The typical romantic comedy formula is simple. Choose your affable guy and girl (preferably polar opposites), add in a cute first meeting, strap them to a loopy rollercoaster of foreplay and, finally, have them ride off into the "happily ever after," never to be subjected to the real-life perils of a relationship again.
Rarely, if ever, do we get a story about the relationship you have between your first love and the person you end being with for the rest of your life. Maybe that's because, when it comes to those, unhappy endings (at least, for classic romantics) are inevitable. Who would want to see a film that essentially sets you up to break your heart? Apparently, real-life best friends and exes (they dated for three weeks in the '90s) Rashida Jones and Will McCormack would. They're the stars and screenwriters of Celeste and Jesse Forever, a Lee Toland Krieger-directed film that follows a divorced couple (played by Jones and Andy Samberg) trying to maintain a friendship while they date other people.
Not only does Celeste and Jesse Forever explore the awkward dynamic between a pair of ex-lovers trying to define the boundaries of friendship and romance, but it also sheds light on the people caught in the crossfire, i.e. their friends and co-workers (played by McCormack, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian-Olsen, Emma Roberts, and Elijah Wood) and the potential new lovers in their pursuit (Rebecca Dayan and Chris Messina).
Complex recently participated in a roundtable discussion with Jones, McCormack, and Krieger to talk about what compelled them to examine the relatively unspoken about in-between of relationships, how their friendship influenced the inside jokes in the film, and whether or not an ideal partner actually does await all of us.
As told to Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
On finding the inspiration for the film:
Rashida Jones: We wanted to be able to honestly convey the way it feels when you’re trying to let go of somebody in a way that would reflect people’s lives. I feel like I often go to see movies and they’re great and entertaining, but I don’t feel represented. I feel like they stop when it gets really ugly and things start to go really bad, and we wanted to kind of show that a little bit.
Will McCormack: We have friends who were in this kind of relationship and we’ve been in sort of dysfunctional relationships with exes that were hard to interpret, so we just thought it would be a good premise for a film. We thought it could be comedic but also as heartbreaking as it was in real-life. And it just felt common amongst people in our crew. They had this really intense relationship with someone that they struggled to let go of, so it just felt relevant.
On the collaboration behind the film's script:
McCormack: Rashida and I wrote the whole thing together side by side on one computer in Rashida’s backyard, and pretty quickly, in about four months. We boarded the movie for about two months and figured out where we wanted to go with it. We knew the ending was always going to end that way and we kind of wrote the ending first, but once we were together, it was pretty easy to collaborate. We’ve known each other for so long so it was actually fun.
Lee Toland Krieger: We had nine months to get to know each other. Rashida and Will go back forever, and I was sort of new to the equation. We watched movies like Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives and we made each other mixes. So, we really got to know one another as people first and talked a lot about the movie. I think from the beginning we had the same touchstones. We were already in sync to an extent, and these guys were really gracious in letting me direct the movie.
At the same time, I would’ve been a fool to try and ignore the fact that I got two people who are so close who are also the writers and actors in this film. I think it probably took us a minute to get in the groove because it was different for me and them, but once we found our rhythm, it was a really smooth process.
On coming up with Celeste and Jesse's inside joke of masturbating lip balm:
Jones: Will and I jerk off small and large vegetables [Laughs]. That came in at, like, the third draft 'cause we were like, “We do that. Do you think that is okay? Is it too weird? Is that gonna turn the whole movie into something weird?” But ultimately it was awesome, and it’s really great to show how close these people are and how immature and sometimes irritating they are.
McCormack: When we sold the movie the first time, we walked into the room for a meeting with the executive and he was masturbating a small pencil.
On playing characters in their own screenplay:
Jones: Acting parts that you write is definitely easier because you tend to write it in a cadence that feels comfortable because you’ve read it over and over again. And if something doesn’t feel true, you change it. The minute I came to set I wanted to not be in writer mode because I respect Lee and he’s really good at his job and his job is to tell me what to do, 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.
McCormack: There’s more pressure as a writer. As an actor you usually just go, do your job and go home. With writing, I felt a lot more vulnerable and I don’t know if the jokes will be as funny, so it felt like more of a challenge and more pressure. But then again, it was more rewarding too.
Krieger: I second that Rashida was great about coming to set and not tying to produce, which we needed to because in a tiny movie, it's kind of a hands-on-deck experience. And I think Will and I were pretty clear with Rashida and she was always thanking us. We needed her to just act because it's such an enormous responsibility to not only carry on a part, but carry on a movie, and that kind of part has a truer performance, which she gives.
I don’t think we could’ve done it if she tried to juggle a million things. For the most part, it was kind of interesting to see how she sort of flipped the switch and she would show up having produced the day before and all of a sudden be in actress mode. I think that’s the reason her performance is amazing as it is. She was totally focused on the role.
On the film's theme of friendship after a break-up:
Jones: Joni Mitchell never lies: You don’t know what you got 'til it's gone. [Laughs.] I think our brains are programmed to remember pleasure and forget pain. That’s why women can survive childbirth and pregnancy and whatever. But I also think that in this particular story, it feels like the life happenings are so violent and so large that when things like a major break-up happen, you’re confronted with the loss in such an immediate way it's almost impossible to ignore. It's not something you can move away from because it's right in your face.
McCormack: People start to get nostalgic about their relationships after they’re gone.
On challenging the idea of archetypal love interests in movies:
Jones: We wanted to try to take those archetypes and try to invert them slightly so that they were something that you were used to, could grab onto and feel like you could connect with. Especially with Paul, we wrote that part for Chris Messina, who is such a great actor. He’s like me. He always plays someone who’s affable and dependable, he's always the sweet friend or boyfriend. But he’s got a little more spikiness than that and we wanted to show how he is when he’s full-throttle.
There's a good tension with his character where you think he’s something, but then he’s another, and then he’s a mix of the two at some point. I don’t like that thing either where you know there’s that sheep that’s really a wolf and you know what’s going to happen in the end and you know she’s gonna end up with him.
Someone asked me that earlier today, “Do you think friendship can turn into romance?” And I don’t think so. I think you need to have romance first. I don’t think you could just turn around and decide you want to sleep with one of your friends a lot.
Krieger: Very rarely does something like [turning a friendship into romance] happen. I want to just add one thing that is sort of kudos to Chris Messina who did something that is so hard to do. He's not your archetypal guy. We sort of all discussed this idea: He was a guy that maybe grew up and was never the best looking guy in his class. He was never the all-star quarterback, but all of a sudden he’s thirty-five, got a good job, he’s good looking, and he’s all of a sudden decided that he’s gotta try on this authority thing [Laughs.] It doesn’t really work because he wasn’t always that guy. Girls who are beautiful from six years old on are different from girls who were beautiful at nineteen after all the awkwardness. You know what I’m saying?
But more to the point. In life, there are these girls with great qualities and these guys with great qualities and you want to match them together because they seem perfect together. And that’s kind of what Celeste tries to do with with Jesse and Paul, but I feel like chances are you’re not gonna meet the perfect person for you.
As told to Tara Aquino (@t_akino)