One of the most talked about movies out of the Sundance Film Festival this year was the self-improvement, body-positive comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon, featuring the very funny Jillian Bell in her first starring film role. Written and directed by playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo (making his feature directing debut), the movie centers on a 27-year-old woman who’s at a bit of a dead end in her life (including getting a somewhat scary diagnosis from her doctor) and decides to make positive changes by taking up running, which turns into full-blown training for the New York City Marathon.
During the course of her training, the health benefits turn out to be the least interesting things about her transformation. She makes new friends/running buddies, she stands up for herself in confrontational situations, and she starts to take some responsibility for the negative outlook she sometimes gets about herself and others. The film has a lot of laughs thanks to Bell’s incredible timing and delivery, but she also handles the dramatic moments quite deftly and impressively.
Before Brittany, Bell was probably best known for supporting roles in 22 Jump Street, Rough Night, Office Christmas Party, and The Night Before, as well as the Comedy Central series “Workaholics” and HBO’s “Eastbound & Down.” And just a few weeks ago, Bell co-starred as one half of a lesbian married couple (with her Brittany running partner Michaela Watkins) in Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust. I sat down with her and Colaizzo earlier this week to talk about the real-life woman (also named Brittany) who inspired this film, the training she put herself through to get ready for the film’s more physical aspects, and how there are no sidekicks in the movie. Please enjoy…
According to the end of the movie, there’s a real Brittany whose story was the basis for the film. What was it about her story—because it’s not an uncommon one—and the way she lived it that made you want to turn it into your first film?
Paul Downs Colaizzo: Two things: one, I was there, I was her roommate, I got to witness the days and nights of this journey, and that was the research and beyond research. Two, she’s the funniest person I’d ever met and she was always willing to make herself the butt of the joke to get people to laugh, which I Ioved about her; we’re similar in that way. And she was pursuing an earnest goal; she was taking control of her life. At the same time this was happening, she wasn’t sure how many college loans she had, and we sat down and figured out how deep in debt she was and what she had to make each month in order to pay it off. It was really about finding organization, direction, and structure in her life in general. The running was just a beautiful, easy symbol for that.
There’s a line in the film that Lil Rel Howery has that goes something like “The running was never about losing weight.” So Jillian, what was it about this transformation story that clicked with you?
Jillian Bell: It was very different. I’m lucky to get a lot of scripts sent to me, and a lot of them deal with not being a Size Zero, and they handle it in a way that I don’t really respect and I don’t think sends a healthy message out there. And this one was something I thought “When I was a young girl, I wish this would have been out there.” I would have watched the shit out of this movie. Seriously, me and my girlfriends would have sat around and watched this and taken it all in and looked at this woman who has a messy life and isn’t a size 2 and is figuring herself out. It’s a beautiful process and has real ups and downs, and you don’t shy away from that in the film, and that’s what I respected about Paul’s script.
You mentioned something about the real Brittany’s humor, and certainly she uses it to deflect things and defend herself from things. Was that there from the beginning? Because that seems like something Jillian would be very good at doing even if it weren’t in the screenplay.
JB: Thank you.
PDC: That’s basically the whole concept of the film. The idea was to take the sidekick or comic relief in a movie and start there, and subvert the audience’s expectation and deepen them and make them the lead of the story—ask the audience to see them in all three dimensions because they’re human with all the colors. Jillian is a naturally talented actress, everyone knew she was a brilliant comedian, now the world is seeing her as a dramatic actress too. I knew that she was going to deliver the funny stuff, and then the second I heard her do one line from this movie, I knew that she was going to deliver the dramatic stuff too, like the full palette of it. It was the first day we sat down. I had a belief that she could do it, but she’d never done a dramatic role and I’d never directed before.
JB: I remember we sat down in that weird little bungalow you rented, and we were so excited, nervous and anxious—all the things.
PDC: It was just the two of us and we’re like “Should we read through this scene?” And she said one line, and I felt joy.
It’s interesting you say that about sidekicks because this is a film where there really aren’t any sidekicks. You give everyone in this movie at least one solid moment where they go from potential sidekick to supporting character.
JB: That’s really true. We never talked about that. There’s enough there where Michaela is more than just the neighbor who has it all.
Even with your roommate, we find things out—things we don’t like maybe—but it deepens everyone.
PDC: One-hundred percent that’s absolutely right. I wanted to start with all of the sidekicks we know from movies and turn them not into sidekicks. And this movie is sidekicks in search of a heart, in search of a real story. And they all get them, and I’m really proud of that. We’re taking a bunch of marginalized characters—who are the others, who have great joy and humor to offer the world and also have lives of their own.
JB: We should have called the movie Anti-Sidekicks.
PDC: That would be a confusing poster.
JB: No one is standing next to each other.
Was there any fear involved in taking a role that required a certain amount of dramatic heavy lifting?
JB: Yes, I was very nervous.
Does that fear motivate you? Do you say “I don’t know if I can do that, therefore I must”?
JB: Oh yeah, but I have a little bit of that every time I do a job. Every time I take a job, I think the night before that this is the last job I should do because I want to quit acting. I have so much fear in my body, but it all comes from wanting to do the best job that I can.
PDC: I think that also comes from knowing too much, in a good way. Most talented people feel that. In my experience, the actors who I’ve worked with who are the most exceptional go through that psychological process because they know how delicate an act it is.
