For three weeks in the late 90s, Rashida Jones and Will McCormack dated. Over a decade later, and the two are now the closest of friends in addition to being writing partners—coming together to collaborate on “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” a romantic drama/comedy that marks the first screenplay for both Jones and McCormack.
And those three weeks of dating and subsequent years of friendship paid off, fueling the inspiration for the film, which focuses on a divorced couple (Rashida Jones as Celeste and “Saturday Night Live’s” Andy Samberg as Jesse) who try their hardest to remain best friends after breaking up.
Jones, currently alongside Amy Poehler on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” which just concluded its fourth season, has been branching out into film for years now and recently visited Boston with McCormack to discuss their latest project, their influences and experiences, and how love is just hard sometimes.
Movies are often inspired by real life. How much of “Celeste and Jess Forever” comes from your own experiences and those of people you know? It seems to be a topic that can resonate with a lot of people.
Rashida Jones: We did the thing of being good, clever thieves of other people’s lives, and also of our own. But it wasn’t just one particular relationship or person, but kind of an amalgam of something we saw happening a lot, which is this inability to let go of a person that you thought you were going to spend the rest of your life with and then it turns out maybe you’re not going to. But you love them and you don’t want to lose them. You don’t want to lose them to somebody else but you want them to be happy. You don’t want them to grow without you, and just all the complications that come from that.
Will McCormack: It felt really common around people our age. I was in a dysfunctional relationship with an ex and it was hard to sort out what we were and if we were able to be friends with still this hope of getting back together. It was this relationship purgatory that felt familiar to a lot of people our age, so when we wrote the script it resonated with a lot of people who have been in these very complicated relationships with people they’ve dated. It’s this world that a lot of people have been in and out of, and that was the kernel of the idea—our own experiences and those of a lot of people we know.
Rashida, in addition to writing you play the title role of Celeste. Were you prepared to play this role from the beginning, and was it difficult writing a screenplay and a character for yourself?
RJ: We definitely wrote it for me, but it makes it less difficult when you’re writing it with your best friend because they are constantly checking you and can tell you the things about yourself that would be interesting if magnified. And we wrote to my limitations and my strengths, so it was actually easier.
WM: It’s fun to build a part for somebody that you know so well. Obviously Celeste is different from Rashida, but it’s an amplified, cinematic sum of her characteristics and idiosyncrasies. But it was fun to illuminate those in the writing process. We should do it again sometime.
RJ: We should do it again. We were saying we should write something with us as brother and sister, because now we really look alike.
Will, you are also in the movie as Jesse’s goofy, stoner friend. Was this character based on anyone in particular?
WM: He’s just a composite of four or five different fools that we know and love.
The movie has a pretty pivotal fight scene between Rashida and Andy, and it feels real, which separates it from a lot of comedies. Why that choice and what was filming that scene like?
RJ: Honestly, we wanted to take it there. We didn’t want a movie that fell into the same pattern. We didn’t want it to be so expected that you knew what was coming at every corner. And we wanted to tell a story about heartbreak and losing somebody that you love, and the only way we knew how to do that honestly was to go for it and have that fight where you say everything you’ve been holding back from saying for ten years. You know, one of those scorched earth, middle-of-the-street fights that a lot of us have had. I definitely have.
WM: And it felt like that fight had been building off screen for ten years too. It’s one of those moments where you might say the meanest and hardest things to people you know and love the best, and you wonder if you’ll ever recover. That fight was fun to film though. There were grown men with grips and booms actually crying. It was really cool, such a good filming night. It was really fun to watch and you and Andy, I think, did a really great job.
RJ: Andy read the script as a friend, was really supportive of it and he said he’d like to do it. And not many people have seen this side of Andy. It’s cool to be able to see that, to see somebody do something totally new on screen. And he was ready. He wanted to express that side of himself.
This is your first screenplay. How does it feel?
RJ: It’s pretty satisfying. The process can be grueling and a grind, but it’s pretty satisfying to hold the thing in your hand after you’re done and then hear other people interpret it and make it better is probably the most satisfying part of it. And when people come up and say they liked the script, it is to me way bigger of a compliment than anything they could say about the performance. Because they sat down and read 100 pages that we spent a lot of time making what we wanted it to be. So yeah…it’s pretty satisfying.
Rashida, you are definitely getting your foot into film, more and more, yet you are still extremely popular on television. Do you have any preference?
RJ: I like both. There’s something great and immediate about TV because you’re in it and you have to get it done and do it quickly, you don’t have that many takes. Also, you have years to develop a character, which is really fun. Who you were in the first season doesn’t necessarily mean who you are in the third season, and [“Parks and Recreation”] is the first time I’ve had that experience because I had never been on a show for more than one season. But movies are great. There’s just something so magical and cool about them. And the first time we saw the film at Sundance—despite the fact that I was having a panic attack—it took my breath away. There is something so majestic about everybody sitting in the dark and silently looking up to this thing. But both, I think, are so rewarding and so different.
“Celeste and Jesse Forever” is currently playing in select theaters.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.