“It’s been quite a journey. It’s been overwhelming to think about this year, about how life has changed, and it’s been so exciting to be a part of all of this.”
Jillian Bell is talking about the unprecedented success of Brittany Runs a Marathon, her first dramatic starring role in a film that has been gathering huge audience accolades from winning the Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year to the continued trajectory on the global circuit.
“We’ve had people coming up to us and saying, ‘thank you, I feel seen’, or ‘it’s the first time I’ve seen a movie where a character is like me’, and that is an unbelievable feeling.”
It’s a credit to Paul Downs Colaizzo’s writing and Bell’s hilarious but sensitive and layered performance that the character of Brittany, compelled to challenge how stuck she is in her life by taking on the New York marathon, portrays a breadth of human frailty, pain and levity that resonates with audiences across the board.
Bell and Colaizzo are in Sydney to promote the film. FilmInk caught up with them to find out what had led them to this life changing moment.
“I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue acting at 18,” says Bell. “I’m from Las Vegas originally where I did a lot of theatre. I took improv classes when I was really young, and I watched a lot of Saturday Night Live. That was my dream. I wouldn’t even go to New York on vacation because I wanted the first time to be for SNL. I was invited for an audition when I was 25, then they asked me to be a writer for a year. Of course, I wanted to act and perform in TV and movies, but SNL was the main goal.
“I always liked making my family laugh, it was always in me to be playful. The first movie I fell madly in love with was Clue with Tim Curry and Madeleine Kahn. They were playing these wild characters and doing wild things but they were so funny and captivating but there was something that they were doing that I just wanted to study. I loved the way it made me feel watching it. Then Girl Interrupted was the first drama I saw where I thought it would be fun and scary to do something that has dramatic elements like that. So, when Brittany came along it had everything I ever wanted to do. I related so much that it’s concerned with what’s it like to be a real human being, but also deals with comedy and drama and there’s levity in the pain and there’s pain in the joy too.
“Paul and I had frequent conversations about what was going on in a scene. It didn’t matter if it was a scene for my character, I just always wanted to make sure that we were on the same page about what we were saying with the film. I was very protective of her. It wasn’t like ‘I want to be funny in this moment’, it was like, ‘what would she do?’ Is she using humour to deflect from a more vulnerable moment, or in her pain, is there something where she can still come back to the feeling of you’re doing ok as a human being?
“The experience of making this film changed my personal life, it made me take a deeper look at how I was treating myself, how I was talking about myself. There are a lot of themes in the movie but one big take away is that it’s a story about someone growing up and trying to figure out what their own value system is. In moments of the film she values having a big goal (losing weight, running the marathon) and doing whatever she can to get it and then in other moments she values a number on her scales and how people are perceiving her.”
Though Bell worked hard on training and eating like Brittany to understand the transformation, she was more mindful of other aspects of the character’s story.
“A lot of films hit on the physical journey of the character, but they don’t look so much at the mental and emotional journey of what the character is going through. We see a movie and if someone’s getting thinner, we think ‘oh they’re improving’ but they haven’t dealt with what they’re going through inside. I thought this movie really hit on that.”
Bell points to a particularly emotionally powerful and confronting scene at a family gathering when Brittany is distinctly non-PC in a shameful standoff with an overweight family member.
“That was the most emotionally challenging. Me and Sarah (Bull who plays the family member) had a two-hour conversation about why we needed this scene in the film. We’re asking the audience to feel terrible for that character being projected on by Brittany, then also looking at my character’s behaviour and thinking ‘how sad’. That’s when we really see. She has to grow up a lot and figure out her deep-rooted insecurities. When I was reading that scene in the script I thought, if anyone was judging Brittany at the beginning of her journey, this is a chance to see those judgements said out loud and how disgusting they are and how untrue they are.”
Speaking about the collaboration with Colaizzo, Bell says, “We had to really take a bet on each other. This was my first movie taking the lead and playing dramatic elements and for him, he was a playwright and this was his first time as a writer/director.”
“I chose to direct because I wanted to protect the story and the tone of it,” says Colaizzo. “I’d never directed before, but it wasn’t scary, it was exciting. It was an opportunity to learn and explore, try something new. It was like my own marathon, I guess!
“Because it’s an indie, we only had 20 days to film, we didn’t have any time for rehearsal really, but I was as prepared as possible. I love doing that work, I’m sure it has something to do with ADD! I have tons going on in my head which is great as I get so many ideas to inspire stories. The spark of inspiration changes each time, but for me personally, until I’ve figured what that character is, there’s no story there. I have to work out what they want, how they approach getting what they want and what in their past has made them that sort of person. The point I felt like I’d found this story was when I realised that the marathon was a metaphor and in order for the story to have resolution Brittany has to address something deeper.
“When I started my writing life, I focussed on being a playwright. I acted for one year after college. I was on a soap opera and on tour with a musical. Acting helped me with the writing. It’s all the same work, writing, acting, directing, it’s about what the characters want, what are their obstacles, how do they pursue their goal, what are their tactics – it’s the craft, even though this is based in a real life story (about Colaizzo’s flatmate who took on the New York marathon to turn her life around), the story I wrote was its own creation.
“With directing and producing I have to be careful because something I’ve learned is you don’t want to be doing all of the jobs at once. When I’m writing, it’s best for me just to keep my eye on the writing and not bring a directorial hat to it, and if you’re thinking as a producer you can limit yourself in the writing because of thinking ahead to budget considerations.”
One of the strengths of the film is the diverse cast of characters, including an Asian flatmate who enables Brittany’s lifestyle habits and a gay running buddy.
“I didn’t set out to be deliberately diverse with the characters, but I became aware as I was casting it,” says Colaizzo. “The truth is, it’s set in New York, so I wanted it to feel like New York. Everyone who was the best person for the job, got the job. Then as I was casting, I was putting head shots up on the board and starting to see a palette and a tapestry of a new generation where people felt represented – I loved that!”
Coming back to the overwhelming audience reactions to the film, Colaizzo recalls, “When I walked off stage at Sundance, a woman I didn’t know grabbed me and was sobbing and just saying ‘thank you’ over and over again. She said that was me up there. That was really powerful, and I’ve had moments like that all the way through. In Provincetown there was a woman sobbing for 20 minutes, then in Connecticut a whole lot of men came up and told me how they felt they were Brittany. They were living lives they didn’t want to live because they felt culturally and socially, they had to. And in Texas, there were cowboys crying as they related to Brittany’s journey. It’s moving and inspiring.
“There’s this incredible idea men will only relate to male protagonists and women will relate to either, but I found men relating to Brittany across the board. The hope was to make Brittany the new ‘Everyman/woman.’ I think we can all see ourselves in her, it’s about personal trials and personal conflict, about humiliation and perseverance, and that’s something we can all relate to.”
Brittany Runs a Marathon is in cinemas now.