For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with Juliet, Naked screenwriter Evgenia Peretz from the Backstory Issue 33.
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Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked was always headed for the big screen. Released in 2009, the novel was immediately tabbed for a film adaptation, with producers hoping it would be the latest in a string of Hornby works that have made highly successful transitions to movies—High Fidelity, Fever Pitch and About a Boy, to name just three. Yet Juliet proved tough to wrangle. By the time director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) and producer Judd Apatow signed on, there had already been multiple whacks at a script, including the most recent, from Tamara Jenkins and Jim Taylor. Peretz and Apatow decided it needed another shot, and this time they turned to someone incredibly close to Peretz: his sister Evgenia.
Evgenia Peretz co-wrote Our Idiot Brother with her sibling, who helmed the film, and her husband, David Schisgall, but she spends her days as a contributing editor and writer for Vanity Fair. Initially, hired to do a polish on Jenkins and Taylor’s script, she soon realized she wanted to make larger changes, so she came on board for an official draft herself (and all three writers receive credit on the final film). “There were certain things from the novel they stuck to pretty clearly that I thought the movie version didn’t necessarily need,” Peretz says. “And there were other things that I wanted to highlight and make sure they were in the movie.” Juliet, Naked takes the name of an album of solo acoustic demos recorded by long-lost American singer Tucker Crowe [Ethan Hawke], who shot to stardom with his acclaimed work Juliet and then became a recluse after disappearing from the music industry. The album gets sent to Duncan [Chris O’Dowd], a Brit who runs a Tucker Crowe fansite where he regularly communicates with devotees from around the world. Seeing his obsession boil over at the long-awaited appearance of new music from his idol, Duncan’s live-in girlfriend Annie (Rose Byrne) starts to question their entire long-term relationship, as she wants to focus on having children and he does not. When Annie hears Juliet, Naked, she lashes out, pens a scathing critique on Duncan’s website…and hears back from Tucker Crowe himself, who agrees with her takedown. The two begin an email correspondence that unexpectedly morphs into something deeper.
What intrigued Peretz was not the budding love between Annie and Tucker but rather Annie’s personal and emotional growth throughout the film. “What resonated and appealed to me about the story in the book was this middle-aged woman who realizes at the last possible minute that she wants a child and she may be too late,” she says. “That’s part of the larger existential crisis she’s going through: Did I waste the best years of my adult life on this guy? As a woman in my 40s, I’m surrounded by women who have this fear and panic all the time, so it’s very familiar to me: Did I make the worst decision of my life in my 20s and now I’ve been living with it and not doing anything about it—what is the matter with me? I think that’s a very universal feeling. I wanted to bring that out a little more and make it less a story about the trappings of fandom and all the details of Tucker Crowe’s life and really zero in on Annie’s story.” In Hornby’s novel, Annie lives in a small, morose English seaside town, and she often wonders why she chose the place. To Peretz, that always felt like an odd note for the character so she sought out to change it for the movie. “I give hats off to Nick Hornby for so many of the details about Annie and her funny lines and her outlook on life. But I did feel it would enhance the script if we changed this detail from the book. She moved to this sad town and then never left. It sort of felt like, Why is she staying there—what’s keeping her there beyond laziness? We wanted to respect Annie more so I really wanted to explain why she would stay there.” Peretz invented a new backstory for the character that involved Annie being born in the town and her inheriting the museum where she works from her deceased father. Her parents died young so she is also taking care of her younger sister. “Now she has this responsibility toward her sister and taking care of the museum, and she’s using that as a bit of a crutch. That way, when she does leave toward the end of the movie [to London], it makes the moment a lot more momentous.”
Some of Peretz’s story changes came in the script form, others in the editing room. The first 50 pages of the novel feature Duncan dragging Annie to America on a tour of important Tucker Crowe locations. It’s an entertaining section, but it also delays getting to the story’s actual inciting incident—Annie listening to Juliet, Naked and exasperatingly writing the review that gets Tucker’s attention. That part of the novel did actually make into the script…just not into the final film. They shot the scenes but realized while watching an edit that the movie worked better when they were removed. “I felt the story needed to start sooner,” she says of her overall vision. “That was a hard thing to cut, but it made such a difference. In the movie now, she gets the CD in the mail 10 minutes in, whereas in the older version it was 30 or 35 minutes in. As a writer, it’s so frustrating but you have to go through trying it out—and, in this case, spending a lot of money—to see that it doesn’t quite work. It kills you but I think it was the right thing for the story.” Right indeed, as now the beginning of the film sails by. The ultimate opening pages of the final script remained almost unchanged from Jenkins and Taylor’s draft, as Peretz is quick to credit them for cracking one of the more difficult adaptation issues—how Annie comes to hear Juliet, Naked. In the book, it’s a meandering road that simply wouldn’t work onscreen. Jenkins and Taylor found a way to do it in only a few pages, and it worked. “They totally nailed it. They had Annie getting the CD first, listening to it, then Duncan comes back and they fight. He writes the review and then she writes her rebuttal. They really laid that all out in a nice clear way.”
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