenty years earlier. When Duncan sleeps with a co-worker, Annie kicks him out of the house, but at the same time, she has been Emailing with Tucker (played by Ethan Hawke) who reemerged after reading a negative review Annie left on Duncan’s Tucker Crowe website (out of spite). The results are what might be one of the funniest rom-coms of the year which mixes Horby’s sensibilities with those of Peretz (and his sister Eugenia, who co-wrote the script), as well as producer Judd Apatow and of course, the three actors.
When I sat down with Peretz for the following interview, maybe it was apropos that our conversation began and ended with some talk about the Netflix series “GLOW,” the second season ending with the “GLOW girls” heading to Vegas to continue their wrestling show there.
I literally was just watching the season finale of “GLOW” last week, and it was great.
Jesse Peretz: Thank you. I love that show.
I’m amazed the show got made, since it doesn’t feel like any network would ever make a show about women’s wrestling, especially a show that was kind of a blip in the ‘80s.
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I did the pilot of that show and I remember Liz [Flahive] and Carly [Mensch], who created it, who I’d worked with on “Nurse Jackie,” when they first told me, “We’re writing this show about women’s wrestling in the ’80s, I just was so perplexed by [that].
Had you seen the original show in the ’80s?
No, I hadn’t.
I was a teenage boy in the ’80s, so I was all over that.
I was a teen boy in the ’80s, too, but somehow I missed it. Anyways, as soon as I got the script I was like, “Oh, okay. I get it.” Then, certainly, once we were working on it, I was like, “Oh my God. I’m so lucky to be involved with this project and all these women.”
And you received an Emmy for that pilot, so congrats on that, too.
Thank you very much.
How did you and Evgenia get involved with adapting Nick Hornby’s novel “Juliet, Naked”? I imagine the producers had the rights and came to you or is there a more interesting story than that?
This is a producer-heavy project because it’s Judd Apatow and his partner, Barry Mendel, and then Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. I guess they were both chasing the book at the same time and ultimately decided to do it together. When they came to me, they already had a script that they’d been working on for a couple of years with Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) and Jim Taylor (Sideways). I read the script, I liked the script. I read the book, and I really loved the book. I hadn’t read the book yet and just got excited about what the potential was in the book.
We sort of held onto chunks of the original screenplay, but there were other things in the book that had sort of fallen out of the screenplay, and my sister and I kind of went into the book a little bit differently and were more interested in following some other strands then necessarily all the ones that were in the original script that I read. That was the first step there.
I love the book and kind of had a strange experience where I was interviewing Nick for “An Education” and was sent a copy and I just devoured it. I find it interesting that you kept the story mainly in England because a lot of his work has been transplanted to the United States, such as the movie based on “High Fidelity.”
I just felt like one of the fun things about the book was the transatlantic friendship that developed but also like this Irish guy sitting in this English seaside town obsessing over this American musician. Duncan in many ways is like Nick Hornby writing a caricature of himself. When I finally met Nick, our first meeting was like three-hour drinks at a bar in London where we spent, I would say the bulk of it, arguing about whether English bands or songwriters had a greater effect on rock and roll than Americans. I was squarely in the pro-England [side… That all these English artists were much more important to rock and roll as we know it. He absolutely was that for him, people like Bruce Springsteen… Anyway, at that point, we were already committed to this sort of British-American thing, but it was funny, that conversation really made me realize Nick is definitely like the English guy obsessed with American roots music.
Did you spend a lot of time talking with him about whether to keep the story in England or not?
Well, I didn’t meet him until fairly late in the process. I met him sort of five months before we started shooting when I went on a first sort of pre-scout trip to England. We hit it off right away. He was very supportive, and he came to visit set three times. I feel like a lot of writers are more kind of reclusive and maybe shy or whatever, but he’s just an incredibly fun, easygoing guy, and he was just like excited to kind of hang out. One of the days that he came on set was like our hardest day, where we had this tiny little scene that we decided needed a little more heft for the story. We were trying to improvise and trying to find something that would story-wise do a little bit more emotionally. It was really the one day that we were working on something that we were really choking. Chris O’Dowd had been two weeks late. His wife had just had a baby, so we scheduled his stuff in the backend of the shoot.
He hadn’t met Nick yet, we had. As he was like trying to improve and find this scene, he turned and there was Nick Hornby on set. It was very stressful for him, and a little bit of stress for us. We knew that he is a nice guy or whatever, but anyways, the long and the short of it is Nick came, and he was incredibly helpful. We kind of decided to go to lunch because we were having a hard time with script issues with that scene, so we just let everyone go to lunch and we all had lunch together. That was like the one thing where Nick came in, and he really helped us find our way to like a new version of the scene. It was great.
So he was able to contribute something creative to the movie without actually writing the script…
(Note: Hornby is notorious for not wanting to adapt his own books.)
Yeah, but that was not him doing writing. It was just him being like a cool guy who came to visit, and he just came right at a time where it was very embarrassing for us to have him seeing us like flounder. Then it was so fortuitous, because we just all talked and had lunch, and we came back with this clear focus on how to make the scene work.
