It was a great year for romantic comedies at Sundance, and one of the early standouts was Celeste and Jesse Forever, a story of a breakup that was also kind of about love, as a young couple in the middle of a divorce (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) attempt to stay friends. It starts to go wrong, of course, but in surprising ways, as the put-together Celeste finds herself angry and confused when left along, while Jesse moves on to a stable life far quicker than either he or Celeste could have imagined. Shot naturalistically by director Lee Toland Krieger, Celeste and Jesse contains a lot of heartbreak and tough lessons about living-- but it also includes Celeste's hilariously profane breakdown and a PR gaffe that puts the image of a penis on T-shirts marketed toward tweens.
When I talked to Jones and her co-screenwriter Will McCormack at Sundance, I asked how they executed that balance of sadness and humor, and they claimed to go right back to the source of the 80s rom-coms they grew up loving. We also talked about depicting Celeste's "lady breakdowns" with truth, Andy Samberg's revelatory performance, and the "super super duper close" relationship between the two of them that helped inspire Celeste and Jesse. The movie was picked up at Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics, and you can expect to see it in theaters later this year.
For all of my Sundance coverage, including a review of Celeste and Jesse Forever, go here. The way the movie balances tone is really interesting throughout, especially how far Celeste goes when she starts falling apart. Like, the moment when she's crying on the street and runs into the guy in the bear suit and just hugs him. Jones [gestures to McCormack]: That's him.
What is that? Is that a thing that happens in Los Angeles?
Jones: Originally, with larger budget, it was supposed to be the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where there's all those crazy characters. It was going to be Elmo.
McCormack: I think it was Chewbacca. Jones: Elmo! Oh, maybe it was Chewbacca. It was a recognizable character. But as the budget shrank, we got a bear suit. Venice Boardwalk is pretty fucking weird though, and I wouldn't be surprised if I saw a woman in a bear suit.
McCormack: I though a bear saw a woman who needed a hug, and he gave her a bear hug.
You've both been acting for a while before writing this script. Is an element of this taking things into your own hands and creating the kinds of characters you weren't seeing?
Jones: Look, like anything, you don't come across a script that you're wild about all the time. And as an actor, movies choose you. You have to be one of a handful of people to have choice in this business. And you just don't. You take what you can get, and you can be slightly clever about justifying it to yourself, why you're taking the job. For the most part you take what you can get and you read a whole variety of quality, and we did want to fill some void. Maybe there's this movie that can feel like a slight throwback to the comedies of the 70s, 80s, 90s.
Are there particular movies from then that inspired you?
McCormack: Yeah for sure-- Broadcast News, When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall.
Jones: Even things like terms of Endearment where you can laugh and cry.
McCormack: When we were growing up it was OK to laugh and cry. John Hughes movies, Jim Brooks. Maybe that might be confusing people, because it does take a lot of twists and turns emotionally, but that's how we wrote it.
Jones: We did feel that there were movies we've seen, and movies that ddi well, that are just one thing. I leave feeling unsatisfied.
There seems to be this movement lately of people loving romantic comedies and wanting to rescue the genre, since it's dying in mainstream films.
Jones: I love rom-coms. We grew up on the greatest ones. I would never claim to be the salvation for rom-coms, but i definitely would like to contribute to making them a tiny bit less one-dimensional. Maybe not having the ending you expect. People don't always have to end up getting what they want and living happily ever after. Good rom-coms have some reflection of the way things are, the sign of the times. In When Harry Met Sally it was such a relevant question, "Can men and women be friends?" You didn't know, because people were just having sex with each other in the 70s, then they were getting more conservative, saying "Can we actually hang out with each other and not have sex?"
How did you deal with Celeste's breakdown? You see it in romantic comedies a lot, like the Ben and Jerry's binge, but this goes to a new, weirder level. How do you show that realistically but also have it not be degrading?
Jones: I feel like Will has definitely witnessed my lady breakdowns.
McCormack: And I have two sisters, I've seen their lady breakdowns.
Jones: My lady breakdowns, I become more of a dude when I'm losing it. I'm drinking a ton and maybe dating some guys who are not good for me.
McCormack: And for Celeste's character too, because she was so confident that she wouldn't be heartbroken, it gave us the freedom to go further and maybe more insane in that direction, because of the way we constructed her at the top.
Jones: Her whole ship was set up so nice and then it imploded, so anything kind of goes.
Is it difficult making the film on that small a budget and for such a short time?
Jones: Maybe I was protected, because I was just acting, but it was weirdly not hard for something-- and I think that has a lot to do with Lee Krieger, because he's a great, natural leader, and he just set the tone on set, with a very sophisticated, talented group of people. Every single day until we started shooting was mayhem, bedlam, chaos.
Were you guys procures on this as well?
Jones: Yeah. And we were trying to make it for three years. We pulled out of a deal a month before the movie was going to be made. It was a financier who we didn't feel 100% great about. We were like, screw it, lets go do this in 4 weeks and work it out.
McCormack: It was a quick shoot, but we were in sure hands. Lee brings such a professional, chill, collaborative set.
You guys hired Lee. Did you bring in Andy Samberg and Ari Graynor in the same way?
Jones: Yeah. Andy and I have been friends for years, and I've known him since before SNL. We didn't really know Ari, we were just huge fans.
With Andy Samberg, did you know that he had that different side of him? Was it a challenge for him?
Jones: I knew his depth as a person. You kind of never know. I had never seen Andy act like that before, but I know why I'm friends with him. Lee was like, I know he can do it.
McCormack: Lee really knew. We read the scenes with him and it was incredible.
Jones: Watching someone blossom in front of you, it's so cool.
Did that happen throughout shooting too?
Jones: Yeah, it was like real time.
McCormack: I think he really enjoyed it too.
Jones: He really enjoyed it. He kept saying, I'm ready, I can do this. He was more focused and more prepared, more ready, and sometimes more vulnerable than I was.
The central conceit of a divorced couple living together-- it could be really high-concept and unbelievable. How did you make sure it felt like a truthful thing?
McCormack: To me it felt familiar to people I knew. It felt like real life to me. Including myself, I know so many people who had these weird friendships, relationships-- they were in this purgatory and people need ed to grow up and evolve and figure it out and move on.
Jones: Also we had what a lot of people would consider an unhealthy relationship, because we're super super close and best friends and spend so much time together. People are like, "Why don't you just be together?" It's a little bit the opposite of the movie, but it's almost the same time, where people are like "Just be together" and we're like "no, you just don't understand." We're kind of that couple in a weird way.
When you guys sit down and write it, does one of you tackle Celeste and the other Jesse, or do you try to work out that dynamic in between them?
Jones: I think we both had input on both of the voices, but it helps that we're both actors, we can read the parts and feel like people say these things.
McCormack: It was good that there was one man and one woman, and we have different strengths as writers, we complement each other well. It's so hard to write, it's fun to have someone to do it with.
This movie is so structured but not structured, like you see the When Harry Met Sally playbook, take the pieces and rearrange them. You see what the rules are and figure out how far you can push them, which a lot of people are terrified to do.
Jones: I would be lying if I said we weren't terrified, we definitely were. But when you sit down to write something, the exercise is not to write something that's familiar. The exercise is, hey, how can we write something we love, and maybe just twist is a little bit.
McCormack: It's hard though, because movies kind of have a formula, and they have forever and they will forever because they kind of work. And it's a weird feeling. Movies hopefully for me are no longer than 95 minutes. That's not a lot of time to tell a story, so they always have to have a formula. What's hard is extracting it. Knowing the formula is great, and then you're like, I don't want to know it too well.