The Punk Rocker With a Feminine Touch: Jesse Peretz’s Unlikely Path to ‘GLOW’ and ‘Juliet, Naked’
As his film ‘Juliet, Naked’ hits theaters, Jesse Peretz reflects on how he, an ex-Lemonheads bassist, became TV’s most in-demand—‘Girls,’ ‘GLOW,’ ‘OITNB’—director of women.
When Jesse Peretz threw a New Year’s Eve Party in 1998, he had just left the Cambridge-based alternative rock band The Lemonheads to pursue a career in directing. (That punky cover of “Mrs. Robinson” on every movie soundtrack? That’s them. The Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” music video? That’s him.)
His friend Melissa Auf der Maur, the bassist for Hole, brought a girl to the party whom she introduced as his future wife, predicting that he and Sarah Sophie Flicker would hit it off. Auf der Maur had an OK Cupid page’s worth of selling points about why Peretz would be the perfect guy for Flicker. Then she said, “And he used to be in The Lemonheads...,” to which Flicker’s immediate response was, “Oh, no.” Dealbreaker. (Don’t worry, guys, Peretz and Flicker did indeed marry, as Auf der Maur predicted.)
“When I left The Lemonheads in the early ‘90s, I spent a good decade and a half trying to keep people from knowing I was in the band because I felt like the band ended up not being that cool and were more sellouts,” Peretz, who played bass guitar in the band, tells me. “As I get older, it’s easier for me to romanticize being in a band in the ‘80s and a part of the punk rock scene.”
In fact, he has a chance to do just that in his new film, Juliet, Naked, which premieres this weekend, starring Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd, and—here’s the connection—Ethan Hawke as a former rocker from the ‘80s desperate to leave his past behind.
We all know the yarn about the washed up rock star. But what about the washed up rock star who becomes TV’s most in-demand director?
And his greatest, perhaps most surprising asset, to boot? His feminine touch.
Peretz has made a name for himself on TV directing and producing some of the most game-changing comedy series of the last decade, nearly all renowned for their nuanced portrayals of complicated, flawed female leads: from Nurse Jackie to Girls to GLOW, for which he is nominated for an Emmy next month for directing its pilot.
Juliet, Naked, for all this talk about rock stars, centers on a female lead in a similar vein.
In the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, Rose Byrne plays Annie, a British woman stuck in a long-term, listless relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), whose bizarre obsession with a long-retired cult rocker named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) is a constant irritant. Annie finally scratches her infuriating itch, penning a tirade about the annoyances of fandom in a Tucker Crowe online forum, garnering the attention of none other than Crowe himself.
The unlikeliest of romances sparks between Annie, on the cusp of 40 and finally ready to seize control of her life and happiness, and Crowe—but don’t write it off as a fairy-tale happy ending. “I felt a pressure in my heart, but also in the culture I live in right now, that if it had been merely her exchanging one man child for another man child that it would not be what an audience in 2018 would want to see from a female protagonist,” he says.
Juliet, Naked arrives seven years after his last feature, the Sundance smash Our Idiot Brother. It came to Peretz through producer Judd Apatow, whom Peretz met while working on Girls and who knew about his Lemonheads past.
Peretz didn’t necessarily feel like he was Tucker Crowe, per se, but he recognized parts of the rocker in himself and his former bandmate Evan Dando, both of whom share Crowe’s assessment in the film that the obsession with and romanticizing of his music is fraudulent and unearned. There were parts of Peretz that identified with Duncan’s fandom, too.
“Like many men in my twenties I was a Duncan-type character,” he says, citing his collection of over 60 Elvis Costello bootlegs on vinyl. “As I grew older I appropriately aged out of it, but I still knew a couple of those guys who never stopped being the super fan who could endlessly argue about nuances between The Zombies and The Easybeats. “
The more you learn about Peretz’s past, the more surprising his career path becomes.
His father is Martin Peretz, the lightning-rod former editor of The New Republic and a longtime Harvard professor. His mother, Anne Peretz, is a family therapist and painter. He and his sisters grew up in Cambridge, and Peretz himself would attend Harvard. Perhaps a path into academia would have seemed more natural, not rock music.
“I had no desire to follow down the path of academia or journalism, maybe because of teenage rebellion,” he laughs.
He started playing guitar when he was seven, but claims he was never a great musician.
