Andy Samberg and Will McCormack in Celeste and Jesse Forever
Photo by David Lanzenberg, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
The romantic comedy drama Celeste and Jesse Forever starring Rashida Jones (TV’s Parks and Recreation) and Andy Samberg (TV’s Saturday Night Live) opens in Los Angeles and New York on August 3rd. Written by Jones and her writing partner Will McCormack (their first produced writing credit), the film is loosely inspired by the brief period of time the two spent dating. I recently sat down with McCormack to talk about the film.
Jackson Truax: How did you and Rashida Jones realize that you were not only destined to be writing partners, but best-suited to be involved with each other in that capacity?
Will McCormack: We didn’t work out as a couple. But we knew that we had to be in each other’s lives. So we weren’t sure what that was, but when we met there was something just electric between us… It ended up, I think, the right relationship, as writing partners and best friends. I’m glad that it took that turn.
JT: Picking a writing partner can be an extremely delicate thing, and those relationships can often be fraught and challenging. How did you two know that you would be compatible writing partners?
WM: I’m not even sure it was ever a conscious decision. We just started writing together. Then all of a sudden, we were partners. I wasn’t like, “Hey, I want to write with you.” It just sort of happened organically, where we started writing this film together. We thought, “This is not so bad.” Then a couple months went by… There wasn’t much of a decision-making process. It was just one of those things that happened that was lucky.
JT: Was Celeste and Jesse Forever the first script you two started writing? Or were there any false starts before that?
WM: There was definitely a false start a couple years before. We were too busy just drinking coffee and not typing enough. Then we started Celeste and Jesse Forever, and we said, “We’re finishing this.” But we definitely would sit in coffee shops in New York and talk and write. There was a lot more talking than writing.
JT: Celeste and Jesse Forever appears to be a very personal story for both of you. How did you find that balance, of knowing you wanted to write a personal story, but at the same knowing you had enough distance from the real events that inspired it?
WM: That’s a good question. It’s easiest to write what you know. These characters and this sort of relationship were so familiar to us. I think we’ve both been in dysfunctional relationships with exes. It felt common amongst people our age. That they had these relationships with lovers that they couldn’t quite let go of, they still needed them selfishly. It was very familiar to us. I think it was just a matter of writing what you know for your first film.
JT: Looking at the writing collaboration, I know you two sat side-by-side the whole time. Why was that an important way for you two to work, as opposed to sending drafts or pages back-and-forth?
WM: I think because we had a lot of fear about it being bad, that we needed to be close to each other for emotional support. I think as actors, we wanted to hear everything out loud. So we read every scene out together, hundreds of times. So we workshop them all… Our writing process is very dramatic. We walk around. We read the script. We take a break. Then we have lunch together. We were just really supportive of each other. Because I think we both had a lot of fear about writing poorly. We were just supportive of each other and encouraging.
JT: You hit on something earlier that plagues a lot of would-be writers, which is getting together to write and spending too much time talking and drinking coffee and less on the actual writing. What was different about Celeste and Jesse Forever? How did you make that leap?
WM: I think I was tired of [auditioning for films] and getting them, or usually not getting them. I really wanted to write a movie that meant something to us. I think we had read so many scripts. The structure of screenwriting was in our DNA by then. We had read some thousands and thousands of scripts. So that when we sat down to write it, we sort of knew what we were doing. I think it was just a matter of the right story. We got a little bit lucky with some characters and a story that we wanted to tell. So it was just maybe sheer luck.
JT: Were there sensibilities or ideas that each of you brought to the writing process that were uniquely your own?
WM: I think that we both improved areas of our writing that originally we were probably deficient at… Rashida’s better structurally. I’m probably better with dialogue. So I think that we had that to work with, as like a two-hander for us.
JT: How closely is the character of Jesse based on you?
WM: A lot, when we were writing it. For this film, Andy was perfect. But when we’re reading it, it’s the two of us. Jesse is a version of me when I’m a lot younger. In terms of my acting career, I’m more of a character actor and Skillz is a great part for me. Andy always felt like the perfect choice for Jesse, for me…and for Rashida. Celeste is definitely a version of Rashida… They’re just more heightened, cinematic versions of us.
JT: At what point, if ever, did you let go of Jesse as a writer, and protect the development of his character and turn it over to Andy, and then I would assume focus on approaching Skillz from an acting standpoint?
WM: Once Andy read it. We went to New York and he read it in a hotel room and I [thought], “Oh, he’s definitely Jesse. His rapport with Rashida is so good. They’ve known each other for such a long time…” Then I was able to focus on Skillz. Skillz for me was not the hardest part to play. I know a lot of Skillz-ian people in LA. So I was drawing from a lot of guys that I know.
JT: There’s a rich cinematic history of films about couples who blur the line between friendship and romance, and whose relationships may or may not work out. What was the challenge of taking that kind of story, and writing a film that would hopefully feel fresh and unique?
WM: That’s a good question. The movies that I grew up on and love are When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall and Broadcast News. I think everyone loves those. It’s hard not to. The hard part of screenwriting is that you know the structure really, really well. There are beats that always work in a film and that have to be there to tell the story in ninety minutes. It was just finding a way to abstract it. That’s the tricky part, is to find a way to make it fresh… We got a little bit lucky, in that we were able to make it fresh for us.
JT: Is there anything in particular you’re hoping audience members will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
WM: I hope that people laugh. I hope they have a good time. I hope that it’s relatable to them and their relationships. I hope that they know what it’s like to have a heartbreak, like a real heartbreak in their life, and come out the other side and to have grown from it. I hope they know what it’s like to endure a heartbreak and still be able to go on and persevere.
Filed under: LiC Interview