Break-ups are the worst, and not always in the ways we expect. Challenges and swells of emotions can come from nowhere. We struggle to hold it together at the office, at the bar, or when a phone call goes straight to voicemail. Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, co-writers of the new romantic comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, understand this struggle deeply. After Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) end their marriage, they try to circumvent any emotional complication by remaining friends. And when Jesse meets someone else, Celeste reacts with hilarious, heartbreaking bad behavior. It’s a thoughtful, gorgeously shot romantic comedy, and if you don’t see yourself in the characters, I’m certain you’ve had friends like these. Recently I sat down with Jones and McCormack (who plays Jesse’s best friend) about their process, their relationships, and my email address.
So how did you get the idea for the movie?
RJ: We had a lot of friends who were in similar situations to this and stole from their lives. You know, what good friends do [laughs]. We both had unhealthy relationships with long-term exes and it just felt like something we kept seeing. This type of guy and this type of girl – a guy who’s just sort of chill and not too interested in getting out there and pursuing his career, and a girl who’s sort of on top of it all; that sort of dynamic.
Can you talk about casting Andy Samberg in this movie? He’s usually known for more comedic roles and this is a more dramatic turn for him.
RJ: I think Andy’s sort of had this inside him for a while. He said he wanted to do this and we were like “I don’t know…”
WM: Yeah, we sent him the script and we were like: “Can you do this?” and he was like “I got this.” We said “No, really, can you?” Then we went to New York and we read with him and he was incredible.
RJ: He really crushed it.
WM: It was fun to watch because you were sort of watching an actor do this for the first time in his life; it was amazing.
Did you write the characters with particular actors in mind?
RJ: A few of them. The ones that we played, and we wrote that part for Chris Messina. Because he’s a close friend of ours we knew that he would just nail it, which he did.
WM: We wrote Celeste for her.
RJ: [laughs] Yeah. But everyone else we sort of had a wish list, and we did pretty well with it.
Will, were you ever slated to play Jesse?
WM: No, well maybe originally when we first wrote the movie…
RJ: Four years ago…
WM: [laughs] I read Jesse a lot in the beginning; I read a lot of characters, I even read Celeste a lot too.
RJ: You would have made a good Celeste.
WM: [laughs] I guess for a moment I was, but no, not really. I’m a character actor, I always have been and that’s what I want to do when I act. I was really happy to play Skillz, that’s the part I wanted, and I was happy to get the part [laughs]. But I sort of feel like I’m older than that now, and Andy was perfect in the role. Andy and Rashida have been friends for a long, long time so they already had a sort of built-in dynamic, little idiosyncrasies; a really great connection, so it seemed like a natural fit. And it felt fresh, since he had never done anything like this before.
Were there any characters you were fond of that didn’t make it into the film?
RJ: We have a thing called “Character Island” where all of the characters that used to be in our movies or in our scripts get exiled to “Character Island.” There were some characters [in the movie] that didn’t make the cut. There was a little girl…
WM: Yeah, there was a little girl.
RJ: There was a sister and a little girl…
WM: They got cut.
RJ: Jesse had a sister and she had a daughter who was kind of a sagely little girl who sort of became Riley. She was supposed to be, like six years old. But I think we were both totally fine cutting her out of the script, right? We were ruthless about that.
How do you feel when you finish a film project?
WM: I’m usually so psyched when I’m done [laughs]. I’m like, “I don’t have to come back tomorrow? We’re good? You’ve got it? Great…” I’m like that when I act too, “Good? We’ve got it? Great, moving on…” [laughs].
RJ: With comedy you don’t have to get in deep with a character that it becomes hard to let go. Although, I remember after finishing my one episode of “Freaks and Geeks,” I cried so hard. I was so upset…
WM: [laughs] Seriously? I’m barely in Celeste and Jesse Forever but I wish there were more scenes with Skillz because it was fun to act with [Rashida]. It was particularly fun to watch Rashida because she was so locked in to the part, and for me – I’m biased – but it was watching a really good part and a great actress intersect, which was very exciting to watch. It was also emotional, because that part, you had to do a lot, and I’m sure you were exhausted but psyched.
