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Sundance | Lee Toland Krieger on Celeste and Jesse Forever

In case you haven’t already figured it out: Rashida Jones is a national treasure. The Parks and Recreation star is beyond versatile – one part Tina Fey’s wit and one part Amy Poehler’s offbeat humor, with a whopping dollop of dramatic inclination (and unique beauty) mixed in. For those who aren’t yet convinced that Ms. Jones is The Truth, Celeste and Jesse Forever, a film she co-wrote (with actor Will McCormack) and starred in, will leave you with little doubt.

The movie centers on Celeste and her husband Jesse (played by Andy Samberg), a quirky, endearing couple attempting to maintain a close friendship amid divorce. Jesse is a struggling artist, and Celeste a successful trend forecaster at a major marketing company. The two insist on hanging out together all the time (much to the chagrin of their soon-to-be-married BFF’s) and Jesse lives in the studio behind their old house, until their delicate balance is interrupted, and they’re forced to confront the fact that – despite being truly in love with each other – they may not be able to make things work.

Jones turns in an incredibly faceted tour-de-force performance as the film’s central player – at times vulnerable and insecure, at times confident and stubborn, but undeniably human. Samberg, as well, incorporates his beloved comedic nuances into a surprisingly mature and somber performance. The two have undeniable chemistry, moving as easily from goofy inside jokes like reading menus aloud to each other in outrageous accents to sharing a painful, longing look across a crowded room to having a full-blown fight in the middle of a dive bar. The entire crux of Celeste and Jesse Forever would be lost on us if we weren’t led to believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why and how these two fell in love. Samberg and Jones nail it.

Alongside the well-paired actors, the dialogue in the film is completely natural, filled with easy, silly jokes that never feel forced or inappropriate. Jones and McCormack have written a film that manages to touch on experiences we’ve all had – dually making us laugh and cry – and one that’s never preachy, consistently entertaining and imminently relatable. It’s no wonder that Celeste and Jesse Forever was snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics during its run at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

While the movie was playing in Park City, Utah, its director Lee Toland Krieger, who helmed the 2009 Adam Scott vehicle The Vicious Kind, joined an audience at the Eccles Theatre to discuss its themes, the improvisation on set, the film’s memorable soundtrack and the real history that aided Jones and Samberg’s performances.

The chemistry between Andy and Rashida was amazing – did you test any other actors for the Andy role?

When we were putting this together initially there were a lot of other guys in the mix who wanted to do it, because the material – we all thought – was really strong. But ultimately, it was two things. One is: Andy really hasn’t been given this shot before, and I’ve been a big fan of Andy’s for a long time. And I didn’t know him before we made the movie, but Rashida and Andy have known each other for like 10 years. And – between me and you guys – they dated for a minute like 10 years ago. And their relationship was a lot like the relationship you saw here where Rashida was, you know, Rashida Jones and Andy was this out of work comic who was trying to get a job on SNL and was writing for Fallon and broke and just kind of a stoner from Berkeley. So I knew that there was a lot of Andy written in already, and then almost exactly a year ago Will and Rashida and I flew to New York and met with Andy. And it was kind of clear right away that Rashida and Andy just picked up their conversation where they left off a year ago … even though they both totally moved on, there was definitely chemistry there, and it felt like you can’t pass up an opportunity like this. So, you know, I think it shows on screen.

Since Rashida co-wrote the script, was she involved in the directing process at all?

As little as I could get her. [laughs] You know, the truth is, Will and Rashida and I had a really great time making this movie. You know, Rashida … she went to Harvard, she’s a smart girl and she knows what she wants, and this is of course very personal to her. So, yeah, to be honest … we definitely locked horns a lot but it was always for the love of the movie, and we’re very close now – I like to think. It made me a stronger filmmaker, because my last movie I wrote and directed and didn’t have voices there to really contend with. Rashida made me come to set every day really prepared. It’s not enough to have a clear vision, I think you also need to be prepared to articulate that vision perfectly. Because if it’s not right on the money, she’s gonna let you know – in a good way. But yeah, she’s the writer … the star, and this is very close to her. It’s her first script, so it’s understandable that she was precious about the material.

How many of the jokes and intimate moments were written in the script and how much of it was improvised on set?

Incredibly … that was all there on the page. I’m trying to think of – I mean, because we made the movie in 22 days, it wasn’t a lot of time to make the film, and so we tried to improv when we felt it was appropriate. Everybody felt like when we got there and we’d be blocking and rehearsing it, it was there on the page. I know when Rashida comes to the bar and he [Andy] says, “You look like a cat lady,” and her response is, “Yeah, you can’t buy anything nice because they’ll just ruin it” – that was Andy. He was like, “We should try this just to kind of lighten it up before we dive in.” He’s pretty brilliant with improv. So there were little bits and pieces, but a surprising amount was on the page.

Could you talk about your take on the look of the film?

The choice was David Lanzenberg, who shot this movie. He’s a French guy who doesn’t say much, and chain smokes, and he just kind of shows up and does a great job. We looked at a lot of L.A. movies in order to give L.A. as distinct a look as we could. So we looked at movies like everything from Shampoo all the way up to Greenberg, and … we didn’t want it to look like a romantic comedy, but we wanted it to look like a bigger, polished film. So it was kind of a weird balance of trying to do both things.

Where does your inspiration come from, as a director?

I’m a big Woody Allen fan, and this movie reminded me of Husbands and Wives, which I always thought was like the most underrated Woody Allen movie. And it was great because – for those of you that have seen it … it’s really, really funny and really brutal and kind of sad. And I love that blend, that kind of comedy. And I don’t necessarily love the “guy gets kicked in the nuts and slips on a banana peel.” I mean, sometimes it’s great, too, but this felt … authentic and heartbreaking and a lot of the comedy came from … these heartbreaking moments. So I read it and I immediately thought, “OK, this is cool because my touchstone is Woody Allen’s stuff and I think a lot of people are going to read this and see a big studio comedy.” And that’s not what I saw. And I think Will and Rashida, too, they were thinking about movies like Broadcast News and other movies that had a bit to it … not too fluffy.

Could you talk about coming up with the soundtrack of the film?

We lucked out. A guy named Sunny Levine, who is Rashida’s nephew … he scored the film. And then his producing partner, a guy named Zach Cowie … he’s kind of like the Rain Man of music. So the credit really goes to those two guys. We wanted the film not to sound like a lot of indies. Even my last film was kind of a dreary singer/songwriter acoustic guitar kind of thing, which I like sometimes. But we wanted this film to have a little bit more soul, and just a more distinct voice with the music. And Zach and Sunny really helped bring that to life. Rashida was helpful because of her background with music, and her family really kind of made some calls and were able to afford some of the more expensive tracks, which was nice.

What was the biggest challenge making the film?

I think it may be a boring answer, but 22 days is tough. My last movie, I made that in 22 days, but the script was like 19 pages shorter. That was really tough, and I think – for me – what was tough was two writers who were also actors in the movie. The first week was figuring out the protocol on set. I would love to have like 25 weeks to shoot my next film, but that’s probably not going to happen.

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