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In Celeste and Jesse Forever, co-writers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack inject new life into the often tired romantic-comedy genre. As the film begins, an unhappy couple, Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), are in the process of divorcing. The rub is that they can’t stand to be away from each other.
The break-up arose from a disconnect on many levels—Celeste wants Jesse to mature and do things like open a checking account; he wants to focus on his career as an artist—but the deep connection between the characters in almost tangible. As Jesse moves on, the career-oriented and stubborn Celeste soon realizes that maybe she had been doing things wrong all along. With a cast that includes Jones, McCormack, Samberg, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts, Ari Graynor and more, it’s no wonder the Celeste and Jesse Forever was one of the most anticipated films at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
First-time screenwriters Jones and McCormack drew on their own personal experiences in writing the script. Both claim Los Angeles as their home city, and the film reflects their shared background. During a recent interview, McCormack muses, “As much as we wanted the film to be funny, we also wanted to be really authentic and honest to our own heartaches.” He continues, “The tone is tricky because the film goes from comedy to heartbreak, but that’s what all my experiences have been like. When you are recovering from a break-up, it’s absolutely terrible, but you find comedy unexpectedly in the hilarious things that have happened during the proceedings.”
McCormack, who met Jones 13 years ago on a blind date secured by his sister, actress Mary McCormack, wryly describes their brief, three-week relationship: “We quickly realized that we were not going to be boyfriend and girlfriend. However, my sister did say that we were going to be soul mates, and she was right.” He laughs, “Now, we’re writing partners and best friends. And we didn’t have to get divorced. It’s a victory.”
Any director might be intimidated by a working relationship with two people as in sync as Jones and McCormack, but Lee Toland Krieger had no problem jumping into the mix. McCormack had long admired Krieger since viewing his film The Vicious Kind and knew that he was the right choice as director. Krieger describes his easy working relationship with the writers and the producer, Jennifer Todd, enthusiastically: “We sat down and we instantly got along. We also had the same touchstones for what we wanted Celeste and Jesse Forever to be. It is Husbands and Wives, not The 40-Year-Old Virgin. We were all on the same page from day one.”
One of the most refreshing elements of the film is the character of Celeste. She is a rare bird for romantic comedy in that she is an interesting and complex female lead protagonist. Drawing inspiration from films like Broadcast News, McCormack confirms that he and Jones had certain ambitions for Celeste: “We wanted to write a female protagonist that was flawed, like we all are.” He goes on: “A couple of people read the script and said they liked it, but they felt that Celeste was too unlikable. I think we softened her a little, but not too much. We wanted her to go through the journey of being someone who is convinced she is right who later realizes that there isn’t such a thing as right or wrong, especially when it comes to relationships. It all just comes down to timing, and there is no black and white. It’s gray.”
Krieger, who had only directed his own material before Celeste and Jesse Forever, describes his initial reaction to the script and his collaboration with the writers. “The script was already so polished. If we ran into any problems, I had two really smart actor/writers/producers to help navigate the waters and figure it out. I think that was a huge advantage. They were so gracious about handing the reins to me and trusting me with their material. I just felt really blessed.”
With complex characters, an intuitive director like Krieger is crucial to the success of the project. It also helps that both Jones and Samberg give revelatory performances as the mismatched couple who just can’t seem to move on. McCormack says of Krieger’s directorial style, “I think actors just trust him. Lee listens to everything and is very soft-spoken and contained. He knows exactly what he’s doing. You feel like you’re in good hands, and he just creates a really good environment on set.”
One key to Krieger’s effectiveness is his understanding and acknowledgment of the difficulties of being an actor. Krieger explains his perspective, “You have to be vulnerable, which nobody likes being. It’s especially hard if you’re famous like Rashida and Andy. Everyone knows who you are and you feel exposed. It’s my job as a director to create an environment where people feel really safe.” He continues, “If I have a note for an actor, it’s not to be shared with the set; it’s for that actor and that actor alone. The last thing you want to do is make an actor feel like they’ve done something wrong. You never want their confidence to fade. At the end of the day, it all boils down to trusting one another.”
Celeste and Jesse Forever celebrated its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. As a first-time screenwriter (who also plays Skillz in the film), McCormack looks back at his experience with awe: “It was harrowing. It was just so intense. Thank God we got in and thank God we sold our movie. Rashida and I had panic attacks next to each other while we were sitting at the first screening. I was just drenched in sweat and I don’t even sweat when I jog! We both felt this weird mixture of pressure, vulnerability and pride. We love the film, so it’s fun for us to watch and talk about.”
Krieger, who was at Sundance with The Vicious Kind in 2009, was struck by the difference between the experiences: “The Vicious Kind was a movie that just kind of slipped in completely under the radar. At the time, Adam Scott was well respected by the industry but hadn’t managed to connect with a mainstream audience yet. It was amazing and really nerve-wracking, but in a way, the pressure was off because no one knew of our movie and no one had any expectations.” Not the case with Celeste and Jesse Forever, as Krieger describes: “We premiered at Eccles (one of Sundance’s biggest theaters) on a Friday night and Saturday morning, which was really stressful. In retrospect, we may have made the mistake of showing some cuts of the movie to friends of ours.”
What friends? Krieger explains: “Rashida, Will and Jen have the advantage of knowing pretty much everyone in town, it seemed to me. My friends are out-of-work musicians and waiters, but their friends are Amy Poehler and Mitch Hurwitz, and we’re screening the movie at Quincy Jones’ house. It was unreal.” Krieger goes on: “For better or maybe for worse, it started a little buzz, so by the time we got to Sundance, we could feel the expectation that it was going to be a gigantic movie, especially with a cast like ours. You automatically think this is an 8-10 million dollar movie, but we shot it for under a million dollars. We wanted to curb the expectation of the movie, but I’m happy to say that the film was very well received.”
When asked about their favorite scene, both McCormack and Krieger cite the intense fight between Celeste and Jesse in front of Disney Hall at the LA Philharmonic. McCormack fondly reflects: “It felt and still is so raw and real. It was just one of those nights where we were out and shooting late. Both Andy and Rashida just gave their all, and people on set were just in tears. It was just one of those moments where I felt, ‘Oh my God. We’re making a movie.’” Lee recalls the logistics of the scene: “We couldn’t afford to shut down the street or even do traffic control, but ended up shooting on a Friday or Saturday night. We were just out on the streets, and in the film, it looks like this very quiet and serene setting to have this brutal fight in, but in reality, we ended up having to loop that entire scene.” He adds, “If you listen to the production track, you can hear people screaming about how much they loved Hot Rod. They just ruined the audio. It was a nightmare, but Andy and Rashida stayed in it, which speaks volumes. That would have thrown most actors, but not them.”
The future looks bright for both McCormack and Krieger. McCormack and Jones will continue to write together and already have a screenplay sold to Imagine/Universal and a pilot in development with Showtime. About their next writing endeavor, McCormack describes the germ of the idea, “We’ve recently been talking about our siblings and our parents and our parents getting older. I think our next script will be about family, but I think all movies should be funny so it’ll still be that.” Krieger also has a script he hopes to direct for his next project. He describes it intriguingly as “a sort of more muscular Thelma and Louise, very different from anything I’ve ever done.”
When asked what he wanted audiences to take away from the story of Celeste and Jesse, McCormack smiled and said, “As much as I want people to laugh and have a good time, ultimately, I want them to understand what it is to have your heart broken by someone you love. And that it’s not only possible to survive, but to become better for it.”
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