In the case of the alt-minded romantic comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, the hook is that co-writers Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation, Our Idiot Brother) and Will McCormack dated briefly but intensely in the late ’90s but turned out to be better friends than lovers.
A decade later the two actors began writing scripts together; the first product of their efforts being this story of a young couple (Jones and Andy Samberg) who have been friends all their adult lives, got married, and then separated. (The problem: Celeste is a professional “trend watcher” on a steady career path, while Jesse is an artist still in his “stoned on the couch” phase.) Despite the failure of their marriage, Jesse and Celeste are determined to remain close, platonic friends.
As directed by Lee Toland Krieger (The Vicious Kind) with an ethereal lilt (think Lost in Translation or last year’s Like Crazy), the charmingly honest Celeste and Jesse Forever is a humorous but equally bittersweet look at adult relationships involving people who are reluctant to emotionally grow up. The film also co-stars McCormack, Elijah Wood, Ari Graynor, and Emma Roberts.
I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago with Rashida Jones and Will McCormack to talk about their first produced film. Their warm, close friendship is obvious–there were none of the usual signs of tiring from a grueling, multi-city press tour, but rather the sense of sitting down for coffee with two pals who were genuinely thrilled to be spending their days in hotel rooms chatting with each other about their “baby,” Celeste and Jesse Forever.
Celeste and Jesse Forever is playing in select theaters across the country.
Rashida Jones: I do feel we’re in transition. The American Dream or the idyllic relationship is redefining itself, and I think we’re in the heat of deciding what that is. The majority of marriages are failing in this country and we’re getting all this information about kids being sexually active early, about teenage pregnancies, divorce, people getting married later, not having kids at all, or getting married and divorced at a young age. There are so many different variations now on what a “relationship” is; it’s inevitable that the movies will reflect that.
Will McCormack: This script felt relatable to people who read it and hopefully those who see it. They felt this relationship was common to this generation, that a lot of people have had this friendship/relationship, this weird intimacy with an ex that they didn’t know how to complete.
And the replacement of past social, religious, and family structures with your group of friends.
Jones: So many of my friends who moved to big cities will say their family is their group of friends. And when you get married to someone in your group of friends, you have this person you grew into adulthood with, went through these changes with, and it’s not your sibling, it’s your fiancé, your husband or wife, or soon to be ex. It’s hard to acknowledge that you have to let to totally that person go because they mean so much to why you are the way you are.
We’re seeing a lot of lower-budget independent science fiction these days from writers and directors who grew up on the sci-fi films of the ‘80s. Do you feel there’s a similar thing going on with independent romances and rom-coms?
Jones: We hope our film is real and maybe it’s kind of melancholy, but we wanted to express some new iteration of romantic movies or romantic comedies. We’re obsessed with Jim Brooks, Woody Allen, Cameron Crowe, and Nora Ephron—we definitely grew up on it. When Harry Met Sally asked can you be friends with the opposite sex, and Celeste and Jesse asks can you be friends with your ex and what does that look like and how does it manifest itself?
Jones: But part of wanting to tell that story was that we’d seen stories told so well by film makers growing up, that was the kind of thing we wanted to emulate.
McCormack: Definitely, those movies informed this process so much, like When Harry met Sally, Annie Hall, and Husbands and Wives—those are the movies we were inspired by.
There’s also a sense that the audience and its tastes and emotional sophistication grows over time. Today audiences seem more willing to embrace romantic films that are not fairy tales.
Jones: Movies always reflect culture and vice versa. And now there are so many more choices in life: The courting process is not the same, there are no rules to a relationship, and yes we still have this old construct of marriage, but even that is kind of fading away. So based on what people are experiencing in their lives, they’re going to be more open to and hopefully connect to and respond to stories that feel different.
There’s no doubt people go to the movies to be entertained, and we know that, and we didn’t want to totally disregard that, but we also wanted to try to tell a story that looked like something you know from your life. I get tired of seeing movies where girls are really upset because their lives are falling apart, but they still look amazing. Maybe they sniffle a little bit, but they’re not really falling apart—their life’s still great, they show up to work, and are wearing great clothes, and even their breakdown is adorable. We didn’t want to do that.
And your film does present what feels like a uniquely honest, female-centric—and humorous, I should add—look at that fall and breakdown.
Jones: We wanted to put Celeste in the traditionally male role of having to work things out without the presence of the guy. It’s a bummer that has to be gender specific, but it is—you usually see the guy go through that in movies.
Jones: Also one that felt like what it feels like when I break down in real life. We wanted to show what it actually feels like, an approximation of a break down that feels kind of romantic in itself.
You wrote this script side by side at the keyboard. Tell me a little more about your writing process and partner dynamic.
McCormack: We’re a pretty good team
Jones: We have different strengths. Will is kind of a poet and has his own language and is great with dialog. I’m really good with structure. We both do both, but we complement each other.
McCormack: You have so many good ideas for films
Jones: That I don’t execute. [Laughs]
McCormack: But if one out of a hundred works, that’s great. I’m more comfortable with dialog and writing and you’re more comfortable with structure.
Jones: You’re good at getting down into it—you’re micro and I’m macro.
McCormack: We’ve also grown as writers—we’ve been writing so much now the past four years.
Jones: You’re great at structure now.
McCormack: I’ve gotten better. You do something enough you get better. Hopefully… shit. [Laughs]
Jones: We spend more time together than married people, so sometimes if we’re both not in the greatest mood but we have to finish something, it comes out in us feeling like the ideas aren’t so good or that the other person isn’t accepting your creative ideas.
McCormack: It puts you a vulnerable position to open up to someone creatively.
Jones: But we’re not callous with each other—we’re both very sensitive.
You two have known each other for a while and wrote this together, so how was it having Lee Toland Krieger come in as the director? You’re handing your baby off to someone else.
Jones: We were just so happy to have somebody as talented as Lee be interested in the material. The director has to take on a movie for a very long time as well, so it’s a big commitment for them to say, “Hey, I like your material, I want to go on this journey with you.” It’s like dating somebody.
Of course there’s the worry that not everybody has the same vision, but you hope that you meet collaborative people, and Lee did such a wonderful job with this film. It looks beautiful, and he’s great with actors, and he ran such a crisp set and is a good communicator, so he only added value to the film
McCormack: He’s a star.
You wrote Celeste and Jesse as a loosely autobiographical embellishment on your own experience dating briefly then becoming friends. Celeste was obviously written for Rashida, but Will, did you feel like Jesse was you? Was handing that character over to Andy Samberg odd?
McCormack: Maybe for a moment when we first wrote it I had some idea of that in my head, but it was gone pretty quickly. Andy and Rashida are so great together, and I was really happy to play the part of [Jesse’s drug-dealing pal] Skillz, it was such a fun part for me. I’m a character actor, and I don’t really want to be a lead. If I can write movies and play parts like Skillz for the rest of my life, I’d be really happy.
Jones: Andy does have that very specific man-child thing. I love him, but he’s boyish and Will, you’re more manly. [Laughs]
Up next you’ve written Frenemy of the State together, based on the comic you co-wrote, Rashida, about a socialite who becomes a spy. You’re seeing your first child, Celeste and Jesse, off to school and now you’ve got this second child, a big-studio, action-comedy production.
Jones: It’s very different; this wild, weird, action-comedy adventure movie.
McCormack: It was hard to write—I’d never written action before.
Jones: Me either—it is hard. Probably the next thing we write will be just from scratch and just for us, something exploring relationships, maybe more about family.
McCormack: Maybe the parents and sibling dynamics. I don’t think any more romantic comedies. [Laughs]