With a twinkle in his eye, he starts telling a story about his best friend’s mom, a restaurateur who, noticing Peretz’s precocious obsession with making his own money, started letting him cater-waiter when he was 10. The summer between his sophomore and junior year of high school, he was a busboy at her restaurant in Beacon Hill, lusting over all the 20- and 21-year-old waitresses he had crushes on. Two of them studied film at Emerson College and asked him to act in a student project, an opportunity the puppy-eyed 15-year-old leapt at.
He remembers the character he played was older than him, a 17-year-old boy who had just moved to the city. A neighbor discovers that the character is a virgin, and sends one of his friends over to sleep with him.
“It was a pretty full-on sex scene that was pretty traumatic for me,” Peretz remembers, laughing sheepishly. “It was the last time I remember acting, but I do remember over the four days working on this movie being so turned on by it. That long weekend we made that film, that was when I was like, this is what I want to do. I want to make movies.”
At the end of that summer he bought his first Super 8 camera. All of this even predated starting his band, which he formed his senior year of high school. In fact, he says, the reason he ultimately left The Lemonheads is that he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker and felt like the band was delaying his goal.
Peretz first met Lena Dunham through his wife, who struck up a conversation with Dunham at a kids’ clothing store where the future wunderkind happened to be working after graduating from Oberlin.
There was nobody else in the store, and they ended up talking for over an hour and a half. Dunham revealed she was a writer and director about to start work on her first feature, Tiny Furniture, and Flicker told her that her husband was a director. In a strange coincidence, Dunham had actually written a positive review on Netflix of Peretz’s otherwise obscure first feature, The Château.
All of this led Peretz and Dunham to eventually meet. Not even 18 months later, Tiny Furniture was an indie sensation, Dunham had booked Girls, and she invited Peretz to direct an episode in the first season.
By the time the show wrapped in 2017, Peretz was an executive producer and had directed 18 episodes, including series standouts “Hard Being Easy,” “Beach House,” the poignant Adam Driver send-off “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” The season two episode “It’s a Shame About Ray” also happens to be the name of The Lemonheads’ breakthrough album.
“It’s amazing that someone that much younger than me taught me so much,” Peretz says, reflecting on how Dunham’s knack for using her life as source material influenced his approach to more personal projects like Our Idiot Brother and now Juliet, Naked. “Her ability to take her own life and the idea of herself and have the courage and strength to be able to put on screen a horrible, narcissistic version of someone who has many of the qualities of who she is, I think, was such a liberating thing to see.”
Peretz had been directing episodes of New Girl, the Fox comedy starring Zooey Deschanel, when he started working with Dunham and Konner. A look through the other TV series he’s directed reads like bullet points in an essay about how complicated female protagonists on series with female showrunners have broken ground and evolved over the last decade: Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco; FX’s Married, starring Judy Greer and Jenny Slate; HBO’s Sarah Jessica Parker return vehicle, Divorce; Orange Is the New Black on Netflix; and, most recently, GLOW.
He recognizes that his pivot from rock star to tender director of female-centric content might be unexpected.
“I count myself very lucky to work in this phase of female-driven storytelling on TV,” he says, crediting Dunham and Konner for giving him a role in their show that led to most of these other projects. “Personally, I never really had taste for stuff that is more classically male-driven filmmaking,” he says. “I do tend to gravitate towards movies and stories with stronger, cooler women.”
Continuing on that front, he recently finished shooting the pilot of Shrill, which was just picked up to series at Hulu. Based on Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, the show stars Aidy Bryant as a “fat young woman who wants to change her life—but not her body.” And his next project will be directing another pilot—“another female thing,” he smirks—called Constance, starring Elisabeth Shue as a suburban mom supporting her lowlife husband and daughters and who, about to turn 50, suffers a traumatic event that forces her to reinvent herself.
He shrugs when I ask if he thinks there’s something about the way he approaches storytelling and directing that earns him the trust of the women who create these characters. “To me it just feels like a natural thing of loving the women in my life and feeling like their stories and emotional complexity is more intriguing than more conventional male characters,” he says.
In that vein, Peretz lights up when we start talking about GLOW, for which he’s directed three episodes so far, including the Emmy-nominated pilot and the season two finale. “It really felt like back when I would get a good budget to shoot a big music video,” he says of the show’s wrestling scenes. But more than that, he’s struck by how emotionally moving it’s been to bring to life the story of a short-lived, campy ‘80s women’s wrestling show.
“So much of wrestling is this intimate, trusting thing between two wrestlers,” he says. “You learn that wrestling is not about beating each other up but about protecting each other. It really snuck up on me and I found myself moved by the intimacy and trust that went into wrestling.”
Very punk rock.