The Queerty Interview

Paul Downs Colaizzo on how life as a gay man inspired ‘Brittany Runs A Marathon’

Writer/director Paul Downs Colazzio

At Queerty, we always get our man.

We’ve been chasing after Paul Downs Colaizzo since we attended the Sundance Film Festival, where his movie, Brittany Runs A Marathon, played to rave reviews. Amazon Studios bought the film to distribute after only one showing for a whopping $14 million–one of the highest price tags ever for a film coming out of Sundance. It finally comes to theatres August 23.

The movie stars Jillian Bell (Bridesmaids) as Brittany, an overweight party girl with few friends, few dates and even fewer job prospects. When her doctor orders her to lose 65 pounds, she resolves to run a marathon. Cheered on by her gay bestie Seth (Micah Stock of Bonding) and neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins of Transparent), Brittany quickly realizes she has a long way to run, and a lot of pain to confront. Based on a true story, the movie marks Colaizzo’s debut as writer and director.

We finally snagged writer/director Colaizzo for some time to chat just ahead of the Brittany press tour.

So you’ve said already that this is based on a true story, of a friend of yours. How much of this actually follows her real life, or yours?

Well, it’s based on a true story in that the script I wrote was out of my admiration and respect and the emotional journey that my friend went on.

Sure.

Brittany in the movie is a different person, a different character than my friend. It’s inspired by her. It’s a love letter to her. I was trying to capture the personal zigzag of humor and hurt and joy and trepidation and newfound confidence she found on her journey. But as a script, as a story, it is a work of fiction.

Jillian Bell as Brittany

And you bring a queer sensibility to that. I completely believe Brittany as a heterosexual woman, but I personally know so many gay men who suffer from the same vices and self-image issues.

Oh yeah. I just tapped into my, as a gay man, the way I related to Brittany.

Well that shows, but the really bold choice you make is that Brittany as a character is someone who is wildly frustrating at times. She’s extremely self-deprecating, and self-destructive. She uses humor as a protective barrier. She makes fun of herself so other people can’t do it first.

Oh, 100%.

I think that’s something a lot of queer people can really identify with, lord help us. What’s your own experience been like? How did that inform the character?

It’s interesting. That’s definitely been a defense mechanism of mine in the past. It probably still is in a lot of ways I don’t even know. I think it is…for everyone—hiding behind humor. You know, where her story mirrors mine is that I didn’t want to be the sidekick in my own story. I wanted to be the lead character. In order to do that, I had had to change the way I looked at myself and the way I asked other people to look at me. That led to not burying myself behind humiliation and shame and self-deprecation. It meant daring to be vulnerable enough to aspire to what I want, and to be taken seriously in this world.

Related: Jake Gyllenhaal goes gay again in ‘Velvet’ and 7 other queer Sundance flicks 2019

So Brittany’s character in a lot of ways comes from that experience. I grew up in Georgia, in an area that was very conservative and religious. I come from a religious family. I had to do a lot of work on myself when I got out of there to sort of unload the armor that I had put on to survive in that kind of atmosphere. In doing that, I had to reconcile how the world, as I knew it, mistreated me. So her story mirrors that: she goes from being the sidekick, the comic relief, the hot mess of a party group to transforming into the lead of her own story, which gives her the love and attention she deserves.

Jillian Bell with Utkarsh Ambudkar

The other thing—one thing that really stung for me—is the way she behaves around men. She assumes they just want her for sex and for her to leave them alone because she’s too ugly and unlikable for anything else. I know a lot of gay men that feel that way too. Where does that come from for you? Is this something you see in the community?

And she feels that way because we live in a world where men treat people differently based on how they look. So it’s not just in her head. The world treats people differently whose bodies look differently, know what I mean?

Absolutely.

I’m a gay man. I know what it’s like to be objectified to the male gaze. And there’s a lot of fun to that, and there’s a certain power in that, and there’s a lot of trauma in that. I got to live through that through the character as well.

Now what was your own personal transformation like? Was that physical as well as emotional?

Just like in the film, it was little steps. It’s little pieces of progress at a time. As happened in the film, not going into a character voice when I feel uncomfortable. That’s a thing a lot of people do. For me, my journey is a little different because I have the ability—or thought I did—to pass as a straight guy. So I clung to, as a means of survival, being a champion of the patriarchy.

Interesting.

That was the easiest way to deflect the idea that I was a marginalized “other.” For me it was letting go of these beliefs that I pretended to have—and in some ways had—as a way of belonging to my surroundings and this country in a way that made me not powerless, and turning that into an exploration of my own character as a means of developing through characters. After that, comes empathy. And if you can have empathy for yourself, you can have it for others. The larger message of the film, for me, about not going it alone is part of my journey too.

JIllian Bell with Micah Stock

Let it be said too, making a film is a bit like running a marathon as well.

Girl…

[Laughter]

So, it helps that in this war for art you have a mega weapon. Her name is Jillian Bell, and she’s someone who has gone criminally overlooked as a performer until now.

Oh yeah.

She’s splendid here. She’s not afraid of the tougher elements of the character, or to strip away her own beauty to play the role. How did you find her? What convinced you that this woman who had never carried a movie before was up to the task?

I’ve been a fan of hers, of her comedy for a really long time. I had never directed before, so in a way we were placing a bet on each other. It was out of our exploratory conversations after she read the script. I was meeting with actors and she and I sat down, and it became clear we were both looking to challenge ourselves. She needed to tell this story for herself and for the world. You know, I had never seen her in a leading role because she’d never done one. She was so dedicated, and we worked tirelessly to get on the same page. In this movie, the protagonist is the antagonist. She’s the good guy and the bad guy. It’s a story about a woman battling herself. In order to show that journey, it had to be in the actress’ heart and soul and eyes. Jillian had it.

That’s marvelous. Your background is in theatre. Going from stage to screen—not every playwright can do that. They are very different animals. How did you adapt your style to a cinematic one?

I had to translate the technical elements of filmmaking into a language I understood. So I, coming from the theatre, put a huge emphasis on the study and journey of character. I turned, from my own face, the idea of a color palette into a character.

Oh wow.

And I turned camera movement into a character. The actors learn the script word perfect. We approached this thing like it was a drama for the stage, because the story is told word by word. In that belief that specificity matters and every choice matters, we were able to create something together that was rock-solid in a way. Nothing was left up to chance. We wanted to create something heartfelt and thoughtful and full, and most of all, entertaining. So looking at everything as an element of character was key.

So final question. Going through the whole, multi-year process then, what was the most difficult element?

[Long pause]

It’s weird. I hate to use a metaphor again, but every day is a little step. Every day is one step forward, and the thing is 22 miles long. I’ve been working on this film since 2011. I’ve been writing it since 2014. I shot it in 2017. The thing is, it’s not over till its over. Once it’s out, I think I’ll be able to look back and tell you what was hard, but right now, I’m still running.

We can chat when the Blu-Ray comes out, then.

Oh my God, yes!

Brittany Runs A Marathon comes to theatres August 23.