Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) met in high school, married young and are growing apart. Now thirty, Celeste is the driven owner of her own media consulting firm, Jesse is once again unemployed and in no particular rush to do anything with his life. Celeste is convinced that divorcing Jesse is the right thing to do -- she is on her way up, he is on his way nowhere, and if they do it now instead of later, they can remain supportive friends. Jesse passively accepts this transition into friendship, even though he is still in love with her. As the reality of their separation sets in, Celeste slowly and painfully realizes she has been cavalier about their relationship, and her decision, which once seemed mature and progressive, now seems impulsive and selfish. But her timing with Jesse is less than fortuitous. While navigating the turbulent changes in their lives and in their hearts, these two learn that in order to truly love someone, you may have to let them go.
After dating for three weeks in the late 90's, we realized we were better suited as friends—and eventually, as writing partners. After several failed attempts, in the summer of 2008 we agreed upon an idea of Rashida's that we both felt could be approached with honesty and a fresh take. What if a young married couple, who grew up together, realized they should get divorced but didn't want to lose their friendship? Is it possible to stay friends after separating? Can you preserve the best parts of a relationship without taking time to process the worst parts? Can you love someone to the moon and back but still not be 'right' for each other? These were questions that seemed to be common amongst people in our generation.
Ultimately, we wanted to make a comedy about a broken heart. What it's like to endure real heartbreak. How devastating it can be, how funny, and how you feel like the whole world is ending. But the world doesn't end. You don't die. And you do grow.
by Rashida Jones & Will McCormack
The romantic travails of smart, funny, attractive young people are always fodder for light-hearted comedy—except when the light hearts are countered by heartache. CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER transforms the conventional romantic comedy with a bracingly honest real-life vibe, exploring both the comedy and complexity of love and friendship.
"Will and I grew up with romantic comedies, but the ones we love are all about heartbreak," says the luminous Rashida Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with actor Will McCormack and also stars as Celeste. "We wanted to invert what everybody expects from this kind of story. Of course we're all completely familiar with the archetypes and structures and story points of romantic comedy—so we wanted to flip it. To keep the humor and the audience's emotional connection to it but get something new."
Rashida Jones and Will McCormack are laughingly frank about the real-life parallel between their own personal history and their collaborative screenplay. "As a couple we were short-lived and ancient history, but we knew we could be friends," says Will, who nails the sidekick role of Skillz the pot dealer with comic skeeziness. "We wrote this whole movie side-by-side on one computer. We wrote every word together. Because we have been so close for so long, there was a real shorthand during the writing process. And as new writers, we were very encouraging of each other." CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER is a first-time screenwriting effort for both actor-writers.
As Will elaborates, "Celeste and Jesse are definitely more amplified versions of us. Celeste's journey is interesting because she is someone who thinks she can outsmart heartache. That's something that happens to other people. She does everything she can to avoid it."
An alpha woman with shadows
Indeed, Celeste offers a twist on an archetype that movies love to scorn: the alpha woman. "Yup, Celeste is the high-powered career driver and Jesse is the passive guy who won't grow up—all the makings of a cliché," says Rashida. "But the balance between them keeps shifting out of Celeste's control, which kills her as a controller. When the reality of losing Jesse hits, she's just blindsided." Celeste's ambitious striver is given more compassionate dimensionality than the alpha woman stereotype is usually afforded.
"Personally, I can relate to a line like 'The father of my child will own a car'" says producer Jennifer Todd, herself a professional dynamo with both studio blockbusters and independent dramas to her name. "Celeste is a very, very recognizable present-day woman. But by the rules of studio comedy, she would have to lose her job, have a comeuppance. And she would also have to fall down in high heels a lot. Embarrassing things would happen to her. An ambitious woman has to become a loser to be likeable. Rashida didn't write her or play her that way."
Director Lee Toland Krieger remarks that "Even in 2012 you rarely see an ambitious Type A woman onscreen who's more than a caricature. Rashida's character can be tough and very serious about her career and also have a sweetness and sadness." Krieger's first feature, THE VICIOUS KIND, attracted Todd and the writers for its sinewy drama; "Just reading the script I understood that they didn't want a fluff piece. They wanted a story about what heartbreak is really like. I was thinking HUSBANDS AND WIVES and I could see how a lot of other filmmakers might be thinking of something broader. It's maybe harder to take at times and a bit more gut-wrenching, but I think people will respond to that honesty."
"It was a really tricky tone to find," Rashida points out. "There are so many turns in the movie that are so hard and so quick, and it goes from being funny and broad to really sad and hopefully truthful—it needed somebody who got that range to find what the thread is."
But don't worry, it's still a comedy
Emotional truth notwithstanding, the goal is entertainment—hard to miss with the likes of SNL alum ANDY SAMBERG as Jesse, and an ensemble featuring Emma Roberts, Chris Messina, Elijah Wood and the rest of the supporting cast. As bad girl pop star Riley, Emma Roberts's sulky stoner is the antithesis of Celeste's uber-functional know-it-all. "Riley lives in a totally different world than Celeste," says Emma, "So it's hilarious to see when their worlds meet and they are forced to interact. Riley is oblivious but she isn't stupid. I think she just doesn't know how to behave appropriately in certain situations. I think they both are kind of fascinated by each other because they are such opposites. I love how their relationship goes from annoyance to a kind of love for each other. Or at least an understanding."
Friendship from the inside out
Echoing the film's themes of love and friendship, a network of longtime relationships enlivens the CELESTE AND JESSE cast and crew. Andy Samberg's friendship with Rashida dates back to his stand-up comic days around LA, and they are old friends with instant chemistry onscreen. Producer Todd's acquaintance with Rashida goes back to high school (where Rashida looked up admiringly to the slightly older and reportedly cooler Jennifer), and Jen gave Will McCormack one of his first film roles, in THE BOILER ROOM. Jen's sister and Team Todd partner SUZANNE TODD shares producer credit (as well as with LEE NELSON). Chris Messina, who plays Celeste's surprisingly astute suitor Paul, is Jennifer's husband. On the tech side, director Lee Toland Krieger brought on a crack team of frequent collaborators, including Director of Photography DAVID LANZENBERG and his crew.
To pull it all together, producer Lee Nelson's Envision Media Arts stepped up with the lifeblood of financing. "Jennifer and Rashida were trying to get CELESTE AND JESSE FOREVER done on the financing side, and felt that they weren't able to make the film they wanted to make when they reached out to us. We read the material, and loving it and loving the people involved, we felt like these are the kind of artists that we want to be aligned with—so we took a flier and financed 100% of the film." By all reports, the all- union, modestly-budgeted production was remarkably fun for the cast and crew as they dashed around numerous LA locations and onward to San Francisco and Rhode Island (where the wedding scene was shot). "It was an absolute joy making this film," says Nelson. "It was a very collaborative set with a very positive vibe."
The joy must be especially rich for Rashida Jones, as the co-writer and title character, seeing her first screenwriting outing come to fruition. "Acting in a film that you wrote is a real privilege and a creative advantage," she says. "As the writer, you know the genesis of the joke, the scene and the relationship. The process of making the film was extremely grass roots, which gave the movie an organic, lived-in feel."