At the impressionable age of 13, Lee Toland Krieger visited the set of the 1996 thriller “Executive Action,” where his Los Angeles neighbor Steve Perry was the executive producer.
“From that moment, I was hooked,” says Krieger, now a 29-year-old helmer with two feature credits, the 2008 indie drama “The Vicious Kind” (nommed for two Spirit Awards) and “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” a serio-romantic-comedy, written by and starring Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, in which a divorcing couple try to stay friends. Andy Samberg, Emma Roberts and Elijah Wood also star. Sony Classics releases the pic Aug. 3.
Krieger, who went to USC film school and landed an internship with Neil LaBute’s Pretty Pictures, lists influences such as Paul Thomas Anderson, LaBute and Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast.” Such inspirations fueled him to make “The Vicious Kind,” in which “Parks and Recreation’s” Adam Scott plays a vulnerable man with a blisteringly cruel streak.
That film’s mix of dark humor and pathos paved the way for Krieger’s work on “Celeste and Jesse.” Recruited by producer Jennifer Todd, Krieger eventually sat down with Team Todd, Jones and McCormack, and delivered his take on the material. “Tonally, I saw it as closer to ‘Husbands and Wives’ or ‘Broadcast News’ than contemporary romantic comedies,” he says. ” ‘Knocked Up’ just wasn’t the reference point.”
According to Jones, it was specifically Krieger’s level of sensitivity and an understanding “of what makes people love each other, hate each other and resent each other” that helped pull off the film’s tricky balance of schticky laughs and poignant drama. “The comedy in the film would only play if that authenticity was there,” she adds. “He has that.”
After “Celeste and Jesse’s” Sundance premiere, Krieger turned down several “great opportunities,” he says, because “they’d mean making another romantic comedy that I haven’t written.” He also dropped out of a long-in-the-works adaptation of the high school novel “The Spectacular Now” to focus on a new project of his own making.
“I want to do something that is accessible and has teeth,” he says, referring to his “Thelma and Louise”-inspired script but won’t be drawn on the title. (The script is going out to actresses).
“I love Todd Solondz,” Krieger continues, speaking of the helmer behind “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” “But the reality is that I don’t want that career. I want to do what Steven Soderbergh has being doing for years. It’s OK to do a movie with more scope; it doesn’t mean you’re selling out. It just means you’re testing yourself as a filmmaker.”