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Sundance 2012: Rashida Jones on Her Screenwriting Debut, 'Celeste and Jesse Forever' (Q&A)

The actress-turned-screenwriter reveals the anxiety of sharing her work with friends and why failed relationships offer valuable fodder for storytelling.

Rashida Jones in "Parks and Recreation" (NBC)
Byron Cohen/NBC

The affable Parks and Recreation star is set to premiere the romantic comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever on Friday -- a film she co-wrote and stars in alongside Andy Samberg. The script, which centers on the rocky road traveled by high school sweethearts as they grow older, marks her first credit as a screenwriter. In advance of her premiere, Jones reflects on the bonuses of co-writing with an actor and her favorite Sundance moment.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Congrats on your first major foray into screenwriting.

Rashida Jones: Thank you! I’m very excited.

THR: How did you come to write this script with actor Will McCormack?

Jones: We’ve known each other for a very long time; we met in the 1990s through his sister Mary McCormack, an actress I did a movie with. She set us up and we dated for two weeks. We realized we were probably better as friends. We are one of the few success stories like that.

THR: Yes, it’s good to figure these things out after two weeks instead of after two years.

Jones: Exactly! That’s what I say. So we dabbled a little bit with writing. We both lived in New York at the time; we tried to caffeinate and come up with ideas, but we never seemed to get through anything. Then we had this idea about three years ago and made a promise to each other — after years of feeling somewhat insecure about our writing capabilities, being surrounded by so many talented writers for our 20s — that we would just write until we had something and finished it. And maybe it could be good? We gave it to a bunch of our incredibly smart friends, who were much more experienced than we were, for feedback. That process really helped. And we originally sold the script to Fox Atomic in 2009. And then they promptly closed a month later, and then we sold it again to Overture and they dissolved a few months later. We were shutting down studios all over town. And then we basically tried to set it up five or six times before we made it.

THR: Sadly, those kinds of anecdotes are hardly atypical.

Jones: Yes, I wish I could say that our situation was unique, but it’s not the case anymore with independent film. But it does force you to put a magnifying glass on how you feel about the material you’ve created.

THR: What was the most difficult part of the writing process?

Jones: I would say losing perspective on what you’ve written is the toughest part. One difficult thing is that you’re looking at your script and thinking, “Well, that’s it! That’s all we can do.” And then you give it to three really smart people and they say things you never even thought about; things that were never in your spectrum of creativity. So I would say, being able to let go of things that you’ve allowed your script to hang on from the beginning, and that you thought were so essential to the plot, was tough. But a friend of mine said, which I thought was really smart, that sometimes when you get rid of something that you thought was so essential to the story, there is a residual that’s left over anyway that the audience can sense, so you have to trust that other people will know. Learning that was really cool, and really hard.

THR: Is it easier or more difficult to write with someone?

Jones: I don’t know. We did write separately sometimes, but I really loved working side by side with Will. We have our own little language. And the fact that we are both actors and could flesh out a scene by acting it out helped a lot.

THR: How much is the film autobiographical for the two of you?

Jones: It’s definitely a pastiche for both of us. We talk all the time about relationships and love and what it means and how it changes — what it means to grow up and how that affects the way you love people. We’re kind of obsessed with it! The film is for sure emblematic of a couple relationships I’ve had; some of them romantic and some of them friendships. It definitely reflects my relationship with Will and other guy friends I’ve had from the time I was 15. Definitely a mashup all around.

THR: Relationships that don’t work out offer up a lot of great material to work with as a writer, don’t they?

Jones: Definitely! There’s no better way to process pain than to write. I’ve not had that experience with acting. I mean, you can momentarily get these glimpses of real pain, but it’s nice to really, really process it and get into it and figure out why it hurts so bad; be really honest about it without having it be you talking to the person you want to talk to.

THR: How did Andy Samberg get the role of Jesse? Were you already friends from I Love You, Man?

Jones: He’s perfect in this movie! I actually met Andy a long time ago, when he was still doing stand-up in L.A. before Saturday Night Live, and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s the greatest. This is absolutely such a great part for him. The movie gives him an opportunity to do some real, honest acting. It’s the kind of thing that’s really exciting for our director Lee Krieger too; to just watch somebody elevate something you’ve written and bring it to life, making it 10 times better.

THR: How difficult was it to not obsess over the script while you’re shooting and acting? Were there a lot of moments of, “I wish I’d written this differently”?

Jones: We’ve lived with the script for such a long time, so that wasn’t too hard. But definitely before shooting I was like, “God I have so many lines! What have I done to myself?” (Laughs.) But I really wanted to give myself over to Lee and let him do his job. I think that’s the only way it could be what it needed to be. Me micromanaging from the outside isn’t going to help anybody.

THR: You were last at Sundance a year ago promoting My Idiot Brother. Do you have any special memories from festivals past?

Jones: Yes, this will be my fourth time. The first time I went for no reason other than seeing friends’ movies. Then I was a co-producer on this comedy The Ten, and then last year for Idiot Brother. And now this year, which is definitely already my most exciting time. But I remember the first year I went I met Michael Keaton and had drinks with him and his friend. He was so cool — that was a definitely highlight for me. In Hollywood, it feels like the hierarchies are all set, but Sundance is still full of surprises. Anything can happen in the snow.