Lee Toland Krieger wasn't planning to read the script for "Celeste and Jesse Forever" in one night. It just sort of happened that way.
"I thought, 'I'll read it first thing in the morning,'" Krieger told HuffPost Entertainment. "I opened the first page, though, and was immediately hooked. I read the whole thing right there."
Following the late-night reading frenzy, Krieger had a meeting with producer Jennifer Todd and co-writers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack to make his case as director.
"Luckily enough I was able to get the gig."
Luck probably had little to do with it: Not even 30 years old, "Celeste and Jesse Forever" is Krieger's third feature directing credit, but judging from the critical and financial response to the film, it will hardly be his last. Co-starring Jones and Andy Samberg as a couple who try to remain friends after their divorce, "Celeste and Jesse Forever" joins "Ruby Sparks" and "Safety Not Guaranteed" as 2012 indie romances that don't feel like typical indie romances. Credit for that goes to Krieger, who makes the film -- and Los Angeles -- look exceedingly original and unconventional.
With "Celeste and Jesse Forever" out in New York and Los Angeles now (a wider rollout will follow soon), Krieger chatted with HuffPost Entertainment about his inspirations for the film, how he got such a great performance out of Samberg, and whether he was satisfied with the script's bittersweet ending.
You met with Rashida, Will and Jen after reading the script. How'd you sell yourself to them? What I tried to present were that my touchstones for this movie were going to be "Broadcast News," "Husbands & Wives" and "When Harry Met Sally," and not so much a contemporary, fluffier rom-com, for lack of a better description. Will, Rashida and Jen were determined to make the film as authentic as possible in terms of putting on the screen what it's like to really have a broken heart and go through the six stages of grief we go through. I don't think they wanted to pull any punches either. That's what they responded to primarily.
The movie certainly owes a large debt to "Husbands & Wives" and "When Harry Met Sally," but why "Broadcast News"? At times Celeste can have this very vitriolic component to her character and be fairly unlikeable. We wanted to make sure that was never marginalized. We wanted to make sure we didn't do what a lot of rom-coms do, which is take the lead actress and pound her into the ground in the first act -- she loses her job, her boyfriend breaks up with her -- and then we root for her to rise again. We wanted to make sure Rashida was this tough, type-A personality, and we didn't hold back from that. I know in the cutting process we played around with things: How far can we go with this before she becomes unlikeable? Fortunately for us, Rashida is such an incredibly likeable person to begin with, we found we could take it pretty far. She's got a lot of goodwill out there because she's sweet and likeable and there's an undercurrent of vulnerability that exists in her performance. That was why "Broadcast News" came up. Elements of that film are tough -- they don't pull punches.
You previously got an unexpectedly dramatic turn from Adam Scott in "The Vicious Kind"; now you do something similar here with Andy Samberg. What's your secret to getting actors to perform out of their comfort zone? In the case with Adam, I knew his work a little bit. Before "Party Down" and long before "Parks and Recreation," I had seen him on the HBO show "Tell Me You Love" where he played a dark, quiet, brooding character. Then I saw him do broad comedy and thought, "This guy can do both." For me, it's more about making sure you're finding someone who really fits the material perfectly. In the case of Andy,who better to play a 30-year-old man-boy who doesn't want to grow up? The real Andy is very sophisticated and grown up and a savvy businessman, but generally speaking, he's tapped into this "I'm going to feel like I'm in college forever!" vibe. It's not like we're asking him to play Hamlet. I'm not saying he's not capable of playing that too, but for this you want to make sure it's a stretch to an extent -- you want to make sure he feels pushed and challenged -- but that it's not so far out of his wheelhouse that people are going to have a knee-jerk response to the role or performance. Again, they wrote a great part for him. It fit him well and I tried to stay out of the way and make sure that Andy knew he was going to be safe with me and we can make it as small as we want. We're not doing sketch comedy where you're sharing the stage with 12 people. I'm going to be on a long lens, really tight, and if you think it, it's going to be there.
You mention the close-ups: One of the things that struck me about the film was how different it looked compared to other low-budget indie dramedies. We didn't want it to look like -- and I like these films, this is not meant to put these movies down -- an $800,000 movie, which is what it was. We didn't want it to have that sort of mumblecore, lo-fi quality. We wanted it to feel a little bigger and give it a little more scope, but to also stay real. The approach for us -- I have to give kudos to David Lansenberg, my really talented cinematographer, he's been a top tier commercial DP for many years and was waiting for the right opportunity and I'm thankful we connected on this -- was to steer clear from the broad comedy space. If you watch "40-Year-Old Virgin," which is a movie I love and laugh at all the time, there's a wide and bright aesthetic. Generally speaking, that doesn't serve the reality of the scene. If you remember the scene when they go in the club, if you turn the sound off and just watch it, you don't buy that they're in a club. It's bright, it's wide. But it doesn't matter in that context because it's about what will make the comedy look best. In the case of "Celeste and Jesse," we wanted it to feel really intimate. We felt like if there was a way where we could be as close to these people as possible -- if we could feel like in that opening photo montage we're looking at two of our closest friends -- we would be able to immerse the audience in a way that maybe your broad comedy doesn't necessarily.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Did you give any thought to having them get back together at the end? Will and Rashida said they had the ending before they wrote the script. When I read it, one of the first things I said in the meeting was, "I love this ending and I think it's honest and real and not contrived and I want to make sure that never changes." And they jumped right in and said that's the ending no matter what. A lot of times, you get into these situations when you're trying to figure out how to get the movie made and an investor comes along and says, "I'll pay for it, but you have to change the ending." We wanted to make sure that wasn't the case. If you sit with the movie and these characters, you do understand that sometimes you're in love with somebody but they're not "The One." This is a great example of two people who were meant to be best friends and not lovers. To pull a punch there would have marginalized the movie in a way that would have made it feel more contrived in a way the bigger studio rom-coms do. We wanted it to feel a little left of center.
For me, one of the film's biggest surprises was that Jesse had gotten another woman pregnant. The trailer does an amazing job hiding that moment. Was that your doing? Sony Classics was really great when we were cutting the trailer. That was something we all were on the same page with. We didn't want to give away that reveal. Going back to your question about Andy, the reveal has an even greater impact because it's coming from someone like Andy, who -- at least in the character he's portraying -- does not feel ready to be a father. That turn should be a real kick to the gut that puts Celeste on the downward spiral. If you tip your hand in the trailer, you end up diluting the film and we all wanted to make sure that was intact as much as possible.