“Brittany Runs A Marathon,” the darling of Sundance and Audience Award winning film, opens this weekend starring Jillian Bell as Brittany, a “hot mess” who attempts to turn her life around one (literal) step at a time. This hilarious yet insightful and relatable film digs deeply into life, relationships and acceptance.
Writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo and Bell were in Chicago this week to promote the film, and I had a chance to sit down and talk with them about creating this wonderfully entertaining film that just might inspire you and change how you see yourself and others.
I saw the film at Sundance.
Paul Downs Colaizzo (PDC): Have you seen it since?
I have not.
PDC: Well, I’ve made a change.
PDC: Yes, I did. (Pauses.) I changed the text message. No one’s even noticed who’s seen the film like seven times.
Jillian Bell (JB): I noticed.
I’m going to change my review now.
PDC: But I like it better. (Laughing.) It’s literally an emoji in the text. A smiley face.
I read that you had to fight to direct this film even as the writer of it.
PDC: You know, “fight” is the good click-bait version of the word, but really I asked if I could direct it. I’d never directed anything before, and I never directed a short or anything, and so they said, “No,” which I understood.
I’d been involved in enough projects where I’d seen how things can get lost in translation if a director didn’t have an emotional in to the story, and I knew I had an emotional in to the story, and I wanted it to be treated in a specific, delicate, nuanced, respectful, kind and fun way.
I said, well how do I prove it to you, and they said, “Go out and make a short.” I didn’t have the money or time to make a short, so I put together this book that was 53 pages. I story-boarded scenes … I talked about the visual language I would use in the film. I used examples of other films, really the whole scope of it to show I had a basic understanding at least of it and a passion for the project. I gave the pitch. They said yes. That was the end of 2016. I took off my writer hat and put on my director hat and got going.
Jillian, I love your comedic style, and in this film you show you have the dramatic acting chops as well. You’ve never done drama before, right?
JB: No, no, honestly the only drama I’ve been in was two of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, but my part was very, very small. But it was a great learning experience because I got to see people such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman act all day, and it was sort of like my college experience. … I was nervous about taking this on. I really wanted to try something outside of my comfort zone, and this script came my way, and I thought it was beautiful and poetic and extraordinary, and I just wanted to play her.
This was inspired by Paul’s friend, Brittany O’Neill’s, life. Did you meet her before shooting the film?
JB: I met her during shooting. Paul had created all these other characters who didn’t exist in the real Brittany’s life, so we had to know who would she be as a person if her father was this …
PDC: Yeah, there were differences between Brittany O’Neill and Brittany Forgler and the backstory of things Brittany Forgler had done, Brittany O’Neill had never done, so it was really a work of fiction. The emotional arc I took from my friend, and I got to experience that, but when it came a time for Jillian to take on the role, it was about handing off this role to her so she could own it fully.
Did you personally connect with this character at all?
JB: A lot of the emotional connection I had to her was there already. I just thought that I am this woman. I hope to be this woman. And I wanted to connect to her even more. There were certain things that the script, that I didn’t quite understand so I started to go on her physical journey. I started working out for the first time and running and doing meal preps and training as if I was getting ready for this. I mean, I wasn’t running to the point of 26.2 miles, but I was running for the first time in my life. I decided to lose 40 pounds because she loses 40 pounds in the story. And the emotional journey I went through when that happened really connected me in a way, I guess I was hoping it would happen, but I didn’t fully expect.
This film and the characters show we never really know what’s going on in people’s lives. Tell me about developing these ancillary characters so fully and who, if anyone, they’re based on.
PDC: The idea was to take a bunch of people who seem like icons, like archetypes from American comedy, start there and try and dig under the facade and figure out who they really are. What’s up with their emotional lives, their inner lives, their pain, their trauma, their past. The idea was with Brittany, we’re taking the side kick of the hot mess, party girl, comic relief everyone knows from movies and slowly digging deeper. I wanted to do that for everyone else in the film, and I wanted to do that for the movie as a whole. I wanted you to go into the movie thinking you know what it is: Brittany runs a marathon. It has pink and blue and yellow letters. There’s fun and funniness in the trailer, and ultimately by the end, you have a much deeper understanding of it, and you understand it in a three-dimensional way that’s emotional and lovely and tender and also fun and funny and great.
Jillian, Brittany truly is a complicated character, and I can’t wait for my 24-year-old daughter to see this.
JB: I would have liked to have seen this movie at 24.
What did you learn from it?
JB: I learned a lot of personal things. I feel like I learned to love myself more and to be better to myself. To chose myself because that’s what Brittany ends up doing, she ends up choosing herself and choosing to surround herself with people who love her and root her on, and I think that’s a great lesson to learn. I would have loved to learn it at a very young age.
Paul, did you have any hesitations with being a male and telling a female’s story?
PDC: I wasn’t hesitant, but that might have been because I wasn’t smart enough to be hesitant. (Laughs!) But I did know there came a huge responsibility with the task, and where we are in culture reminded me there was a huge responsibility with that task. I like finding where I connect with people, and I personally don’t love writing stuff that’s specifically inspired by the concrete events of my life. I want to be able to tell stories where I feel my human experience overlap with the human experience with someone I’m not the same as. I was excited to do that, and I knew I owed the full scope of dedication in my process to make sure I wasn’t being flippant or dismissive or careless with any aspect of representation in this film.
Did you find it difficult to go from the mindset of live theater to creating a film?
PDC: It was exciting! There’s this quote Thornton Wilder has, that film is the story of them; theater is the story of us, and I hate that. I want film to be the story of us, too. I want films … that hold up a mirror to who we are as people, that change the way we look at ourselves, that change the way we look at people next to us. … This movie is the story of all of us — that we can see ourselves in the character and go home not just having a good time but also having learned a little bit about ourselves.