Interview: Paul Downs Colaizzo and Jillian Bell Talk About Journeys and ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

The star and first-time director each discuss their months long collaboration before bringing Brittany to the screen.

When “Brittany Runs a Marathon” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, it became an instant favorite among festival attendees. In fact, the film won the Audience Award for Dramatic Features and was quickly snapped up by Amazon.

Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, a lost and drifting twenty-something living in Manhattan. A visit to a doctor ends up being a wake up call for the girl who wants to party all night and sleep all day. The news sends Brittany on a journey to get herself healthy and to transform her life in the process.

Paul Downs Colaizzo makes his directorial film debut with “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” which he also wrote. His theater background gave him the experience to craft a story that puts his characters at the center, with rich dialogue and development.

I recently had the chance to speak separately with Colaizzo and Bell about their journeys bringing this story to the screen, and what they learned about themselves through the process.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I love this movie and haven’t stopped talking about it since Sundance!

Paul Downs Colaizzo: Thank you so much!

KP: How has this journey been for you since the premiere?

PDC: I’ve been really curious to see how the rest of the country was going to experience the film. Sundance was amazing. You hope the response is not a product of the circumstances, and I’ve had the benefit of going all over the country to watch the film play at other festivals and the response has been just as positive. So I’m hopeful America as a whole enjoys the film that others have been so far. 

KP: What was it about this story that really spoke to you and made you want to write this film?

PDC: I love American dream stories. I love the idea of somebody conquering themselves. I’m really drawn to my real-life friends’ psychologies and also character psychologies. I wanted to make a story where the protagonist is also the antagonist. And being inspired by my roommate at the time, Brittany, as she created new goals for herself including running a marathon. I thought that was a perfect opportunity for an emotional and epic and funny and heartfelt and heartbreaking, surprising story.

KP: There’s something about marathons, isn’t there? It seems like so many people take it on, but most of us have no interest in doing them ever.

PDC: I have zero interest!

KP: You captured so many different feelings so well. What was your process and how did you work with your actors to dig into the emotions of this story?

PDC: Jillian and I went over the script for six or seven months leading up to shooting. I think probably once a week or once every two weeks for hours at a time, going over word for word to make sure we were on the same page, telling the same story. I am a playwright and I like rehearsal and I like when actors are sticking to the script to make sure we’re telling the story because I think every word matters. Because we’re telling a story word by word. So getting on the same page and making sure that Jillian and I had the same macro understanding of the character’s journey and micro understanding of her work in each scene, her desires and her dreams and her tactics and her objectives in each scene. So we would run into fewer surprises on set.

KP: At what point did Jillian get involved? It really feels like this character was written for her.

PDC: She came on seven months before we started filming.

KP: How did you get her to agree to do it?

PDC: I had heard that she really liked the script, so we set a meeting. We had a sit down meeting and then we had a Skype meeting. And we sort of talked through the script and the character and Jillian spoke very beautifully about her personal resonance to the story and explained why she wanted to tell the story and needed to be the one to tell the story. In sussing each other out, we saw that we both had the same desires for what we were going to accomplish with this movie, which was to create something that was fun and funny and engaging, and also deeply personal and raw and ultimately good for the world.

KP: In this movie, Brittany feels very well-rounded, she feels like an actual, realized woman. I know you said you had a lot of conversations with Jillian to develop the character, but even before that, when you were writing the script, what sort of influences did you have to make her feel so real?

PDC: I think because the script itself is an exploration of a woman’s relationship to herself. If there’s no tension there, there’s no story there. So by creating tension within her and all of the characters, there’s a three-dimensionality that naturally comes out of that.

KP: There is, yeah. But some of the things that she goes through feel so specific. Her relationship with strange men, the way she interacts with her roommate. Watching this, there were a lot of times where I thought to myself, “I feel like this guy really gets it.”

PDC: That’s so nice of you to say. I’m just trying to do my job responsibly, which is to create and spark empathy in the viewer, humanize people no matter who they are, and prove that every single character in a story has a whole life that we’re given a glimpse into. It’s just the job.

KP: How long did it really take you to write the script?

PDC: I’d written the outline before Brittany ran the marathon. I started writing it in 2014 and I finished that draft based on the outline before Brittany had even run her marathon. So I was working on it from 2014 to 2016, so about two and a half years before we started filming.

