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Rashida Jones, Will McCormack and Lee Toland Krieger – Reinventing the Romantic Comedy

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

Lee Toland Krieger, Rashida Jones and Will McCormack at the New York Press Day for “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”

Rashida Jones, Will McCormack and Lee Toland Krieger

Reinventing the Romantic Comedy with Celeste and Jesse Forever

by Jay S. Jacobs

You think you know Rashida Jones, don’t you?  Sweet, smart, pretty, quirky young actress who has been rising steadily through the ranks for the last decade or so. Daughter of music legend Quincy Jones and Mod Squad beauty Peggy Lipton.  Jones has been turning our heads for years as part of the brilliant ensembles of The Office and Parks and Recreation.  At the same time, she has been nursing a growing film career, playing significant supporting roles in such films as I Love You, Man, The Social Network, Our Idiot Brother and The Muppets.

However, Jones wants you to see a whole new side of her talents.  This side is on display in Celeste and Jesse Forever, a new offbeat romantic comedy that Jones not only plays the lead role in, but also co-wrote with her co-star, character actor Will McCormack.  McCormack had been in movies like Syriana, Prime, Must Love Dogs and Elf.

Jones and McCormack had dated briefly years ago.  They quickly realized that they didn’t work as a couple, but they really clicked as friends.  Eventually they became collaborators. Together they crafted Celeste and Jesse Forever, giving Jones a character who was as smart, pretty and funny as most she plays, but also one who was notably spikier than some she had played before.  McCormack also plays the supporting role of Skillz, a pot-dealing lothario who is close friends with the couple.

Unlike most romantic comedies, Celeste and Jesse Forever starts weeks after the title characters have broken up.  However, as life-long friends, they are trying to navigate the tricky waters of keeping the friendship after the love is gone.  They still live next door to each other and do everything together, much to the annoyance of their friends.  However, can their relationship survive the two returning to the dating world?

The film shows a fun and funky view of modern Los Angeles life, with smart direction by indie auteur Lee Toland Krieger, who had previously helmed the acclaimed movie The Vicious Kind.

A few days before the movie opened, we were one of a few media outlets who were able to sit down with Jones, McCormack and Krieger at the Regency Hotel in New York and discuss the new film.

I love the fact that this is not a typical romantic comedy.  A new golden age of romantic comedies has to happen and this is one of the movies that could help jumpstart it.

Rashida Jones: Yes.  I love that.

Did you have the ending in mind from the beginning?  How did the whole writing process take place?

Will McCormack: First of all, thank you.

Rashida Jones: Yeah, thank you.  I mean, if we could start any kind of golden age… any kind of age… (laughs) that’s huge.

Will McCormack: Anything with age at all in it.

Rashida Jones: (laughs) Anything with age in it is great.  We definitely knew what we wanted the ending to be. The ending was essential to the storytelling. We wanted to be able to honestly convey the way that it feels when you are trying to let go of somebody, in a way that felt like it would reflect people’s lives. I feel like often I go see movies and I really like them and they are great and they are entertaining, but I don’t feel represented. I feel like they stop when it gets really ugly and gross and things start to go really bad. We wanted to show that a little bit.

Specifically for certain scenes, did you email each other back and forth or did you sit in a room?

Will McCormack: We wrote the whole movie side by side, just like this, on one computer, in Rashida’s back yard.  Pretty quickly… in about four months.  We boarded the movie for about two months and knew sort of where we wanted to go with it.  We knew the ending.  We knew it was always going to end that way.  [We] kind of wrote the ending first.  Once we were together, it was pretty easy to collaborate.  We’ve known each other for so long.  It was actually fun.

Rashida Jones: Yeah, I was in a dark place.  (laughs)

Will McCormack: You were.  I was pretty happy.  It was great.

Rashida Jones: You were great, actually.  You were so happy.

Will McCormack: That summer was great for me.  (laughs)

Rashida Jones: Yeah, for you…  But also, I think there was the advantage of… not having the confidence to feel like you were going to finish a script on your own, because I had never done it before, was advantageous.  I said the advantage was advantageous, but what I meant was it was advantageous in the way that I relied really heavily in Will at every step of the process, so it really was a sincerely collaborative experience.  It felt like I had one other limb to lean on.  I think you felt that way about me, right?  (laughs)

Will McCormack: I do.

How did you come up with the whole idea of a romantic comedy about a couple that had already broken up?

Will McCormack: We had had friends, and we’d been in dysfunctional relationships with exes that were sort of hard to interpret.  We just thought it would be a good premise for a film.  We thought it could be comedic, but also it could be heartbreaking, like it was in real life.  It just felt common amongst people in our crew, that they had had this really intense relationship with someone that they struggled to let go of or define.  It just felt relevant.

