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There is a bit of irony in the story behind the story, because for a film that delivers the bittersweet truth that passion and desire cannot always outrun time, it was a fortuitous mix of persistent dedication and elusive luck that rescued and helped realize the dream of two best friends.
From the outside, it would seem that Celeste and Jesse Forever has led a charmed existence for an indie film — from its star-powered cast, to its entrance and grand critical raves at Sundance, to its sale to Sony Pictures Classics at that very festival. Getting the breakup dramedy to that stage, however, was a years-in-the-making struggle.
“Oh boy. It was so difficult. It was so difficult,” co-writer and star Rashida Jones sighed in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. “Originally we wrote it, and we wrote it in about four months, and then we sold it really quickly to Fox Atomic, which was the best day of my life. And then a month later, they folded. And then we sold it again to this company Overture Films, and then they folded a couple months later.”
The film features Jones (as Celeste) opposite Saturday Night Live vet Andy Samberg (Jesse) in the story of lifelong best friends who marry young, realize that their marriage isn’t working out and try to stay best friends even as they go through a separation and then divorce. Jones wrote it with her real-life best friend Will McCormack, who plays the supporting role of a lovable dunce drug dealer named Skillz.
McCormack credits Jones for sticking with trying to keep the project moving through the roller-coaster ride that followed, which entailed a series of three or four more financiers falling through.
“At some point I was like, ‘Well, it’ll be an OK writing sample, y’know?’ ” he remembered, calling the process heartbreaking. “It had just fallen apart so many times, and at a certain point, it looked like it just wasn’t going to get made. And then like anything in life, especially in filmmaking, you’ve got to get a little lucky, and luckily we did.”
The film begins with Celeste and Jesse in the odd honeymoon stage of their breakup, still living together and trying to avoid the despair that seems an automatic accompaniment to the end of a marriage. Unwedded bliss doesn’t last forever, though, resulting in what Jones calls “a romantic comedy, but inverted.”
Perhaps it was that twist that kept a major studio, always risk-averse, from snatching it up.
Ultimately, Envision Media stepped in and financed the film, which had by then gone from a $20 million budget with Atomic, to $12 million at Overture and was continuing to sink. It initially was slated to be directed by Seth Gordon Green, who left to helm Horrible Bosses when the Overture deal fell through, but the pair ended up finding a fit with indie auteur Lee Toland Krieger, who had directed Jones’ Parks and Recreation co-star Adam Scott in 2009’s The Vicious Kind.
“When I came on, it was going to be made for between $6 million and $8 million, and then that budget just kept plummeting,” Krieger explained. “And it was just what I think was a microcosm of what was going on in our town. Look, when there are times when it’s not fun to be making a tiny little no-budget movie because there are no places to sit, because you wanted to close the road so there aren’t people driving by yelling at you.”
Ultimately, they settled on a microscopic $840,000 budget, cutting costs by having Jones drive her own car (a Prius), and trying to film at Krieger’s home in West Hollywood — something that the city, after putting them through reams of applications permits, banned at the last minute due to a street sweeping that meant the road had to be cleared all day. Timing is everything, even once the check has been written.
“But I’m glad that we made it for the size we did because we knew, by the time we got on set, that every single person that was there because they desperately wanted to be there,” Krieger said. “They loved the people, they loved the material. There was not a chance they were in it for the money because nobody made a nickel.”
In the beginning, McCormack briefly toyed with the notion of playing the co-lead, before deciding he preferred to take on the comic-relief character-actor part for which he would end up being a perfect fit. Scott at one point was considered a potential co-lead as the Jesse to Jones’ Celeste, but once they decided that it would be too reminiscent of some sort of Parks and Rec fan fiction (a betrayal of Leslie Knope!), they found a perfect Jesse in Samberg, another close friend of Jones’, who was eager to stretch himself in a more dramatic role.
With supporting turns from such established Hollywood actors as Elijah Wood, Chris Messina and Ari Graynor, it would seem like an obvious pickup for a producer looking for a small film with a high fiscal upside. But a survey of the summer’s box office makes clear that studios right now are looking for big-bang, tentpole franchise flicks (“to spend $300 million to make $1 billion,” as Spike Lee said last month), something that Jones laments — if still understands.
“It’s a two-way street,” she said. “Hollywood, yes, I would say there is some feeding of some, as my character says in the movie, ‘pretty garbage-y stuff,’ but we’re also eating the garbage. So people have to show that there’s a mature, complex moviegoing audience that wants to see — we have to see, we have to demand the better stuff.
“I’m not against an action movie, I’m not against a big-budget movie,” Jones continued, “but the ones that I like are the ones where it’s obvious where they took the time to develop characters, develop jokes, develop storylines. Like, don’t waste my time and don’t insult me, is how I feel.”
On the bright side, Jones and McCormack are now in position to help provide some of those alternatives. They’ve already scripted another film, based on a graphic novel she wrote called Frenemy of the State, and each is working on solo projects as well. McCormack said that he always endeavored to write — “I was just really lazy about it,” he admitted — but the new career is a bit of a pleasant surprise for Jones.
“It’s funny, I didn’t think that that was an ambition, but I must have really, really suppressed it,” she said, “because I recently found this little thing I found in the third grade about what I wanted to do in the future, and I said I wanted to write movies, and I never thought about it again until a couple of years ago.
“I mean, I thought about it, but I was super-intimidated,” she added. “I’m friends with a lot of professional writers who went right from college to writing jobs at The Daily Show and SNL, and I just didn’t think I was one of those people. I didn’t think I was capable, and I felt like you had to be anointed a writer to be a writer. And then I realized, you get into your 30s and that you just have to do the work. You just have to not be afraid.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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