Laura Colella On Filming Her Friends in ‘Breakfast With Curtis’
The third feature from filmmaker Laura Colella, Breakfast With Curtis, steps into the lives of the bohemian residents of the brightly-colored, three-story home she lives in in real life–called “The Purple Citadel”, awesomely–but with a fictional narrative. Colella casted her real-life roommates and next door neighbors in the film (all non-actors) and had them play versions of themselves as they lazed about on the porch, played ping pong in the backyard, and reveled in their Bohemian lifestyle. The film’s plot follows a young boy, Curtis, as he embarks on a peculiar art video project with his neighbor, a kooky middle-aged man named Syd, interviewing him on camera and posting the videos on Youtube, but at its essence, the film is really about hanging out with these interesting people, soaking in their free-spirited way of life.
Colella spoke with us about repping her hometown of Providence, making a movie with her friends, seeing her home in a new way, the difficulties and joys of making independent films, and more.
Breakfast With Curtis plays tomorrow, Dec. 4th, at the IFC center in New York, and Dec. 20th at the Downtown Independent in L.A. For more info, visit breakfastwithcurtis.com
Was it nice filming in Providence, repping your hometown and filming in your own home?
Definitely! Where are you from?
Around San Francisco.
Oh, cool! Theo, who plays Syd, is from Oakland. He lived there for many, many years. I feel like Oakland and that culture is so much a part of him. He talks about it a lot. (laughs) I wonder if people from that area can recognize that about him.
I can definitely see it.
He moved to the house I’m living in around 12 years ago, and everybody who lives in those houses in the movie lives there in real life. I’ve been living with these people for a while, and I definitely wanted to capture the spirit of living there, and also the visual aspects of our environment in the movie. Providence is where I grew up, and this is my third feature film I’ve shot here. I’ve never had an agenda, but it’s always worked out that way. I’m always kind of inspired by the city and that vibe.
It was fun to see a little bit of Providence in the film. Looks like a fun town!
You should visit! (laughs)
The houses in the film are gorgeous, especially with the way you film them. They’re decorated so interestingly and have such a unique look. Do they really look like that?
(laughs) They really do look like that. If you went to see the house now, the vegetation has died, the leaves are dying…god forbid in mid winter when everything is dead. It just looks like a regular place, not as lush. It’s a beat up sort of neighborhood, in a way. It looks really great in the movie, but the movie’s a bit deceptive. (laughs)
I love how fantastical the houses look in the film. One of my favorite scenes is the one with the swing in the backyard. You must have had fun with that!
Yeah, we did. All that stuff is definitely there. We play ping pong year-round, we have lights for nighttime…we still definitely make use of the yard.
And do you really do backyard screenings of older movies, like you do in the film? That looked fantastic.
Yeah, in the warmer months. I think the last thing we screened was a Buster Keaton movie, actually.
Nice! Where did the idea to cast your neighbors and roommates in the film come from? It seems like it all came together so naturally.
I was working on another project, and that one became bigger and more expensive than the ones I’d done before. I just hit a wall with that one, because I felt it was off the ground, but then, for various reasons, that fell through. I just felt very frustrated, because I just wanted to make something. I’d studied film as an undergrad, and that was very hands-on. I was craving doing something where I was shooting and editing. I always edit my own features. I tried to think of something I could do for nothing, and I thought, god, I live with a bunch of characters in cool homes and yards. This has got to be a movie! It’s a goldmine of location and character. If I can’t come up with something, what kind of filmmaker am I? (laughs) It was kind of a challenge I embraced. Those guys were totally psyched about the project from the beginning. It’s like they were waiting for me to say, “Let’s do this!” or something. Everything just felt so right and perfectly timed. A lot of things came together for us and it all felt sort of serendipitous.
Was the project collaborative, with everybody throwing around ideas, or did you have a structured narrative in mind?
Basically, I threw out the idea of making the film in June 2010. They were all on board. I spoke with them individually and as a group, brainstorming ideas for what the movie could be about. The seed of the narrative was the idea that Theo and Jonah, who plays Curtis, were actually making these videos together when Jonah was 13. The little bits of video you see that are the “Breakfast With Syd” episodes in the movie are actual bits of video the two put together on Youtube, called “Breakfast With Theo”. I incorporated bits of Jonah’s work in the movie with very little manipulation on my part. He put these kooky special effects from iMovie on them and edited and shot them himself.
