Interview: Rashida Jones, Will McCormack Find ‘Celeste and Jesse Forever’

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CHICAGO – Actors Rashida Jones (“Parks and Recreation”) and Will McCormack (“Dirt”) dated a long time ago and have turned their break-up into an acclaimed new romantic dramedy, “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” Don’t be fooled by its title. Jones and McCormack’s film opens with Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) at the end of their marriage. It’s about two people who have grown apart as they’ve grown up who find ways to move on but stay friends. Co-starring Ari Graynor, Chris Messina, Eric Christian Olsen, Elijah Wood, and Emma Roberts, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” is arguably the brightest spotlight for Jones, who proves to be an adept writer as well as nailing her first lead role. Jones and McCormack sat down with us last month on a hot day in Chicago to talk about the silliness of Sundance, the romantic comedy templates, acting vs. writing, and the funniest man alive.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What’s your process as a writing team? Do you sit in a room and bounce ideas off of each other? Do you each take scenes?

WILL MCCORMACK: For this movie, Rashida came up with the idea and she kind of pitched it to me. And I thought, “We should definitely write AND finish that one as opposed to just writing it and not finishing.”

RASHIDA JONES: Which we had done before.

MCCORMACK: That’s a good idea. I’ve got some stuff to say about that. You’ve got some stuff to say about that.

JONES: Let’s say it together.

MCCORMACK: The writing process was not that difficult. We wrote a screenplay in four months and writing sucks. Having written is awesome but the actual process is hard but this one was pretty easy to finish. It came pretty organically to us — the characters, the ending we knew. We gave it to a couple of smart people we knew to see if they liked it and Jen Taub was one and she offered to produce it and we were kind of off and running.

Rashida Jones
Rashida Jones
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Did you have any major debates? Who wins in a two-person writing team?

JONES: It’s like a marriage, you know? One person wins one time and another person wins the other time.

MCCORMACK: In my experience, the right idea will win. I don’t push too hard. I’ll say something and it will be right or wrong but the right idea usually wins. Oftentimes, Rashida will say something and I’ll be like, “No, no, no.”

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: (Rashida Laughs.) Oftentimes?

MCCORMACK: Yeah. You’re in something and you see it a certain way. It’s hard enough to make one brain go in one direction but to make two? It’s impossible. Ideas take times to marinate and process. I always feel like the idea wins. Now I usually just say, “Maybe.”

Andy Samberg and Will McCormack in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Andy Samberg and Will McCormack in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Was that the big learning experience of this project?

JONES: Yeah. Writing’s weird like that. Whatever you’ve learned about yourself as an actor and as a person…you’re taught to trust your instinct but writing is different. Yeah, there’s instincts but it’s less applicable. You kind of have to go through all the machinations — your first instinct, your second thought, your third, and your fourth and then back to the first. It’s hard to just say that there’s one right way to do it. So you kind of just have to let the whole gamut run out.

MCCORMACK: I feel like I’m totally cut out for collaboration. Being an actor for as long as I’ve been actor — you’re only as good as everyone around you. It’s not an individual sport. We’re making a movie or a play and everyone has to be moving in the same direction.

JONES: We’re both from big families where everyone is super-opinionated and we like to keep everyone happy. That plus having a point of view — you just kind of know how to work with other people.

MCCORMACK: And you have to be sensitive and open when you collaborate with someone because a lot of ideas are bad — mine and yours. All good ideas usually stem from a bad one. A great idea usually happens in steps. You have to support each other to get there.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Do you write for anyone in mind?

JONES: We wrote for Chris. And “Celeste and Jesse” is just a heightened version of me and Will. We wrote for Chris and you write seeing a face. Generally, I think if you can see the character than you don’t need an actor attachment. You give yourself leeway. Chris, for instance, we love him. We think he’s a great actor and felt there was a side that he hadn’t played yet.

Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Andy Samberg and Rashida Jones in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Chris does TV [“Damages” & “The Newsroom”] like the both of you. Does your TV experience make you different filmmakers?

JONES: It’s SUCH a different experience to me. But, again, I’m on such a collaborative TV show [“Parks & Recreation”]. Amy [Poehler] is the clear leader and she sets the tone but her leadership mode is collaboration. That’s how she leads. I guess that’s really it for what I bring to my writing.

MCCORMACK: I think they’re different muscles but from the same region.


MCCORMACK: No, writing and acting. It’s really getting to the heart of something. Get there however you can. Acting tries to get rid of all the bullshit. Be as real and as simple as possible and just listen. And be brave. It comes down to guts. Writing is the same way. Be honest, simple, and try to say something. It comes from the same engine.

JONES: I feel like there’s a lot more brainpower to write. I feel like when I have a shitty writing day that I very much look forward to going back to work where I just have to hit my mark and say my lines.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Would you say writing is more difficult?

MCCORMACK: Yeah, I think it is.

JONES: But it’s more rewarding.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: This came mostly out of personal experience but were there any filmmakers or specific films that inspired it as well?

JONES: James Brooks, Cameron Crowe, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron.

