The writer/director behind Amazon Studios’ Brittany Runs a Marathon, Paul Downs Colaizzo is a rare bird in this day and age. Bringing his first feature to the Sundance Film Festival this year, Colaizzo left Park City with a major prize (the Audience Award for Dramatic Features), and a $14 million deal to boot.
The cherry on top, of course, has been the pic’s box office draw. Opening last Friday in Los Angeles and New York, the indie topped the weekend’s list of new specialty releases, drawing sold-out crowds, at a time when many critically acclaimed independent films are struggling to make a box-office dent.
An esteemed playwright that made his entrée into the Hollywood sphere several years ago, Colaizzo started out in television, to mixed results. Writing medical drama LFE for CBS, he subsequently signed a two-year overall deal with the network, and was tasked with shepherding its MacGyver reboot.
“MacGyver was a bit of a one-off. It was sort of a jumble of influences, trying to get that show going. It’s not something I really worked on for long, or with passion,” Colaizzo explains. “LFE was my second pilot that I developed, and I loved that project.”
Then, of course, there was Brittany Runs a Marathon, the scribe’s breakout project, starring Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, and Micah Stock. Backed by Tobey Maguire’s Material Pictures, the dramatic comedy centers on Brittany (Bell), an unhappy New Yorker who sets out to lose weight, training for the city’s annual marathon and taking control of her life in the process.
Based loosely on the story of Colaizzo’s friend and one-time roommate, Brittany O’Neil, Brittany Runs a Marathon was, for the writer, an opportunity to learn the ropes of a new form—an experiment that has succeeded at every step along the way, beyond any expectation the first-time filmmaker could have had.
“I’m drawn to stuff where I can provoke, entertain, elicit empathy, and put a little bit of hope in the world. Even if it’s a f*cked-up story—you know, there are a thousand reasons we should all just die—there’s an art to figuring out why we shouldn’t,” the director says. “I came from a totally uncinematic language, and had to figure out how to find that.”
DEADLINE: As a playwright, what inspired you to explore the forms of film and television? When did you start thinking about doing so?
PAUL DOWNS COLAIZZO: Well, I grew up an uncultured kid. My family went to musical theater, but we didn’t go to the theater. We weren’t big on reading the classics. We didn’t even really go to the movies that much, unless it was a big event. But my world sort of cracked open when I was introduced to Alan Ball in high school—you know, American Beauty and Six Feet Under.
So, as I was attending NYU, I had him in my mind, this sort of dark but accessible, comedic but dramatic world that he often created. I was interested in exploring that, and I became really interested in other playwrights who crossed over—David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin—as I was coming of age in New York as an artist.
So, it was always interesting to me, the idea of exploring all mediums and figuring out what medium a story should be in, and then just taking care of the story in that way. With my play [Really Really], I realized the cultural reach that movies and TV had, as opposed to Off-Broadway theater, and that became very interesting to me. And also what happens is, you have a play in New York, and then suddenly LA calls. So, there’s a natural pipeline. I started working in TV at the exact same time that Tobey came across this play.
DEADLINE: Your first two Hollywood gigs were in television. Was there a learning curve, as you dove headfirst into writing for TV?
COLAIZZO: Here’s the thing: Yes, there are differences, when it comes to scene lengths and formatting, and what you can accomplish in each scene. That’s something I really learned, how to make ideas and dramatic beats digestible to an audience. But at the end of the day, it’s all Aristotle. It’s all the basic tenets of drama—a character pursuing a desire with specific tactics and obstacles, hopefully arriving at a story that is inevitable yet surprising.
The storytelling is all the same, and I think when you’re working on a film, coming from theater, you’re steeped in character and structure, and drama and craft. So, the real learning curve for me was figuring out how to take the language and the spirit that I understood from theater, and translate that into words that had the same meaning to my producers, and to everybody working on the film. I had to figure out how to translate the idea of character, which is what I treasure as a playwright, and the character’s arc, into a device to tell the story with a camera. So, I was integrating the camera to a character. That was my main learning curve, and my main journey.
DEADLINE: Brittany is based loosely on the story of a friend of yours. What gave you the push to make your first feature, and why was this the project to do it with?
COLAIZZO: You know, it was the first thing I’d written that was a movie, and it felt like it needed to be a movie from its conception because there was epic scope to this thing. The story, the character, the title and the main action is her literally traveling, sort of going a distance: That’s a cinematic thing. But also, in this story, our protagonist is our antagonist.
It’s a movie about a woman trying to battle her old self and her old habits, and her old behaviors, and that journey takes place inside of the eyes and heart and soul of the lead character. So, I knew that in order to capture that whole story and all of that tension, that was going to be done in close-up, and that was going to have to be done with an actress who had given her everything to the role. Jillian Bell gave her everything to the role, and you see the protagonist and the antagonist in her eyes.
DEADLINE: Undoubtedly, it’s a pretty unusual scenario, to be making a movie inspired by the experiences of a close friend. Can you recall the moment you first broached the subject with the real Brittany?