I went off in July of that year, wrote the script, and told them that if I felt good about it, I would buy a camera. I bought a Canon 5D Mark II, and we started shooting in August. It was a really quick turnaround from idea to filming. It’s pretty rare, since you usually have to go through fundraising and blah blah blah. It’s was very satisfying to be like, “Wrote the script! Let’s start tomorrow!”
You get some really pretty shots of the leafy scenery around you and your neighbor’s house. As you explored the houses with your camera, did you begin to see your home in a different way?
Now, it’s kind of like…I’ve lived with the movie so long that it’s definitely a blurred line. I think the movie enhanced my appreciation for my home. I mean, I always appreciated it, but I was able to pay more attention to it. Now, jokes about the movie cross over into our lives, or we joke about making a sequel. (laughs) There’s definitely a crossover between the movie and reality.
Does everybody still live there?
Yup, everybody does.
That’s must be a lot of fun!
It is, yeah. We have a great time. We’re much busier in the winter months than in the summer, because four of us are teachers, but we manage to sneak in some porch parties and fireside parties in the winter. It’s a year-round thing.
Theo is great in the film as Syd. Does he really talk like that?
He pretty much does, yeah! (laughs)
I love the way he talks. There’s a line when he finds out what age Curtis is, and he says to his mom…
“My dear, what do you feed him?!”
“He’s a giant!” Are these characters extensions of these people in real life?
They’re people that are close enough to them that it’s easy for them to play that person. The movie is scripted and fictional, but it’s certainly based on real characters. I was hearing their voices when I was writing their parts, so it’s very close to reality, but represented in a fictional movie.
When you were young, were you into making films the way Curtis is in the movie?
In my generation, I feel like no one was making films, you know? My brother made one Super 8 movie, but it was mostly theater that I was into. I was doing a lot of plays as an actor. I didn’t have the confidence or exposure to think about directing when I was that age, so it wasn’t until college that I discovered, “Oh, you can make movies!” That was really a combination of my interest in art, making things, building things…I danced a little bit, too…all the things I liked really came together in filmmaking. I never looked back after that.
You’ve been operating in the realm of independent film with your work. What do you think of the state of independent film? Do you like working in that community?
It’s really difficult for everybody. It’s a difficult field to be in, in terms of jumping through so many hoops to get attention for your project or just catching a lucky break. I think there is a lot of luck involved. There’s a lot of perseverance and dogged stubbornness. I enjoyed making the film very much, but getting the movie out into the world is the tough part.
In terms of the filmmaking process, which do you enjoy more, the filming or the post production work?
I really like both. I think they’re both really important. I edit my own work, because I can’t imagine giving that part of it up. It’s such a “make-or-break” part of the process. The performances really get created in the editing process, especially in a movie like this. I was working with non-actors, shooting a lot of takes just to make sure I had what I needed to make the scenes work. A lot of this film came together in the editing process. It felt important for me to be the editor. I didn’t shoot more scenes than I needed. I pretty much used everything that I shot and followed my script really closely, but I did have a lot of takes and spent a lot of time in the editing room, trying things out and making sure I got things in the right place.
You’ve had success shooting in Providence so far. Do you ever plan on shooting elsewhere?
(laughs) Yeah. One of the projects I want to shoot next can’t be shot in Rhode Island. It has to be shot somewhere else, somewhere like New Mexico where there’s that kind of landscape. I’m open to other places, for sure.
Did the film turn out the way you thought it would back when you were first discussing it with your neighbors?
It pretty much came together as planned, probably better than I’d hoped. Things just seemed to come together for this project. It’s been a sweet journey, with very few major hurdles or obstacles. So far so good. Being able to skip that whole thing of fundraising, scraping together money, being worried that you can’t get through production…all that pressure was absent for this project, which made me think, “Wow…maybe I should only make movies like this from now on!” Working on this micro level is so liberating and gratifying.