The road to getting a movie made can be long and dispiriting. The last time The A.V. Club spoke to Rashida Jones was in April 2009, before Parks And Recreation’s debut, and she had just sold Celeste And Jesse Forever, a script she co-wrote with Will McCormack. Flash forward more than three years and many slashes of the budget, and the film is finally beginning its theater rollout. Jones and Andy Samberg star as a separated couple still holding on to each other too tightly to divorce, though facing the kinds of serious life changes that force the issue. While the film has its comedy side, it stretches Jones and Samberg into more dramatic acting territory; Samberg’s performance is especially refreshing on the heels of That’s My Boy, but Jones spends much more time onscreen, anchoring the film. As a driven career woman who slowly comes undone when her slacker ex starts to turn his life around, Jones plays an “amplified” version of herself, which helps explain why she held on to the project through so many false starts. Just before the film opened, The A.V. Club met up with her in Chicago to talk about hanging on to relationships, making a film for 5 percent of her original budget, and Parks And Recreation.
The A.V. Club: How did this film get made? What was the process?
Rashida Jones: The short version is, we wrote it in 2008, finished maybe in November. We went out with a script in March 2009. We sold it in 36 hours, which was cool, to Fox Atomic, which subsequently folded a month later, which was the best and worst moment of my life squeezed into 30 days. And then we sold it again to Overture, which then folded a couple months later.
AVC: It sounds like you’re the angel of death.
RJ: I’m the angel of death. I just go and shut down studios; that’s what I do. Then we tried to set it up subsequently, I think, three or four more times independently with some combination of financiers. That takes us to 2011. We were about to make the movie with a little independent company, and four weeks before we were supposed to start shooting, we just didn’t have a good feeling about it. We pulled out of the deal, four weeks before. We managed somehow out of sheer desperation and luck, whatever, to find this great guy Lee Nelson, his company Envision Media, and he financed the whole thing.
AVC: How much did the budget fluctuate?
RJ: Went from $16 million to under $900,000.
AVC: How does that work?
RJ: Well, there’s a little bit of a fish-tank thing, which is like, you just realize how little you need or how much you need according to what you actually get. And the advantage to making that movie with that small of a budget is, everybody’s there not because they’re getting paid, but because they like it and want to be a part of it, which is great, because it sort of filters out any nonsense. Then also, you get to do exactly what you want to do. You don’t have anybody giving you script notes. You have nobody looking over your shoulder. Then the bad parts, I think, might be axiomatic, but you have to beg and plead for favors. Everybody I knew I called and called in favors.
AVC: You tried to shoot at your place, right?
RJ: Tried. Couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t afford the permits, because I live in West Hollywood. And you use your own car, and you use your own clothes, and your co-writer gets in a bear suit on Venice Beach and plays other characters, and you just make do. But it’s kind of fun. You run and gun it. You steal shots. You sneak in places. That kind of stuff.
AVC: It seems like part of the process of making a movie is feeling like it’ll never get made. You probably hit that a few times over the course of this.
RJ: Oh yeah. I mean, Will said to me yesterday, “Oh, I gave up. I thought definitely the last time that this movie’s never going to get made. This will be a really nice writing sample for us.” I was determined. I was on a mission. I just couldn’t. It was hard for me to just keep seeing… You know, you look, and all these movies are in production. I did a commercial after this movie that costs twice as much as my movie. It’s like, “There’s got to be money somewhere. Somebody’s got to want to let us tell this story somewhere, right?” So you have to be pretty tenacious. You really do. It was a big lesson for me, because I think, as an actress, you’re so used to being in the herd of sheep, and just being told where to show up and where to hit your mark and if you got the job or not, and this is the kind of thing nobody’s going to care as much as you do whether the movie gets made. Doesn’t matter how many people say they love the script and they love the project. It doesn’t matter.
AVC: So it’s also not just writing and starring in it. You’re also taking on other types of producing duties.
RJ: Yeah, we produced it, for sure. Will and I were executive producers, but we were very, very hands-on, the entire editing process, the whole run. Getting the cast and the clothes and craft service, locations, new shots at friends’ houses. We shot at the places we knew we could get deals at because we knew the manager—things like that.
AVC: Because of all this, and since you’ve described the character as an amplified version of yourself, was it harder to be directed?
RJ: No, I have a lot of respect for the action of direction, and [director] Lee Krieger. From the minute I met him and saw his movie The Vicious Kind, I knew I wanted to work with him. I mean, he has a very clear vision. He also runs such a good set, and has a way of garnering authority without being authoritative. And I really trusted him through the course of shooting the film. He really understands the subtleties of emotional dynamics and relationships, and that was a thing we really wanted to highlight in the film, because we knew, Andy and I, that the comedy would come naturally. So that was the most important thing to us, and I trusted him, and gave myself over to him for that.
AVC: It’s a common theme in films, the end of a relationship, but it’s rarely done with a lot of subtlety.
RJ: We wanted to try to do something different, tell a slightly fresh story. We felt like this was something we kept seeing. These relationships, people have been together forever and don’t want to let go of each other, but they also don’t want to be together, so they don’t really know what to do with all that relationship currency, and they think maybe they can outsmart the inevitable pain of ending that part of the relationship, and it’s impossible. I mean, I think the message for us is that it’s impossible, but there’s so much subtlety to that, too, because sometimes in movies you see a breakup, and it’s like they break up and it’s this big wham-bam, and then they get sad and they miss each other, and they either get back together, or they don’t. When I break up, or when anybody I know breaks up, it takes some time. There’s a lot of back-and-forth. There’s a lot of late-night “I miss you” calls and “Should we get back together?” “No, we shouldn’t.” “I miss you.” “I don’t miss you.” “Well, I miss you.” “I don’t miss you.” It’s a lot about timing, and the push and pull of that, and I think we try to illustrate that.