COLAIZZO: We were sitting on the couch in our apartment on 74th and Amsterdam, and I said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I’m writing a movie about you.” She said, “What’s it called?” and I said “It’s called Brittany Runs a Marathon.” And she said, “How fast does she run it in?” From there, we started talking about the theme that I was interested in exploring, which was marking progress by how far someone’s come, and the distance traveled—not necessarily the accomplishment of a goal, but the pursuit of a goal, and how that pursuit can change somebody by giving them structure, a goal, and hope.
DEADLINE: It seems like this could be a tough film to script, and render on screen in a cinematic way. To Brittany, the notion of running a marathon is, at first, incomprehensible. But in film terms, the character’s objective is fairly small. And as you mentioned, the film’s central conflict is one of ‘Self versus Self’—this kind of dynamic isn’t the easiest to portray on screen. How did you negotiate these potential pitfalls to arrive at such a cinematic, intimate film?
COLAIZZO: I think in writing the script for this, I found that sometimes just acknowledging in the stage directions exactly what the character is doing in their actions and in their dialogue was beneficial, for the sake of illustrating the entire journey.
In crafting the story, because it’s about behavior—and behavior being replaced by different behavior—it all comes through the main character’s relationships to people, places, things and events, and watching the evolution of that relationship. That can feel very uncinematic because it’s very small, it’s intimate, it’s character-oriented. But ultimately, when you see that play out, that’s tension and emotionality—and luckily, we had this big set piece, the idea of the marathon, that we’re building towards, that inherently gives the story this idea of scope. We also have this great set piece of New York City and the exploration of New York, because that’s instant character that opens the film up instantly.
But for me, the joy and thrill, and the task of this film was in the character relationships and the character behavior, so I had to make sure that that was protected, as the script evolved.
DEADLINE: Brittany offered Bell her first shot at a dramatic leading role—and in your casting, you’ve generally seemed to give actors the chance to branch out. Was there excitement or satisfaction in doing so?
COLAIZZO: That’s part of the joy of it. That was part of the idea, to take these people who are full people who usually only get to express a very palatable, entertaining side of themselves, and make them full, make them flawed—have you see them in a light that is flattering, and also complicated, and maintain this idea that we can still have a good time.
I think a lot of times, people need to understand—and it’s basic biology, it’s dopamine, it’s the way that we’ve survived in the world—who’s a good guy, and who’s a bad guy. Then, the easy way to find catharsis is, ‘Good guy beats bad guy.’ I think that has its place and can be entertaining, and it can be a great form of escapism, too, in relating to the good guy and the catharsis of the bad guy being killed. [But] I don’t know that that’s contributing to society in the best way right now. I think it’s important to understand that we are all the good guy, and we are all the bad guy, in life and in stories.
America loves stories, for good reason, where a good guy takes down a bad guy. It’s easy, it feels good and you can align yourself with an obvious protagonist. But I think there’s room for an elevated conversation about what a protagonist is, and identifying with somebody who can be wrong.
DEADLINE: You are the rare case, in today’s world, of the first-time filmmaker who can go to a major festival like Sundance and leave with a huge deal. What did it feel like when that went through?
COLAIZZO: It was insane, and honestly, I couldn’t tell what was oxygen deprivation and what was through emotion, but I was in a haze for a solid week, even coming off the mountain. Even growing up in Georgia without any access to this world, I knew the icon of a Sundance bidding war. To me, so far removed from everything in the industry, it was this story. It’s this dream thing that you hear happens to people, and to be in the middle of it was a very vivid dream.
DEADLINE: What are your thoughts on the landscape of independent film right now, and a strategy for filmmakers in this space, at a time when so many smart adult dramas are drawing rave reviews from critics, only to underperform at the box office?
COLAIZZO: You know, I don’t know. I’m at the very start of it. My movie opens today, so I’m not yet on the other side of anything. What I do know is, it seems that above anything, above auspices and hooks, what American audiences seem to be gravitating towards is character. They will show up for characters, to see characters again and again, and I think that’s going to be really great for a lot of playwrights, to make the leap into film.
Now that we can stream everything, a theatrical release is innately and now exceptionally a communal experience, and that’s what live theater has always been. It’s based in character, and it’s about a communal experience, and I’m hopeful that the daring, progressive, complicated exploration of character and the world we live in will make its way to cinemas over the next few years and decades. That is my hope, that what we’ve been doing in live theater can be done in cinema, in a big, bold way that adjusts to the time that we’re living in.
DEADLINE: When I spoke with Paul Dano recently, he suggested that theater is more vital now than ever before, as communal experience in general continues to dwindle.
COLAIZZO: He’s exactly right, and on top of communal experience, [it’s about] empathy—empathy for somebody who’s different than you. That only comes from three-dimensional, complicated characters, daring an audience to like someone who’s flawed, and to want a flawed person to find stability, fulfillment, [and] resolution for whatever they’ve been through.