ABOVE: THEO GREEN (LEFT) AND JONAH PARKER IN BREAKFAST WITH CURTIS.
Breakfast with Curtis is coming-of-adolescence story. At 14, the socially awkward Curtis is far from the traditional Bildungsroman trope; he does not run away from home, lose his virginity to an older woman, or trip on acid. Rather, the cripplingly shy teenager befriends his pompous, 60-something neighbor, a bookseller named Syd. Together, the two make YouTube videos of Syd pontificating about wine, his painting career, and the “seminal summers” of his youth. Gradually, Curtis learns how to socialize—not just with Syd and his eccentric friends, but with his peers, too.
Written and directed by RISD and Brown professor Laura Colella, Breakfast with Curtis was filmed in Colella’s home, with her friends and neighbors playing all of the roles. Colella herself makes an appearance as Paola, a free-spirited friend of Syd.
After a successful debut at the LA film festival, Colella’s third feature was awarded the Jameson “Find Your Audience” grant at the Independent Spirit Awards last weekend. We spoke with Colella about what’s next for Curtis.
HOMETOWN: Providence, RI
ACTING, DIRECTING, AND ACTING AND DIRECTING: I grew up acting in theatre, and in those days the idea of becoming a filmmaker was beyond my imagination. But when I discovered the possibility in college, I forgot about acting completely and immersed myself in making 16MM films. I acted in one of my shorts, but not my first two features. It made sense for this one, and I wouldn’t mind doing more of it, but it’s not essential or a priority for me.
ADOLESCENT CONCERNS: What was my biggest concern at Curtis’ age? I have a conveniently bad memory. When I was 14, my father had recently left the house, and my mother and I were alone, but I was pretty happy about it. Her happiness was probably a major concern.
WORKING WITH FRIENDS INSTEAD OF ACTORS: My boyfriend [Aaron Jungels, who plays Frenchy] is the only professional actor, and has a dance theater company called Everett. The others are just natural characters, and knowing them well for as long as I have—over a decade—means I’ve noticed many interesting subtleties in their personalities over the years. I’ve tried to bring these out on camera, which I think may make them feel more unique or “real” to people. Most of them are playing someone close to themselves, with the exception of Jonah [Parker], who plays Curtis—he’s much more well-adjusted and sociable than his character.
They were fully on board from the get-go and completely committed—no convincing necessary! There was a little negotiating at times with Theo [who plays Syd], as anyone who watches the movie may guess. He’s a true eccentric. We sort of acknowledged at the beginning that at some point we’d be likely to piss each other off, but that we’d work through it. And we did; we still love each other!
They were very eager to see it during the editing process, so every once in a while I’d let them see a chunk, and they loved it. It was surprisingly easy working with my friends. Theo questioned me the most, I’d say, during filming, but ultimately he and all the others gave me their complete trust, which I was grateful for. It was a relatively relaxed and charmed shoot.
CURTIS, THE SULLEN TEENAGER?: We joke about sequels all the time. Curtis’ wild teenage years… I think, when you look at the relationships in the movie, you get the sense that there’s no turning back, and that these are lasting connections now. Curtis probably agreed to work with Syd because of the strong lure of a creative outlet. There’s also an element of danger to Syd that could be appealing to him. I see Curtis as a smart, but reclusive and socially anxious, kid who probably had some awareness that he’d dug a hole for himself he needed to get out of.
BEST ADVICE I’VE EVER GOTTEN…: The first thing that comes to mind is something Paul Thomas Anderson, a director I greatly admire, told me when I was making my last film, which was, “Don’t second-guess yourself.” He was a creative advisor at the Sundance Directing Labs when I was there with my last feature [Stay Until Tomorrow, 2004] and that bit of advice came to mind throughout the making of this film as well. I also like the line in the Talking Heads song that says, “Never for money, always for love,” which, for better or worse, is how I think about all creative work.
SEMINAL SUMMERS: I have several, and it’s nice to hear when the movie makes people think of theirs. One of mine is alluded to in the movie, when I went to Paris, alone at 18 years old, without a job or place to stay. The summer we filmed was definitely one, but really my goal now is to make every summer one.
FINDING YOUR AUDIENCE: For a movie like Breakfast with Curtis that has no stars, it seems to require a series of building blocks. We’re playing festivals internationally and received very enthusiastic responses, many great reviews, some awards, a Spirit Award nomination, and a $50,000 distribution grant from Jameson through Film Independent. Last week, we were thrilled to have a screening hosted by Paul Thomas Anderson, who really likes the film, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. We’re in the process of figuring out distribution now, and I’m hoping all of these positive developments, and wonderful audience reactions, will help us get the word out.
UP NEXT: I have a project called Liquorland that I’m dying to make. I also just wrote a play called Back East Out West that I’m developing into a screenplay.