"The whole movie is inside of her heart and soul... " Paul Downs Colaizzo talks directing Jillian Bell in new comedy/drama Brittany Runs A Marathon
The feel-good comedy of 2019 arrives in cinemas this week, with the release of Brittany Runs A Marathon.
The film stars Jillian Bell, best known for her scene-stealing roles in 22 Jump Street and Fist Fight. She plays Brittany Forglar, a young woman who decides to make positive changes in her life by training for the New York City Marathon.
Starring alongside Bell are Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery and Micah Stock, while first-timer Paul Downs Colaizzo writes and directs.
With the film hitting cinemas on Friday (November 1st), we spoke to Colaizzo about how his roommate’s decision to go for a run has given him his film debut...
Can you talk us through the genesis of the film? Had you written other scripts before?
“Nope. I was a playwright and I was living with my friend Brittany. We both wanted our lives to be better and to be the best versions of ourselves we could be, but we both felt like we didn’t really have control over anything. She decided to go for her first run and right there I thought ‘That’s a movie’. That was eight years ago and it’s gone on from there.”
What was it about that life change that stayed with you?
“I came out of the closet in my early 20’s and I had to redefine myself. I grew up in a very conservative, religious household in Georgia. I had to unlearn an awful lot about the world and how I was allowed to live my life.”
“When I moved in with Brittany, I brought a lot of that with me and a lot ‘F**k everyone that holds you back!’ attitude. So watching her take that onboard and really become the lead in her own story, it was exciting and sad and funny and hopeful. It was a movie already. Characters like her need stories and they need dramatic dignity.”
How was the journey from that to getting it fully realised?
“Very blessed. And very unusual. I had written it as an outline and I’d written another play, which was on in New York. Tobey Maguire came to see the play, I had a meeting with him and he asked me what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to write a movie about my friend training for the New York City marathon, they said yes.”
“I developed the script with them for two years and then I asked if I could direct the film. They said no. Which was fair enough because I’d never directed anything before. So I put together a whole deck and storyboards to try and convince them. They said yes. We started casting at the start of 2017, we shot at the end of 2017. I spent 2018 in post-production and I’m here now. And I never had to do a song and dance for money!”
Which is unusual…
“I have so many friends and colleagues who’ve done it, and I’ve been through it myself on other projects. I had two projects that looked like they were going to be big deals for me and the people behind them died. In this business, you need to stay dumb about that side of things. You can’t go into projects thinking that there’s no hope of it getting made, you have to assume it’ll all work out.”
That doesn’t mean you don’t take into account practicalities, you haven’t written a fantasy epic here…
“But I did get to shoot in New York and I did get to shut down a bunch of streets. Whatever film you make, you still get curveballs. We had one day where we lost power completely. And, Jillian lost 29 pounds getting ready for filming and another 11 while we were filming. We needed a prosthetic to match her journey and halfway through the movie, it stopped fitting, we’d be shooting a scene and she’d move her neck and half of it would stay behind!"
"It is a simple story, but a lot could go wrong. Shooting in New York was great and I was grateful I didn’t have to find a bunch of streets in Vancouver that look a bit like New York.”
Were you prepared to give the film away to someone else to direct?
“I knew that things could get really f***ed up, I knew you can work really hard on something and the director can have no emotional insight and can really ruin the story you created. I don’t know I would have been comfortable with that. There are directors whose work I really admire and I’d love to get inside their minds, but even then.”
So even if Phil Lord and Chris Miller or Judd Apatow wanted to make it, you’d still have been uneasy?
“I think we would have had an awful lot of very long conversions. Every single day.”
What’s it like that first day on set? Suddenly being in charge of a big machine…
“I’ve created two TV pilots and this, and, every time I’ve shown up on set for the first time and gone over to craft services to get breakfast, they’ve told me ‘Extras eat over there’. There’s always an immediate grounding. I don’t struggle to find energy or camaraderie. But we did have a tricky first day…”
“I woke up at 2.30, because I knew Jillian’s call time was 4.30 and I wanted to be there. We were shooting the scene where she runs one block. There’s a clown there now, but it was a pregnant woman and I decided that wasn’t New York enough. I called the Assistant Director and told them ‘I need a birthday clown’. The AD said ‘Look, it’s 2.30 in the morning, we’re shooting that at 10. Forget it’. And I said ‘I don’t know what to tell you, but we need a birthday clown’. And they got one.”
“So I don’t know if everyone thought I was going to do that every day and it’d be a funny story. Or, if they’d hate me and it’d be a story about a guy who made one movie and they laugh about it afterwards.”
Did you always have Jillian in mind?
“Not while I was writing. I did see 22 Jump Street and I wondered if that might be Brittany someday. I’d seen a lot of Jillian’s comedic work, but I didn’t know if she was a dramatic actress or even if she was interested in being one. We met and I saw a different side of her. An accessibility and a vulnerability and she really understood the character and her emotional centre. She delivered a raw, amazing performance. I met with other actresses. But nobody else got close.”
How did you navigate the relationship with her? So much of the movie is here, it’s an intense thing...
“The whole movie is inside of her heart and soul. You see everything through her eyes. We had no time for rehearsal and no money. We prepared by Skyping once a week, every week, for seven months and we went through every page of the script, so by the time we got to set there was a real shorthand between us. I put a lot of trust in her.”
How did you find working with no rehearsal? You were a playwright, that’s basically torture…
“Here’s what I learned. In film, the edit is rehearsal. That’s where you sit and you try things. It’s a weird process, but it is like rehearsing, you move your actors around so much. I just knew I had to be incredibly well-prepared and have every beat down. I had a lot of confidence in the spine of the story and there was a bit of time for flourishes and improvisation. But we didn’t do much, we approached this as a drama and every word matters.”
Finally, how does the real-life Brittany feel about this?
“Great. When I came up with the idea, I hadn’t even had a play on, so to go on this journey, that was beyond the wildest of dreams. It’s been shocking and exciting. But she loves that she’s inspired people and she’s getting emails from people who she’s never met. Her relationship with fitness and her body, it’s still ongoing, but she loves that we’re talking about.”
Brittany Runs A Marathon is in cinemas from Friday (November 1st).
Star Jillian Bell is the guest on next week’s edition of our podcast, My Inspiration. To hear previous episodes and to subscribe, click here.