From the moment you see them together, it’s clear that “Celeste and Jesse Forever” screenwriters and co-stars Rashida Jones and Will McCormack have been friends for over a decade.
[This interview originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where “Celeste and Jesse Forever” world premiered. It comes out via Sony Pictures Classics this Friday.]
“Celeste and Jesse,” which premiered Friday, stars Jones as the titular Celeste, who married her high school sweetheart Jesse (Andy Samberg). Much like Jones and McCormack, the two are best friends, laughing at the same jokes and finishing each other’s sentences.
The only problem: They’re actually in the middle of a divorce. And their friends (Ari Graynor, Elijah Wood, and McCormack) are concerned that all that jocular goodwill is an unhealthy way of coping with the breakup. Charmingly authentic, the film (directed by Lee Toland Krieger of “The Vicious Kind”) delves into the equally sad and funny complexities that come at the end of a relationship.
It’s the first feature screenplay for Jones and McCormack, who are known best for TV shows like “Parks and Recreation” (Jones) and “The Sopranos” (McCormack) and the two were clearly pleased with what they’d accomplished together, both professionally and personally.
So when did you guys meet? And how did that evolve into the collaborative relationship you have today?
Will McCormack: We met 10 years ago. Or longer?
Rashida Jones: Way longer!
WM: How long ago?
RJ: Thirteen, 14 years ago.
WM: So we met 14 years ago. My sister Mary McCormack did a film with Rashida and she set us up. We became friends instantly and now we’re like family. Brother and sister. But we started writing years ago in New York and sort of never finished anything. And then with “Celeste and Jesse Forever” we thought this might be something so we perservered…
RJ: We sat down every day until we were done.
And what’s the process like working together as opposed to working separately?
RJ: We’re learning. We have a steep learning curve because we’ve only been professional writers for three years. But we both have a lot of smart friends — smart writer friends — which can be incredibly intimidating and make you feel like you can’t do it, you know? So I think we relied heavily on each other. We literally sat side by side and wrote every word together. Because it’s a little less scary when you’re holding somebody’s hand. And now I think we’re learning to write apart and what our strenghths and weaknesses are and coming together and editing each other. So it’s all in progress.
And with this film, why this specific topic? I really admired how authentic it was and I suspect a lot of that must have come from each of your own histories with relationships and subsequent break-ups.
RJ: Personal experience, for sure. And also close friends and family members. It just seemed to be this trend from people we knew. There were couple dynamics in the movie that felt like they kept coming up for us in our group of friends. All we do is talk about relationships. We’re fascinated by relationships and dynamics and male-female interrelations. That’s not a real word. But anyway, I think the main thrust was that we were interested in this concept of learning how to love by loving somebody and that first feeling of “Oh my god, I could spend the rest of my life with this person.” And then life takes its twists and turns and unexpected things happen and your life doesn’t turn out the way you expected it to. And then might mean leaving some things behing.
You’re both acting in the film as well. Was that your plan from the beginning? And what was it like acting out your own screenplay?
WM: It was fun.
RJ: Yeah, it was really fun.
WM: The scenes Rashida and I were in together were really for us because we were so familiar with the script and we were so familiar with each other that it felt just fun and exciting. Yeah, it was fun to act in our own movie. But I think maybe, well…
RJ: We’re never doing that again? We had a such a hard time at the premiere.
WM: We did.
RJ: It was the most painful, raw, vulnerable position I think I’ve ever been in. And I think the double whammy of acting and writing was super tough.
What makes you more self-conscious, the acting or the writing?
WM and RJ (in unison): The writing!
RJ: Because you can’t blame anybody.
RJ: Usually with acting it’s like, “The editing is weird.. they took out so much of my character.” And now it’s like if you don’t like it, blame us.
And Lee [Toland Krieger, the director]… How did he come into it?
RJ: We’d seen his movie, ‘The Vicious Kind,’ and we loved it. And even though it was tonally different from what we were interested in for our movie, we wanted somebody who was emotionally intelligent and wasn’t afraid of getting in there. And then just meeting him, he’s fantastic.
WM: I was obsessed with ‘The Vicious Kind,’ so… We met him for breakfast and we sent him a script and it was kind of on immediately. Aesthetically, he’s just got such a great eye and he’s so good with drama. He really excavated the heart of the film. Which I think is what I’m most proud of. I hope people enjoy it, and I hope they laugh. But I hope people connect to it emotionally too. Because that’s my favorite part of the movie.
You just sort of touched on it, but my next question was what you hoped people took from the film.
RJ: I hope they feel shit. Honestly, that to me is the most important thing. I’m happy to make people laugh, it’s great. But if they can somehow connect the truth of losing someone or not being able to let go of someone. I’d be very happy and humbled by that.
WM: Yeah, though its a comedy hopefully we were able to shine a light on how painful heartbreak is. And everyone has gone through it at some point in their lives. I certainly have.
RJ: The people we like the most have, at least.
WM: Hopefully people can connect to that and hopefully they’ll — not learn something from it, but just see it in a new light.
Outside of this film, both of you juggle quite a bit in your careers. You work in TV and film, you write, you act…
RJ: We juggle, professionally.
How do you go about that lifestyle of serious multitasking? It must be exhausting.
RJ: I almost just fell asleep when you asked that question. Even the question is exhausting.
WM: Not your question!
RJ: No, not your question! Just thinking about it. But it’s tough. What a huge gift, though. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to do all of it because not everybody gets to do it. But it’s tough. I have to change modes and shift my energy balance. That’s not a real thing. But you know what I mean. It’s tough.
WM: She’s the busiest person in California right now.
RJ: No, it’s Mayor Villaraigosa!
WM: He could be busier, okay. Have you seen my neighborhood? But she’s on a full-time television show. She’s been really, really busy. And I think she’s done an excellent job at it.
WM: I’ve been less busy, but…
RJ: Yeah, but we’ve also talked about how this is a new challenge for you, too, because it’s such a new career for us. And it’s time consuming. There’s no shortcut for writing. I mean, you know. You can’t fake it.
Well, doing a bad job is a shortcut.
RJ: Exactly! That’s the only way. Turning something in you’re not proud of. It’s the only way to get around it and we don’t want to do that. So we end up having to squeeze in time when we can. Will will set up shop in my trailer, or we’ll meet for an hour if that’s all we have. Or we’ll meet late at night and burn the midnight ol.
WM: I’m moving a block away from Rashida in February, so that will help.
And you joked about it before, but would you work together again?
RJ: Yeah, I think we’re kind of work soulmates.
RJ: Whether we like it or not.
WM: I know, I know.
RJ: Don’t be depressed about it!
WM: No, no, I know. It’s crazy.
RJ: It’s definitely crazy. And we’re working on a couple things together now.
Well, I’m glad you guys found each other and it’s working out so well.
RJ and WM (in unison): Thank you so much!