By Cara Nash

Though now an Unsung Auteur as a director, Jesse Peretz was also once part of the most brilliant and unsung indie pop-rock bands of all time. “I felt like such an imposter,” Jesse Peretz laughed to FilmInk in 2011. “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, you know what I mean?”

Seated in the cafe of a Sydney hotel, the immediately likeable Peretz was talking to FilmInk 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.”

Jesse Peretz (right) with The Lemonheads

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, The Breeders, and Aussie legends You Am I. “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 ‘ABC’s.’” Peretz went on to make his feature debut with 1997’s little seen romantic drama First Love, Last Rites (which was adapted from an Ian McEwan short story and starred Giovanni Ribisi and Natasha Gregson Wagner), which he followed up with 2001’s The Chateau (which sees then newbies Paul Rudd and Romany Falco head to France) and 2006’s The Ex (starring Zach Braff, Json Bateman and Amanda Peet). Despite their strong casts, neither film really connected with audiences.

Zooey Deschanel, Paul Rudd, Peretz, Elizabeth Banks & Emily Mortimer on the set of Our Idiot Brother.

After The Chateau, however, Paul Rudd and Peretz were eager to line up another project together. “We had all these false starts,” Peretz explained to FilmInk in 2011. “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 2011’s Our Idiot Brother, which turned out to be the one that finally got Peretz noticed.

 The film centres on Ned (Rudd), 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 explained. “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.”

 

Jesse Peretz with Paul Rudd on the set of Our Idiot Brother.

Having penned the film with his sister, it’s also an exploration of sibling relationships, and Peretz cited 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. 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.”

While the film gently satirises these relations, we’re always laughing with the characters. “There are a lot of comedies that hover above their characters and laugh at them as if they’re ridiculous,” Peretz says. “I really like movies where you can feel that they love their characters even in all their flaws. That was definitely a guiding principle here.”

Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd in Juliet, Naked.

After the easygoing charm of Our Idiot Brother, Peretz was snapped up by TV, where he worked on episodes of some of the hippest programmes on the box, including New Girl, The Office, The Mindy Project, Nurse Jackie, Girls and Orange Is The New Black. Peretz eventually returned to the big screen in 2018 with the superb adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked, with the music-themed comedy-drama the perfect fit for the director. Wholly authentic and in-the-know, this charmer of a film is the story of Annie (the perfectly cast Rose Byrne), the long-suffering girlfriend of very intense music geek Duncan (the equally perfectly cast Chris O’Dowd), and her unlikely romance with once famous and now reclusive cult musician Tucker Crowe (the even more perfectly cast Hawke), who also just happens to be Duncan’s longtime fan obsession.

“The biggest challenge that started months ago was really about getting the Tucker Crowe music,” Jesse Peretz said in 2018 at The Sundance Film Festival, where Juliet, Naked made its debut. “We had 140 songs submitted and we had a real specific thing that we wanted. The breakthrough was when Ethan and our friend Nathan Larson, who composed the music on this movie, had a really magical session, so in the end, all the Tucker Crowe music is performed by Ethan and Nathan. We also stressed finding enough pictures of Ethan (to create posters of Crowe) when he was younger that we could get clearance for and that people wouldn’t recognise.”

After the excellent Juliet, Naked, Jesse Peretz returned to the small screen, again delivering eps of top-notch shows, this time getting behind the camera on the quality likes of GLOW, High Fidelity, Modern Love, As We See It, The Summer I Turned Pretty and City On Fire. But while his episodic TV work is stellar, we’d really like to see another feature from Jesse Peretz…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Anthony Hayes, Stuart BlumbergStewart CopelandHarriet Frank Jr & Irving RavetchAngelo PizzoJohn & Joyce CorringtonRobert DillonIrene KampAlbert MaltzNancy DowdBarry Michael CooperGladys HillWalon GreenEleanor BergsteinWilliam W. NortonHelen ChildressBill LancasterLucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya Wexler, Clio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.

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