KP: Paul, this is your first film. Your directorial debut. What is something you learned about yourself through this journey?

PDC: How much I love actors. Characters are a blueprint until you have a beating heart. That changes everything.

KP: I am so excited to talk to you because I saw this movie back at Sundance and I loved it so much. Now it’s about to go into the world!

Jillian Bell: I know! It’s finally coming out!

KP: How has this journey been for you?

JB: Unlike anything else. It’s been extraordinary. It’s definitely been super challenging at times and probably the hardest I’ve worked on anything. It’s a passion project for sure. Paul and I met two, two and a half years ago? We both had the same intentions for it and wanted to say the same thing. I loved it. And it’s so crazy we’re about to release it now. We hope that everybody sees it and gets what the message is.

KP: It premiered at Sundance and then it’s been finding its way through audiences for the last couple of months. What are some of the things you’ve heard from people that really confirmed that this was the right movie for you?

JB: You know, I’ve heard from a lot of people that are signing up to run marathons, which is, I mean, how can you beat that compliment? That’s very cool! And also I’ve heard from a lot of people, men and women, that felt seen. That’s all you can ask for is to do a project where people resonate with the film and the characters and what they’ve gone through. People talk to me about what their marathon is. Sometimes it’s not an actual marathon. It’s getting out of a bad relationship or phone calls with parents. It could be anything, but the fact that people are relating to the movie is all we could ask for.

KP: One of the things I really love about this is that Brittany feels like a real person. You breathe so much life into her. I talked to Paul yesterday and he told me how much the two of you worked before filming. Could you talk a little about that collaboration?

JB: It was a lot of phone calls! He was in New York and I was in LA and there were times he’d fly out to LA. And he would call pretty much daily, if not every other day. We would really talk. And it wasn’t just, “What does my character think about this?” It was, “What is Demetrius saying here? What is Catherine saying here? What’s the message we’re trying to get across?” It was like every single line was informative and we wanted to make sure the message was coming across. That was so important to us, and when you’re tackling this kind of subject, it’s layered and so is Brittany. Brittany is very layered. This is probably the first character I’ve played where it wasn’t just an odd woman who comes in and tries to make people laugh, which I really enjoy playing. But it was someone who was funny at times and then broke your heart and said things that made you want to smack her. It’s a part of being a real human being. We make mistakes along the way. I was so excited to play her.

KP: There are times where Brittany will say one thing, but you can see there’s something else going on below the surface. It’s so layered and textured.

JB: Thank you. That’s so nice of you to say. A lot of that really is the writing. Paul is a brilliant writer and played around a lot with, like, in some of the comedic moments how can you see the pain, and vice versa. And to have moments of levity and then moments where you’re really rooting for her to go for her dreams. It was a challenge but I really enjoyed the challenge.

KP: What was one of the more challenging aspects of this?

JB: Part of it was physical and part was emotional. I feel like the physical aspects of running for the first time and training, I wanted to do the real life physical transformation of the character so I lost 40 pounds. They never asked me to do that, but I thought it would connect me to her journey a little bit better and connect me to some of the scenes in the film that I didn’t relate to. I had to experience what that’s like to train and train and suddenly plateau or injure yourself and not be able to go forward. I’d never experienced those things. While I didn’t do every part of that, it really did help me connect to her emotional background.

And then emotionally, it was a lot. There were scenes in this film that I read and one in particular, I said this is the hardest scene I’ll ever have to shoot no matter what. Because I hadn’t experienced a lot of the big issues that Brittany has gone through. I think not all but some women have problems with body image and there are scenes in the film where Brittany projects onto another person and that was a tough scene to shoot for sure.

KP: How do you feel you have grown through the process of creating this film with Paul and bringing it out into the world?

JB: I’ve hopefully grown as an actress. I was so nervous about trying something outside of my comfort zone, with dramatic elements. It’s something I would really love to continue to do. And personally, I really felt like it changed my life, doing this movie. It made me look at the way I would talk about myself or think about myself. Now I’ll say maybe don’t do that as much, don’t be as hard on yourself. Be a little kinder.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Paul Downs Colaizzo and Jillian Bell for speaking about their work.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is distributed by Amazon and is in theaters this week.

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