By Edward Douglas
Jillian Bell has been an amazing comedic actor for quite a few years now, but her work in Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Brittany Runs A Marathon” is above and beyond her previous work, as it’s a movie that allows her to really create a full character and give her a true story arc.
Brittany is a New Yorker in her late 20-somethings who just hasn’t been able to get the whole idea of “adulting” together, so she works a lot of dead-end jobs, goes partying with her roommate (Alice Lee) and doesn’t worry too much about her physical health and well-being. When a doctor warns Brittany that she has to lose weight to avoid having serious health issues, Brittany is dubious but her upstairs neighbor (Michaela Watkins) convinces her to join a running group. Brittany soon learns that she enjoys running, and while she’s still trying to get the rest of her life together, running ends up becoming her life.
Colaizzo’s movie is quite brilliant – you can read Dan Bayer’s review here – but it’s not only due to Bell but also the amazing cast around her that includes Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”), Micah Stock (as one of Brittany’s running mates) and Utkarsh Ambudkar from “The Mindy Project” as a pseudo-love interest named “Jern”? Colaizzo has successfully created a dramatic character study that focuses on Brittany – the movie was actually based on the journey of a friend of his named “Brittany” incidentally – but surrounds Bell with a fantastic and talented ensemble.
Not only is Bell great in “Brittany Runs A Marathon,” but she also appears in Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust” as one half of a lesbian couple (the other half played by Michael Watkins), who inherits a priceless Civil War sword that they try to sell to Marc Maron’s pawnshop owner. That threesome is completed by Bell’s long-time friend Jon Bass, and the interplay of those characters, largely through improvisation, is what makes “Sword of Trust” an equally entertaining venture.
Edward Douglas from Next Best Picture had a chance to chat with Ms. Bell a few weeks back about both of her current movies, and you can read that interview below.
Next Best Picture: I had seen “Sword of Trust” but I went to see it a second time one morning a few weeks back and then later that evening, I went to see “Brittany”…
Jillian Bell: Oh, my goodness!
I hadn’t done any reading on “Brittany” but I think I knew you were in it, but I didn’t realize that Michaela [Watkins] was in both movies, too.
We're both in these very different [movies] playing very different characters.
And Lynn Shelton told me that you said that she should check out Michaela for “Sword of Trust” having just worked together.
The opposite. Michaela referred me. Yeah, she put in a good word to Lynn about me, and we met up and I just really enjoyed Lynn. We got along deliciously.
But you got Jon [Bass] involved in “Sword”…
I got Jon involved. You're right. I did help someone else. I'm so glad you went to go see it twice. Did you see it twice?
I saw “Sword of Trust” twice and then I saw this that same day.
Oh my gosh, that's a lot of Jillian Bell. I apologize.
No, it was great, I've been a fan since “22 Jump Street” and I liked your character enough to tell Sony "Oh, I want to talk to her"…
Oh, thank you so much! That means so much.
I still haven't seen the “Workaholics” TV show. I love everyone who’s on that show when I see them do other things, and then I find out they were on “Workaholics” and keep thinking I should watch it.
It is a fun show… but you've done enough watching me, I think. (laughs)
How did “Brittany” come about? Obviously, Paul wrote the script based on his real friend Brittany…
Yeah, like a love letter to his best friend, Brittany.
So how did it come to you? Did he chase after you or was it a script you read that you pursued?
That woman over there is my manager Pam, and she sent me the script and said "This is a really special script. I think this film will be really beautiful, and there's parts of it that will make you cry and parts that will make you laugh. You'll probably be a little nervous about the material, but I think you should read it". I read it, and everything she said was true: I laughed, I cried. I was very scared to take it on because I knew I would have to be very vulnerable in a way that I hadn't been on any other movie. I never had to experience what that's like to be on set and be very emotional. I connected to a lot of the lines in the script, I connected to the character.
Paul had directed theater before but never a movie, so were there any concerns about that? Did you have to sit down with him and say "Hey, how are you going to do this?" Or did you like the script enough to just put yourself in his hands and hope for the best.
No, I mean we had a lot of conversations. I think we were both excited, and we were both probably and a little bit nervous. I had never done a still comedic, but this movie has a lot of dramatic elements in it. I think we both wanted to do well for each other, but we connected on a level of wanting to tell the same story. We were both passionate about telling the same story and putting out a movie like this because we hadn't really seen anything like it before.
But you didn’t meet the real-life Brittany before, and you didn’t want to meet her and have her involved with creating the character?
