Interview (Part 1): Writer-Director Laura Colella (“Breakfast With Curtis”)

December 11th, 2013 by

Recently I had the pleasure of screening a wonderful indie feature called Breakfast With Curtis, written and directed by Laura Colella. Some background on Laura:

Laura studied filmmaking at Harvard University. She has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants and was one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. She freelances as a screenwriter, cinematographer, camera assistant and editor and has been teaching part-time at Rhode Island School of Design since 1996. Her other feature films are Tax Day and Stay Until Tomorrow.

I had the opportunity to talk with Laura about her approach to filmmaking and Breakfast With Curtis, a movie about which Paul Thomas Anderson has said,”I absolutely love it. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a smile from beginning to end.”

Today in Part 1, we learn a bit more about Laura’s personal history and the inspiration for Breakfast With Curtis:

Scott:  Obviously I would like to talk about your movie Breakfast With Curtis, but first I thought maybe we’d start with your background. When did you catch the movie bug?

Laura:  I grew up in theaters, and then I discovered film‑making really my first year in college. I went to Harvard undergrad, and I joined the film department there and started making 16 millimeter films.

Studied with some amazing visiting professors. It was a very hands‑on department. Production‑oriented, surprisingly for Harvard. Once I graduated, I worked as a camera assistant for a while. Then I kept prioritizing really trying to continue to making my own work, and I got a half hour short after college. Then I made three features over a period of 15 years or so.

Scott:  How did you get into the screenwriting part of that? Was because you wanted to direct and decided you wanted to write your own material, or did you do get into the writing independent of directing?

Laura: Writing and directing always felt tied together for me. I never thought of them as separate with my work. I think in college I started writing my script, and I never studied screenwriting. That just came together more intuitively I guess, from the beginning.

Scott:  You’ve written, directed, and produced three feature length films as well as several short films. I understand you freelance as a screenwriter, cinematographer, camera assistant, editor and you’ve been teaching part time at the Rhode Island School of design since 1996. With all of that going on, how do you find time to focus on your own projects?

Laura:  That’s a good question. These projects are all multi‑year projects and I edit them myself, and I in the past have been alone in terms of promoting them, and getting them out to the world. This project I had some help with that, luckily. But it’s still a lot of work. I guess, I tend to do a lot of things at once.

I’m also in an MFA writing program right now. Part of the reason now after having been out of college for 20 years, and never thinking I’d go back to school is that I just really wanted to carve out more time for writing, and break up my writing practice.

I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in that yet, I think I have been open to paths for how to view it, but basically I’ve always been a binge writer, and I’d write my scripts all at once. I’m trying to get into a more regular writing process and be a more prolific writer, rather than burst out these things that I then neglect for years and years as they keep going through production.

Scott:  Let’s talk about Breakfast with Curtis. The summary on IMDB: “Syd is an eccentric bookseller with delusions of grandeur fueled by red wine. He caused a rift five years ago between his bohemian housemates and the family next door, but now tries to recruit his 14‑year‑old neighbor Curtis as a collaborator.”

As I understand it, this is based on real life in the sense that there’s this house known as the Purple Citadel and this house next door, and the characters are actually like real people.

Laura:  Everyone who is in the film, everyone who lives in the purple house actually lives in those apartments in the purple house. Everyone who lives next door actually lives next door.

Curtis and his parents are actually my neighbors and their son. The boy who played young Curtis is Curtis’ little brother in real life. There’s fortunately a couple with two sons next door, and everybody who lives in my house. We are the cast.

Scott:  Do you remember the very first moment that you said, “You know what? I think there’s a movie here” or was this something that grew organically over time?

Laura:  It happen actually pretty quickly. I was trying to get another project off the ground for a few years. This was born out of frustration with that process, and feeling that I had to go into depression or something.

What could I do? It was very hands on going back to my roots of someone who often shot my own film, my school days, and the first project I did after school. It was a way to say, “What can I do for nothing?”

I still wanted it to be something that I knew no that matter what I would invest probably two years of my life. I felt like I had to be really in love with the script for it to be worth pursuing. I first introduced the idea to everybody in June and then I brainstormed with them about what the movie could be about. Went off and wrote the script in July, and then we started shooting in August. It was a very quick process between idea, and going into production.