MCCORMACK: Cameron Crowe, James Brooks, and Woody Allen were huge. The models for this movie were “Broadcast News,” “Annie Hall.” Of course, “When Harry Met Sally…” is a template. We wrote the movie in the spirit of those movies that we grew up on and made me want to be involved in movies.

Rashida Jones in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Was there ever any fear in writing something so personal? Picking at the emotional scars?

JONES: I didn’t think about it too much. Did you? [To Will.]

MCCORMACK: As an actress, you were so in it but it also looked fun like it was some sort of exorcism.

JONES: It was. It was like coming out of me. Also, I think the expectation is really low in some way for me. I’m “dependable” as an actress and as the characters that I play. I’m dependable. People have decided and it’s nice and I think it’s a reflection of my personality but people are like, “That’s what she does.” There’s something slightly innocuous about it. So I was happy to be like, “You know what? She’s not an innocuous character. She’s judgmental and kind of myopic.” It was fun to be able to do that.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What was the most challenging element of the film? Was that it — breaking out of your mold as an actress? When I say “challenge,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

MCCORMACK: Financing.

JONES: Just getting it made. Getting to day one.

MCCORMACK: Yeah, getting to day one.

JONES: Everything. Schedules, contracts…

MCCORMACK: Just getting to the first shot. Once we got started…

JONES: The filmmaking process was fun. It was getting to it — getting to day one.

MCCORMACK: We never had any time to just mess around and improv. It was just tight.

Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And you didn’t have any distribution when you went to Sundance [where it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics]?


HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What were your expectations going into Sundance?

JONES: You know, I forgot that we had to sell the movie. I was like, “Oh my God, somebody has to buy it.” I became obsessed with what to wear. I was transferring all my nerve and agita about going there to my clothes.

MCCORMACK: It’s intense. I didn’t realize how intense.

JONES: It’s WAY different when you’ve written something. When you present this thing to 1,300 people — if they’re not along for the ride, you can’t blame anyone else.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: So there’s more nerves in general because you wrote it than something you starred in?


JONES: There’s no words to describe it. Panic. Sheer panic.


HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Are you judging every response in the audience?


JONES: Yes. You don’t even hear some of it. You black out a bit.

Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Then what happens at Sundance? Does Sony contact you immediately? Is there a bidding war?

JONES: Sundance is a really crazy place because you do all of this press and then you go to an after party and then you sit down at midnight with distributors and they pitch you a plan for your movie and why they want to buy it. By that point, everybody is wasted and so tired and the altitude and you meet in dark corners and you’re drinking coffee at one in the morning…it’s absurd. It’s crazy that people make deals there. We just did that every night. They get in touch and there’s this whole thing that they do through your reps…

MCCORMACK: It feels like a drug deal.

JONES: Or you’re hiring a hitman.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Wow. You have to think that maybe some wrong decisions would be made in that environment.

MCCORMACK: Totally. Well, some have. (Laughs.)

JONES: Not only that but there’s SO much that can go wrong at Sundance. “Margin Call,” which was such a great film. The first couple of days at Sundance last year they got a couple of bad reviews and so all of the distributors crossed it off their list. It premiered on VOD.

MCCORMACK: And it ended up getting nominated for an Oscar. And it did well on DVD. And that movie “Junebug” got hammered its first night.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And then you’ve got the other way too — the $10 million that makes no sense outside of Park City.


JONES: I think it might be the end of that. I think people learned their lesson. This year, it was slower.

MCCORMACK: I feel like people were way more cautious.

JONES: They waited to see what else was happening.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Someone on Facebook gave me this question — Who’s the co-star that you’ve worked with that you find the funniest? Who’s made you laugh the hardest in a scene?

MCCORMACK: I know the answer.

JONES: You do? What’s my answer?

MCCORMACK: Paul [Rudd].

JONES: Paul Rudd is the hardest to keep a straight face with. I totally agree. I have to say that it’s a tie now — Nick Frost is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met. He’s so consistently hilarious. He’s great. We didn’t have a hard time keeping a straight face because we were dancing but he’s straight up the funniest. But Paul is definietly good.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And so much of what Paul does is improvised so I imagine it might be more difficult with him to stay in scene.

JONES: When he busts out…the last time he says “Slappin’ da bass” [in “I Love You, Man”], I laughed so hard and the whole crew laughed so hard that I had to go ADR my laugh because everyone was laughing in the background. He’s so funny. That’s such a good part for him.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What’s next for you guys?

JONES: I co-wrote a comic book and we adapted it for film.

MCCORMACK: We’re going to start a new project but no deadlines and no studios and just work on it.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Less than four years though?

JONES: [Laughs] Yes, that’s the plan. A little bit better every time.

MCCORMACK: Although if we could do a movie every four years that wouldn’t be bad.

JONES: No, that would be fine. I would be fine if we didn’t spend the last three years just trying to get the movie made. Write for two years and then spend a year trying to get it made.

“Celeste and Jesse Forever” is playing in some markets now and opens in Chicago on Friday, August 10, 2012. content director Brian Tallerico

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