Paul had sent me a video of Brittany before we shot, a video she made when she was training for the marathon, and she was trying to raise money. He sent me that, and I sort of got her essence from that. She came to set early on when we were shooting. The movie's inspired by true-life events of hers, but there was so much that Paul had sort of taken creative license. He added a lot more characters, which added different dynamics than Brittany O'Neil's life. I think we decided that we would sort of create this character together. Obviously, he referred to her a lot when it came to the basics and just making sure it felt authentic to things she really went through.
I know this movie is meant to be inspirational (and it is) and I’m sure a lot of 20 to 30-something year-old women will find inspiration in it but I’m a significantly older man, and I saw a lot of myself in this character.
That makes me so happy! Well, we all have experienced what it's like to feel a little stuck in our lives or stuck in a daily routine and wanting to do something bigger. I think that's the thing that people relate to this movie.
It's a very New York thing, too, for some reason. I’ve always seen New York as a roach motel where you come here to chase your goals and dreams, and even if you don’t find them, you’re then kind of stuck here. I guess a few people escape from New York to go to L.A….
Right, but there is a sense of community here, and more than a lot of the places I've spent time in. It feels like everybody's kind of got this big goal and they're all striving to make those dreams happen.
What about Michaela? I guess she was on “Saturday Night Live” as well but that wasn’t during the time you were there as a writer?
She was on I believe for a year, and I was on for a year as a writer, but we weren't there at the same time. I wish we were there at the same time. We would've probably written a lot of sketches together.
But you never or rarely were on camera when you were writing at SNL, so was that something you didn’t want to do at that time?
No, it was something I was very interested in doing, and it just didn't happen. There were some disappointments there, but I honestly think that there are no regrets. Good things have happened.
Absolutely, and you’re an executive producer on “Brittany” as well, so were you involved with some of the other actors who were cast around you?
Yeah, we had a lot of conversations about that, definitely with Michaela, as well. I had worked with her at the “Groundlings” and always respected her as an actress. She's absolutely brilliant in everything she's in. Such a scene-stealer and she's so smart with her choices, so I really pushed for her to be involved and Paul was all for it. He had met with Rel [aka Lil Rel Howery] and we had some conversations about him being involved in the film, and I'm a big fan of his as well. It kind of all came together. Everybody really looked after each other on this film.
Was a lot of the family stuff from Brittany’s real life?
No, that was all added, yeah.
That must be a bit weird for her to have a movie based on her life but have these things added.
Absolutely! I know. At least she doesn't have to say, "That's the one thing that's not real." There are some things that Paul created and tells the story in a really different way, and I appreciate that, but I do think for Brittany, coming on a set and seeing someone retelling your life story, that's got to be a very hard thing at times. Hopefully, she feels good about it. I've had conversations with her afterward, and she gave me the thumbs up and she feels very happy so that was a huge compliment.
Going back to some of the other actors like Alice Lee as Brittany’s roommate, was Paul open to any improvisation since you do have that background as do others in the cast?
I think initially he wanted to stick to the script, and then he hired a bunch of improvisational actors and then he realized there can be some fun added there. It’s hard with improv, because you never know what people are going to throw out and some of it you can keep, some of it doesn't work. With this, we didn't do a ton of improvising. There was one scene where I'm taking tickets at the theater at the beginning of the film and a lot of that was improvised just because it could kind of be whatever. Most of the scenes had specific intentions that we couldn't just be like, "And then also this…" It was better to stick to the script with some of the scenes.
I'm always amazed when smaller films shoot in New York City because it’s a crazy place to film. I’m sure you know from having lived here…
I lived here for a year, and yes.
And to shoot in the actual New York Marathon?
Yes, that's probably the craziest part.
I was curious how did you manage to do that?
They worked on it. I mean that was the goal, to try to get to shoot in the New York City Marathon, and we were the first film to ever do it. Which was a huge accomplishment…
Was that last November or was it the year before?
Two years ago, and I'll never forget that day. I mean, it was incredibly emotional and getting to witness these people who were accomplishing such major goals. It was unbelievable, and honestly, probably my favorite part of the film.
Did a lot of the runners take you seriously? I know you probably trained quite a bit for the movie, but did they look at you as “Oh, it’s an actress coming in and pretending to run the Marathon?”
I think they thought we were shooting a documentary. I don’t know. I could be wrong, but people weren't waving at the camera or saying I wasn't being recognized in any way. It was just like they were all there to do this specific thing. So they're probably staying in their own head, their own zone. And for me, I was just so glad that we could shoot in there and we didn't have too many issues.
I want to branch off my earlier question about improv and get into “Sword of Trust.” The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t recognize you or realize it was you until I saw your name at the end.
I think it was the short haircut…
It’s the haircut… very different.
And maybe you had trimmed a little while making “Brittany” since you did that first?
I did “Sword of Trust” after, yes.
