Interview: Laura Colella on Making a Home Movie for All With “Breakfast With Curtis”

With eccentric neighbors, why leave the house to make a movie?...Read More
Jonah Parker and Theo Green in "Breakfast With Curtis"

Naturally, Laura Colella wanted to do something more ambitious with her third feature, but when a bigger budgeted project fell apart, she wasn’t about to sit around, at least in one way.

“I was very frustrated and wanted to make something right away without having to wait and so I kind of looked around,” recalls the writer/director.

In Colella’s case, “looking around” wasn’t a euphemism. All she needed to do was wake up one morning to the splashy red and yellow walls in her purple-painted home in Providence, Rhode Island to find the setting for “Breakfast With Curtis,” a film that may be small in scale yet has the expanse of cool summer day outdoors. Training its lens on an enclave of eccentrics from three households, the film takes on the condition of its breezy central characters who get together to sip wine and pass the time by projecting movies onto the side of their house and walking a tightrope they’ve set up in the back, slowly but surely patching up the fissures between two of the families caused five years earlier when Syd, an elder online bookseller, gave a particularly harsh scolding to his next door neighbor’s son Curtis for messing with his cat. Now 14, the introverted Curtis begins to emerge from his shell by bonding with Syd through making YouTube videos for his business, yet it’s the freewheeling spirit of the community as a whole that would seem to inspire him.

The same could be said for Colella, who cast her real-life neighbors in the film and creates a vivid world bursting with color and the fun her characters enjoy within a small city block. Shortly before the film starts making its way across the country beginning with a run in New York, Colella spoke about the making the most of what she had, how she mixed a little reality into fiction and having a home movie that could be enjoyed by all, including her mentor Paul Thomas Anderson.

Laura Colella's "Breakfast With Curtis"Was the film actually inspired by the house?

I basically looked around and thought what’s really accessible? What can I do that’s really hands on? When I studied film, I shot and edited my own projects, but I hadn’t shot my first two features. So I basically approached everyone who lived in the house where I lived and everyone in the house next door to me in June of 2010 and asked them if they wanted to make a film because we all hang out a lot and we know each other really well. Most of us have lived together for about 15 years now, and they’re all characters. I love our homes and our yards and I think they’re visually interesting, so I was like, alright, I’ve got characters, locations – if I can’t make a movie here, what kind of filmmaker am I? Everyone was like, “Of course we do” as if they’d just been waiting for me to ask them. We brainstormed ideas about who their characters could be and their storylines and then I went off and wrote the script in July and we started shooting in August. So it came together very quickly.

Was it interesting to hand them a script that was based partially on who you thought they were?

Yeah, there definitely was a degree of that, probably all of us feeling probably a little bit exposed in the first draft, but then we just said, “You know what? This is totally fiction.” [laughs] And that became the party line. We weren’t playing ourselves. We were playing characters. That liberated everyone immediately and I don’t think anyone gave it a second thought. Little bits are inspired by reality. For example, those little videos that you see excerpted in the movie — “Breakfast with Syd” — those are actually videos that Jonah [Parker], who plays Curtis and Theo [Green], who plays Syd, had been making together since Jonah was 13. Jonah would shoot these little videos and put them online and called them “Breakfast with Theo” and made the effects, putting these crazy colors on them in iMovie. I just thought that was such an amazing thing because they were really good and you can still see them on YouTube under “Breakfast with Theo,” so that became the seed for that story.

I’ve heard there actually was an actual rift between those two at some point.

There was an actual incident when Jonah was young and it [wasn’t] throwing something at a cat, but something like that and Theo did give him a tongue-lashing, so that was a real incident, but Jonah is nothing like Curtis and it didn’t really traumatize him. It definitely did create some bad blood with the parents for a bit, but it worked itself out, so little bits of truth then got kind of manipulated and exaggerated or changed for the purpose of this film and that’s basically how that worked in.

From the title you might expect this to strictly be a coming-of-age story for Curtis, but I was surprised that this really took the whole community into account. Was that important to you?

Yeah, it’s interesting because I can understand why people call it a coming-of-age film, but for me, it’s really not. I probably wouldn’t be interested in watching it myself if it really was all from Curtis’ perspective, but what I hope for is that it’s a coming-of-age film for anyone watching it. Anyone has the potential for change or evolution or improvement at any point in one’s life and it’s at least as much about the antics of these crazy adults around Curtis as it is about him.

The house is such a great setting because it’s so full of life, whether the color of the walls or the gardens or the clutter inside. Did you have to augment much or is this similar to how you found it?

It’s really pretty similar to how we found it. I made some effort to change the kitchen from five years ago to the present and we talked about what should be on Curtis’ walls and things like that, but it was really, really minimal production design. It’s pretty much the way our houses are and our yards. Of course, we fixed things up and tried to make them look the way they were ideal for the story.

Did this give you license to do a few things that you thought about in that house? The ping pong, the screenings, the horses…

Everything was there, except for the two swings in the backyard. Those are things that we had been talking about but hadn’t been put in place yet, but they were nice byproducts of filming that we still use all the time.

Was it a strange experience to finish shooting during a day and you’re standing in your living room as a resident rather than a filmmaker?

Absolutely, but it’s a wonderful experience. The convenience of shooting in your own apartment or your own house was insane. It was really luxurious, and part of the benefit of shooting this way is that I could shoot the animals very spontaneously or go down and test something great on the porch and shoot it, so being here and having the equipment at hand also enabled me to get things that I normally wouldn’t have been able to probably get with the crew and a whole bunch of paraphenalia.

When you see it onscreen, are you surprised when you see personal things sneak in you might not have been aware of during shooting?

It definitely all felt personal. We were in this bubble making this movie. I think the person who put it best was Gideon [Parker], who played young Curtis. He was nine when we filmed and he came to the L.A. Film Festival and one of the interviewers asked him something [about the movie] and he was like, “Yeah, it was so cool because I thought we were just making this movie for us and it was going to be really great to just have this home movie that we made together and that we’d be able to watch whenever we’d want. But I didn’t expect it for other people to see it.” [laughs] I had a similar kind of feeling because I just had no idea other people would like our home movie. I had a really good feeling about it all along, but you just never know with these things.

“Breakfast With Curtis” opens in New York on December 4th at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on December 20th at the Downtown Independent. A full list of screenings can be found here.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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