‘Juliet, Naked’ strips down Nick Hornby’s classic novel

Music fan and gifted director Jesse Peretz explains how his off-beat comedy was a labor of love.

FROM LEFT, Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd in ‘Juliet, Naked’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
FROM LEFT, Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O’Dowd in ‘Juliet, Naked’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jesse Peretz, the director of the delightful, intelligent and touching new comedy Juliet, Naked, an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel – which opens in Israel on August 16 and in the US on August 20 – knows that you know a guy like Duncan, one of the main characters.
Played by the preternaturally appealing Chris O’Dowd (you may remember him from Bridesmaids and The Sapphires), pop-culture authority Duncan teaches a college course on The Wire in a small British seaside town. His real passion, though, is not for his longtime, live-in girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne, in a graceful, low-key performance), a museum director who is upset by her ticking biological clock but doesn’t know what to do about it – you also know a few women like her – but for his idol, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Crowe is an alt-rock singer/songwriter sensation who made Juliet, which Duncan and other aficionados consider the greatest album of all time, and then disappeared without a trace 20 years ago.
Duncan’s’ most meaningful interactions are online chats about Crowe’s genius with other middle-aged fanboys, and just as Annie is getting completely fed up, Duncan discovers a stripped-down version of Crowe’s masterpiece called Juliet, Naked.
Through a strange series of events that could actually happen in the Internet age, the discovery of Juliet, Naked puts Annie into contact with Crowe himself. Crowe is no longer a pretty-boy rocker but a grizzled guy with a gut and kids with different mothers all over the world. But she and Crowe are honest about their mistakes and may even be able to help each other correct a few of them.
Peretz, who was a founding member of the punk band the Lemonheads (with Evan Dando) in the 1980s, found it easy to get into the background of the story.
“My personal draw to both of these male characters was that I do have strains of myself in them. I was in a band right around the time that of Tucker Crowe was a musician,” he said, in a Skype interview from the set of a new television pilot he is filming in the US.
The producers came to him with the script “with the expectation that I would be sort of romantic about Tucker Crowe. But my interest was more in exploring Crowe’s perception of himself as a fraud,” since he has known many great musicians who were just ordinary people.
Peretz also gets Duncan’s side of the equation.
“I’m a huge music fan, I was a big record collector, I was a college DJ. I was never into it to the extreme of Duncan… there’s great comedy in men who are way past the age where they should be living their musician fandom to the degree that Duncan is, people who never grew out of that.”
Peretz directed a similarly off-beat comedy, Our Idiot Brother, starring Paul Rudd, a few years back, which, like Juliet, Naked, was co-written by his sister, Evgenia Peretz, a Vanity Fair contributing editor (the other writers on the Juliet, Naked screenplay were Tamara Jenkins and Jim Taylor, and Judd Apatow was one of the producers).
“It was really easy to work with my sister; I really like the voice of her writing. I wanted to collaborate on the script with a woman, because I felt that my insight on the male characters was so clear, but Annie’s story is really at the center of it and is what I really cared about. And so for Evgenia and me, it was a real dance together to make the journeys of all of these characters be as three-dimensional as possible.”
If the name Peretz rings a bell, that’s because their father, Martin Peretz, was the owner/editor/publisher of The New Republic for many years and has long been a staunch defender of Israel and a generous contributor to many Israeli organizations. 
For the past few years, Jesse Peretz has been working mainly as a director on the smartest and funniest television series, including Girls, Orange is the New Black and GLOW. It was his desire to work again with O’Dowd, who had a role on Girls, that got him interested in Juliet, Naked
“I had just finished directing him [O’Dowd] on an episode of Girls, and I was so into him and so blown away by how great he was at improvising, but improvising without throwing his scene partners off... I was obsessed with wanting to do something with him. The moment I read Jim and Tamara’s script, I was on page 25 and I thought, ‘Chris O’Dowd is the perfect Duncan.’ His ability to remain likable while playing the most horrible narcissistic traits to me was a really appealing factor.”
While O’Dowd nails the ultimate hipster fan character, Peretz was also drawn to the complexity of Tucker Crowe.
“For me, reading the book, the most compelling storyline was how his guilt around failing all of his kids before Jackson [his youngest] was really what had paralyzed his life.” Hawke, like O’Dowd, manages to make this self-indulgent character funny and likable.
“Ethan pushed the character a little farther than we had it on the page.”
But it isn’t only the guys’ story: “Annie’s journey involved getting out of a perpetual state of taking care of people and making moves to start taking care of herself.”
Working on a script based on a Nick Hornby novel was also an enjoyable experience. Hornby has written novels that were successfully adapted to the screen before, notably High Fidelity and About a Boy, and has also written several screenplays, including Wild and Brooklyn.    
“His books are very easy and entertaining and his observations about characters seem very spot on, but not necessarily having deep resonance. But then you get to the last third of the book, and there’s much more emotional import that sneaks up on you. His books are perfect for adapting because they’re kind of this easy ride, and then they turn out to be much more complicated and emotionally satisfying than you expected in the first part of the read. That is the joy of Nick’s writing.”
Although Hornby was not directly involved in adapting Juliet, Naked, “He was quietly supportive and came to set three or four times; he’s a chill, relaxed guy.”
Hornby has written often about music, and Peretz said they spent most of their time arguing about whether British or American artists had more overall influence on rock and roll, with the American director favoring the Brits and the English writer coming down on the American side.
Juliet, Naked has an eclectic score, with a new Ryan Adams song that Hornby brought to the picture, as well as music by Conor Oberst. Coming up with the Tucker Crowe sound was one of the “hardest and tensest aspects” of making the movie, with Peretz reviewing more than 100 submissions for Crowe’s music, much of which Hawke sings himself in the movie. It was “way, way late in the process” that Nathan Larson, who scored the movie, and Hawke “nailed the Tucker Crowe music.”
While Peretz enjoys going back and forth between the small and big screens, for the foreseeable future, television will be the main part of his work life. He is currently filming a TV adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir, with Aidy Bryant.
“It’s an incredibly powerful look at gender issues and finding empowerment in your voice,” he said.
Television has been a great place for Peretz to work, he said.
“There so many incredibly smart, talented people working in TV now, and there are great projects and great scripts... Movies often involve years of preproduction, then they’re filmed in the blink of an eye. So little time is spent on what is the funnest part for me, when you’re on set as a director. So on TV, I spend the bulk of my time doing the thing I love most.”