RJ: Afterwards I went to Asia and just, like, sat in white pajamas [laughs]. It was like a retreat. I went by myself to Thailand and just sat in white pajamas for, like, a week [laughs].
Sounds like you were really done with Celeste.
RJ: I was so done.
WM: I just went to the mall [laughs].
You said that it’s easier to let go when it’s comedy, but there’s a lot of drama in this film, so my question is for both of you: When you were writing it, how much did you judge the characters as you wrote them, if at all?
RJ: We were just talking about how in one of the early drafts, Will was like “Is Celeste too unlikeable? Are we just screwing ourselves because people won’t find a way in?” So we did some work to sort of soften her, but I don’t think you can judge your characters. We really tried to create a balance with all of our characters so nobody was villainous or reprehensible.
WM: I think it’s good to make your lead unlikeable as well, because as people we all have flaws. I feel like people can relate to a flawed protagonist, but we wanted to make sure you weren’t too unlikeable.
RJ: Right, of course, and you were right – we did soften her. She’s still unlikeable, but then she gets hers, so you start to feel bad for her.
WM: We wanted to make it realistic in that people don’t change a lot, they change a little, which – in turn – is a lot.
RJ: They change a little when they’re forced to change. All these things happen to her and then at the end of the movie she just doesn’t yell at somebody for a change. That’s all she did.
Rashida, your character makes a huge career mistake that ultimately works out for her, has that ever happened in your career to either of you personally?
WM: Maybe our writing career?
RJ: [laughs] This was a huge mistake.
WM: But look, it’s actually coming out!
RJ: It would be so cool if it were true.
Like a movie you didn’t get, but ultimately it led to better opportunities?
RJ: Oh, that happens sometimes. There have definitely been some parts that I was torn up about not getting, and then I see the movie and I’m like, “I’m good” [laughs]. I remember there was a movie I was up for and I thought it was going to change my career, and I was devastated when I didn’t get it. I don’t even think the movie ever came out.
WM: Or got made.
RJ: [laughs] Or got made. I kind of believe that nothing’s really a mistake. I recently did that thing where you accidentally send an email to the wrong person.
I get those a lot.
RJ: You get those a lot?! [laughs]
My last name is Zilberman. There must be another Alan Zilberman who must live in Russia because I get a lot of wrong emails in Russian.
RJ: Are you serious?
Yeah, and I always respond, “Dude, I really hope you speak English because this is the wrong Alan.”
RJ: Wow, that’s so weird. He must be pretty powerful if you’re getting random emails all the time.
I hope not.
RJ: Anyways, I feel like that’s never a mistake. Like, it was clearly something I needed to say to that person, and I didn’t even apologize, I just continued the conversation as if I meant to write it [laughs].
I love the goofy couple talk in the movie, so I want to know, what is the silliest thing you’ve ever seen or heard a couple do or say?
WM: I don’t know, um, I was on vacation with some friends that were maybe slightly vapid and I heard a conversation that went like this:
“You’re so tan.”
“No, you’re so tan.”
“You’re so hot.”
“No, you’re so hot.”
And that was the entire conversation [laughs]. I was like, “I wonder if these should be my friends?” I mean, they were tan, and they were pretty hot.
It was a truthful conversation.
WM: [laughs] It was pretty honest, like that to them was their reality. They were tan and hot.
RJ: [laughs] I don’t know specifically, but I definitely have friends that I catch sometimes just speaking like a little bit higher to each other.
WM: Like baby talk.
RJ: Yes, and I’m like, don’t do that… ever. Definitely not in public. But everyone does it anyways.
I recently watched a similar film, Friends with Kids, and it seems like films that explore the line between friendship and romance are becoming a trend – an update of When Harry Met Sally – so I’d like to know, do you think it’s possible to still be friends with an ex?
