Paul Downs Colaizzo on Brittany Runs A Marathon
Brittany Runs a Marathon opens in limited release this Friday. I saw the film back at Sundance and eight months later, still believe it is the most inspirational film of the year. Brittany Runs a Marathon is the directorial debut of acclaimed playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo. I recently chatted with Paul about the film and what it was like premiering at Sundance, working with Tobey Maguire, and working with actors who typically play supporting roles.
Paul Downs: Hi there.
Scott Menzel: Hey, Paul, how are you?
Paul Downs: Good, how you doing?
Scott Menzel: Great. Thank you so very much for taking a few minutes of your time to chat with me today.
Paul Downs: Of course.
Scott Menzel: What a wonderful movie this is. Not only is it funny, but it’s inspiring and heartfelt, and it just hits all the right notes in all the right places. A fantastic film.
Paul Downs: Wow, Thank you. Thank you so much.
Scott Menzel: No problem at all. I want to take a trip back to Sundance because I was there at the world premiere inside the Eccles Theater. As a first-time filmmaker, I know you’ve worked a little bit in television previously, and then your main focus was always as a playwright. What was it like for you to be inside that theater when the lights came back up and you got that kind of reaction from your first feature?
Paul Downs: No matter what that reaction had been, I think there would have a sense of relief of, “Well, it’s over, it happened. There’s no more anticipation about people seeing this thing anymore.” Luckily, I don’t know if you felt it, but you could feel a real warmth and a real feeling of support from the crowd.
It’s so weird how the world works now. On my way up to the stage, I passed the film’s publicist, and all I heard her say was, “Twitter’s good.” And I was like, “What?” I didn’t realize that as soon as your credits start rolling, people start tweeting reviews of your film.
Scott Menzel: Yes, especially at festivals and I am guilty of that.
Paul Downs: Hmm…Yeah, but as a filmmaker, you’re so protective of it, and you’re so precious with it, and then you think, “Okay, well, I’m just inviting 1,200-some people to watch it.” And you don’t think about the aftermath of that with cell phones.
So, it was overall, a joyful experience. I mean, the best thing that happened was as soon as I walked on stage, a woman that I didn’t know grabbed me. She was sobbing, and she just started saying, “Thank you.” Over, and over, and over again, very loudly. And I felt hopeful that other people were going to have that reaction.
Scott Menzel: I think a lot of people had that reaction. I feel like at Sundance, every year, there’s always a lot of movies that get buzz but outside of your film, The Farewell, and Late Night, which was also, ironically, released by the same studio as your film, I didn’t feel like there was as much buzz about the majority of movies that premiered there.
Paul Downs: Oh, really?
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I really don’t think there was as much buzz this year, and I’ve been going- for years.
Paul Downs: That’s crazy.
Paul Downs: Wow. Well, cool.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, so, you should be proud. I think this film is going to touch the lives of a lot of people. I’m sure you’re probably going to be doing some Q&As and stuff over the next couple weeks. I think you’re going to see a lot more of those reactions from people coming up and sharing personal stories with you.
Paul Downs: It’s been interesting, thank you for saying that. I’ve gone to other film festivals now around the country, where we’re playing the film, and I’ve gotten to see the reactions there. And out of Sundance, the headline was that women were really responding to the film. And I didn’t give a lot of attention to men’s reactions.
I went in thinking that women would respond to the film. And what I’ve learned over the course of going to all these film festivals is that men are having extremely cathartic visceral reactions to the film and they’re eager to discuss their stories too like what part of the character of Brittany relates to their lives and that’s been really exciting.
Scott Menzel: I think it’s a struggle for me too. The weird thing is, I’m someone who has always battled with weight, so I think you have that struggle which is universal to a lot of people nowadays. And I think there was a period of time where that spoke more to women, but I think that especially working in the entertainment industry and people who work in this realm are constantly thinking about it. I mean even with sports and everything nowadays seems to have to do with looks and being healthy. It’s always about how you look, how do you feel, what you represent, or what pant size you wear.
So, I think you hit upon something that you may have initially thought of as, “This is going to work well with females, and males are not going to care about this.” But I can tell you, it was me and a couple of other people, who are both male and female, who loved this movie. My wife saw it with me. She was really moved by the movie and very emotional by the end. And then there’s also been a lot of my friends who are males, who were in the audience, and they reacted to it too for very different reasons.
Paul Downs: Isn’t that cool? I hope men go and see this film. There’s this conventional wisdom that male and female audiences will relate to a male lead character, but only female audiences will relate to a female lead character. And I never put that much stock in that. And after this, I don’t put any in it.
Scott Menzel: You shouldn’t, let’s just be honest, if you read a lot of the reviews that came out, most of them were written by males, and most of them are very positive.
Paul Downs: Well, good.
Scott Menzel: There’s a lot of things I want to talk to you about, but one of the things that you mentioned during the Q&A was Tobey Maguire made this movie happen. And I’ve been dying to know more about that.
Paul Downs: I had a play off-Broadway in 2013, and Tobey came to the second preview, and we had a meeting afterwards, a few weeks afterwards. And then we had another meeting, and he said, “Whatever you want to do, we’ll do.” And I said, “I want to make this movie about my friend who’s a hot mess, and then gets her life together by training for the New York City Marathon.” And they bought the script off that logline. I think it was the first thing they put in development at their company.
And so, then I developed it with his company for two years. And then I asked if I could direct it, and they said, no. And then I went out, and I stated my case, and they said, yes. And Tobey and one other person financed the whole film.
Scott Menzel: Wow, that’s incredible, because that’s like one of those Hollywood dream stories that you don’t hear about too often.
