Brittany Runs a Marathon Director Interview

Writing and directing a Sundance darling that sells for $14 million to Amazon is no small feat. Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, who never seriously considered directing a movie until writing Brittany Runs a Marathon, is certainly off to a good start as a filmmaker. Making the success all the sweeter: the movie is a personal story for Colaizzo, who loosely based it on his old roommate and his own experiences in his 20s.

For Colaizzo, Brittany Runs a Marathon is a story about finding self-respect and dignity. Tired of being the funny sidekick and the overall state of her life, Brittany (Jillian Bell) decides to focus on self-improvement and starts running. The experience brings out confidence, insecurities, and an array of feelings Brittany grapples with as she struggles with her sense of self.

Recently, Colaizzo took the time to tell us about how his personal experiences influenced the film, handling tonal shifts, and why you don’t need toxic friendships.

You started writing Brittany Runs a Marathon when you were 25 or 26. How did the story change since then? 

Well, we made it a movie [Laughs]. The emotional arc of it was always what it was. Once I had gotten through the first outline, it was the movie’s tonal shift that was a bit of a process, to find that exact balance. We wanted to start the journey on one note and end on another note and make both parts feel like a whole.

How’d you pull off that tonal shift? 

I think it all starts with people understanding and relating to Brittany. She uses humor, like she’s not unassumingly funny; she knows she’s being funny. Because the characters around her are funny, we weren’t setting out to make a comedy, but to show these people in their full range of human emotion. We approached the script and filmed it like it was a drama, but there just happened to be characters funny and relatable. When the movie gets really uncomfortable, like the meal at the birthday party, my hope is you’re so on board and understanding of Brittany’s journey so far, you’re feeling for her more than anything. Any discomfort or emotional ugliness that comes from the character is painful more than disliking her.

The idea was to take this character who, iconically in American movies, is like the fat sidekick party girl, a hot mess, and best friend comedic relief. You start with that icon that people understand and know how to watch, which is like the first five minutes of the film, and then progressively peel back more layers during the movie. What was interesting as I was working on it, I realized once people see a level of depth in the character, they’ll never accept the same laughs. When we’re laughing at her ridiculousness at the beginning of the film and once we start to understand her pain, those kind of jokes won’t be acceptable to the audience anymore. So, it was about evolving the humor along with the character.

Brittany is based on your old roommate. Was she inspired by anyone else?

I’d say it was inspired by my change as a human also. I definitely used humor to deflect vulnerability. I mean, I was a gay kid who grew up in Georgia with a conservative, religious environment. You know, the moment I decided I didn’t want to be the funny sidekick in my own life… I always found my value in being comedic relief and bringing laughter to others instead of valuing myself as a three-dimensional human with earnest desires and valid emotions. It was an experience about finding respect and dignity. As my real friend Brittany started to undergo this personal change, I saw a parallel between my own “self-improvement” and hers, and that felt really universal. I feel like we all deflect vulnerability because it’s a scary thing, but the real courage and thing that makes Brittany a hero in the movie is her letting her guard, her wall to come down.

You mentioned your upbringing in Georgia, being in a more conservative environment. What was it like when you first lived in New York City and went to NYU? 

I grew up all over, but I went to middle school and High School in Georgia and then I went to NYU. Honestly, it put me deeper in… I wasn’t ready to acknowledge who I was. I felt coming out of the closet at that point would be like abandoning the shield and identity that I created. Being at art school where everyone is sort of presumed gay until proven otherwise, it forced me further away from accepting who I was and it further solidified this exterior, this show of defense. It wasn’t until I left college was I able to start that process.

Creatively, how was NYU and living in the city for you? How did you grow as an artist there?

It was really illuminating. I grew up not very cultured and hated reading, so I didn’t get any real jest from my entertainment. I always loved creating, but NYU exposed me to was really the idea of craft and a real understanding and basic appreciation of drama. What technically makes a scene? What technically makes a story? Again, that goes back to craft and this idea we’re exploring human behavior, in pursuit of something with every interaction and defining characters with action. I was able to look at that in my life in writing the story of my life. Who am I? What is my objective? What are my tactics? What are my obstacles? Am I character who can overcome those? Holistically, it really changed how I look at life as art.

What was your ambition after school? Was it playwriting or filmmaking? 

When I left school I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I went on tour with a musical, worked at a Broadway ad agency, and worked in company management on Broadway. I was also editing sizzle reels for money so I was sort of figuring it out. At the end of 2008, I had written my first play when I was on tour with another play as an actor. It was right after college, like the day after graduating I started rehearsal for the play. A year after that, I thought, what part of this world do I want to invest in? I realized I had always in my free time been writing, so I should stop looking at that as a filler act. I started looking at it as more of a priority and made it a full-time commitment. I had never really considered directing movies until this movie.

What was it about Brittany Runs a Marathon that made you want to direct then? 

It’s a subject matter that could’ve been done horribly. It could’ve gone terribly. It could come off really offensive and be two-dimensional and everything I didn’t want the film to be. I had been involved in enough projects by that point to realize character stories can get lost in translation if the director is not able to access the emotionality of the characters and doesn’t prioritize them. I didn’t want the script to get ruined, so I wanted to protect the script. I wanted it to emotionally resonate with people, so I realized had to step up and carry the thing through.

brittany runs a marathon soundtrack

Like you said, one misstep could really sink this story. What was really delicate to you? What scenes or ideas were threading a needle? 

