The new Rashida Jones/Andy Samberg movie Celeste and Jesse Forever isn’t your typical romantic comedy. The couple in the film have filed for divorce before the movie even begins, and things just get more complicated and less predictable from there. The movie, which opens tomorrow, was co-written by actress Rashida Jones and her longtime friend Will McCormack.
Rolling Stone spoke to Jones about screenwriting, the sad state of sitcoms, whether or not she plans on sticking with Parks and Recreation and hanging out on the set of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a teenager while her father, Quincy Jones, produced the show.
How much experience did you have as a screenwriter prior to this?
Nothing! Not a thing. I guess the only experience I had was reading scripts. I’ve read scripts for 15 years as an actress and you know what you like and you know what you don’t like. Sometimes you pick up material and you’re like, “Have these people even ever said these things out loud? Because they don’t make any sense.” Or you read some and you’re like, “God, it’s so cool that somebody was able to write the way people actually talk.” So, if you have things to say about what people do, the best thing to do is to go try it yourself and then it just immediately launches you into a whole newfound respect and humility.
What drew you towards this story?
Will McCormack, my co-writer; we’ve been friend since the late Nineties. We always talked about writing together and kind of never done it, which I feel like is the story of being in your twenties – talking about things and not doing them. But we accumulated enough friendship experience points to eventually write something and we kind of write what we knew. We had seen this phenomenon of our friends holding on to relationships, breaking up, getting back together, living together, moving out. Just trying to negotiate the inevitable and we thought it would be an interesting story, the letting go of your first love, what that’s like. We kind of wrote it side-by-side every day together, acted out all the parts and borrowed from our own lingo to, like, create the voices.
Were there certain romantic comedy clichés that you tried to avoid?
I love romantic comedies. I have a deep respect for them. I think they’re really difficult to write and write well. We definitely wanted to pay homage to some of the convention because I think there’s a reason that the conventions work and then we wanted to try and take that and invert it a little bit. We had a character that was the kind of busy, type-A woman on the go but when she falls apart, we wanted her to really fall apart; we didn’t want it to be adorable. We didn’t want it to be quirky. We wanted her to, like, really lose her shit. Or we had the gay best friend, but we had him be really bad at being gay.
How hard is it to juggle movies with your sitcom career?
It’s been an interesting couple of years. The year before last, I was doing Parks and Rec and I was in four movies and wrote two screenplays with Will. That was a little much for me. So I’m trying to figure out the right balance. Every step of doing well has another challenge to it. And now it’s about finding balance and also valuing my free time. Before, as an actress especially, you have to say yes to everything. You take every job you can get. So the idea of saying no to stuff is not at all written in me, so I have to learn now to balance it a bit better.
Sitcoms are in a pretty weird place now. It seems like the great ones don’t get any ratings, and the popular ones are often pretty lame. Why do you suppose that is?
I think it’s more endemic of what’s going on with digital technology, because people aren’t really watching TV. They’re watching box sets. They’re watching Tivo. They’re watching DVR. They’re streaming movies and TV shows on their laptops. They haven’t found a way – not to get too nerdy about it – but they haven’t found a way to monetize that.
Advertisers pay for TV, right? And they don’t know how people are actually watching these shows. People actually watch Parks and Recreation, but not in the way that they can monetize, and advertisers can’t be like, “Oh, these people watch our advertisements on their show,” because they don’t. They get the DVD afterwards. So who’s gonna pay for TV? That’s the bottom line.
And there’s for sure a divide in taste, I think. That’s just part of being American. There’s people who watch shows while they’re preparing their dinners, and they don’t want to focus, and they don’t want to be challenged, and whatever. And then there’s people who want to really sit down and get into a character in a world, and feel like they’re expanding, or they have complex relationships, or whatever.
I feel like Parks and Rec gets better every year, and it makes me nuts when I see the ratings – especially in comparison to so many awful sitcoms that are doing really well.
It’s amazing that we’re still on. We’ve been in this phase where we’re, like, on the bubble for the entire time we’ve been on the air and the truth is, it’s kinda good. It’s brought us closer together because we seriously, legitimately appreciate every single minute that we spend together, because we’re always hearing that it might be limited, so we just go with it.
What kind of showbiz advice did your father give you when you were younger?
He encouraged me to be good at more that one thing in entertainment, which was really good advice. There’s something about splitting your energy and your focus and your education that almost takes the pressure off one thing, and it allows you to create something on your own, too. Like, I got a chance now to write a movie that I got to be in, so I got to use both of them.
Did you spend a lot of time on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a kid?
So much time! That was my Friday night party. We’d go to the taping of the Fresh Prince show, and there was a DJ and between every take of the show everybody would get up and dance. I’d go and I’d take all my friends.
You said you had another screenplay. What’s it about?
I co-wrote a comic book, and Will and I just adapted it as a movie for Imagine and Universal. So we’ll see if they make it. It’s called Frenemy of the State and it’s about a girl who’s a socialite and she’s recruited to become a spy for the CIA. It’s kind of satirical. It’s based on my fascination with the socialite celebrity status… It’s just a personality-driven thing and then, all of a sudden: reality shows, sex tapes, perfumes, handbag lines, whatever it is. She’s that kind of person, which is a great cover to be a government-employed spy. Nobody would ever suspect that they’d be in a place, and also everybody thinks they’re stupid.
Are you gonna stay on Parks and Rec indefinitely? I know Steve Carell go the point where doing The Office and his movies was just too much.
Yeah, I’ll stay as long as they want me. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It’s the best crew I’ve ever worked with. I mean, it’s really a huge, huge gift in my life, and I think we all feel that way. All those people are my friends, and I just think that’s a really rare thing to have. So, I’m there as long as they want me.
Do you have a favorite romantic comedy?
It’s a real toss-up. This is tough for me, but Annie Hall is kind of a perfect movie. And When Harry Met Sally. It’s always been those two for me.