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Bass jumper

Former Lemonheads bassist Jesse Peretz approaches filmmaking as a family affair

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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Here is what Jesse Peretz remembers: late nights over drinks at Café Algiers in Harvard Square, listening to the avant-garde director and film theorist Raúl Ruiz tell sweeping stories of his craft. Peretz was an undergraduate at Harvard University, and the Chilean-born, Paris-based Ruiz, who died Friday, was one of his thesis advisers - the sort of filmmaker Peretz dreamed of becoming.

“But, you know, I didn’t know anything,’’ says Peretz, a down-to-earth 43-year-old who back then was still the bassist for the Lemonheads. “I was living in the intellectual bubble of being at university in Cambridge. I was incapable of thinking about what a career would look like.’’

Two decades on, he’s grateful for that ignorance, convinced that one of the problems with conventional film schools is that they try to teach students “how to play the industry right.’’

“You have the whole rest of your life - if you choose to be a film director or writer or producer or casting director or whatever - the whole rest of your life to learn what an incredibly rigid, inflexible industry it really is,’’ he says. “And there’s no need to start depressing an intellectually stimulated and excited 19-year-old to start compressing their thinking to fit through the little funnel that is makable movies.’’

Peretz, a Cambridge native and the son of former New Republic owner and longtime Harvard professor Martin Peretz, laughs as he finishes saying this. It’s midmorning, and he’s sitting in a windowless conference room on Copley Square, having arisen at an ungodly hour to catch a flight from New York, where he lives, to promote his latest makable movie, “Our Idiot Brother,’’ opening Friday. A hit at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival, when it was still called “My Idiot Brother,’’ it scored one of the fest’s biggest distribution deals when the Weinstein Co. snapped it up.

Starring a long-haired, bearded Paul Rudd in the title role, the comedy has a screenplay by Peretz’s younger sister, journalist Evgenia Peretz, and brother-in-law, documentarian David Schisgall, who happen to be not just his family and collaborators but also his upstairs neighbors.

The three sisters in the film, played by Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, and Pittsfield native Elizabeth Banks, prefer to keep their sunnily naïve brother, Ned, at a farther remove. New Yorkers consumed with personal and professional ambition, they’re more focused and less prone to catastrophic mishaps than is their mellow, tenderhearted brother. He gets truly worked up about only two things: losing custody of his dog, Willie Nelson, when his girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) dumps him, and his sisters’ failure to properly cherish their family.

Peretz is not a fan of broad comedies, and he has worried a bit that the movie’s title will lead people to expect that it is one. Rather, he says, he was trying to strike the note he hit with the 2001 comedy “The Château,’’ starring Rudd and Romany Malco as American brothers who inherit a French estate. That movie, whose dialogue was entirely improvised off Peretz’s 30-page outline, was the one that turned him in a new direction.

“I did sort of find a balance that was right for me tonally,’’ he says, “and I really realized, in doing that, there is a real joy in sitting in a movie theater and hearing people laugh.’’

But his 2006 follow-up, “The Ex,’’ a comedy starring Zach Braff and Amanda Peet as married Manhattanites who decamp to Ohio with their new baby, brought on “a bit of a career depression,’’ says Peretz, who calls the movie “a misfire.’’

“There’s a silver lining, I guess, to a lot of, like, career low points, where it made me really look inside myself and say, what kind of movies do I really want to make, and what do I really want to do?’’ he says.

As it turned out, what he really wanted to do was collaborate with his sister, and the feeling was mutual.

“I guess I was looking for some other writing outlet besides journalism,’’ Evgenia (ev-GAIN-ya) Peretz says later by phone. A longtime contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she graduated from Harvard in 1991, the year after Jesse, and in 1994 earned a master’s degree in dramatic writing from New York University. “It seemed like a fun thing to do.’’

Their first script, so far unproduced, is set in Cambridge in 1986, deep in the Reagan era - a specificity of time and place that leaves Jesse unsurprised that they haven’t been able to sell it yet.

“It is not, like, autobiographical in a pure way,’’ he explains, adding that “it would be a complete lie’’ not to say that it was influenced by their experience. “All the characters are an amalgamation of real characters in our life and families that I knew.’’

As soon as they finished that script, they started outlining what would become “Our Idiot Brother,’’ this time bringing in Schisgall as well. As the movie begins, Ned cheerfully sells marijuana to a uniformed police officer, a move that lands him behind bars. With nowhere to live when he’s paroled, he bounces from sister to sister. They all love him, but none of them truly wants him in her home while he tries, bumblingly, to get his act together so he can regain custody of Willie Nelson.

“I think there’s a reason people make dysfunctional family comedies a lot, and that the good ones tend to be pretty successful,’’ Jesse Peretz says.

“Everybody, to a certain extent, perceives that they have a dysfunctional family,’’ his sister says.

Spoken like the adult children of a family therapist, which they are. Their mother, Anne Peretz - who is also a painter and has been divorced from their father since 2009 - is nothing like the mother Shirley Knight plays in “Our Idiot Brother,’’ Jesse Peretz says. Except for one thing: Just as Ned and his sisters gather regularly at their mother’s home, Jesse and his three siblings, including two from his mother’s previous marriage, continue to be drawn together by their mother.

“She really is like the coolest mom,’’ says Peretz, who seldom comes to Boston but sees each of his parents frequently in New York. “It was never embarrassing to bring her to things. I wouldn’t get embarrassed when I was in the Lemonheads and she would show up, you know, at the Rathskeller or whatever.’’

He would prefer, really, not to talk about his father, a neoconservative Zionist who is The New Republic’s editor in chief emeritus.

“He’s a controversial figure, and I am so not a dude searching for controversy,’’ he says. “He’s a loving, supportive father, and I’ll leave it at that.’’

Harvard, where his father has taught for more than four decades, also used to be a topic Peretz avoided. The Lemonheads’ founding bassist, he played with the band from his senior year at Commonwealth School through college, and learned while traveling with them that mentioning Harvard could be a turnoff. When people asked him where he went to school, his answer instantly led them to make assumptions about him that he didn’t like.

“I think for probably 10 years after that, I would try desperately to avoid anyone ever finding out that I went to Harvard,’’ says Peretz. He’s loosened up about that, understanding that the credential can be an asset in the movie world, but remains annoyed by people who habitually seek the place in any conversation “to slip in that they went to Harvard. So I guess that has, as a characterological thing, caused me to always want to go in the other direction.’’

As for the direction of his film career, he laughs and says he has “zero to complain about,’’ despite the obstacles the industry imposes. It’s entirely possible, he’s found, to work around them.

“I can say the kind of things I always wanted to say,’’ Peretz says, “but I can say them in a way that is more palatable to the world out there, and that people are gonna want to see.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

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