RJ: Ours is like a slightly different version because there’s the added complexity that they were married, so I feel like maybe our version is begging the question, can exes be friends?
RJ: I feel like my answer is it depends: A) Were you friends to begin with? I’ve dated people that I shouldn’t have dated because I wouldn’t have been friends with them in the first place. And B) You need to leave a little time for healing. I don’t think you can go right into being friends with someone you just broke up with.
WM: “Without recognition there can be no healing.” –Sinead O’Connor.
RJ: [laughs] Or Biggie Smalls.
WM: I think they can. I’m friends with most of my exes because I’m sort of proud of my ex list, I’ve dated some really great girls…
RJ: But with time…
WM: Right, with time. I think the interesting thing about our movie – I hope – is that they’re hasty. They sort of try to be friends without doing the necessary emotional work that needs to be done after a break-up. Celeste doesn’t even think she needs any, and I think that’s why her descent is funny, because she’s like, “Oh my god, I have to do feelings?” No one’s exempt from that, you have to go through it. So, I think you can, but I think you need to communicate first.
You mentioned earlier that you went through and hand-picked all these actors, so I was curious what sort of process did you go through to pick a director? Also, what was he trying to achieve with all this gorgeous cinematography? This was one of the best looking romantic comedies I’ve ever seen.
WM: Made for under a million dollars, $840,000 actually. David Lanzenberg [the film’s cinematographer] is a genius.
RJ: He’s the jam, he’s so good, and he’s never done a feature film before. But anyways, we saw The Vicious Kind, Lee Toland Krieger’s last movie, which is a fantastic film. If you haven’t seen it, definitely see it. It’s very different tonally from our movie. It’s a dark family drama with Adam Scott and J.K. Simmons, and the performances are so good and it looks fantastic. So we met with Lee and he’s so charming, so smart, and so talented. He immediately got the movie. He’s 28, so he’s of the generation who gets it and had been through some similar morphing himself. He’s also this refined aesthete and has this fine taste.
WM: I was obsessed with The Vicious Kind. I was like, “Oh my God this is one of the best indie films I’ve seen.” We weren’t looking for like a big comedy director, we were looking for a dramatic director because we wanted that part of the movie to be excavated. He was talking about the movie in terms of Husbands and Wives, Annie Hall, and Broadcast News. We were like “Yes! That’s it!” He really tonally wanted it to have heft, and so did we.
RJ: He’s very sensitive and a good communicator on set. He’s great with actors, and knows how to make the scenes about the emotions; that was something that was important to us. Between Will, Andy, and I, we had the comedy stuff covered, we didn’t need to force anyone to be funnier than they already naturally were.
There’s a great line in the film that goes something like “You have to crawl before you can walk.” As actors and writers you’re always growing with each experience, but is there one movie or project you’ve done where you’ve felt that big transition?
RJ: That’s a good question.
WM: Prior to this? This was the biggest growth spurt of my life.
RJ: It was huge for me too; as an actress, as a writer, as a producer, as everything.
WM: This was professionally and personally the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most gratifying.
RJ: Me too.
WM: It’s really intense to write, produce, and make a movie, then have it come out in the world. It’s a very vulnerable thing, and we tried to write a comedy about heartbreak to the best of our ability. We weren’t trying to be cynical or satirical at all in the emotional parts of the movie. It doesn’t take guts to do that, but it does take some measure of vulnerability, and this is how we felt it. As an actor I’ve never really had a lot of fear, but as a writer I’ve had a ton of fear about exposing myself. It was great to go through the process, and I would do it again, but it was hard. This movie, for me, by far is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
RJ: Same. As an actress I’ve never had to carry anything before, and we wrote this part that was challenging:; to be likeable and have some levity, but also to have some gravity, it was a tough balance — and I was in it. I was feeling every emotion in a way that I don’t really like to feel emotion, because they’re scary [laughs]. So it was challenging, but great.
RJ,WM: No, thank you!