I loved all the inside jokes between Celeste and Jesse.  Did you take any of those from real life?

Rashida Jones: Unfortunately, yes.  (laughs)

Will McCormack: We masturbate small vegetables.

Rashida Jones: We do jerk off small… and large vegetables.  (laughs)  That came in like the third draft, because we were like: “We do that.  Do you think that’s okay?  Is that too weird?  Is that going to turn the whole movie into something weird?”  But, ultimately it was honest.  (laughs again)  And it’s a really great shorthand to show how close these people are and how immature and sometimes irritating they are.

Will McCormack: When we sold the movie the first time… when we walked into the room for the meeting, the executive was masturbating a small pencil.  I felt like I had finally made it…

Rashida Jones: Can you masturbate something else?  Does it have to be yourself?

Will McCormack: I don’t know.  Good question.

Yes, masturbate means self pleasuring.  You guys were fondling…

Rashida Jones: Yes, fondling!  Pleasuring.  Pleasuring the vegetable.

Will McCormack: To answer your question: Yeah, the majority of the stupid things that Celeste and Jesse do, we do when we have writer’s block.

Both of you have worked in acting previously, but this is the first time you are performing your own screenplay.  How did that make doing the roles different?

Rashida Jones: Definitely acting a part that you write is easier, because you tend to write it in a cadence that feels comfortable for you.  You’ve read it over and over again.  If something doesn’t feel true, you just change it.

Will McCormack: You know all your lines, which is great.

Rashida Jones: You know all your lines.  Actually, there were a lot of times when the script supervisor was like: “Umm, you said it wrong…”  I’m like: Right, sorry.  But I feel like it was generally easier to say something that you had some hand in creating.

Will McCormack: But it was more pressure as a writer.  As an actor, you usually just go and do your job and go home.  Writing felt a lot more vulnerable.  If the jokes aren’t funny, it’s our fault.  It felt like more of a challenge.  More pressure, but more rewarding, too.

How did you juggle the responsibility of writer and actor? How much were you involved in the look and feel of the film?

Rashida Jones: I was… maybe I’m wrong, but the minute I came to set, I wanted to not be in writer mode.  I respect and trust Lee implicitly.  He’s really, really good at his job.  And his job is to tell me what to do.  (laughs)  So I wanted to just be there for him as an actress.  I didn’t want to deal with anything business oriented or writer oriented.

Lee Toland Krieger: I’ll second that.  Rashida was great about coming to set and not trying to produce.  Which we needed, it’s a tiny movie, it’s kind of an all hands on deck experience.  I think Will and I were pretty clear with you and we were always thinking that we needed you to just act.  It’s such an enormous responsibility.  You’re carrying the movie.  That part is a total tour de force performance that Rashida gives, I don’t think she could have done it if she was trying to juggle all those things.  You still had to a little bit, probably, but for the most part it was interesting to see how you could just flip a switch.  She would show up having produced the day before and all the sudden just be in actress mode.  But I think that’s the reason the performance is as amazing as it is.  She was just totally focused on the role.

I love the fact that you nailed so many things about LA culture.  Did you have locations envisioned in the script, or did you hand that off to Lee?

Rashida Jones: Lee’s vision and focus for what the movie was going to look like, where it was going to be, it did nothing but expand and elevate our story.  We were so lucky in that way, because he’s got a crazy, focused eye.  He understood from reading our script that we wanted to show a little bit of a different side of LA and then took it to the next level with his DP [Director of photography].

Lee Toland Krieger: David Lanzenberg, our DP, takes a lot of the credit here, but thank you for the nice words.  But she and Will really had all of those LA nuances in the script.  Rashida is from LA.  I’m from LA.  Will’s been in LA forever.  There’s just things like the kinds of yogurt shops you have in Los Angeles and the fact that if you live in Westwood it means something.  (all laugh)  Those nuances were all there.  I can’t take any credit.  I think what we tried to do as best we could – we didn’t have a lot of money and we had to find locations that we could afford.  So it really became a product of… the idea became let’s find a spot or part of the town that we can capture LA and it doesn’t feel like the postcard version of the city.  Also, you look at movies like – from Shampoo to Greenberg, that do LA well – they focus on, generally, one part of town and really try to get that part of town right.  As you know, Venice is so vastly different from Silver Lake and that is so vastly different from Beverly Hills.  So we tried to do a little bit of that.  But again, it was on the page.

One of the strengths of the movie to me was how much of a hypocrite Celeste is in some ways.

Rashida Jones: In a lot of ways.

Did the guys have to push you into that?  Did you want to go further with it?