JB: Yes, and sometimes we only got two or three takes for a scene, so to know that in your brain, you go “Let’s not put on pressure for those three takes.” It’s a lot. But once we get into the flow of things, I have to get one day under my belt, then I start to go “Okay, now we’re in it.”
PDC: “Paul, you’re doing it wrong!” [laughs]
JB: I have to put on the skin or some weird saying.
PDC: You have to own her.
There has been some discussion over the last couple of years about who should be telling whose stories.
PDC: And it’s a good conversation.
So I’m wondering, as the person who wrote this, was there any pushback about you being the one telling a woman’s story, especially one involving body image?
PDC: Yes, but not because I’m not a man. It was because I’d never directed anything before. That’s a bigger financial risk. I’m just a guy with a hope, a dream and a notebook; let me do it.
How did they let you do it eventually?
PDC: Well, they said no at first. Then I created a deck, I storyboarded a bunch of scenes, I created a look for the whole thing and a concept—basically, I did a 53-page book. I flew out to L.A. and presented it to them and explained why I needed to do it and why it could get lost in translation, and how in the wrong hands we could end up with a story that wasn’t empathetic, that wasn’t new or nuanced and wasn’t treating this character with the respect and dignity she deserved. I think out of that passion and very concrete play I laid out, I was able to secure their approval and trust. And going from there, it was really on me to make sure I was open and keeping full aware of any possible blind spots that I had so that I could tell the story in the fullest, most accessible, most empathetic and sympathetic way I could.
I’m a gay guy. I brought a lot of my emotional story to Brittany’s story, and that was my in. And honestly, there’s a benefit to that. I think because I’m not a woman and I was bringing my emotional journey that wasn’t about body image to part of Brittany’s story, I think that’s part of why it’s accessible to a lot of people. Art is a game of empathy, and I want to play that game. And that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be telling their own stories; they should be. And in a way, this is my story.
So you showed up on the first day ready.
JB: It was like, the game is on.
PDC: Oh, I had notes on every word in that script. I really wanted to make sure I was ready for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted to make sure that the producers made the right choice in trusting me with this movie. Also, I wanted to do it for myself and my real friend Brittany, who I was doing dignity by, and I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. And I’d never directed anything, and Jillian had never been a dramatic leading actress before, and the two of us did not want to let the other one down. We knew that, in a way, we were being given the opportunity of a lifetime here, and we didn’t want to blow it. We wanted to show up for each other.
JB: Paul was so incredibly prepared, and it really helps when the writer is the director. There is not one moment where I would say “Paul, what are we saying here?” where he didn’t absolutely have the answer. It wasn’t like he was making something up on the spot so we could move on to the next scene. He had lived and breathed and bled it; it was in his DNA.
I keep reading about the physical transformation, that you lost all of this weight. Did that happen during the course of making the film, or did you lose most of it before shooting, because I can see there’s some makeup and padding and bigger clothes at the beginning.
JB: I decided to do it before. I’d lost 29 lbs. by the time we went to film, and I lost the last 11 lbs. while we were shooting. There were three different body suits used throughout the film.
Is being that physical while you’re acting tough?
JB: It helps you get into character actually. It would help me connect to how I was feeling at the beginning of my own journey, when I was in that first look. I feel like the look that’s me in my own body was only on screen for maybe 10-15 minutes, but it helped me to go through and see what it was like to plateau for the first time; I’ve never experienced that. And what was it like if you have to push through some sort of injury and you’re working out still. It helped me connect to the character better throughout the process.
I know how movies are made and usually you don’t get the luxury of shooting chronologically, but were there any opportunities to do that in places? I feel like emotionally it might have helped.
JB: It would have, and we did not [laughs].
PDC: She joined the project seven months before we started filming and was living and breathing this story. We went over the script together once a week, every week at least leading up to shooting, so that we knew we were on the same page. There was shorthand by the time we got to the emotionality of every scene.
JB: We got through every single question I had about the movie way before, and I memorized the script like it was a play that we were just going to shoot it in one day, because I wanted to be able to access any of the emotions I needed, giving how quickly we were moving or if stuff was moving around and we had to shoot something from the end of the week earlier. We were going out of order, so I had to be able to access everything at a moment’s notice.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see you in two really great films with Michaela Watkins. Spending that amount of time with her, and in both cases, playing someone in a close relationship with her, what have you learned from her as an actor and a person?
JB: I tried to absorb anything I could from her as an actress. As a person, you just can’t help but be a better person when you’re around her, because she is just an incredible human being. I think she is one of the most gifted actresses out there, and I would work with her again and again. If I get the opportunity to do a one-day role in anything Michaela is in, I’ll take it.
PDC: She’s a gift, and they’re great together, and knowing how much they love each other only adds to how beautiful their relationship is.
JB: We want to write a movie together too, something really silly though.
PDC: I heard about it; it’s good.
I want to ask about the romance in Brittany. I like it because it’s not a cure-all; it’s not going to take care of everything in her life. And I like that it’s not treated as a reward for losing weight. It’s not even the primary relationship in her life. So how would you describe its importance to her?
PDC: Yeah, sure. Part of this movie is about letting yourself be seen in a vulnerable light, and with a romantic partner for everybody, that’s the hardest, most intimate, most vulnerable version of a relationship that there is. The story is not about that; it’s not a rom-com. If it is, it’s about a woman falling in love with herself, and that’s the primary relationship of the film.
Thank you both so much. Best of luck with this.
JB: What a great interview.
PDC: Thank you so much.
Did you enjoy this post? We’d love to hear what you think of our work; take our reader survey here. Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!