AVC: You said you see this kind of thing a lot with friends now. Is this a new phenomenon, or do people hang on in different ways now?
RJ: I think we’re allowed to hang on in different ways now, because I think 50 years ago, you had to have love that you lost—and they’ve made movies about it—but you never forget. It’s like Daisy Buchanan [in The Great Gatsby]. It’s an old story. I think the difference is there’s more options now, and also, there’s more casual… There’s more gray in relationships now, so you can actually hold on and be friends with that person, and sometimes be with them and text them in the middle of the night and call them, and then also see other people. I think the playing out of the holding on is what’s new. I think the holding on is as old as the hills. Everybody’s got that love that they lost that inspires them for the rest of their lives. Now it’s hard to be inspired by it, because you’re in it. You’re still in it.
AVC: And social media enables that. It gives you a whole other way to torture yourself.
RJ: Exactly. Torture yourself and other people.
AVC: Viewers don’t see exactly how their marriage broke down. They can infer it from how the film plays out, but did you have a backstory in mind?
RJ: We did. There was definitely a draft we wrote where we showed the breakup, which is really hard to do. I give props to the movie The Break-Up for doing that. It was probably something like fighting about Jesse not working, Celeste working all the time and feeling like he’s not holding up his end of the bargain. What happened to all his potential? “Stop nagging me, Celeste.” That kind of thing. “It’s better if we break up and then maybe some tears, and we can still be friends.” “Yeah, of course we can still be friends.” And I think also because he’s holding out for her, he probably thought it was more temporary than she did.
AVC: Did you have anybody in mind in particular to play Jesse?
RJ: Andy has been a friend of mine for a long time, and he had read the script early on and wasn’t really direct with me about expressing interest. He’s so great for the part, but he also has never done anything like this before. So I think both of us were like, “Is this the part when you, like, bust out and you get into the dramatic nitty-gritty?” Because he definitely has to go there a little bit. After a couple years, the movie kept falling apart and coming back together, and he did finally tell me directly that he was interested, and said with confidence, “I can do it.” And he was right. It was definitely something. Andy has another side to him that I don’t think anybody has ever seen before this film. He’s sensitive and he’s got depth. And he was like, “I’m ready,” and he was right. It was really exciting to watch him do something new in real time, because he’s my friend, but he’s also great, and it’s happening in the constructs of our film. Just to see something new come from somebody like that, where you think you know what to expect from him—it was great.
AVC: You said in the press kit that the setup of Celeste And Jesse Forever has all the makings of a cliché, because it’s an obvious story in some ways: the driven, career-minded woman and her lackadaisical partner, etc. How do you get around that?
RJ: I don’t know if you get around it. I think you have to go through it. And for us, we love romantic comedies, and we weren’t trying to cut down the genre. What we wanted to do was take the parts of the convention that we know are universal and speak to people, and hopefully through that, then invert it a little bit, so get people invested in the archetypes that they recognize and the conventions they recognize and the story points they recognize, and then flip it a little bit. “Okay, fine, she’s a busy businesswoman and he’s a slacker, but they’re actually not together. She doesn’t want him, but then she does want him, but then she doesn’t want him, but then what’s going to happen?” We just want to kind of make it as messy as life can sometimes be, and make the pain feel raw in a way that’s maybe not that cute. Especially, a lot of times we see pain in romantic comedies, and it’s so cute, and their lives are still adorable, and their clothes are still good and their apartments are still nice.
AVC: Producer Jennifer Todd said “an ambitious woman has to become a loser to be likeable,” but doesn’t Celeste have her own kind of—
RJ: Loser thing, yeah. I don’t think she becomes a loser. I think what’s interesting about her journey downward is that she thinks she’s figured it out. I mean, she’s lived her life a very specific way, and everybody whom she’s let into her world subscribes to the way she sees the world, and it works for her. She’s not wrong. She’s successful and she seemingly has control of her life, and then life happens. That always is the case, and it’s way out of her control, and it’s like a terrible, perfect storm of things that happened to her career-wise and relationship-wise, where she’s forced to change. I don’t think she becomes this loser. I think she’s just confronted with so many circumstances beyond her control that she’s forced to change. And by the way, she doesn’t change that much. All she does is not yell at somebody at the end of the movie for cutting in line. It’s not like she’s, “Oh my God. I’ve seen the light. I’ve changed so much. I’m now a better person.” I mean, she really just doesn’t yell at somebody.
AVC: Speaking of people struggling with relationships, any idea of what’s in store for Ann this season on Parks And Recreation?
RJ: I have no idea. No, we start next Monday after next. Soon. I don’t know. They just filmed a couple days in D.C. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened.
AVC: It seems like Ann’s trying to figure out relationships.
RJ: I know. We talked a lot before the beginning of the season about how to make Ann directionless and take her to whatever is the next step in her life. My favorite parts of her are when I get to play her totally confused and freaked out. Like, I liked being able to play that whole thing when she was with Chris Traeger [Rob Lowe], when she was still in love with him, and she couldn’t figure out if he liked her and she was just confused and a mess. So hopefully we’ll do more of that, where she’s just searching for herself, but she does it in more of a dramatic way. I think that’s kind of the place it’s going. It’s hard. They write for, like, eight characters. Hard. But I do have faith that the writers this year, that’s something they’re focused on for sure.