A couple of things. One, I’m a man, and this is a movie about a woman and her body. It was really important that any judgement, value, or tension about body image and the idea of self that comes from body image, that has to come from the main character’s point-of-view, and not the film’s point-of-view. There’s a specific example I can give that highlights what I’m talking about. You know when she’s running to catch the subway and never catches it?

Yes.

And when the guy finally holds the door open for her the day she’s wearing makeup? At several points in post-production, people kept adding victorious music to that moment, and that would be the film saying, “This is a good thing.” In reality, it’s a complicated, emotional thing. I wanted all of the experience of flattery and positivity in that moment to come from Brittany. It’s the beginning of her taking on the values of the world around her instead of her own and her journey to change her life. So, something as small as that could break the film.

Something else we needed to treat carefully was Brittany’s journey. Jillian is fantastic in the role and a truly gifted dramatic performer; she brings a whole range of humanity to the character. In this film, the protagonist is the antagonist. It’s the story about a woman fighting against her own self, so that journey takes place within the main character, that’s the priority. When you’re editing and putting the final story together, that’s the priority. It’s her reaction, her performance, and where she is emotionally and responding to in each moment. It had to be a clean journey, and one misstep there would throw the whole film off.

Her dealing with a toxic friendship is a part of that journey, and a part of yours 20s is realizing you don’t need those friendships. I enjoyed how unlike a typical movie, there’s no reunion or big apology between her and her unsupportive friend. She just goes away, which is usually what happens. 

Yeah, yeah. Really, I always loved that part of the film and thought it was exploring something real. Over the years, people have said, “Why isn’t [her friend] Gretchen at the end?” That’s not how that would work. That’s how a movie goes, not real life. Maybe the happy ending is she isn’t there, you know? That’s okay. Really, I was surprised when I first started showing people the film how much they gravitated to the idea of friendship and toxic friendships just as much as the self-respect and dignity story. I think that resonates with a lot of people because everyone has a Gretchen and everyone is probably a Gretchen at some point in their lives. In the film, when Brittany starts focusing on her looks, she kind of becomes Gretchen. The idea that confidence booster also leads to more insecurities, she starts to kick other people down.

I think it’s a really defining moment for her and a lot of people when you realize the kind of people you don’t want in your life. 

I’d have friends come over to my apartment and when they’d leave, I’d think, “That’s so weird how I spent so much time trying to make them feel better about themselves, and they made me feel worse about myself. I think I don’t need these friendships. I don’t think I need to open the door when they knock. I’m an adult.”

[Laughs] Exactly. Such a funny realization. I also wanted to ask about your depiction of New York. What were some of the more subtle details of the city you find cinematic and wanted to show? 

I wanted New York to feel like the dream for Brittany, even though she lives in it. There’s that moment she’s on the subway towards the beginning of the film, looking out the subway window, and I wanted New York to have that sort of warmer, more gracious allure. Over the river, there’s the dream, but it keeps looking away. I keep trying to go towards it, but it keeps looking away. I had so many friends move to the city but don’t live in Manhattan, so it still feels like they’re traveling to that place they’ve been trying to get to their whole lives.

[Spoiler Alert]

Because the marathon runs through all five boroughs and ends in Manhattan, I really wanted to create the sense she’s in her dream. In the beginning, she’s looking at her dream, and we mirror that shot at the end. Remember that? She’s going towards the city again, it’s the same skyline shot, and this time she’s going towards it. For me, it was make it eclectic, make it colorful and trashy with the very inviting feel of New York. Also, the aspirational quality of what’s across the river.

[Spoiler Over]

What are the best and worst parts of shooting in New York City?

Well, the worst part is it’s expensive, so you don’t get as many days. The best part is, you instantly have character. I’ve lived there now since 2003 and I love it. To me, New York is adding production value. When you’re doing exteriors, you can’t recreate it. Any New Yorker who watches a movie or TV show not actually shot in New York, they’ve never sold. There’s a level of authenticity [shooting there] where you start buying it as a depiction of something real. Filming in New York adds a level of authenticity we were really striving for in the whole fabric of the film.

Jillian Bell is so good in this movie.

So fucking good.

What days do you look back on very fondly working with her?

Oh, I look back on the whole thing that way. It was intimate and an exercise in the melding of the minds. As artists, people will say whatever they say and work will be taken certain ways, but at the end of the day, all you can do is have something you can stand behind. The goal is to have something you can be proud of and stand behind. Because of the extraordinary work Jillian delivers in this film, I feel confident in defending every frame of it.

After making your first movie and feeling that way about it, how’s it influenced the kind of movies you want to direct next?

Right now, there are two answers to that. One, I’m really inspired by artists working in TV and film, and how their work embraces a cinematic style more and more as they create. I’m interested in my own evolution there. In this day and age, there’s more often good guys and bad guys in movies because they’re easy to understand for audiences. It’s easier for the dopamine in our brain to understand killing the bad guy, right? As a country and world right now, I’m not sure it’s really helpful to demonize people as all bad and all good. For me, what I’m interested in is creating empathy in audiences to think, “Good guys are not all good, and bad guys are not all bad.”

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Brittany Runs a Marathon is now in limited release and expands in theaters soon.

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