Rashida Jones: I was really wanting to play a dynamic, complicated character.  I’ve played a lot of nice, sweet, friendly, affable, dependable, sturdy, pragmatic characters.  We struggled a little bit at the beginning of writing with how unlikeable to make her, because at some point you want people to go along with the ride.  But we definitely wanted her to come off hypocritical and judgmental and myopic, because it gives her somewhere to go.  By the way, the place she goes is not that far.  A lot of really, really tough things happen to her and she changes like that much [holds her thumb and forefinger close together, but not touching].  She just doesn’t yell at someone in line.  That idea – it takes so much to change you a little – was important to us.  It’s easier to do when you start somebody in a place where they have a lot of flaws that they are not necessarily conscious of.

Will McCormack: Yeah, it takes a lot to change even a little.  It’s so hard to change.  Celeste does mature, not a ton, but a little.  I feel like that felt realistic to us.  But, also, I have to say that in the wrong hands I feel like Celeste could be really unlikeable.  Rashida’s performance does a great job of balancing a character that is tricky.

How did you balance those things in the story?  Because the film feels very real.

Will McCormack:  Thank you.  Lee.  It’s Lee.

Rashida Jones: Yeah.

Will McCormack: The script, we wrote the movie to the best of our ability.  We wanted to write a comedy about a broken heart.  I know when I’ve been in pain, it’s been really painful, and it’s also been the funniest times of my life.  (chuckles)  So, we wrote what we knew and we left it up to Lee to handle those terms.  If one likes the movie, they like it because it does represent that experience, which is absurd and also really horrible,  I think he did a really good job of navigating that.  But, I think it’s hard.

Lee Toland Krieger: Thank you.  I’ll just add that a lot of what these guys did on the page was so brilliant that you could have a moment like Rashida… Celeste… falling out of a trash can.  At least if you hear that, that sounds like a broad, physical, slapstick joke.  But it’s done in such a way and her performance is so real that, so authentic, she’s hurting so bad, got this mask on, that you end up feeling… I always reference it, but Judy Davis screaming at Sydney Pollock in Husbands and Wives, she’s screaming at him and heartbroken and feels betrayed, yet it’s hysterically funny because her date is right behind her.  I think it’s just one of those things where these guys struck that perfect balance where you could have a physical comedy moment and within it is this very real performance.  Rashida does such an amazing job of emanating this vulnerability at all times.  I think, back to the question earlier, you can have somebody who really pushes the boundaries of being acerbic and somewhat impenetrable, and yet with Rashida being so likeable and so vulnerable all the time, that always exists.  I like to think we never lose the audience on her journey, because that always exists there.  That’s what a really great actress can do.

Rashida Jones: Can we just stage round tables from now on?  It’s great.  It’s excellent.

Why do you think relationships seem so much better after they are lost? Why do you think people get nostalgic for relationships that didn’t work?

Rashida Jones: Joni Mitchell.  Joni Mitchell never lies.  “Don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.”  I think our brains are programmed to remember pleasure and forget pain.  They just are.  That’s why people can survive childbirth and pregnancy and whatever.  Also, in this particular story, it feels like the life happenings are so violent.  They are so large, the things that happen.  She’s confronted with the loss in such an immediate way.  It’s almost impossible to ignore.  It’s not like something you can move away from.  It’s right in your face.

Will McCormack: We were saying yesterday that women hurt more, initially, but men regret it more.

Rashida Jones: Yeah.  Men deny and deny and deny and when they finally feel it, it’s too late.  They regret it forever.  Women have no choice but to process the pain as it’s happening.

Will McCormack: And move on…

Rashida Jones: …and move on.

We’re not going to give away any spoilers, but one of the things this film addresses is that you may or may not find your soulmate.  A lot of romantic comedies have the same types of guys – bad boys who turn out to have a heart of gold.  This film made them different.  What do you think of the role of Jesse [played by Andy Samberg] and the guy played by Chris Messina.  Who do you think was the ideal guy for your character?

Rashida Jones: For my character?  I thought you were going to be personal, maybe about me.  I think mainly we wanted to try to take what people… I mean, listen, conventions work.  Archetypes work.  That’s the reason that they are what they are.  We wanted to take those and try to invert them slightly, so there was something you were used to so you could grab onto it, and feel like you connect with it – and then go a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right.  Especially Paul.  We wrote that part for Chris Messina, who is such a great actor.  He is like me, he plays these affable, dependable, sweet boyfriends and friends or whatever.  But Messina has a little bit more spikiness than that.  We wanted to show him when he’s full-throttle trying to make it happen.  But he’s also really sweet, so he has to pull back.  I feel like there is a good tension there with that character.  We’re like, you think he’s one thing, and then he’s another thing, but he’s actually that thing and then he’s a mix of the two at some point.  But also, I don’t like that thing either that you know it’s the sheep that’s really the wolf.  You know what is going to happen at the end.  You know she’s going to end up with him.  You know she hates him and it’s going to be like so perfect.  And then she wakes up.  I have to say, sorry, side comment, I don’t think that happens.  Somebody asked me that earlier today.  “Do you think that friendship can turn into romance?”  At this age, I don’t think so.  I think you have to have romance first.  I don’t think you can just turn around and decide that you want to sleep somebody a lot.  Right?