One of my favorite scenes is the one with Jon Bass when you’re sitting on the back of the truck talking, and I really hope someday Lynn release one of the long 30-minute takes that she films before cutting them down…
She said she had a version that was like two hours, two and a half hours, and she had to cut it down.
Sure, but I want to see one of the scenes where she just lets people go, because it seems like the improvised stuff, especially a scene like that one, which I just loved, it kind of made the movie.
We had such a good time. I enjoy Jon Bass as a human being so much, and he was making me laugh so hard. We were sitting on the back of that truck in Birmingham, Alabama -- it must have been a hundred and something and SO humid. I remember, there's a moment in that scene where we were sitting there, and a little bit of wind came by and hit both of our faces, and we broke character and went, "Ahhhhhhh," because it was so hot. When you're on a Lynn Shelton movie, we’re improvising so much. We had such a blast coming up with funny, weird things for our characters to do and say. I had a great time shooting that movie.
I feel like I’ve just started discovering Jon Bass. He’s in this other movie called “Plus One” where he has just one scene telling a wedding story, and he’s in it for maybe two minutes or less, but he’s just hilarious.
He is such a scene-stealer. Have you seen the show “Big Time in Hollywood, FL”? I would highly recommend it.
I haven’t. Lynn was also telling me about that Comedy Central show, and it’s another show that I just haven’t gotten around to watching.
Lynn watched an episode of that. I picked out an episode for her to watch, and that's what she watched of Jon and I mean, he's incredible in it, so just putting that out there.
You’re also doing “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” Have you started shooting that or currently doing it?
I did. I shot it already.
How crazy is that? I don't think anyone ever thought we would ever see another Bill & Ted movie first of all.
Who knew? Who knew?
I think you were probably like four or five when the first movie came out?
Yeah, I was pretty young but I watched the VHS tapes -- I was obsessed with them. They were so funny, and it was such smart storytelling. When this came around I was so thrilled that they wanted me to do something in it.
It must be pretty surreal…
Getting to see them get back into character? It's so cool! I was losing my mind. I just kept watching and being like "Remember this, remember this," because they're running lines back and forth, and they're doing it in character. I think people are going to be so excited to see them doing this project.
Are you able to bring improv into most of these movies you’re doing now, and on something like that?
Usually, with most comedies, they usually allow for a little bit of… you know, “If you want to add anything…”, and I really enjoyed doing that. This was the first film that I felt like, for the most part, we stuck to the script and that was also enjoyable. I feel like I haven't had that experience in a while.
You’ve had the fortune of being in two Paul Thomas Anderson movies, smaller roles, but you’re in there…
They’re teenie, but you know, it's Paul Thomas Anderson….
I rewatched “The Master” again recently, and I saw Rami Malek was in it, and I was like "Holy shit, no one remembers that he was in this movie!"
Yeah, and Jesse Plemons.
I think I knew Jesse Plemons at that time. I’m curious about that experience working with P.T. Anderson because I’m sure you must know that there’s a cult that surrounds him, mostly made up of film critics…
Oh, yeah. He's so talented and smart and just really got it at such a young age. Wasn’t he 25 when he did “Boogie Nights”? Very young. Just very ahead of his time, and it was so cool to get to witness how he works. I really felt like doing “The Master” was like going to college. It was like my professors were Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, Laura Dern….
Had you already done your year writing for “SNL” at that point?
You know what? No, I had done SNL because he was a fan of “Workaholics,” and “Workaholics” came out after I did SNL.
“Brittany Runs A Marathon” is now playing in select cities, and Amazon Studios plans to release it much wider on September 13.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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Cold War (4) - LFCC, NBR, NYFCC, NYFCO
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Won't You Be My Neighbor? (37) - AARP, AFCA, AFCC, AWFJ, BOFCA, BSFC, CC, DFCS, DFWFCA, GALECA, GFCA, HFCS, IFCA, IFJA, KCFCC, LAOFCS, LEJA, LVFCS, MCFCA, NCFCA, NFCS, NTFCA, NYFCO, OAFFC, OFCC, OFCS, PCC, PFCC, PFCS, PGA, SEFCA, SFFCC, SPIRIT, StLFCA, TFCA, UFCA, WAFCA
Minding The Gap (8) - CFCA, CIFCC, GWNYFCA, IDA, IPA, NSFC, NYFCC, VFCS
Free Solo (3) - BAFTA, OSCAR, SFCS
Shirkers (3) - COFCA, FFCC, LAFCA
Three Identical Strangers - (3) DFCC, DFCS, SDFCS
Quincy (2) - AAFCA, BFCC
Bergman - A Year In A Life - EFA
Hale County This Morning, This Evening - IFP
RBG - NBR