When actors Rashida Jones and Will McCormack decided to write their own romantic comedy, they didn’t want to fall into the romcom trap of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl and they live happily ever after.
“In the usual romantic comedy, you have a woman and she’s so together and strong, and a guy comes along and makes her so feminine, softens her, it’s a cliché,” Jones – best known as “Parks and Recreation’s” Ann Perkins, said Tuesday night after a showing at L.A.’s Landmark theatre of their new movie “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” part of TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series.
“We wanted to start her out strong – and then watch her really fall apart,” Jones (at left) told the evening’s moderator, TheWrap’s editor in chief Sharon Waxman. “We wanted her to feel authentically depressed. We haven’t seen that a lot in movies.”
“Celeste and Jesse Forever” – an official selection of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival that was quickly acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, marks Jones’ and McComack’s (“Brothers and Sisters,” “In Plain Sight”) first foray into screenwriting, as well their first-produced endeavor.
Best friends who dated for two weeks in the ‘90s, they wrote it side by side at one computer, reading each scene out loud. “We wanted to see what felt real, what wasn’t a lie,” McCormack said.
In the film, Celeste and Jesse are already in love and even though they’re getting a divorce because she feels he isn’t living up to his full potential, they remain the best of friends, even live in the same house. Then, during a one-night stand, Jesse gets a woman pregnant.
“We’re a friendship team and a writing team,” Jones said. “We talked a lot about writing. Finally, in our 30s we decided to try. I had this little seed of an idea.”
Part of the idea for the film came from their own lives.
“We’d both been in different relationships with exes that were in purgatory,” McCormack said. “You know, that place where you don’t want to be alone, but you’re not ready to move on, either. We wanted to write a comedy about that pain. You can’t circumvent it, you have to walk through it.”
Jones plays Celeste; McCormack plays Skillz, the couples’ funny friend. Ex-“Saturday Night Live” star Andy Samberg plays Jesse.
But Samberg, a longtime pal of Jones, was not a lock for Jesse. He wanted the part, she said, but they didn’t think he was serious enough, and felt he was too young.
“We said to him, ‘We’re gonna make sure that you’re sure,’ so we went to a hotel room in New York and read it,” McCormack said. “He was great, really good immediately.”
Then came the next challenge. The script was written and somewhat cast when they first set it up at Fox Atomic for $16 million before the studio folded. “We kept shutting down studios!” Jones laughed. “Then we sold it to Overture, and they were swallowed up by Relativity.”
They eventually made it for $900,000, filming in 22 days. At a one-day shoot in San Francisco, they worked with a bare-bones crew of only five people.
“We worked 95 percent off script,” Jones said, “When you’re shooting that fast, we didn’t have time to make changes. There’s an immediacy there in one or two takes, which was exciting, “ she said.
“We had our hands in everything,” McCormack said. “I was the guy in the bear suit. We were in the editing room every day. I learned more about filmmaking in that year than I ever have.”
Going from a multi-million dollar project to an independent was the best thing that could’ve happened to the duo, they said. “I felt the need to be validated by the studio system,” admitted Jones. “But next time I’d do it on my own. We’d just go and do it.”
As for Sundance, both agreed that it was an intense experience. “We had a mutual panic attack during the screening,” said Jones of her fear that no one would buy their film — prior to Sony’s swift acquisition.
“I’m so happy with the way it turned out, “ Jones said, looking at McCormack. “We got to make the movie we wanted to make.”