If Paul Downs Colaizzo had to choose just one word to describe the meaning behind his feature film debut, Brittany Runs A Marathon, it might be “transformation.” By the end of our lunch in Beverly Hills on a recent afternoon, I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s reiterated the idea. But I can’t blame him, because at the core of the comedic drama, in theaters Friday, is a message of self-change.
“I don't know what your childhood was like, but [growing up in] the South for me was hard. And I don't know how open you were with yourself, but I wasn't,” he said, launching into an explanation of what he hopes viewers take from the film. “I stayed closeted all through college, but I knew I was going to have to find a way to unlearn everything [I was taught] and decide what I believed in.
“So, I wanted to explore the very emotional and volatile and triumphant, pathetic, hopeful, hopeless, sad, great journey of a transformation of self, mainly in an internal way.”
Brittany Runs A Marathon stars Jillian Bell as the titular character, a woman for whom life is a heaping pile of shit and disappointment. Upon deciding to take control into her own hands, one block at a time, Brittany experiences a self-awakening that is at once heartwarming, inspiring, and entirely too emotional for the viewer (this is a good thing!). It’s inspired by the true life story of Colaizzo’s best friend and former roommate. The supporting cast includes Lil Rel Howery of Get Out, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Micah Stock, among others.
Colaizzo, 34, spoke to me about the film, which won the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year, his early years as a playwright, and how coming out set him on this path.
What made you start saying that this was something that you want to pursue as a career?
I had ADD as a kid, but it wasn't diagnosed. I just couldn't read and I remember in second grade I would write stories instead of doing the reading assignments. I used to write titles of plays or books and then I would dedicate them to teachers on the back. So I guess at that point I was thinking I would do this for a career. But consciously [I] decided to be a writer and to pursue it as a career in 2008.
Was there anything specific that prompted the decision?
It's so funny because it was tied directly to me coming out of the closet. I wrote my first play when I was on tour with [the stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’] Great Expectations. I put it away and then I was doing a bunch of stuff and I was working for an ad agency and I was taking acting jobs. I was on As the World Turns right before High School Musical 2, and while I was doing that, I came out. I was in love for the first time and the guy broke up with me three hours after I came out. So I went back to New York and I had to find an apartment. I moved into a dentist's office — you know, New York slum garden apartments. My parents were divorcing at the same time. It was right around when the economy crashed and there was this whole lack of faith in systems.
The other part is I'd moved a lot growing up and I always loved writing. I always loved it; I just never considered it as a career. What I realized about acting and performing is that you don't have a home. Your physical body has to be somewhere in order to be doing your work. So I thought, "I love psychology, I love drama, I love the art of drama, and I love being in control of my day. So why don't I try this?" So I dusted off that play I had written, went on unemployment, and thought, "At the end of this, I will only be making money from writing."
And literally the week that my unemployment ended, I started [as a script associate for] Sister Act, and right after that, they scheduled my play in D.C. and it worked.
That play eventually finds its way to Off Broadway, garnering countless reviews and press. How did it feel to have all of that attention on you and your show? They were calling you “the voice of a generation.”
It was complicated. I knew that it was a dream come true and also I was so depressed. I've spoken to friends who have had much greater success and they talk about the same thing. It's that thing where you get the thing you want and you're just sort of crying all the time. It felt like that. But it was a really incredible experience just to take that thing that I wrote in the back of a van and see [it come to life].
Immediately after that, you delved into Hollywood, working with two titans of the industry.
I immediately started working for this Ryan Murphy show called Open that was supposed to be on HBO that never went. And I was — at the same time — developing with Shonda Rhimes a pilot. It was amazing because they're both geniuses and I was understanding how they relate to audiences.
At what point did the idea for Brittany Runs a Marathon come to you?
Before all of this, in 2011. I moved in with my friend Brittany and the second she went for her first run, I thought this was a movie. I started outlining it and then her life started mimicking the outline.
How did she respond at the start?
We were 26. I'd never had a play produced so the stakes were so low. It didn't feel real, but also I think it was a fun idea. She's never been hesitant at all. The only time we were like, "Uh-oh this is tricky,” is when I was trying to figure out the press notes for Sundance and it was like, "Based on his best friend, a hot mess, trashy ..." and she was like, "We can't say that and you have to make it very clear that it’s not me. I have a life." So the character's not her. A lot of the plot is different than what she experienced in her life, but the character has the DNA of her and there's that fine line. Her name is Brittany O'Neill and the character's name is Brittany Forgler, and I wanted to make sure people knew that it was inspired by her. I took milestones from her life and made them tentpoles in the film, too, but she's not Brittany Forgler.
At what point did it become clear that you were going to have an opportunity to make a movie out of the script and that you’d direct it too?
Tobey Maguire came to [my play] in New York and we had a couple of meetings after that and he said, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "This movie is about my friend who gets her shit together training for the marathon,” and they bought it off of that logline. They developed it for two and a half years, but things get sold all the time and don't get made. I just knew that I had to make something I was proud of.
Then when it came time that they were going to find a director, I had worked on enough projects to realize that things can get lost in translation, especially in character pieces, especially something that needs to be handled in a nuanced, respectful way like this movie. And so I asked if I could direct it and they said no. Then I came to L.A. and I created a lookbook and storyboards, and I showed it to them and I did a whole presentation trying to show them that I needed to tell this story because I wanted to protect the script at all costs. They said, “Yes!” That was the end of 2016.
One of the things that I really loved when I first saw the film was that it feels like you're in New York and it looks like you're in New York, in terms of the diversity on the street and in the cast. The diversity of the friend group. Because we watch so many movies and shows set in New York and there's not a person of color anywhere.
I watched a television show the other day. It was a rerun and I watched five minutes of it and it was New York and the scene took place in the Bronx on the subway and it was all white people and I was like, "Who made that decision?" It's bizarre. I knew I wanted everyone present.
Talk to me about that casting process.
Rel's role wasn't written as a father figure. It was like an actual father, and when I met with him and was talking about the script, he got it. He understood the movie and was speaking about Brittany and the movie in such an emotional and in-touch way. As he was saying stuff, I thought, "I want to hear you say this in the film." So I rewrote the father role for Rel.
With Jillian, we had a meeting in Brooklyn. She'd read the script when and was immediately protective of the character in a great way. We didn't want the character ever to be a sight gag and I didn't want an actress going for the easiest laugh or the broadest version of the character. Because the whole point was to three-dimensionalize someone who's normally a sidekick. I'd never directed anything and she'd never done a dramatic role before and so we were both working on determination. We both wanted to deliver for the other one. We both trusted our shared desire to not make this girl the butt of a joke.
You called the movie a drama, and yes, it's a drama, I guess. But I laughed a lot and cried a lot. Like, a lot.
We approached it as a drama. I know it's funny — I mean, that's the point. The point is to entertain, but in order to do it with integrity, all that humor had to come out of character behavior and it had to come out of pursuing a desire with character-specific tactics. That's what makes it funny. We're not laughing at them. We're laughing at ourselves.
It's a drama in the sense that nobody slips on a banana peel, but the characters are funny, the situations are often funny, and the way they deal with them are relatably funny.