It was more than 20 years ago, but Jesse Peretz has no trouble remembering his first film at Sundance.
"The title was 'First Love, Last Rites' and it was in a super art section," the director recalls, thinking back. "The theater was tiny; 40 people came, four walked out, maybe more. It did not have a big plot."
Peretz is back in Park City, Utah, with a new film, and the circumstances could not be more different. "Juliet, Naked" premieres in a key Friday night slot at Sundance's biggest venue, the 1,270-seat Eccles Theater, and walkouts are unlikely to be a problem.
Based on the novel by Nick Hornby and starring Ethan Hawke, Rose Byrne and Chris O'Dowd, "Juliet" is a warm, smart and funny romantic drama about as unlikely an emotional triangle as you could imagine.
The brilliantly comic O'Dowd plays Duncan, a terminally obsessive fan of cult favorite Tucker Crowe, "the most underappreciated figure in rock history," a singer-songwriter who recorded a dazzling album then dropped from sight.
Byrne, best known for the “Neighbors” movies and as Moira MacTaggert in "X-Men: First Class," is Duncan's girlfriend, Annie. She runs a history museum in the British seaside town of Sandcliff and is getting tired of Duncan's obsessiveness and of their decision not to have children.
A combination of circumstances leads to a connection being made between Annie and Tucker Crowe himself, who turns out to be very much alive and well in America. It's a lovely performance by Hawke, who gets to sing the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" as well as the fictitious Crowe's music.
The musician is seen trying to be a better father to young son Jackson (a charming Azhy Robertson) than he's been to the several other children of his other failed relationships, of which he has quite a collection.
Peretz has especially kind words for young Robertson. "It was the scariest part to cast," he reports. "It's a lot of heavy lifting for a 7-year-old." But the choice of actor turned out to be easy.
"One hundred and twenty kids were coming in but the casting associate said, 'I have one kid, I'm not going to tell you who, that you are going to pick.' And when Azhy came in, it was automatic, he was way better than everyone else."
Novelist Hornby has had several books made into charming films, including "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy," and director Peretz, whose last film in Sundance was 2011's "My Idiot Brother," knows why.
"All his books just dance along. They're funny, entertaining and well-observed, the way people talk to each other is witty, they don't feel super-dramatic," he explains. "Then the story catches up to you, and you're feeling much more than you thought you would."
Hornby, who's written numerous scripts himself, has been both supportive and hands-off. "He understands that the last thing a film needs is the novelist protecting their original idea," Peretz says. "To make an effective film, you may have to in effect destroy the novel. If you're committed to the integrity of the novel, you may make a movie no one wants to see.
"When I was younger I used to think adapting would be so much easier than an original screenplay but at the end of the day the opposite is true."
A director whose credits include "Girls," "Nurse Jackie," "Orange Is the New Black" and most recently "Glow," Peretz has lately been doing more television than features, and it was a TV connection that brought him onto "Juliet."
"Girls" producer Judd Apatow, also a producer on "Juliet," thought Peretz might be a good fit for the film because of the director's background in the music business as one of the original members of the 1980s alt-rock band "The Lemonheads."
But when Peretz came to read the book as well as early screenplay drafts, he realized he wanted to push the script, written by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor & Evgenia Peretz (the director’s sister), in a different direction.
"I was less interested in the romance of how important being a musician is and more in the way Tucker was navigating his much more compelling failures in being a parent, navigating his non-existent relationships with his older children and pouring everything into Jackson, his fifth child."
Though Peretz’s career in TV is in part happenstance, the father of three who lives in New York likes the way television work enables him to "sleep in my own bed, see my kids and work with really talented people." And something more.
"When I direct for television I get to do a lot more of what I like best about being a director, which is being on the set directing. During the 14 months I was on ‘Juliet, Naked,’ I spent 32 days shooting. During the years I was directing TV, I would be actually directing 80 to 90 days a year."
Still, when it comes to "Juliet, Naked," Peretz has one overriding wish that could be granted at Sundance. "I do hope it has a theatrical release. I think it will benefit from that sort of shared joy of a room laughing. I would be sad if everyone was going to see it on their laptop wearing earphones in bed with their partner asleep."