Of the many seemingly quasiautobiographical elements contained in Jesse Peretz’s latest film “Our Idiot Brother,” there only seems to be one that’s accurate.
“There’s something I believe in this character that I play, there are qualities that are very inherent in who Jesse is,” says Paul Rudd, not referring to the “Idiot” part of his onscreen alter ego Ned. “Jesse’s the most universally liked person. He’s very sweet to everybody. Sometimes, I feel like he feels bad giving you direction.”
While it’s Ned’s sweetness that ultimately leads to the enmity of his three sisters (played by Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer), as he unwittingly and systematically destroys each of their lives without an ability to lie or turn down a request, there was definitely a consensus among the film’s cast that it was that very same quality in Peretz that brought out the best in them.
“None of us are shy and because Jesse is gregarious and patient and fatherly, I think he managed that very well because it was a zoo,” said Rashida Jones, who plays the girlfriend of Ned’s sister, before adding for a laugh. “A fucking zoo.”
Peretz, who indeed is quite the gentle soul in person, wasn’t always this way. Loathe to tell people he attended Harvard as he played bass for The Lemonheads as a founding member of the band in the early ‘90s, there was an evident streak of rebellion for the son of former New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz that has since extended to his films. After finding success directing the ubiquitous Donal Logue-starring “Jimmy the Cab Driver” spots for MTV and becoming a favorite of the Foo Fighters to helm their cheeky music videos, Peretz made the jump to features with an ambitious adaptation of “Atonement” author Ian McEwan’s “First Love Last Rites” before settling into the comedies that one would expect, though his first “The Chateau,” which introduced him to Rudd, was hardly traditional, experimenting on digital video and pairing Rudd with future “40 Year Old Virgin” co-star Romany Malco as brothers.
“Our Idiot Brother” is no less curious, both in function and spirit, following the freewheeling and uncynical Ned from the goat farm he shared with a girlfriend (Kathryn Hahn) to the big city where his kind nature is routinely tested by urbanites who don’t understand his simple approach to life as they needlessly make their own lives complicated. As Peretz alludes to below, it’s a premise akin to the comedy itself, which isn’t necessarily an easy fit into the genre, content to make you smile the whole way through as opposed to giving in to the build for a big laugh, although there are more than a few as it gently probes family dynamics.
Written with his sister Evgenia, a famed celebrity profile writer for Vanity Fair, and her husband, documentarian David Schisgall, “Our Idiot Brother” was a family affair both in front of and behind the camera, which is where our conversation picks up.
How did you and your sister come to collaborate on this film?
A couple years ago, she and I decided that we wanted to try to write a script together. Years ago, she graduated from college and had this thought that she wanted to be a screenwriter, moved out here [to Los Angeles], wrote three spec scripts, got disillusioned, moved to New York and sort of stopped it. But it was always there in the back of her head.
We ended up writing a script we haven’t set up yet, but hopefully it will someday and we had such a good time working together — we were close, but it made us get extra close. One of the things we realized was we created an obstacle to get it set up is that movie, the protagonist was 17 and the main characters were younger. We’re like, “Man, why did we do that?” I did this movie with Paul 10 years ago called “The Chateau” and I always wanted to work with him again and in fact, in the interim, he and I had three or four false starts on projects that we started beading out and never got them to script form. The first thought when I sat down with my sister, and then we pulled her husband in too, was that we wanted to write something for Paul.
Pretty quickly, we had the idea that we wanted him to play some hippie character, which was something that Paul and I had talked about in various forms in our unfinished project. Then we decided to do a grown sibling comedy, something that reflected a little bit of the life that we’re in. One of the big influences was “Hannah and Her Sisters.” And so we wrote the script with not only Paul, but Zooey [Deschanel] and Emily Mortimer in mind for those parts as well.
A funny thing I had heard you say a long time ago was that before you actually met Paul for “The Chateau,” you were worried he was nice, but perhaps not funny. It’s safe to say those fears were erased after working with him earlier, but since you’re pushing him to be the nicest person possible, did that concern come back up?
I feel like the degree to which he’s super-nice and trusting is beyond just being the nice, clean-cut guy. In a way, I know the comedy comes from that extreme. And the brilliance to me about Paul in particular is I think it would’ve been really easy just to play the dumb dude. I think Paul really made a choice not to play this character like an idiot or a dumb guy and the degree to which we call this film “Our Idiot Brother” and all his sisters calling him an idiot is meant partly ironically and the way that everybody’s sibiling is at one point in time an idiot brother or idiot sister. I’m my sister’s idiot brother.
