Paul Downs Colaizzo: Unfreakifying the Freak

October 26, 2019
Writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo didn’t need to look too far for inspiration for Brittany Runs a Marathon.

Based on the true story of his own room-mate’s struggle to lose weight and quest to run the New York marathon, Downs Colaizzo marks his directorial debut with this uproarious, irreverent and surprisingly emotional comedy.

Winner of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, Brittany Runs a Marathon stars Jillian Bell in the title role with a strong support cast including Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock and Urkarsh Ambudkar.

In describing his film as a love letter to his best friend, Brittany O’Neill, Downs Colaizzo tells us that making this film was far less painful than actually running a marathon.

How did your roommate Brittany inspire this story?

It was really born out of the compelling, painful, hilarious and inspiring journey she took in her late 20s. We had first met at NYU. We were studying theatre together and I just loved her. She was so funny, and we cracked each other up so much. But then we fell out of touch until our mid-20s when we shared a flat together and very quickly started having conversations about life and happiness and fulfillment and what would that look like for people like us. Very quickly after that she went for her first run and, after that, I started outlining this film.

Real Brittany totally transformed herself by losing 80lbs. Did you get to witness how people reacted to new Brittany?

Yes I did – and I also got to witness Brittany not knowing how to handle new Brittany. But the movie is not about weight loss – it’s about a woman trying to find her footing in this life so she can create a life for herself that she loves in all aspects. That being said, there’s a component to it about what happens when somebody starts eating healthily and exercising and their body changes. So, real Brittany lost 80lbs and she would have to go and buy new clothes every three weeks and watching her discover what she should be wearing if she wanted to go to a nice dinner. It was so confusing. But that’s almost peripheral to the actual transformation that happened in her life.

So how did real Brittany react when you told her you were writing a movie about her?

I told her and she wanted to know what Brittany’s time was on the marathon. I told her I didn’t know; all I knew was that she gets injured at this point. Two months later, Brittany got injured. So, then she couldn’t run the marathon that year and I’d already outlined that in the script.

That’s spooky?

Neither of us believe in magic but we were also a little weirded out and it was a little tense. But she made plans to be away from NYC that year during the marathon so she wouldn’t have to deal with all the excitement – but a hurricane came that year and cancelled the marathon so she wouldn’t have been able to run anyway.

So how else did Brittany’s life change?

By the time she moved out of the apartment, she had lost 80lbs, she had a new job and she was working her way out of debt; she was moving in with her new boyfriend who she married and I was the officiant at their wedding. She really had a new outlook on life; about possibility and her belief in herself. A renewed sense that she was able to make things happen for herself.

While Brittany was going through all her huge changes, what changes were you making in your life?

I went through my changes first before I moved in. I was raised in a conservative religious background and I’m gay and I came out of the closet when I was 23 and I had to do a lot of work and examine my life and figure out who I wanted to be and do a Page One re-write of who I was.

That sounds hard.

Yes, it involved a lot of self-help books and changes in behaviour, changes in attitude and changes of scenery. And I’d made a very deliberate point that I didn’t want to be a funny side-kick in my own life; I didn’t want to be the funny best friend. I wanted to be the lead in my own life. So, people came and went based on that decision and then, in moving in with Brittany – and my coming out and my experience of finding self-love and self-respect and dignity informed her journey.

How does real Brittany feel about all this publicity surrounding this semi-biographical story about her?

I think she thinks it’s neat and she’s also curious because she’s created a life for herself. She works in refugee resettlement now and has a husband and a group of friends who she loves. So, she’s not asking for attention in any way although she’s excited that her journey might inspire people in some way. We both really feel there’s a possibility to do good with this film; to make people feel seen and heard and validated – not just entertainment. So, it’s a big highlight for her that this story might actually effect someone else for the good.

Did you always envision Jillian Bell for the role of Brittany?

I was meeting with other actresses when I met Jillian, but the way she talked about how she wanted to protect the character and her personal relationship to it and passion for it. She also had an ache to stretch herself which I recognised. I’d never directed anything. So, the two of us needed to be there for each other and have each other’s backs. It felt like we were in similar positions and the journey she was going to have to go on as an actress mirrored the journey the character went on. Going from only doing comedy to allowing the world to see her vulnerability and a deep well of pathos. That felt like an electric combination. And then she went out and lost 40lbs for the role. So, she was experiencing things that Brittany experiences in the movie, in real time while we were filming the movie. Her dedication was really exciting and she is amazing – she’s a real dramatic actress.

Did you and Jillian ever discuss her actually running the marathon?

Oh no. 26.2 miles is very far. We never discussed that at all. The idea of her actually running a race felt out of my purview. It was very impractical. We would never be able to film her running that far.

What was real Brittany’s marathon finish time?

Just under four hours. I use her actual real time in the movie.

Did you ask Jillian to lose weight?

No. I never asked her to. I felt like that would have been weird. The point of the film has nothing to do with thinness equaling happiness. But then she started running and lost the same amount of weight as the character lost. I think that added to the performance.

Did you know she was going to lose weight or was it a surprise?

Three weeks after I cast her she told me she had started running and had lost some weight. I was like: we need to talk about this because we need to prepare for this. So, as that was happening, I had a prosthetic made and then she lost her last 11lbs while we were shooting the movie, so the prosthetic stopped fitting because it was tailored to her face and she was losing weight. We had to shuffle things around and find ways to hide that in the film.

What do you hope is the take-home from Brittany Runs a Marathon?

Here’s the conventional wisdom: we’re in this time in this age where marginalised people and people who are “others” are getting this chance to have stories told about them. And that’s fantastic. But those don’t have to be niche stories. Those can be accessible stories that everyone can relate to and also, they can appeal to everybody and everybody can find themselves in there. Art is a game of empathy. I’m a gay man; I’m not a woman; I’ve never struggled with my body image or my weight – but in finding how I relate to this character with my own version of her story in myself and infusing her story with what I know as a different kind of marginalised person, I think that has helped me create something that hopefully reaches a broad range of people so that they can find their own entry into it.

What have you learned from the process?

That it’s easier to make effective work when you lead from your heart and not with your brain so I’m really just going to follow that and allow myself to spark to inspiration and let that be my guide. To borrow from a friend’s commentary on my work: I think my speciality is “unfreakifying the freak”. But who knows? I might change just like Brittany.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is in cinemas October 31, 2019

Read our review of Brittany Runs a Marathon

Read our interview with Jillian Bell

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