We were able to grab a few wonderful minutes on the phone with Rhode Island filmmaker Laura Colella to discuss her new film Breakfast With Curtis, which Paul Thomas Anderson warmly embraced at the LA Film Festival last year. The movie follows an introverted 14-year-old boy who is enlisted to be a videographer by his eccentric bookseller neighbor, and in the process, grows a formative bond with the rest of his small community. In the interview, we covered everything from meeting Paul, to the inspiration she found in her home-town of Providence, to the precarious nature of the film festival circuit. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. Enjoy!
C&RV: As a relative newcomer to your work, I have to say that Breakfast With Curtis offers a very palpable sense of location and age. What drove you to capture Rhode Island in such a light?
LC: Well, it's actually -- that's where I live. I'm based in Providence, Rhode Island. This is my third feature, and I've shot most of all of them there. My first two features were mainly shot there. It's just a place that really kind of inspires me. It has a lot of great locations, a lot of talented, interesting people. So that combined with the fact that I'm working in a sort of low-budget realm has made it a perfect place to shoot. I teach at film schools, I teach at Rhode Island School of Design, in their film program, and I'm teaching screenwriting at Brown and I've always incorporated students into my work, too, as crew. Sort of a mix of professional and student crew.
C&RV: Talk a bit about casting non-professional actors in the lead roles of Breakfast With Curtis. Having cast friends and acquaintances, mainly, were you able to write the script with their voices in mind? Did any of them have any trepidation about joining the film?
LC: (laughs) Did you know about the background of the film before seeing it?
C&RV: No, actually, I didn't it. I went in fresh.
LC: Oh okay, cool. That's the fun part. That's how I like people to see it, you know? I don't know how much you know about the back story, but in reality, everybody who lives in the purple house in the movie lives in those actual apartments in real life, and everybody who lives in the pink house next door actually lives in the pink house next door. So I live in that house with my boyfriend, who plays the character of Frenchy, and then on the second floor, that elderly woman is our landlady. And then downstairs, Syd and Pirate are actually Adele [Parker] and Theo [Green]. Next door, the couple who are Curtis's parents are actually Curtis's parents and the little boy who plays Young Curtis is his little brother. So that's the full story, and all the cats and dogs really live there too (laughs).
C&RV: What would you say was the biggest challenge in getting your vision on the screen with limited resources? Were there any big compromises you had to make in order to see that vision through, given the constraints of budget and time?
LC: I was very fortunate throughout the process that things went pretty smoothly, and that it was a fairly relaxed shoot, and that I had help come in, in post-production when I needed it -- people who kind of came on board and helped with the finishing phase... really kind of pro sound mixers and colorists and things like that, kind of in the finishing process... But making it was very hands on, and I'd say the biggest challenge has been music licensing, 'cause I put in a lot of music, so…
C&RV: Yeah, I noticed that! All of a sudden Brian Eno came on the soundtrack...
LC: (laughs) Yeah, that's been replaced. Some things have been replaced, but I'm really happy with the replacement, so it worked out.
C&RV: Well since you brought up music, I was going to ask, did you conceive the film for specific musical qualities or did you discover it in the post-production process?
LC: The big discovery for me was John Fahey's music. He's the solo guitarist whose music is throughout the -- sixteen tracks of his used in the film. And I just became really attached to those. I kept using them, and I was like, "Oh my god," he almost started sounding like a narrator to the movie. So I became really attached to that music, and I was able to license that music, so that was a really big relief, because I had grown so attached to it.
C&RV: And he wasn't an assigned composer, you discovered him later?
LC: I discovered him later on. He's deceased actually. It was through his estate that I was able to license it.
C&RV: It's good that it was able to actually wind up in the film because it adds a really nice touch to it.
LC: Yeah. I love it.
C&RV: One of the most immediately striking things in the film is the use of color; the big purple house, Frenchy's yellow gym shorts and exercise room, etc. Talk a bit about your process for finding what you wanted this film to be cinematically. How did you enjoy being your own DP?
LC: Yeah. I mean, I think our homes and our yards are very, sort of, visually interesting and rich. That's always been part of the attraction for me shooting there. That was always there from the beginning. I knew that we had great looking sets and locations at our fingertips. That was definitely a big draw. The combination of the characters around me and the locations around me immediately just made it a real draw, to want to shoot this project. I also wanted to shoot it myself because I really… I had a couple of people helping me -- Jake Mahaffy, who's a really terrific filmmaker who was living a block away from me at the time actually. And my boyfriend Aaron also operated sometimes, usually for Steadicam-type shots. They shot whenever I was in it, basically. My first two features I shot with a DP, but my training as a filmmaker was very hands-on. I shot all of my student films, and I've shot stuff over the years for myself and for other people, but it was really exciting to be able to shoot this myself with a 5D. Really low-tech and hands-on.
C&RV: Having made a couple feature films through this system now, and maneuvering through the festival process with Breakfast With Curtis, how do you feel about the sate of independent film? Is it harder to get your movie seen than you anticipated?
LC: Gosh, you know, that part of it was definitely difficult. I felt like it should've gotten into festivals that it didn't get into. And we had a great premiere at the LA Film Festival, and that's actually where Paul [Thomas Anderson] saw the film, so that was really great. And that's just a really wonderful festival, actually. They take great care of filmmakers. So it turned out to be a wonderful premiere, but there turned out to be a lot of -- I submitted it around to other festivals that it didn't get into that I thought it should've. But that part is such a crap shoot. I'm sure it's the hardest part for most people. I feel like I was fairly lucky with this film, and also in getting the chance to have it distributed.
C&RV: Talk a little bit about finding financing for an independent film. Was your experience at RISD helpful in getting your films off the ground? How were you able to scrounge up the resources to make Breakfast With Curtis happen?
LC: This is really a no-budget film, relatively. It was a really tiny budget. I got a couple of grants, small grants, that covered basically all of the production and post-production budget. One of those grants was from the Rhode Island School of Design where I teach, and one of them was from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and they were both just really small grants, but because I did all the work, I edited it myself -- no one was paid to work on it -- and the only person shooting was me, Aaron, and a former student from RISD who had just graduated who did the sound for most of it. And there's occasionally a few other people. The crew ranged from me actually shooting by myself to five at the most, probably. Pretty tiny production.
C&RV: Paul Thomas Anderson was a big champion for the movie coming out of the LA Film Festival in 2012. How did you two cross paths initially? Talk a bit about what his support means for the film moving forward.
LC: We met at the Sundance Lab. I was a screenwriting and directing fellow in the year 2000. He was one of the creative advisers there. He was there for the first week as one of the advisers, and he was just very sympathetic to my project, which was not this project, it was another project called Stay Until Tomorrow. That was my second feature. But he was just really helpful in giving feedback when I had a rough cut of the film. We just basically stayed in touch through email over the years. And then he came to the screening at the festival, and he liked it so much that he offered to host a screening of it at the Aero Theatre. And I was like, "Oh, great!" It was a little dream idea. And then I just kind of followed up, and he came through. It was amazing. We had a really long, nice Q&A, full house. Very generous of him, sweet.Breakfast With Curtis opens at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence, RI, this Friday, November 22, at the IFC Center in New York, NY, on Wednesday, December 4th, and at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles, CA, on Friday, December 20th. Seek it out!
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