Breaking up is hard to do, but it’s even harder without the right soundtrack. Juliet, Naked is the big-screen adaption of author Nick Hornby’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of Annie (Rose Byrne), who curates a museum in an English shore town, settling into small-town life despite having doubts about her future–particularly with her boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), who runs a fan site dedicated to the mysterious rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). Duncan is one of a legion of Crowe fans who obsesses over the whereabouts of the iconic singer-songwriter, who disappeared from public life after the release of his heartbreak-inspired album “Juliet.” Duncan and Annie have a falling-out after she posts a scathing review of “Juliet, Naked,” a recently released collection of Crowe’s B sides. The couple eventually breaks up, but not before Crowe becomes intrigued by her review and begins a long-distance email exchange with Annie. As Crowe slides out of obscurity and into Annie’s life, the three become entangled in the awkward transition into middle age. Boxoffice spoke with the film’s director, Jesse Peretz, a former musician himself, on the experience of taking the book to the big screen.
You’d been attached to this project for a while. Were you aware of the novel before signing on to direct the film?
I was aware of the novel but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I became attached because I was spending every summer as a producer and director on the TV show Girls, which Judd Apatow is a producer of. Judd, his partner, Barry Mendel, and producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, all had acquired the project together.
Tamara Jenkins and Jim Taylor worked with them for a couple of years writing a script. It got to the point where I think they thought they had gone as far as they could with the script. [Jenkins] wasn’t going to direct it, and they wanted to find a director to jump into the project, pitch changes that needed to be made to the script, and find out how to move it forward. Because I had worked with Judd on Girls, he was the one who had the idea of talking to me, drawn around this idea that I know the world that [character] Tucker Crowe would have come up in. Three decades ago, I was in this band The Lemonheads. I wasn’t exactly making the kind of music that we define as Tucker Crowe’s music in the movie, but it was definitely a very close adjacent genre to who Tucker Crowe was. Judd also felt like I would be a good call for the other elements of the story, about fandom and holding on to that 20-something self a little bit too late in life, as well as Tucker Crowe’s story about trying to redeem himself as a failed father.
I really liked the script and I liked the things that were in it, but I immediately went to reading the novel. That’s what really got me hooked, when I realized there were a bunch of things in the novel that had been left out of the original script. That’s what happens when you adapt a 400-page novel—you pick and choose what the story’s going to focus on. It’s very hard to be able to get all the nuances of a novel in. From my perspective, there were a couple of things they chose to explore that I found less interesting, and things I loved in the book that got dropped out of their script. So I talked to them about what those differences of opinion were.
How did you bring those aspects of the novel into your vision of the story?
I had done a couple projects with my sister [Evgenia Peretz], who’s a writer for Vanity Fair. She loved the book, and we went about redrafting the script. Rose Byrne was someone who came to us very early on, like right when I got attached, because she loved the book and loved the character.
Just a couple weeks before Judd gave me the script, I had the pleasure of directing Chris O’Dowd in an episode of Girls. I was so enamored by his improvisational skills; he could just keep going and explore different things in a scene with three other people, but do it in such a way that it didn’t throw off the trajectory of any other actor’s line or the scene’s direction. I just thought he was so fun and was so skilled. The moment that episode was done, I said to myself, “I really want to find something to work on with Chris.” He’s such a joy and such a skilled guy. Reading the script, by page 15, one of the things that was definitely driving me in a very excited direction was that I immediately was obsessed with the idea that there was only one guy who could play Duncan: Chris O’Dowd.
Fan culture permeates the film—how obsessive these niches of fandom can become and truly dictate people’s lives. Do you think these obsessions have become magnified in today’s digital age?
I definitely feel like that level of the obsession with art and especially with music—the kind of character who almost in a sense chooses who he can be friends with based on “Do they like something or not like something?”—has been around forever. In that sense, that predates the internet and the ability to connect fellow nerds from around the world. But it’s always been there as a character trait. I knew a lot of people who were like that. I even was like that, although at an age-appropriate time. That’s part of the problem, if you will, with the Duncan character. He hasn’t quite matured out of that now-age-inappropriate obsession.
Part of what I also love is that dichotomy. You see in a fan, especially in a fan of music and a fan of somebody who’s made a heartbreak album, you see that Duncan is a character who has the possibility of a very sensitive emotional reaction to things. Because the music that this guy makes moves him to such an insane degree. [Crowe] is, in a way, one of a handful of artists who gives his life a real sort of purpose. He’s speaking to real emotional things that he is really kind of vulnerable to.
What’s interesting and so true oftentimes about those kinds of character is they can have such a deep and nuanced emotional connection to poetic wording, to the way somebody describes a certain familiar state of emptiness or heartbreak. At the same time, when it comes to the actual people in their lives, they’re emotionally stunted. They can’t engage with the amount of intensity as they can when they’re removed in listening or watching, funneled through an artist who’s articulating something.
Did you bring anything from your own background as a musician into the film?
I can definitely relate to both of those male characters in a more specific way, because I was a superfan of certain people. But at the same time, I think that I have a much less romantic idea of being a musician. Just because somebody can write a song that has a gorgeous unexpected chord change and harmony and phrasing, a certain state of romantic anger, let’s say, doesn’t actually mean that that person is such a deep person, or is having complicated tortured emotional experiences that the music is representing.
One of the things for me that was really interesting in terms of working on developing this project with people who never were musicians—a lot of my producers are real music fans but actually never were musicians—part of them still really feels this romantic idea about the artist out there. In a way, we’re willing to give Tucker a longer leash to be a romantic character. For me, I really related to the idea that Tucker sees himself in his older age as this bullshit artist. There’s a real bogusness to all of the art that’s been worshipped. The ridiculousness that people are caring as much, so many years after he stopping making a single note of music. Part of my take that I brought in that was specific to my own experience is feeling the bullshit of that character. Feeling that what’s interesting about Tucker is how much he knows that the worship of him is a waste of time.