I’m curious about how much improvising was done on the movie, because you have all these great writers involved, including Judd as a producer, but Rose and Chris have done films with Paul Feig who also likes using improvisation to make things funnier.
Yeah, they’re all good improvisers. Honestly, Ethan’s not only a good improviser, but Ethan is like a great writer, and so we really had fun when he showed up in London like a week before we started shooting. My sister and I had some great sessions with him, where he really had an angle on the character that he had been kind of stewing over since we had done a table read like a month and a half earlier in New York. He sort of showed up there with a desire for the character to be a little more rascally and a confidence that he could still make the character sympathetic without making him not be flawless or whatever. His instinctive writing skills are really great and were so helpful.
That’s right, he’s a writer as well…an Oscar-nominated writer, in fact.
Yeah, exactly. We did do a lot of improvising. I think we all felt good about the script, so we always would shoot the scripted scenes a couple of times, but then we almost always — especially in the sort of more comedic scenes — we would definitely open them up to improv. Like the scene on the beach, I can’t even remember which of those lines were in the script, but that was basically just like two cameras, improvise, improvise, improvise, improvise, and sort of cut together from improvisation of that sort of key moment when Duncan meets Tucker and doesn’t believe that it’s Tucker.
That’s one of the funniest moments in the movie. I feel the book obviously has a great wit to it, but it’s just not as laugh out loud funny as what the actors bring to the movie. Had Rose or Chris already been attached or had anybody ever talked to them before you got involved?
Nobody was attached. I mean there was somebody else semi-attached to play Annie, but Rose had been tracking the project because she knew that Judd had optioned it, and she had read the book when it came out and loved the book and loved the character. I met her very early on, before my sister and I had really like worked on the script. I had a meeting with her and I was already a huge fan of hers just because I think she’s one of the rare breeds of people who are both hilariously funny and have like great dramatic chops and can kind of do both so seamlessly and at the same time. Then Chris, interestingly enough, was one of my big draws. One of the things that made me instantly jump at the project was Judd sent me Jim and Tamara’s draft of the script like two weeks after I finished directing an episode of “Girls” that Chris had been on.
I was just like obsessed with Chris. Like he was so funny, and his improvisational chops were like just in my mind like so advanced. Not only that he could be so funny but for example, we had this like sort of five-page, set-piece scene in “Girls” with him and Jemima Kirke, and the actors who played his parents, Griffin Dunne and Deborah Rush. When we were shooting this scene — it was this sort of horrible dinner where you bring your parents to meet your crazy new girlfriend. He was throwing in these hilarious lines without ever throwing anybody off their game. Oftentimes, actors who can be really funny improvisers, just there’s something kind of selfish. They’ll be really funny, but then their scene partner is like … Whatever. Anyways, the long and short of it is, I came out of that experience being like, “Oh my god, I so want to do a movie with Chris.” Then two weeks later, I’m reading the script and I get to page 20 or something and I was like, “Oh my god. I have to do this movie, and I got to get Chris to play this character, Duncan. He will kill this character.” Anyways, I was lucky enough that I got him to say “yes” so…
One of the things about visualizing the book is that you were able to recreate Duncan’s shrine to Tucker Crowe with all these amazing posters, magazine and album covers. Did Ethan just give you a lot of pictures of himself when he was younger and your art department went to town?
It was hard actually to get… because he had moved out of their house, because they had had some damage to their house and a lot of his stuff was in storage, so we couldn’t get a lot of stuff from him. We just did our research and we found more obscure photographs that we could get rights to. I mean that was the main thing. I was just looking for old pictures of him that were a little more obscure so that people wouldn’t feel immediately like, “Oh, that’s Ethan.” Or “I’ve seen that image as an image from a Reality Bites press day” or whatever. It was fun making that stuff.
What about the songs? Because you also had to kind of create the sound of Tucker’s music.
Making the music was probably one of the biggest challenge of the movie, because it was such a specific challenge to find music that thread that needle of something that was like worthy of that kind of obsession, which to me, had to have the qualities of being kind of complicated and alienating enough that you would understand why it never broke through to a mainstream and that it was just sort of a handful of obsessive nerds who felt that it was like genius that people couldn’t see. At the same time, it had to be genuinely good enough and special enough that you believed that somebody would be so obsessed [with it]. It was very scary, like the process of saying like, “Oh, we have to create original music that lives up to all those things.” Obviously, there’s a lot of subjectivity to it. We went out to probably like 100 songwriters, and we got about 100 submissions from maybe 70 songwriters. We were lucky, we great tracks from people like … I don’t know if you’re familiar with Robyn Hitchcock. He’s the guy from The Soft Boys … which is a band I was obsessed with in high school.
To me, personally, that was the most exciting [thing], because in my youth, I had been like Duncan-obsessed with Robyn Hitchcock, so when I found myself like feverishly emailing with Robyn Hitchcock like back and forth four times one day, I like couldn’t believe that I was in a dialogue with him. Even though as I would tell people, “Oh, I’ve been emailing with Robyn Hitchcock all day…” Nobody would have any idea who the fuck I was talking about.
Right. I got the impression while reading the book that he was thinking more of a Nick Drake type character.
