With the winning comedy, Our Idiot Brother, writer/director Jesse Peretz taps his own sibling relationships for a joyfully honest look at the familial ties that bind.
"I felt like such an imposter," Jesse Peretz laughs. "I always feel as though I need to clarify that I never achieved anything more than being, at best, a kind of middling, functional bass player"
Seated in the cafe of a Sydney hotel, the immediately likable Peretz is talking about helping kick start the nineties alt-rock band, The Lemonheads, with friends Evan Dando and Ben Deily, when the trio were in high school. Peretz left the band just before they scored major popularity with 1992's It's A Shame About Ray, an album packed with strummy power pop and slacker charm, widely accepted as their finest effort. Peretz, however, has no regrets. "I kept playing in The Lemonheads during college, but it got to a point where, even though the band was getting more successful, I knew that it wasn't what I really wanted to do."
In fact, the more monumental moment in Peretz' artistic career came when he was fifteen-years-old and working as a waiter in the restaurant of a friend of his mother's. A couple of the older waitresses (who Peretz "had major crushes on") asked the teen if he'd star in their student film. "I played this young guy who moves next door to this eccentric thirty-year-old guy who finds out that I'm a virgin," Peretz recalls. "I'm sure that the movie had other things going on, but all I remember was that he sends over his friend to deflower me. The sex scene was pretty explicit, and so traumatic to shoot. It was absolutely the last time that I ever acted! However, it was still a fairly serious crew, and within four days, I was like, ‘Now, this is what I really want to do with my life.'"
Thanks to his connections in the music world, Peretz honed his skills on music videos for acts including his former band mates The Lemonheads, as well as The Foo Fighters and The Breeders. "People can exaggerate about what a great training ground music videos are, as they don't teach you about directing actors, which is what good movies are about, but you do get a technical ‘ABCs.'" Peretz went on to make his feature debut with 1997's romantic drama First Love, Last Rites, and followed that up with a couple of comedies, one of which was 2001's The Chateau with Paul Rudd, and the two were eager to line up another project together. "We had all these false starts," Peretz explains. "We were too lazy, or we'd get distracted. Then suddenly in the last few years, Paul's career really exploded, and I kept kicking myself for never finishing any of them. So I started thinking, ‘Let's write something that I can get Paul to do.'"
The script that emerged, which Peretz developed with his sister Evgenia Peretz, and her husband, documentarian David Schisgall, was Our Idiot Brother. It centres on Ned, a cheerful hippy living a life of contentment and good vibes until he sells weed to a uniformed cop, which lands him in prison. His girlfriend kicks him off their farm when he's released, and so the homeless Ned crashes with each of his three sisters (Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks), gradually upending their middle-class lifestyles with his guileless spirit. The character was inspired by the brother of a friend of Peretz', who, after being released from prison for "stretching the dispensation rules of the medical marijuana farm he was working at", joined a monastery. "I fell in love with this guy, and he became the foundation for the story," Peretz explains. "I wanted to explore a character who really believes that you should live your life in a more trusting way and challenge people to live up to that higher standard. Ned is really the idealist that I wish I could live like."
Having penned the film with his sister, it's also an exploration of sibling relationships, and Peretz cites Woody Allen's 1986 hit, Hannah And Her Sisters, as another inspiration. "We had had some upheaval in our family recently where we'd come through a dark but sometimes comical period," Peretz says. "It got the two of us thinking about how intense, loving and also harsh our own sibling relationships can be. There was also the idea that when you're in your twenties, it's all about your friends, and then you get to an age where you have a parent that gets sick or you start having kids. These things make you realise the importance of relationships with your brothers and sisters, even if they can be intensely negative at times. We realised that there was the emotional basis of a comedy there."
Our Idiot Brother is released on November 3.