Ever since screening at 2019’s Sundance Film Festival, Cherry Hill’s Paul Downs Colaizzo and Jillian Bell (“Workaholics,” “22 Jump Street”) have been surprising screening audiences with the fruit of their labor — the poignantly motivational, real-life inspired dramedy, “Brittany Runs a Marathon.”
Who they truly managed to most amaze, however, was themselves. Colaizzo, an award-winning playwright best known for his 2015 off-Broadway show “Really, Really,” and Bell — an actress best known for caustic comic work — pushed far beyond their personal and professional boundaries, to say nothing of type.
Based on the life of Colaizzo’s friend Brittany O’Neill, Bell’s on-screen character Brittany Folgen is an edgy, Philly-born party girl who finds her life, work relationships and health at a crossroads. Rather than go to a pricey gym she can’t afford, Brittany gets pushed by her neighbor to run — first in old Chuck Taylors, then running shoes, for one block, then two, with incremental baby steps along the way. Then, she pursues the New York City Marathon. Rather than play this for laughs, Bell finds the soulful sadness of deep and meaningful change — inside and out — without saccharine dialogue.
“Brittany Runs a Marathon” opened in Philadelphia on Aug. 30 before hitting Amazon Prime earlier this month. Recently, the pair hit The Logan to discuss the film and the collaboration that ensued as a result.
What did each of you want from this film — Paul for the character you had written, and Jillian for your acting choices?
Paul Downs Colaizzo: I wanted someone who was…
Jillian Bell: Sexy, very sexy.
Colaizzo: And leggy. I wanted someone smart, passionate, naturally funny and with a well of emotions who was willing to be exposed and would push themselves at all times. Her character is this story’s protagonist and antagonist. Much of the story happens inside of her. So we needed accessibility, and someone who could show their guarded nature while letting the audience in.
Bell: When I read the script, I immediately wanted to meet Paul because I wanted to know how it was he understood the female brain so well. I wanted to know the person who wrote this script I related to so wholeheartedly. It was as if, after reading, I wanted to know what were your intentions with my daughter, as if the script was my daughter. I got protective. Since we were on the same page about themes, and what we wanted audiences to leave the theater feeling and thinking…
Colaizzo: …and how delicately we wanted to treat it. We didn’t want to overlook anything. We scrutinized every word. We only had 28 days to shoot this, and Jillian and I met once a week, every week during the seven months of pre-production to make sure we were on the same page regarding the story we were telling.
Bell: It was a lot of Skyping.
How did you learn to trust the ideas of earnestness, poignancy and even the concepts of motivation and empowerment? That’s not an easy thing to do without being syrupy — and yet the two of you did exactly that.
Colaizzo: At the center of the story is a character in transition, replacing old behavior with new. What we did — even though the character is funny and Jillian is funny with a cast of equally brilliant supporting actors — was approach this as drama, exploring human behavior. We’re not putting additional layers on, or selling a feeling. We’re simply exploring a character when she’s trying to change.
Bell: The script showed the real struggles of transformation, the emotional struggles. That was immensely relatable. And we often went for the reverse reactions, like during a moment of intense seriousness, we play it with levity. In that way, there’s balance so that you don’t think we’re being too cheesy or motivational.
Paul, you’re a theater guy primarily. Jillian, audiences know you for caustic comedy. What was most important about straying from your comfort zones?
Colaizzo: We were placing bets on each other. We needed each of us to do the thing we were charged with doing, no matter what.
Bell: And we leaned on each other the entire time to do it. I told him that I would be on set like an open wound through the entire production.
Colaizzo: Plus, we didn’t want to let the other one down, and what we were delivering for the film. There was no option to slow down or stop — we had to go the distance for each other.
It’s not as if the real Brittany is a known historical figure, but knowing and dealing with portraying a real person... Was there a weight that came with that knowledge, an honesty you felt you had to convey?
Colaizzo: I was inspired by her. Her DNA is all over it. I fictionalized the character for the sake of dramatic arcs, and the two Brittanys share nothing of the same backstory or idiosyncrasies. The emotional journey is something they both share, and I supported and encouraged Jillian in embodying that.
Bell: I only met her while filming one of the scenes. After that, we’ve had a chance to hang out. She could inspire a few more films.
Colaizzo: She’s now working in refugee relocation, genocide prevention and having an incredibly insightful experience, and post-Sundance, having realizations about her body and her world.
Bell: She’s not a jingle writer like my Brittany. And her journey made me want to examine my own body, my own world. Put a microscope on how I treat myself.
So you are from this area, the Pittsburgh-to-Cherry Hill axis in your formative years. How did that play into the film? Were there prompts you gave Jillian as to her character’s language or dialogue?
Bell: You mean like saying ‘wooder?’
Colaizzo: Philadelphia, for me, has the feeling of home. Not just because I lived near here. It’s the seed of our nation. Plus, I wanted her to have some place that had a welcoming vibe. Manhattan is the dream, a place you still can’t wrap your head around. The feeling of support and comfort is what was Philly.