Yeah, Nick was like definitely one of our… Nick, and in a way, I always thought that the ideal record–and not that we ended up there exactly– but we sort of tipped our hats to some of the production. To me, Big Star’s “Third” was the kind of prototype of a record that a handful of people loved but even a lot of Big Star fans found it like too unstructured and dissident. A lot of people have grown to fall in love with Big Star, but it’s only like a smaller group of them who like obsess over the third record. That was always like a prototype in my head of what we were trying to achieve. I think one of the benefits Nick Hornby had in the novel was that because you don’t actually hear the music, it allows the reader to kind of project onto Tucker Crowe the kind of music they would want that to be. For us, it was like that more kind of dangerous territory of having to actualize that and hope that that resonates with the audience that we wanted to feel like, “Oh yeah, okay, I’d buy this.”
Had Ethan already made his movie “Blaze” yet? I saw that movie more recently, and I feel there are connections between Tucker Crowe and the actual Blaze Foley, whom that movie is about, in that they both have created these urban legends out of their “last gigs.”
Yeah, I haven’t seen “Blaze” yet, but he was attached to this project when he went off to make “Blaze” and he shot Blaze right before we shot this movie. I can see that in everything I’ve read about it and that Ethan has said about it.
Another thing that’s changed quite a bit since Nick’s book came out in 2009 was that the internet has changed so that someone like Duncan could do the video essays that starts and ends the movie.
Yeah, I mean we took our liberties as you do when you’re taking a novel and trying to figure out how to make it work more cinematically. Those sort of bookend video things, they weren’t actually a part of the original script. They were sort of an idea once we were in the editing room on how to start the movie.
Some of the people I’ve spoken to who have seen Judd Apatow’s name on the movie and thought that the movie had a lot of his fingerprint, which I’m not sure I agree with, but what’s it like working with him as a producer?
Judd has been such a supportive guy to me for a long time. We met right before he did “40-Year-Old Virgin” or right after he did “40-Year-Old-Virgin.” I had done this little improv movie with Paul Rudd and Romany Malco called “The Chateau.” Judd and I had the same agent at the time, and she showed him that when he was casting “40-Year-Old Virgin.” So he was like, “I want to meet Jesse,” because he was so into their dynamic together in “The Chateau” that he just like cast Romany and Paul in 40-Year-Old Virgin. At any rate, the long and the short of it is Judd was sort of like a kind of godfather to this project but he wasn’t really like a day-to-day producer on it. It’s more his partner, Barry Mendel, that was really like in the trenches with us. Judd came to key screenings and gave great notes both at the script phase and in the editorial and stuff.
What’s next for you? Do you have a lot more TV stuff lined up?
Well, I just finished a pilot on Friday for a new Hulu show starring Aidy Bryant, based on the Lindy West memoir, “Shrill.”
I’m not familiar with the book but obviously, Aidy is amazing on “SNL.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. This show, I don’t know. I have good feelings about it, but we’ll see. I’ll get the editor’s cut in three days, so we’ll see whether it cuts together well. It was really fun to do, and I’m doing another pilot in the fall. I’m looking at other, trying to get another feature project happening, but I love working in TV so like to me if I can find a life that … I don’t want to go another five years like it’s been since “Our Idiot Brother” without making another movie.
Is your sister always working on scripts that you might develop into a feature down the road?
No, I don’t have a film thing right now that I’m working on. She’s got another project that I’m not involved with that she’s like trying to get off the ground right now. She has a director attached deal, so we’ll see whether or not that happens, but …
A lot of the TV work you’ve done is very kind of feminist driven. I mean Girls and new girls of GLOW. I mean how does that kind of happen that you kind of fall in that direction? Is it just kind of … Nurse Jackie too as well.
This show “Shrill” probably more than anything. I don’t know. I mean, I think like my wife is a big feminist, activist. I’m sort of more, I’m always sort of driven more towards female characters and more classically like male driven content is less interesting to me. I do feel like I was lucky enough to … I met Lena right when she graduated from college as a potential babysitter for my daughter, only to have her hire me 15 months later to direct an episode in the first season of her HBO show. I think, I don’t know, so I just feel like it kind of is one of those things where I fell into that and that sort of has led to me like working with a lot of other sort of female-driven projects and I love … I feel really privileged to be, as a man, to be sort of let into this like movement of like, a sort of new movement of female storytelling.
Has Netflix gleaned at a third season of GLOW yet? Has there been any kind of word at all?
I have no idea whether it’s been renewed. I’ll be shocked if they don’t do a third season, but the last that I talked to Liz and Carly, who created it, which was probably like two weeks ago, it had not officially been picked up yet, so…
That just seems absolutely crazy to me.
Yeah, I don’t know. That is sort of the Netflix style though. I feel like they’ve given them money to start a writers’ room, so I have a hard time imagining that it’s not going to happen.
Did the real GLOW actually go to Vegas? Like I don’t even know if- Oh, they did. Okay. I’m actually completely … At this point, I don’t have any idea what’s real and what’s made up for the show.
Yeah, the real “GLOW” was in Vegas.
“Juliet, Naked” opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, August 17, and then will expand further next week and should be fairly wide on August 31.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW