Q&A: Girls Director Jesse Peretz on Lena Dunham, His Music Video and Features Career, and the Satisfaction of Working on Cable TV

Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage Jesse Peretz

A defining part of Lena Dunham’s deal is that in the entertainment big leagues, she’s a rising three-tool player who can write, direct, and act. But the reality is that doing all of that on your own on a television show is too much flor just one person to handle. Accordingly, over half of the episodes of Girls’s second season were directed by others, with Jesse Peretz tackling more than anyone else. Peretz’s three episodes were the cocaine-fueled “Bad Friend,” the contentious “It’s a Shame About Ray,” and last night’s “It’s Back,” which is the last of this season’s non-Dunham-directed episodes. Peretz previously did the Charlie and Marnie breakup episode from the show’s first season and directed the indie features First Love, Last Rites, The Châum;teau, and Our Idiot Brother, as well as the Zach Braff vehicle The Ex. A founding member of alt-rock cuties the Lemonheads in the late 1980s, he left the band in its early stages and initially made a name for himself as the music-video director responsible for such Alternative Nation classics as the Foo Fighters’ Mentos-spoofing “Big Me” and Nada Surf’s “Popular.” Peretz will join the staff of Girls in Season 3 as a producer and has since started directing other TV shows. Here he speaks about the process of working with Dunham and whether he thinks Nina Persson of the Cardigans can act. (Spoiler alert: She can!)

How did you get on the roster for directors of Girls?

I knew Lena beforehand, and [co-showrunner] Jenni Konner, to a lesser extent. They want to keep it close-knit, to people who they feel really understand what Lena’s about and what her voice is about and to people who she could really trust. So much of what Lena does is about her doing everything, so more than anything else I’ve ever worked on, it’s very important that everything on the directing front remain true to what she saw in her head and how she heard the characters.

What was your previous relationship with her?

It was only a couple years before she started the show, but my wife met her when she had just graduated from Oberlin and she was working at a kids’ clothing store. My wife went in and nobody was there except for the two of them, and they ended up spending half an hour talking to each other. In the process, Lena told her she was a director and a writer and was working on writing her first feature, and my wife told her that her husband was a director. It turned out Lena had written a super positive review on Netflix about a little movie I had made 10 years ago called The Châum;teau. A couple days later Lena came over and we hung out. I was talking to this girl just out of college as if I was the one with all the experience or whatever, and in literally less than two years that girl just out of college was helping me break into TV.

Was getting in TV something you were interested in?

I definitely was. I had done a number of features, and by the time I did my first episode of Girls I had just done Our Idiot Brother. I had always made my living more from working in commercials, but that world had been getting harder and harder to make a good living in and less fun to work in, for various boring reasons that we don’t need to get into. After never even really taking TV seriously as a possibility, I realized that there was so much more stuff on TV that I liked to watch and that it could be a place I’d be psyched to work in between features. I’d done some other TV shows, like half of the first season of Important Things With Demetri Martin, but Girls was my first proper work in directing episodic TV.

At what point in the creative process do you get brought in?

I came to all the table reads of the scripts, but I wasn’t around for all the development of the scripts. I always discuss my script notes with Lena. I have ideas about changing this or changing that, or what if we used this kind of location. There’s a process of prepping a script for shooting where there’s a whole litany of decisions you make that really do change the way people experience the show. One example is deciding what kind of artist Booth Jonathan was — choosing the location for his house gave a direction of who he was and defined what his art would look like and what kind of bullshitty art perspective he came from. That’s the entry point, where I have to come with ideas to pitch at Lena, and it was never about getting anyone else’s approval besides Lena’s.

Do you know how and when it’s decided who will direct each episode?

They start outlining all the big story points for the season several months before they start shooting, so by the time they start assigning stuff to actual directors, they’re balancing what Lena wants to direct herself and which script she thinks will be good for which director, but then there are just purely practical things of who is available to work when. I don’t know if there is an actual strategic thing where they think the plots of this episode would be good for this director, or if they sort of just fall where they fall. Lena traditionally directs at least the first two episodes because those are the ones she can most easily prep for because that’s when she’s not working as much on other stuff. The later ones are harder for her to prep because she’s writing the next episode or she’s acting in the next episode. It’s much harder for her to find that time to look at locations and go to all the meetings.

So when did they decide to name one of the episodes you did this season “It’s a Shame About Ray,” which is a Lemonheads reference?

When the script landed it said “It’s a Shame About Ray” on the cover and I didn’t even notice it at first. It had to be pointed out to me that they titled the script on my behalf.

When talking about scripts for film or TV from people who are known for their particular voice, like Dunham is, there seem to be two approaches: There’s the Quentin Tarantino or Coen brothers school, where what’s on the page is exactly what you say, and then there’s the Judd Apatow school, where they’re constantly throwing out new lines and everyone can have input. I’d imagine because of Apatow’s involvement in Girls and Jenni Konner coming up through his system that it’s that way on the show, but is that actually the case?

