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Lemonheads’ Ex-Bassist Improvises on Screen

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When writer-director Jesse Peretz was an undergraduate at Harvard, he was living what he calls a “total male fantasy,” touring the world as bass player for the Lemonheads between semesters.

Then, just before the band signed to a major label, Peretz quit the group to pursue his passion for filmmaking. “It just seemed so much better to me to be a P.A. on a McDonald’s commercial than to be on a rock tour in Europe, as crazy as that may sound,” he says of being a production assistant.

Now Peretz, 34, has numerous music videos and commercials to his credit, and his second feature, “The Chateau,” an Americans-versus-French culture clash comedy, opened Friday in Los Angeles. The largely improvised film, shot on digital video, stars Paul Rudd and Romany Malco as non-French-speaking brothers who travel to a small town in the French countryside after inheriting a chateau from a great-uncle they never knew existed. Among the eccentric, suspicious staff is a comely maid (Sylvie Testud) with a secret or two.

The idea for “The Chateau” was hatched over a dinner Peretz had with writer Thomas Bidegain and producers Scott Macaulay and Robin O’Hara. To take advantage of independent financing available at the time for films shot on digital video, they came up with the premise, which allowed them to do most of the shooting in a single location. At the same time, Peretz, whose grandmother is French, had spent a year and a half moving back and forth between New York and Paris, writing a script that has not yet been filmed. “I think I was just trying to act out a lot of my Francophile tendencies,” he says.

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Those tendencies, he later realized, he had incorporated in Graham, Rudd’s character in “The Chateau,” a dorky, rudderless slacker who, until going to the chateau, hadn’t left his American university town. Peretz says Graham’s “reaction to inheriting something from a relative in France was like, ‘This is the missing link to my personality. I’m part-French and I never knew it.’ ”

When Rudd, who shares a manager with Peretz, was first suggested for the role, Peretz was skeptical. Peretz didn’t “think of him as funny. I think of him as a really handsome guy that plays the nice dude” in movies like “Clueless,” “The Object of My Affection” and “The Cider House Rules.” After taping Rudd’s audition, Peretz was won over. “He was so funny, and I really got woken up to another side of his talent.”

Peretz met Malco when the latter was a craft service worker on one of Peretz’s commercial shoots, and they became fast friends. “I just thought he was the funniest [guy] on Earth,” says Peretz, who shot some MTV spots with Malco and initially taped an audition with him for a smaller part in The Chateau.”

The producers were so impressed that Peretz suggested that Malco, an African American, play Rudd’s adopted brother, which would fitfully increase the gulf between the brothers as well as the confusion of the servants.

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The actors improvised but used a detailed 20-page outline. “It looked like a script with no dialogue,” Peretz says. “It was very clear to me what had to happen for each of the characters in each of the scenes ... but what I didn’t know was what they were going to say.”

Rudd incorporated details from his own life--from Graham’s hometown, Lawrence, Kan. (where Rudd once lived), to the brothers’ last name, Granville (a Rudd family name). “It’s definitely a character,” he says, “but I played up all of my own insecurities.” Peretz relished the mobility and intimacy of shooting with small digital cameras, using two or three cameras for each take, but he admits the primary motivation was financial.

The movie was shot during 13 days in February 2000 in the town of Pithiviers, an hour and a half south of Paris, with a budget somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million.

“We shot seven scenes a day, and we would just be shooting all the time, so the actors were constantly engaged,” Peretz says.

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After a well-received screening at last year’s Independent Feature Project/West-Los Angeles Film Festival, IFC Films picked up “The Chateau” for distribution. The film opened in New York on Aug. 9 and grossed a respectable $16,000 on two screens its first weekend and a little less than $11,000 in its second.

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Peretz knew he wanted to be a filmmaker at age 15, and he majored in film and photography at Harvard, while performing in the Lemonheads, the band he and high school pals Evan Dando and Ben Deily had formed.

After quitting the band, Peretz got his first real break filming a set of MTV spots featuring a wacky cabdriver who pontificates on current singers. The driver was played by Donal Logue (“Grounded for Life”), Peretz’s college buddy, who makes a funny cameo in “The Chateau” as an obnoxious American who wants to buy the chateau and turn it into a party pad.

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Peretz has traveled the world for the last 15 years on commercial and music video shoots for artists who include Foo Fighters (he won a Grammy for “Learn to Fly”), Juliana Hatfield, the Breeders, Nada Surf, Shudder to Think--and, naturally, the Lemonheads. “I feel like I’ve had a real dream life,” he says.

He co-wrote his first feature, 1998’s “First Love, Last Rites,” based on an Ian McEwan short story, with David Ryan, an ex-drummer from the second incarnation of the Lemonheads. The dour film, which starred Giovanni Ribisi and Natasha Gregson Wagner as first-time lovers in the Louisiana bayou, garnered some critical praise but was little seen.

Although his father, Martin Peretz, is editor in chief of the New Republic, Jesse Peretz never felt pressure to follow in his footsteps. “I think I consciously chose to go in a career direction that was away from politics. But ... now in my life I feel starved for people who can really talk politics.” He doesn’t share his father’s political views, “but I respect our differences,” he says.

Peretz is developing his next feature, “Superstar ’81,” a teen romance set against the backdrop of the 1980s punk rock-skateboarding scene and the infamous Laurel Canyon Wonderland murders. He also has filmed a music video for a cut from Jimmy Fallon’s new comedy CD.

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“The Chateau” was released in France earlier this year, and Peretz was nervous about the French reaction. Happily, “people just kept saying, ‘You really hit the nail right on the head, and obviously you are indulging in some of the stereotypes, but the stereotypes were right on,’ ” he says.

Including the one that Americans speak only one language. Peretz admits, “My French is still pathetic.”


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