A Conversation With "Celeste and Jesse Forever" Director Lee Toland Krieger
“How old are you?” he asks in vague horror after I admit as much to him. “Oh my god, arguably the greatest action movie in the…” He trails off into a silent moment of rapt admiration for the movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker.
Not that you’d know it from his oeuvre, however. Krieger, the director of upcoming indie dramedy "Celeste and Jesse Forever," made his feature debut with "The Vicious Kind," which he also wrote; an aptly-titled character study, stars Adam Scott as a young man estranged from his family who becomes obsessed with his college-aged brother Peter’s new girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow), when she comes to Rhode Island to stay with Peter over Thanksgiving break.
Even Celeste and Jesse—though it stars reliably funny folk Rashida Jones (who also co-wrote the script) and Andy Samberg—is a heart-rending account of a young couple’s attempt to navigate their lives in the wake of their pending divorce.
Still, what might fall short of selling out popcorn at IMAX theatres across the country has certainly been sufficient to elevate Krieger to the status of Sundance darling. Distributors snapped up Celeste and Jesse quickly, and in anticipation of its upcoming release Neon Tommy recently spoke with Krieger over the phone about the film, growing up in L.A., and his time at USC.
Hi, Lee? I can barely hear you.
Yeah, um, you as well. I’m at my family’s place in Rhode Island and the phone is about as old as the house. I’m trying to enunciate and project as much as I can.
Oh, actually, I was going to ask whether you were from L.A. originally.
Technically I am from L.A. I was born in L.A., went to school in L.A., but both my folks are from the East Coast and my mom’s family had property in Rhode Island for a number of generations, so I’ve been coming back here literally every summer in my life. Most of my family is back East.
That makes sense. Your first feature The Vicious Kind—with its snowy New England setting—felt like it was coming from a place of recognition.
Definitely. I felt like I knew the New England lifestyle well enough so that I could tell that story, if that makes any sense. I’m not much of an L.A. hater, I like L.A., I’m from L.A., but I’ve always felt more at home on the East Coast. A large part of my family is here and we’re many generations deep here, whereas in L.A. not only do I not have much in the way of extended family, but it’s such a transient environment, Los Angeles. I don’t feel like anyone’s really from there; you’re one generation deep in Los Angeles, generally.
How did you get involved in filmmaking?
It’s hard to say because, honestly, it was not really encouraged in my house, and I think in a way that was sort of a good thing because I felt slightly rebellious when I was doing it. I don’t know where the interest started, I think maybe—this will seem so nerdy, but when I was really young, like seven or eight, I was into magic. And that interest in magic led to an interest in special effects. I remember Terminator 2 came out when I was eight or nine years old, and I remember trying to replicate those effects with a video camera, and that developed into trying to make a little short around it.
And then, eventually, you went into the film program at USC. How did that influence you?
I haven’t thought about this in a while, but, again, I think there was something about the structure of film school that—I don’t mean this to sound like a disparaging remark about the program, but I liked the idea of rebelling against it. I remember for my first 290 I did a short that was made up entirely of stills. I didn’t want to shoot on the Sony camera, so I shot my whole thing on 35mm stills because I wanted to shoot on film.
They let you do that?
Well, I didn’t really tell them what I was doing. And I think I got a little slap on the wrist, but they were okay with it. I still maintain today that that was far and away the best short I ever did. I think it’s the same thing as with my parents not really wanting me to pursue film—there was a clandestine component to it that was really sexy and that inspired me to go out and try to do it all the more. The other thing is that while I was there I was working for Neil LaBute, and I started getting really into his material, and that kind of illustrated to me that to be a writer or filmmaker and get noticed you have to have a voice. I said, “That’s the kind of writer and filmmaker I want to be.”
On that topic, until Celeste and Jesse, you’ve written everything you’ve ever filmed. Do you consider yourself as much a writer as a director?
I’ll just say this: I’m really focused on my writing right now, and I don’t know that I’m eager to make more movies that I’ve not written. Coming out of Celeste and Jesse, there were opportunities to make another movie right away that would have been bigger, but that would have required me to do some other material that was very, very close to Celeste and Jesse, and I felt that I’d be kind of repeating myself. Celeste and Jesse was an interesting experience, I grew as a filmmaker from it, but I’m eager to get back to my own material.
The fact that Celeste and Jesse was tonally in the same vein as your prior work is also an entire world apart from just directing any old script.
Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s what attracted me to it and why I felt like I might be able to take it on. I loved the script when I read it and I still love it. It’s tough to make a movie with a group of idea people, and you really have to know everyone at the top is all making the same movie and all sort of marching toward the same goal. Even if the goals are slightly off it could be a big problem. I think part of why Celeste and Jesse worked is that we all wanted to make the same movie.
"Celeste and Jesse Forever" opens in select theatres August 3rd.
Reach reporter Keely here.