Scott:  Let’s go through these primary characters in the story. There’s this three story purple house that’s been divided into these apartments. On the first floor, there’s Syd who lives with his girlfriend Pirate. Syd is a kind of philosopher king.

On the second floor there’s an older single woman named Sadie, and then the third floor’s occupied by a younger couple, Frenchy and Paloa, the latter played by you, the couple basically whiling away their time doing yoga, gardening, and having sex. I read a review where they describe this place as an adult Never Never Land, and I thought that was pretty appropriate. What’s your reaction to that assessment?

Laura:  Part of my hope was to capture what’s it’s like to sort of spirit around these two properties. Which we do just hang out a lot, and have fun, and goof around, and we know each other really well.

While capturing that warmth, and teamwork, and camaraderie in our kind of day to day experience I think was something I was hoping to capture. I like that. I wanted it to feel like a nice place. It’s something anybody can have. Not something inaccessible. It’s something anyone could kind of have if they live their lives well.

Scott:  This house next door occupied by Simon and Sylvia, the husband and wife, and their son Curtis. Simon’s basically, the only white color worker out of this whole group, and the mom, Sylvia oversees Curtis’s home school education. He’s obviously a gifted young boy. Plays piano, but he’s very isolated from life. Both physically in a separateness, and emotionally removed as well.

That’s not really reflective of the actual kid next door. I’m guessing that fictionalizing part of it was where you went in terms of how can I make a story out of these two environments. Is that fair to say?

Laura:  I think so. I think that helped the story. I don’t know if you know this, but that little bit of video that you see in the film that are the web episodes. Those are actual videos that Jonah, who plays Curtis, and Theo, who plays Syd, started making when Jonah was 13.

They made these episodes together they put on the web called “Breakfast with Theo.” I took little bits from those, that was kind off a piece of reality that’s in the story.

I was so amazed that they were making those videos together and how good they were, because Jonah just shot them with a snapshot camera that also took video.

He edited them himself with iMovie and put visual effects on them. I just took little clips and put those in the movie.

As far as fictionalizing the story, I wondered about that incident of Syd yelling at Curtis. How that could have actually affected somebody who wasn’t as well adjusted as Jonah. Where it could have actually had a real impact on his young life. To be yelled at like that. Being a traumatic thing.

I’m not sure where that decision came in. Part of it was the idea of making it feel like Curtis would be going through a transformation by being exposed to the people next door. Maybe that helps enhance the feeling of that.

A lot of reviews have called it a coming-of-age film. For me it’s a little bit of that. Not just for Curtis. For everybody in the film. It doesn’t really tell the story from Curtis’s perspective so much.

A traditional coming‑of‑age film, I think, would be more imbedded with the young character. It feels, to me, more like anybody can come of age at any time because have the potential for transformation, for growth, for giving up grudges. For embellishing their surroundings. Things like that. Yes, that’s good for me.

Scott:  It seems though that if you do isolate on Curtis and his story, it is a little bit like a hero’s journey. He’s got the old world, where he lives with his family. Then there’s this new world, which is next door. They even have this fence and it’s overgrown, like a symbolic threshold crossing. I can see why people would say it would look at the movie as an innocence to experience or coming‑of‑age story.

Laura:  There are also sections of this film where we lose Curtis’ story completely. There the whole ladies lunch sequence that has nothing to do with Curtis really. It’s just showing the kind of hijinks that go on next door. I feel like it doesn’t really follow a traditional structure.

There’s this conflict in first few minutes of the film. There is no real conflict after that. The rest of the film is the unraveling of the norm. Everybody’s heads coming together gradually, through the rest of it. I didn’t consciously think about structure when I was writing it either.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we dig more deeply into Breakfast With Curtis and Laura’s creative process.

Here is the trailer:

You can visit the Breakfast With Curtis website here.

The movie will be screening at the Downtown Independent in L.A. on December 20th.

One thought on “Interview (Part 1): Writer-Director Laura Colella (“Breakfast With Curtis”)

  1. […] Laura: I grew up in theaters, and then I discovered film‑making really my first year in college. I went to Harvard undergrad, …read more […]

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