Paul Downs: I know. I try really hard to stay dumb and not know how hard things are so that I don’t put obstacles in my own way. But this is very obviously a lucky story.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, very much so. And how did your friend feel about you taking her hot mess story into a film?
Paul Downs: She’s touched and excited, and understandably feeling a little vulnerable, I think. The story itself is very different plot-wise from her story. None of the characters exists in real life. Brittany Forgler, who’s the character in the film, is very different than Brittany O’Neill, who is my friend. But the character of Brittany in the movie and the story were borne out of my love for her and my respect for the journey that she went on. And in living with her while she was going through this process, her DNA is in this. There’s no way it’s not in this even in ways I don’t understand.
But she is really excited for the world to find inspiration out of a story that was inspired by her. And we both keep looking at each other saying, “Isn’t this weird?” Because when I had the idea, I think I was 25, or 26, and I hadn’t had a play produced, but at that point, you think it will probably end at the idea stage. You don’t think of them as actually hitting the screen and being seen by the whole world.
So it is bizarre, it’s surreal and really exciting to be in a situation where that idea I had on that couch on 74th and Amsterdam, when I was in my mid-20s is now going to be for the public.
Scott Menzel: I can’t even begin to understand how that would feel. I’ve talked to so many filmmakers over the past 15 years, and as many times as I hear a different version of that story, I just can’t even imagine how that must feel from the perspective of, “Oh, my God, this is something I wrote, and here it is, and the world gets to see it.”
Paul Downs: Yeah, it’s different than theater, because in theater, if you don’t have a production that large and enters the canon, it’s very limited, the number of people that will end up seeing something even in a Broadway run of a show. I think the smallest Broadway theater is 599 seats or 499. And over a year, you’re doing what you’ve been doing in an opening weekend of a wide release of a film.
Scott Menzel: Right, that’s very true.
Paul Downs: And so, with film, comes a greater chance of cultural inability and a cultural impact. And this is something I’m brand new to, so I’m curious to see how this goes.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I was shocked by learning that this was your first-time feature because I mean, you perfectly do so many things, like the blending of the comedy and the drama. And there is this shift in tone throughout the film, but it all just seemed so natural in its progression. I guess, that comes from your being a playwright, but it’s just so natural.
Paul Downs: Thanks. Yeah, it’s craft, craft, craft.
Scott Menzel: I have to ask you about some of this stuff that you tackled in this script because I thought some of it was just so hard-hitting because it was just so down to earth and real. One of the things that I took notes on was how you have that whole thing about how people act differently towards you when you lose weight. I feel like it’s such a reality that no one ever wants to talk about, and I love that you brought it up in this film.
Paul Downs: Yeah, thank you so much. There’s a lot of possibly tricky matters. There’s some tricky subject matter in the film, and I didn’t want to shy away from anything that felt dangerous. I wanted to approach it in a way that felt respectful and well thought out and empathetic.
And I think with Twitter, the world that we’re in, people are afraid of more things. I think we’re all afraid to move towards discomfort because you’re afraid of getting it wrong, you know. You’re afraid of a blind spot, or of a reaction that will be hurtful to a thought or an opinion. And I think the only way we can grow now is to really try and take these tricky, scary, inflammatory landscapes and understand them and still tell those stories.
Scott Menzel: I think that’s so important, and to me, that’s what separates so many of these smaller films like this one, from the freaking Lion King remake and all that stuff, is that this where the heart and soul of humanity comes into play when you watch these movies, because they feel so personal, and they try to address these important themes. You’re not going to touch everyone, you’re not going to move everyone, but you’re going to impact several people with this film. Movies like this can change the life a one or two, I think that has a lot to say about the story being told.
Paul Downs: I agree. I think that was something we really wanted to do but make this also entertaining because nobody wants to be lectured. Nobody wants to pay money to go sit in a theater to be talked down to or condescended to. The idea behind this is, we’re with you, we got you, and we hope that you can walk away from this learning about yourself in a way that also felt like a pleasure.
Scott Menzel: I haven’t asked any questions about the cast. What was the mindset behind casting all these ridiculously funny and entertaining people in roles where they not only get to showcase their comedic side but also showcase a whole different side that I feel like we haven’t seen from these actors especially Jillian?
Paul Downs: Yeah, well, that’s the idea is the movie is about a sidekick who becomes a lead character, essentially, in her own life. Someone who’s relegated herself to the role of sidekick in her friends’ lives and becomes a leader in her own life. And I wanted to do that to all of the characters, and that meant doing it for all of the actors that typically play sidekicks. A bunch of people who are character actors, incredible character actors, and give them depth and pathos, and invite the audience to view them in a way we haven’t been trained to watch them.
And that was an exciting part of this process for me, was finding new colors on people who are so brilliant at what they do and have a whole untapped well of potential.
Scott Menzel: I think you nailed it. This is still one of my favorite films of the year. Thank you so very much for talking to me today. I really appreciate it, and I hope to help promote this film as much as possible.
Paul Downs: Oh, my God, that’s great. Yeah, please, if people don’t go see these movies, it’s just going to be more of the bigger ones, you know?
Scott Menzel: Yeah, oh, I know.
Paul Downs: So, we’re in a little bit of a fight for our lives.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I will do everything I can. I run a critics group, so I will promote this film within that group and hopefully get as many people as I can to see this.
Paul Downs: Thank you so much for your kind words and your support.
Scott Menzel: No problem. Thank you so much, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
Paul Downs: Thanks so much!
Brittany Runs A Marathon opens in limited release on Friday, August 23, 2019