What I think is interesting is that Lena obviously has this very unique voice, and when you read the scripts you can tell which lines are so particular to her head, and so exactly who the character is, that you know that that line is not going to be changed. But there’s not an environment of preciousness. It’s not like she’s Aaron Sorkin, where the wording of everything is so exact. Every so often she lets it be known there’s something she particularly wants, and certainly we always get one or two versions with all the key coverage of the scene as scripted, more or less, unless an actor really has a problem with it. This show is shot much more in the world where you can open the scenes up and play with stuff and certainly change the wording so it feels more comfortable to the actor. Some of the actors are fantastic at improv-ing — Adam Driver will, more or less, do it once as scripted, but he never says a line with the pacing or the diction that you would expect, which is part of the joy of directing him. Other people aren’t as comfortable with improv, and they stay closer to the script. I find almost everything that I work on, especially in the comedy world, to be that way. There are certain people who are the most comfortable playing around with the scripted version and then there are people who instinctively want to start playing around with the ideas of what is going on in the scene and want to take it in another direction.

On your own features, which side of the tightly scripted versus improvised spectrum do you fall?

With The Châum;teau, that was a movie where I had a 30-page outline and no scripted dialogue. I had a cast that was part American and part French, and only a few of the French cast spoke any English. That movie was 100 percent, completely improvised, and probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever shot, just because we were literally writing the script every day. With Our Idiot Brother, it was the same kind of mix [as Girls]. There were certain people, like Paul Rudd or Elizabeth Banks or Steve Coogan or T.J. Miller, who are super improvisers, and more or less the rest of the cast would stay closer to the script.

On Girls, what scenes are more fun to shoot, the fight scenes or the sex scenes?

A well-written fight scene is very exciting to me. The dinner fight scene between Marnie and Audrey [in the episode “It’s a Shame About Ray”] I really loved doing especially since Audrey Gelman, the girl who plays Audrey, is an old friend of Lena’s who isn’t really an actress, and I was so pleasantly surprised by how good she was. She really got to where she needed to, and responded to notes by making nuanced changes. I guess I do like to do the fight scenes more, but I do like to do the sex scenes. One of my favorite scenes that I’ve directed on Girls was in the first season, where Hannah comes out of the bathroom looking for Adam and he’s in the bathroom masturbating and he makes her stay and talk to him until he comes. Shooting that scene was very satisfying, I must say.

That scene is like a combination of both a fight scene and a sex scene.

That’s probably why that stands out for me.

The dance club scene you did this season in the “Bad Friend” episode has quickly become iconic for the show.

I was very happy on set that day on multiple levels. Andrew Rannells [who plays Elijah] is so fucking hilarious and Lena has become such an awesome actress, and I think that the arc of the two of them in that whole episode was so satisfying to me, particularly at the club. I also usually hate club scenes so much and they look so fake, or people use those disgusting colored gels on the lights so people’s faces look washed with red light or green light and they just look fucking gross. I really expressed my hatred of the way most club scenes look to [cinematographer] Tim Ives, so I was just so psyched that day when we were actually rolling and we were looking at the monitors. Tim managed to make it so beautiful and so real in there; it’s these rich blacks and these highlights of color. The most satisfying part was in the bathroom where they’re doing cocaine and then Elijah confesses that he slept with Marnie. That was probably the more exciting part of the club scene to me, though it was shot on a stage in a totally fake bathroom with fake gross puke.

You said Dunham knew about The Châum;teau. Was she aware of your music videos as well?

Lena is a culture sponge, and it’s amazing to meet someone who is in their mid-20s who is not only aware of all the cultural things that happened when she was between 13 and 26, but also stuff from when she was 1 and 2 years old and things from before then. I feel like she was definitely aware of everything from the music videos.

Do you have a favorite underappreciated music video you did?

It’s one that I did for Nina Persson from the Cardigans. She’s married to one of my best friends, Nathan Larson. Nathan and Craig Wedren from Shudder to Think scored my first movie, First Love, Last Rites, in 1996. It was the summer that the Cardigans’ first hit, “Lovefool,” was all over the place. The three of us admitted we were secretly obsessed with that candy-pop song. The concept of the soundtrack to that movie was that it was all from this collection of 45s that the girl had. We wanted all of the songs to remind you of iconic songs that people would own 45s of. They wrote all these original songs and then we got guests to sing each of them. On a bold lark, we asked Nina Persson if she could sing one of the songs and she said yes, and she came to the city to record it. Her and Nathan instantly fell in love and they’ve been together ever since. I later did a video for her solo project A Camp for the song “I Can Buy You.” It’s one of the favorite videos I did that nobody saw. She plays two characters in it and she’s a surprisingly good actress for a musician.

Since working on Girls, you’ve done episodes of New Girl and The Mindy Project. Is the process very different with shows like that?

Fundamentally the process is the same, but when you work on a network show versus a cable show, there’s definitely a need to land joke-joke-joke-joke. For me, it’s a little more satisfying to work on something like Girls where there’s definitely comedy there, but it’s all coming out of character. In a way, Girls was the only cable thing I’d ever done, but just before Christmas I shot two episodes of Nurse Jackie, which was similarly satisfying. That show hardly feels like a comedy at all. It was definitely different from working on Girls, but more satisfying than the network stuff because you’re searching for the emotionally real place in terms of what the characters are going through.

But you got to do two Halloween episodes, one for New Girl and one for The Mindy Project, last year.

I did, which is ironic because I hate Halloween and I try hard to avoid ever being pressured into putting on a costume.

Did they ask you to direct in costume?

No, but I did have to make lots of judgments about costumes, which I had very little feelings about.

Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

Filed Under: TV, Girls, Lena Dunham, Grantland Q&A