At just over 26 miles, the New York Marathon, stretching over five boroughs, is the longest and largest marathon in the world. The front runners make it over the finish line in about two and a half hours but over 50,000 more qualify at their own pace, motivated by all kinds of reasons and emotions as they celebrate their moment of achievement.
One such person was a 27-year-old woman called Brittany who had reached a crisis in her life. On the surface, she was the life of the party, but she was also overweight, unhealthy, directionless and full of self-loathing. Her flatmate was successful playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo and the story of how Brittany turned her life around became his writing project and directorial debut. Colaizzo was backed by Tobey Maguire of Material Pictures and Margot Hand of Picture Films and describes the resulting film as “a love letter to my best friend and the compelling, painful, hilarious, and inspiring journey she took in her late 20s.”
It’s a testament to the film’s craft and heart that it picked up the Audience Award for Best U.S. Drama at the Sundance Film Festival.
Apart from Colaizzo’s fresh writing and his skill with humour and characters, the film’s success rests on comedian Jillian Bell who took on the role of Brittany as we watch her very funny, sometimes painful transformation from couch potato to jogger and finally marathon runner.
“My concept for the film was to take a stock character from big American comedies – the hot mess, the fat sidekick – and turn the camera squarely in her direction, then give this character the dignity she deserves,” Colaizzo explains in his director’s notes.
He was on hand to answer audience questions after a warmly received premiere at Sundance, along with producers, cast and the real-life Brittany.
Bell, an accomplished improv comedian who was also a writer for Saturday Night Live, wore prosthetics to simulate her character’s overweight condition but described how she had undertaken a weight loss journey ahead of the film so she could understand the emotional, as well as the physical, changes she went through.
“I could relate to Brittany so much, about using comedy to hide pain in your life,” Bell told the audience. “In the beginning I, like many comedians, went into comedy to shy away from difficult things.”
“We started with Brittany and built her character, then developed the other characters to bring out aspects of her life and story,” Colaizzo explained. “The actors, most of them comedians, were willing to be beating hearts in front of the camera and that’s what made it work. We were relentless in being true to Brittany’s story.”
There’s a slight messiness to some of the scenes and structure that actually works to give the film a naturalistic, intimate feel. One strength is an effortless diversity in the characters, from a gay running buddy to the hard-partying Asian roommate who can eat and drink anything and is spectacularly unsupportive of Brittany’s efforts to change.
“Ours is the first non-documentary to be filmed at the New York marathon,” Colaizzo says proudly. “They were incredibly supportive of what the movie stood for.”
There are poignant and hilarious scenes at the beginning of Brittany’s transformation, including her wise-cracking denial of her health issues at the doctor’s office and tragic drunken pickups that pass for date nights. Having followed the journey with her, the most moving scenes are on the marathon itself, especially her struggle to the finish line.
“People would see me having problems, near collapse, and every time we did a take they would rush over to try to help,” says Bell. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them it wasn’t real, that I didn’t just run 26 miles like you did – I’m an actor!”
Colaizzo worked on the script for four years once he had producers’ backing, and underwent his own transformative journey in the process.
“It turned me from a playwright into a screenplay writer then, a couple of years in I asked if I could direct. They said no at first then I set about convincing them. I didn’t want my specific hope for this story to get lost in translation. I know I’m so lucky, I want to pretend it always works like this.”