In a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons, the feature debuts of writer-directors John Hamburg and Jesse Peretz couldn't be more different. Hamburg's Safe Men is an offbeat comedy about two lovable losers who, through a case of mistaken identity, become involved with the Jewish mafia. Peretz's First Love, Last Rites, in contrast, is an intimate portrait of two adolescents struggling through their first sexual relationship. Since completing their movies, both filmmakers have begun work on new projects, with the 28-year-old Hamburg doing production rewrites on a $75 million Disney comedy, while the 30-year-old Peretz, an established music-video and commercial director, is looking for money to make his second feature. What links the two is that they both financed their films outside of a studio – that and a release date: Both Safe Men and First Love opened in Los Angeles on August 7. The week before, Hamburg and Peretz sat down with the Weekly at the Chateau Marmont to talk about their experiences as first-time directors.
L.A. Weekly: As independents, do you feel a natural sense of camaraderie?
Jesse Peretz: In certain ways. Anytime an independent film is successful, it's good for everybody else in independent film.
John Hamburg: When I started my film last June, it was just after Fargo won the Oscar, and it was almost easier to set up because indies were so chic at that point. And all these studios . . .
Peretz: . . . their heads turned around.
Weekly: Did either of you agonize about what your first feature was going to be about?
Hamburg: I agonized. I just wanted to make a really funny comedy, I had always done comedy writing. But definitely, I wasted time thinking, Do I want to be like the Coen Brothers or like Woody Allen? Finally, I just shoved all that stuff aside. See, I don't know where I fit into the independent world. Whenever they're asked about influences, people are always like, Godard and Renoir. I'm like Carl Reiner and Andy Bergman. The Jerk, that was the greatest film in the world.
Peretz: That's cool.
Weekly: But eventually, John, you were able to find your own voice and draw on your personal experiences?
Hamburg: Honestly, Sam Rockwell's character in the movie wears a padded ass and Jewish guys have the smallest butts in the world so in that way there was a strong sense of identification.
Peretz: Why weren't we given asses?
Hamburg: I don't know.
Weekly: So you wear a padded ass?
Hamburg: I didn't go quite that far.
Peretz: Does Sam Rockwell not have an ass?
Hamburg: He's pretty small back there. But you have to put that in context because as we've seen from Box of Moonlight and Lawn Dogs he's very well-endowed.
Peretz: [Chuckling.] How long is Sam Rockwell's cock?
Hamburg: It's about 48 inches. It's very impressive. Anyway, yeah, I identify with these guys who are fairly insecure who are trying to gain acceptance.
Weekly: Who are your influences, Jesse?
Peretz: I fit more into the cliche – I was a teenage film obsessive. The earliest films that I was really into were The American Friend and Jules and Jim.
Hamburg: Jules and Jim, that's the cliche.
Peretz: There aren't a lot of American directors that I identify with in a deep way, the exception being Todd Haynes, who is a total fucking genius. I worship Todd Haynes. But when I did my own movie, I had no idea where my influences came in. When I read this short story by the English writer Ian McEwan, and I just loved it, I was sure that this story was the perfect thing for me to turn into a film, and I put all my efforts into that. But it was really hard to get made.
Weekly: How so?
Peretz: One thing I need to say is there's a bit of idealization around this term “independent.” There's a lot of films that fall within that definition that still adhere to a lot of the storytelling rules of mainstream filmmaking. The film I made was really hard to finance, because I don't think we followed any of those rules.
Weekly: What was your experience raising money for Safe Men, John?
Hamburg: To be honest, it wasn't that difficult. Our script went around to all the studios, smaller companies like Propaganda Films, then I decided I wanted to do it independently. I was lucky it came together quickly. I think the thing that made it different from a lot of independents was that it's a pure comedy.
Weekly: Did either of you get hands-on with the business side, with raising the money?
Peretz: I don't understand how the money was raised. My producers raised the money.
Hamburg: I don't really understand a lot of that stuff either – you need a really good producer.
Weekly: How was your festival experience?
Hamburg: I was at Sundance two years ago with a short film I had made, and I had an amazing time, because there was no pressure to sell it. It was like, “Oh, I liked your movie.” That's it. This year I can't say it was enjoyable, because we were trying to sell this movie. [Safe Men is being released by October Films.] It's great to go to Sundance, but it's just so much about the business that . . .
Peretz: . . . it's not fun.
Hamburg: It's just not fun.
Peretz: My first screening at [the Toronto Film Festival] was weird. We hadn't shown the movie to anybody, and a lot of people were aware of the stuff that I'd done for MTV [Peretz directed the Foo Fighters' Mentos parody video], so there was this little buzz around my movie. The day preceding the screening, I felt this hardcore schmoozing. My producer kept saying, “Jesse, I have to warn you. It's their job to become your friend beforehand in case they see the next Trainspotting.” There were all these distributors packed into the screening, and it was the most traumatic day of my entire life. There was some positive reaction, but it did not get a deal right away. It was just weird realizing that this movie hasn't been so easy for people to be psyched about as a stupid music video I made. [Strand picked up the movie after Toronto.]
A third of the way through our conversation, a casually dressed man taps Hamburg on the shoulder. “I'm hanging over there. Take your time.” Hamburg reluctantly admits that he's meeting later with the man, a producer. “He works for those guys, the Farrelly brothers, you know, who made Something About Mary.” I ask him if he's found it difficult adjusting to this new reality, staying at the Mondrian on Disney's tab and having these player moments.
Hamburg: I take it with a grain of salt. I mean, I think it's totally ridiculous that I'm staying at the Mondrian and I'm working on the script for this $75 million movie. On paper it sounds unbelievable, but really I'm just sitting in my hotel room trying hard to write.
Weekly: Obviously you don't have a problem with studio filmmaking.
Hamburg: I really don't think of it in terms of wanting to make a studio film or a non-studio film. The ideal models are guys like Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, who are backed by a studio but can make movies that reflect their own vision. That's the kind of thing I would like to do.
Peretz: For me, almost everything that comes out of a studio is fucked. You can be really pessimistic about this whole concept of independent film, that it's a big load of shit. At the same time, there's nowhere else to turn. It's the only hope you have of making movies that aren't conventional.
Weekly: So, was the experience of making a film all you thought it would be?
Peretz: It was a bittersweet moment when I realized that the joy of having your movie seen is not so awesome. And I realized that for me, the reason for doing this is to be in the process. All I really want to be doing is to make the next movie.
Hamburg: The whole point of this is to keep working. I'm working now, so that's what makes me happy. I'm proud of Safe Men, but I'm also excited to say that I can officially move on.