'Brittany Runs a Marathon' Director on How Empathetic Focus on Character Shaped First Film

Jon Pack/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Paul Downs Colaizzo, who wrote the star-studded off-Broadway play 'Really Really,' fought to helm the script he'd written based on his real-life friend and roommate's effort to better her life as she hit the pavement.

Paul Downs Colaizzo received rave reviews and awards attention for his 2013 off-Broadway play Really Really, which starred Zosia Mamet and Matt Lauria. But the playwright had never made a movie when he asked if he could direct the script he wrote, inspired by his real-life friend and roommate, about a woman trying to turn her life around as she starts running. So when he was told no, he understood but he didn't give up.

He flew out to L.A. and made a presentation selling himself as the best person to bring Brittany Runs a Marathon to the big screen.

"It's subject matter that could be inflammatory, could be provocative — I'm a man writing a story about a woman who's changing her life that involves body-image issues, and that's not lost on me. But I knew that I had really worked hard to handle the story with a very specific empathetic touch and a holistic and respectful attempt to capture this journey for this character. I didn't want any of the nuance of that to be lost in someone else's interpretation of the story," Colaizzo tells The Hollywood Reporter. In his pitch, he says he explained, "how I would treat the tone and the humor and make sure that I could follow through on what I wanted to do, which was tell an entertaining, fun, funny story that was accessible and reached a lot of people and that a lot of people could relate to and also focus on what I was interested in, which is the nuance of the human relationships in the film, especially this woman's relationship with herself."

The production company, Tobey Maguire's Material Pictures, said yes.

"I had been involved in enough projects and I had seen how a character-based story can get lost in translation if it's not handled with the right care or with the same vision as intended when it was written," Colaizzo explains about why he fought so hard to direct his screenplay. "Ultimately my hope was to protect the script and protect the story."

The story was a personal one, of sorts, with Colaizzo drawing on the journey of his college friend Brittany O'Neill, whom he moved in with in their 20s as O'Neill was on the cusp of taking steps, literally, to improve her life.

"When I moved in, we started having a lot of conversations about life and happiness and trying to define fulfillment and success for ourselves and the thing that everyone does in their 20s, which is that they try to figure out how to have a better life than the life that they have now, and out of one of those early conversations she went for her first run," Colaizzo explains. "And when that happened, I thought, 'This is a movie.' I mean Brittany was the funniest person I'd ever met, her point of view on the world is so hilarious, and I thought, 'This is a movie — a person who's fun and funny and irreverent and makes everything a joke suddenly having an earnest goal and trying to really focus on a vulnerable ambition, which is bettering her life by finding control in one way or another, and for her it was running.'"

He stresses that the character of Brittany Forgler, played in the film by Jillian Bell, is different from O'Neill, saying, "There are things that that character has done that [O'Neill] has never done."

"Nothing in the film is a re-creation of a scene or a moment in real life," Colaizzo adds. But he drew on O'Neill's transformation for his story.

"I was able to take milestones from her journey and see my Brittany's version of that — Brittany Forgler, the character — or emotional experiences she had to see how I could weave those into what the character of Brittany was experiencing," he says. "Brittany and I both resort to humor a lot — often we can use it to deflect vulnerability, like most people do — and that was a starting point that was true to her, true to me and really what the character was rooted in."

Character remained Colaizzo's central focus as he made his first film, drawing on his stage background.

"For me, everything is character. I think that's a common value in theater, that people look for in complicated and fun ways, and that's what I was doing with this film," Colaizzo says. "I wanted the audience to leave feeling like they'd seen a mirror held up to themselves and the world that they live in, that they saw themselves in the main character and that they were able to take what they witnessed and their sympathy and empathy for Brittany and transfer it not only to themselves, but the people sitting next to them in the theater. That comes from me enjoying communal, dramatic experiences."

Additionally, even though Brittany Runs a Marathon is a comedy, there was "very little improv," according to Colaizzo.

"We went word for word most of the time and told the story as written, just to make sure we were watching the evolution and the nuance of character behavior more than anything else, while still making sure that, because these were funny characters and the way they approached things was funny, the humor had a sense of relatability to it, rather than comedic gags," he says.

Brittany Runs a Marathon, which Amazon picked up for $14 million at Sundance, is now in select theaters with a wide release set for Sept. 13.