The really neat trick I think this movie pulls off is not confusing niceness for stupidity. Is that a hard thing to grasp while shooting?
I do feel like the most important thing that Paul did was understand who this character was emotionally, but at the end of the day we tried to make the relationship between him and his sisters feel real. Even if your family isn’t exactly like this, you can relate to the dynamics there. So it was really important to me to create this satisfying emotional arc, but I do also think everybody knew that their other main job was trying to figure out what was funny about those tensions and dig the laughs out.
For me, tonally, that’s always my goal in terms of my taste of comedy is to figure out how to balance out those two things and never sell the emotional arc of the movie short for a quick, easy laugh, but also not to get so caught up in the emotional reality of the characters that you forget we’re trying to entertain people. I’m okay with letting a scene being kind of serious and heavy and not make you laugh for a few minutes, which is something that I think some comedies, especially some American comedies feel like those [punch] lines have to come out at least every 30 seconds. And I really don’t give a shit about that.
You’ve said Paul’s character Ned is based on somebody from your real life and obviously, your sister is a writer at Vanity Fair like Elizabeth Banks’ character Miranda and her husband’s a documentarian like Steve Coogan’s character Dylan. I’d imagine their real-life counterparts wouldn’t paint such unflattering self-portraits, but when you’re basing the characters on real touchstones, is it enjoyable to fill in the details?
It’s not [Evgenia] and actually, the character’s more based on a mutual friend of ours, but then there’s things because she’s a writer that come from her experience. At the end of the day, that stuff is really helpful, especially when there’s three people working on a script. We’re three people who know each other really well because she’s my sister and he’s my brother-in-law and these people that we’d be sort of like, “oh, let’s just think about her kind of being like so and so…,” you feel comfortable because there’s a really concrete place where you’re all on the same page and there’s some lines you can steal from them. Still, I’m really happy to say that nobody in this movie is so completely based on anyone.
We already had an idea of who Ned was, but I met this brother of my friend who had worked on a medical marijuana farm. I loved this story of how he avoided going to jail by joining the Franciscan monastery in Oakland. He’s like the sweetest dude ever and he wouldn’t have done some of the more ridiculous, guileless things that Ned does to drive the plot, but he did have Ned’s awesome outlook about life. So what happens is I meet somebody like that and suddenly I get this really pure idea of what this character going to be. But then you bring an actor in and an actor takes all that information — the script, your discussion, whatever — and channels it through their own experience, so by the time you get to the movie, it’s so far away from that person that instigated the clarity on that character when you were sitting around beading out the story.
You’re making less of them these days, but coming from a background of directing ads and music videos where it’s all about the capturing the perfect image, are feature comedies where you’re being very improvisational on set different in how you approach them or do the different mediums inform each other?
I think they inform each other in light ways. I’ve really gotten pigeonholed into comedy commercials and the music videos that I do. I barely do music videos anymore, but I started off doing more photographic, intense music videos and I look at those and I laugh at how ridiculous they look now. At a certain point, I realized I’m more into taking a three-minute song and doing a funny little narrative thing.
Which you did recently with the Foo Fighters’ “Long Road to Ruin” video, for instance, which has a very different style than any of your films.
But that style is all about just trying to enjoy parodying a real specific look on something. Still, it’s fundamentally about the characters and creating a little funny narrative to go with the music. My feeling always is that people tend to exaggerate the degree to which directing music videos or commercials help prepare you to be a feature director. They help you get to play with a lot of tools, especially on commercials – cameras and things that you maybe can’t afford with smaller movies.
I think you also learn what your job as the director is in terms of how you relate to the crew. You get over the fear of crew. I’ll talk to younger directors, especially younger directors that are thrown into something big early on. They feel like as the director, they’ve got to have the answers to everything. The more experience you have on set, the more you realize it’s important as a director to have as clear a point of view as you can and to be clear with people, but also that it’s really important to use the experts you’ve hired at what they’re good at. I don’t get visual effects, special effects and whenever I’m doing stuff like that, I’m the first person [to] be like, “I don’t really know how to do this, so guide me through.” That’s the place where having done lots of music videos and commercials, it sets you up going into a movie feeling like you know what your role is a little better.
Just a silly final question, but do you still play music?
Not really. I gave up the bass. I played my last show with the Lemonheads in 1991 somewhere in Berlin, and the road manager took my bass home for me because I was staying in Europe for a month. His house in Brooklyn burned down with my bass in it. I never bought another bass. I have an acoustic guitar I’ll play to get my kids to go to bed, but that’s about it.