‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ Director Paul Downs Colaizzo on Why Jillian Bell Was Perfect for the Role

“When we met, it was a big question mark if she could pull it off just based on the work I’ve known from her,” filmmaker says of actress

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” director Paul Downs Colaizzo searched near and far for the perfect actress to take the lead role in his movie that is loosely based on his best friend, Brittany. When Jillian Bell came along, he first thought she might not have the dramatic chops to do so — but he was quickly proven wrong.

“I was meeting with actresses and I met up with Jillian Bell in Brooklyn and she was instantly protective over the character,” Colaizzo told TheWrap. “I knew Jillian as a comedic actress and I was a huge fan of ’22 Jump Street.’ When we met, it was a big question mark if she could pull it off just based on the work I’ve known from her. In sitting with her and discussing how I saw the character being played and how the tone needed to be involved, she was on the same page. We both knew we were putting our faith into the other’s hand. I saw this woman in front of me who was known for being comedic by a role and by herself and was looking to change how the world looks at her and how far she could push herself and that’s the story. I hoped in putting those things together along with her dedication and ambition, that we’d be able to capture her real vulnerability and real emotionality.”

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” follows a young woman living in New York. After visiting a doctor and being told she’s unhealthier than she could ever imagine, she becomes motivated to lose weight and get her life back under control. She starts to run just a block — then adds another, and another — until she signs up for the New York City Marathon, making (and losing) friends along the way.

Initially, Colaizzo was only meant to write the screenplay for the motivational comedy, but he soon realized he needed to direct the film — not only because the story was loosely based on his friend. When Tobey Maguire and his producing partner Matthew Plouffe, through their production banner Material Pictures, got involved, he asked them whether he could direct as well. Their response: “no.”

“It was a very understandable reaction because I had never directed anything, but I didn’t want the nuance and the dimensionality to get lost,” Colaizzo explained. “I worried that the safety and the trope exploration wouldn’t be explored if someone else took it. And also because of the messaging of the relationship with herbed, and my friend, I wanted it to be handled with total respect and honoring the style and the concept of what I wanted to explore. What I needed to do was direct the movie.”

In recent years, there’s been a universal opinion that men shouldn’t and can’t write female roles. “It’s so interesting — we’re in this age where there is this question about who is capable and qualified to write which stories. I’m an artist and I’m attracted to what I’m attracted to and I love what I love and make what I make and I am often drawn to stories with women in the center because there is a tension for a woman to exist in this world, just their existence provides tension, especially in our country, especially in 2019.” The key for Bell’s character was putting all the values and experiences and perspectives on the body — anything dealing with her body image came from the character’s point of view, not from her own point of view,” Colaizzo said.

“What we’re doing is we’re exploring my perception on reality,” he said. “The world will treat women differently if they look a certain way. Men will hold open doors for some and not for others. I want to tell art that is honest without putting this world’s current value judgment on things that aren’t worth being valued. The idea that a man holds a door open, for some, its offensive, for some, it’s other people being nice. It’s my job to show the reality and the characters’ experience within that reality.”

The response since the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January has been overwhelming for Colaizzo. Seeing people on social media deciding to sign up for marathons or getting their lives back on track after seeing the film is everything he had hoped for during the production of this movie.

“I have worked really hard to make sure that I was proud of the film and that was number one, to be able to defend every frame of it and to elicit empathy and excitement and entertainment,” he explained. “My dad signed up for a 5K after he saw it. I hoped it would resonate with women and that women feel seen and can identify with the character, and that there would be a universal response.”

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” also stars Alice Lee, Jennifer Dundas and Lil Rel Howery. It opened in limited release on Friday.