Lee Toland Krieger: Very rare when something like that happens.  Let me just add one thing as sort of a kudos to Chris Messina, who did something that’s so hard to do.  We had discussed this idea that he was a guy that grew up and was never the best looking guy in his class.  He was never the star quarterback.

Rashida Jones: … the hot man…

Lee Toland Krieger: But all the sudden he’s 35.  He’s got a good job.  He’s good looking, he’s not like devastatingly handsome, but a good looking guy.  And he’s all of the sudden decided that he can try on this sort of lothario thing.  But it doesn’t really work because he isn’t…

Will McCormack: … He doesn’t know how…

Lee Toland Krieger: Girls who were beautiful from six years old and on are different from girls who weren’t beautiful until 19, after all the awkwardness sort of left.  Do you know what I mean?

Will McCormack: It’s like The Greatest American Hero.  He gets the cape, but he doesn’t know how to do it.

Lee Toland Krieger: Yeah.  But, more to the point, I think in life you generally run into people who are… you know, there is a girl who has these great qualities and a girl who has these great qualities and you want to kind of mash them together.  That’s kind of what Andy and Chris are – you know, Jesse and Paul.  She wants the blend of the two.  I feel like that’s life.  You know the chances are that you’re not going to meet the perfect person, every last little detail, check every box.  It’s just which one do you want to make it work with?

Rashida Jones: It’s a science experiment.  You can put two elements together and hopefully it’s a compound that works.  I think for Celeste and Jesse, there is something about their dynamic that will never change.  She’ll always kind of be in charge.  Even if they worked it out again, they’d end up back in that groove, you know?  She needs somebody who is going to call her on her shit.  Paul may or may not be that person, but she has to create a different dynamic to be happy.

Will, when you were writing this, were you thinking of yourself as Jesse, or did you always see Skillz as the fun character for you?

Will McCormack: We wrote it in our own voices, so we were initially reading it on first draft.  Of course, I read Jesse.  We had a lot of fun,  But it was never a real option for me.  I’m a character actor.  I was happy.  If I could play parts like Skillz in movies forever, I’d be happy.  Andy felt like a really [good choice.]  I’ve known Andy for a long time, too and he and Rashida have been great friends for a long time, so they have a sort of built-in intimacy already, that she and I have.  It was also exciting to watch him do this for the first time in his career.  So, not really.  For a millisecond, but no.

Lee, you directed and wrote The Vicious Kind.  What was the biggest difference in directing something you hadn’t written?

Lee Toland Krieger: I’ll start by saying, it’s not exactly the answer, but it’s a very different movie, but both movies deal with heartbreak.  That’s really the core of both of these movies.  I’d seen a lot of people talk about the [first] movie as being dabbling with misogyny.  I really wanted to tell a story that A) I thought was more accessible, but B) was female driven.  What better story to tell than this one?  But more to the point of your question, It’s tough for me to say.  For the most part, I wanted to get involved with these two guys because I really loved the story and I loved these two characters.  I’m not really addressing the point of your question, I’m sorry.  I got sidetracked.  Maybe I need my second cup of coffee.  Here’s the great thing.  We had like nine months.  Nine months to get to know [each other].  These guys go back forever, but I was new to the equation.  We had nine months, so we got to watch movies.  We made each other mixes.  We really got to know one another as people first, and talked a lot about the movie.  From the get-go we had the same touchstones.  We had Husbands and Wives and Broadcast News and When Harry Met Sally.  So we were already in synch, to an extent.  These guys were really gracious in letting me direct the movie.  At the same time, I would have been a fool to try to ignore the fact that I had two people who were so close and knew every nuance of this story.  Literally every single one.  In the past, if I’d get jammed up, I’m kind of on my own.  I have to figure it out, for better or worse.  Here, I’ve got two of the funniest, smartest people I know, who are also the writers and actors in the movie.  So I think it probably took us a minute to be in the groove, because it was different for me and I think different for them, being the writers and actors.  Once we found our rhythm, I think it was a really smooth process.

Copyright ©2012  All rights reserved. Posted: August 3, 2012.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2012 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2012. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

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