Tortured artists, obsessive fans and the people who have to live with them face off in Juliet, Naked

We spoke to filmmaker Jesse Peretz about his adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel.

Rose Byrne, Azhy Robertson and Ethan Hawke in Juliet, Naked

I read Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked when it first came out in 2009. Though I’m a Hornby fan, I have to admit that I haven’t revisited it since, and it took Jesse Peretz’s film adaptation to really crystalize something that is probably extremely obvious: Juliet, Naked pretty much directly addresses the guys who did not see that the Rob character in High Fidelity was not aspirational. It’s not that foreign an idea; if you recognize yourself in a character, you don’t necessarily want to go and do the work that will make you realize exactly how much of a piece of shit you are. (It doesn’t help, mind you, that Stephen Frears’s film of the novel excises a couple of scenes that make that shittiness crystal-clear.)

In any case, the film that Peretz has made explores many of those same ideas from a completely different — practically opposite — vantage point. Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) works at a museum in a small British coastal town, a position she inherited semi-willingly from her now-deceased father. She’s married to Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a film professor who harbours an obsession with Tucker Crowe, a mercurial and mysterious ’90s rock star who recorded a single album before vanishing into the ether. Tucker Crowe means a lot to Duncan, so much so that he spends most nights poring over minute details of whatever’s available with other like-minded obsessives. Tucker Crowe is the biggest thing in his life, far surpassing his relationship with Annie, which has long since stagnated.

When Duncan receives a mysterious CD in the mail, Annie thinks nothing of it and plays it. As it turns out, it’s Juliet, Naked — a compilation of demo versions of songs that would eventually end up on Crowe’s beloved (and only) album. Annie doesn’t think much of it; Duncan is extremely offended that she listened to the tracks without him and doubly incensed when she goes onto the forum and gives the disc a negative review. Most of the forum posters ignore her, except for one: Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) himself, an aimless stay-in-the-garage-behind-his-ex’s-house dad who’s taken by Annie’s no-nonsense assessment of a record he has very little love for himself. Unbeknownst to Duncan, the two strike up an epistolary relationship that soon moves into the real world.

“I feel like Nick Hornby writes these novels where he is the character,” says Peretz. “He is the character John Cusack played and, in a way, he’s the character Duncan here, but I do think that he really chose, in this one, to step back and view that character more critically. It’s really from two points of view, because it also comes from the point of view of the person who has to live with someone who refuses to grow out of an obsession at the age-appropriate moment. I think that’s exactly what Nick is, although I do think that Nick is personally writing this about his wife and what it’s like to be with him.

“But at the same time, I also think there’s a critical look at the fan from the point of view of the artist. It was also a new thing for Nick to write from the point of view of the artist who’s worshipped by the fans, and the kind of fraud that the undiluted artist feels like when they see people are worshipping them to an inappropriate degree. In the case of Tucker, he’s a guy who’s paralyzed with self-loathing because he feels like a failure as a partner and husband and man. Ultimately, the novel feels like it’s going to be particularly critical of the blinders worn by obsessive fans… until you get to the dinner scene where fan meets artist and the artist pushes back. For me, that was the most exciting scene to shoot, but it was also my favourite scene in the novel, because it really feels like that’s where Nick sneaks up on you. Without excusing the annoyance of that obsession, he sort of redeems the identity of an art lover whether it’s music or movies or books. That’s why I feel like that scene adds a dimension of sympathy to the character of Duncan, who otherwise plays more of the fool.”

Jesse Peretz

It’s interesting that Juliet, Naked comes out at a time when fandom has grown into a toxic force, where people destroy the things they’re meant to love if they happen to disappoint them. The face of fandom was much different in 2009. “Something that Nick will often say is that the fan defines people by what they like,” says Peretz. “If you don’t like their record collection, it’s really hard to feel like you like them, because questioning their taste is also questioning who they are. That’s one of the interesting extremes of that kind of extreme fan.”

As a film that revolves around a potentially life-changing work of art, Juliet, Naked faces a challenge: it has to actually come up with that work of art. People who read Hornby’s book are free to imagine whatever music they like, but Peretz has to have actual music, and not just any music. The balancing act of Juliet, Naked is that Tucker Crowe’s music has to be profoundly affecting for a very small percentage of the population, and generally easy-to-ignore by the rest.

“That was the scariest part of making the movie for me,” says Peretz. “And the hardest, for sure. (…) Part of what we felt was an important element to the music was that it was for a small group of people that were thoroughly obsessed, so we had to find a way that there was something you could point to that was unique: a strong hook, or something that was strong. At the same time, though, there needed to be something that was alienating or limiting to the song to make it that it couldn’t be something that would cross over or have a wider appeal. If it had that, Duncan wouldn’t be obsessed with it.

“People who are obsessed like that aren’t obsessed with very popular artists — they’re obsessed with artists who they feel haven’t been properly recognized for their genius, and that’s because they’re artists who are doing something that’s alienating or complicated or difficult. We were trying to find songs that had something legitimately great or intriguing, but at the same time could potentially keep you at arm’s length. Ultimately, it’s subjective. There are people who love the music that we picked and think it’s great for Tucker, and I know that there are people who disagree with that. (laughs) It is one of the benefits of writing a novel; Nick didn’t need to produce the music, so he could leave it up to the reader to decide what they wanted this cult classic to sound like. It definitely was a complication for us to feel the pressure of having to actually make that record!” ■

Juliet, Naked opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 31. Watch the trailer here: