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Filmmaking | Interviews | Rhode Island

Breakfast With Curtis: A Homegrown Film in Every Sense of the Word

1 Oct , 2012  

Written by Dave Walker | Posted by:

Providence filmmaker Laura Colella’s new film is a heartwarming coming-of-age tale about a boy’s seminal summer.

Breakfast With Curtis is the third feature film from Providence, RI-filmmaker Laura Colella. The film takes place at “The Purple Citadel,” the brightly-painted, three-story home where Colella lives, and is loosely based on the lives of its bohemian inhabitants and the family next door. The actors play themselves, only slightly modified and renamed, and the inciting incidents that drive the very lean plotline were inspired by real events that took place between the neighbors. A buoyant and light-hearted charmer, Breakfast with Curtis tells the story of a boy finding his seminal summer amidst a throng of adults raucously and haphazardly discovering new beginnings of their own.

The film opens in the past, when an altercation between timid, nine-year-old Curtis and his next-door neighbor, the grizzled hippie Syd, creates rift between the two neighboring families. We fast forward several years to find Curtis as a tongue-tied adolescent, reclusive and alienated. Syd solicits him to help make a series of amateur Youtube videos to jump start Syd’s ailing book business. Although resistant to the idea at first, Curtis eventually pokes out of his shell, camcorder in hand, to follow Syd as he rambles about his front yard, pontificating about life, culture, antiquity and reveling in his exploits as a 1960s scene-ster.

Colella’s pristine cinematography periodically turns the stage over to Curtis’ handheld camerawork so we can feel his budding curiosity blooming into grainy home-movie textures, jittery pans and garish psychedelic effects, no doubt applied eagerly as he tinkers with the home video-editing suite on his laptop. Meanwhile, despite the unbridled jerks and optical zooms, the videos seamlessly document Syd’s transformation into a viral Internet personality. His Youtube views don’t exactly skyrocket, but he relishes in his small plot of online real estate. His monologues take on more swagger as the film progresses, and so do Curtis’ videography chops. The evolution of their collaboration is endearing, but Curtis’ crack at filmmaking proves to be much more. It becomes his vehicle for expression and a kind of Trojan horse taken into the world of adults (or are they just overgrown children?) next door.

The purple house is a beehive of bucolic amusements — evening cocktail hours, backyard movie projections, improvised games of team table tennis, and impromptu pot-smoking sessions. The film thrives on these midsummer reveries, and the characters come to embody a nurturing force for Curtis as they float about the house and the lush, overgrown grounds surrounding it. Half-drunken ramblings comingle with moments of lucidity as if the haze of summer has just lifted, allowing the ripeness of life to appear clearly again. Curtis soaks up these tiny revelations by osmosis, and by the end of the film both his clamped-up temperament and the chilly impasse between the two houses come to thaw.

The film is perfectly suited for a fall release, when the leaves begin to change and we look back on those warmer months with a bit of sentimentalism. As the film comes to a close, and Colella’s camera turns to the browning colors of autumn and the abstract shapes of fresh snow, we are invited to reflect on our own summers and personal growth.

I was lucky enough to have a few of my questions answered by Colella.

Dave Walker: Breakfast with Curtis takes place literally at your home in Providence, RI yet there is no establishing shot at the beginning or other elements to situate the film. In many ways, this is a story that could happen anywhere. Yet, having lived in Providence myself, there is something unmistakably familiar about the place depicted in the film. Do you find that free-spirited Bohemian disposition embodied by the characters and the Purple Citadel to be a defining trait of the community you live in?

Laura Colella: I shot all three of my features mainly in Providence, and the character of the city or my experience of it always plays a conspicuous role, even though I don’t mention it by name. After each movie, people have said something like how the tourism bureau should use it as a way to attract people here. The movies don’t display the typical attractions, but I think they reflect my love for the city in a more intangible way. A lot of people who have spent time here can relate to that feeling. With Breakfast with Curtis, I actually tried to capture the spirit of living in my triple-decker house, and the way my neighbors and I have a great time goofing around.

DW: How closely do the character dynamics depicted in the film resemble their real life counterparts? Was there actually an altercation between Theo Green and the family next door or is this part of the fiction that the film is “loosely based on”?

Colella: I’ve known everyone in the film for over a dozen years, so I was really hearing their voices when writing. I created characters I thought they could easily pull off if the conditions were right. Jonah [who plays Curtis] is the least like his character, and is a much more sociable and well-adjusted teen. I interviewed everyone when I had the idea for the movie and we talked about story ideas. The movie is 100% fiction…that’s our party line, for reasons viewers may find understandable…but yes, some elements are based on reality. An incident between Theo [Green] and Jonah [Parker], really did happen, and created bad blood for several years. Another element from reality is that when relations finally improved, they started making Youtube videos together. This was a core story in the film’s development and [related to the] ideas of opening floodgates for change, creativity, reconciliation, and fun.

DW: In a project that is so entwined with the people living around you, how do you negotiate between the portrayal of the characters on screen and your personal relationships? Is there a chemistry between all of you that translated directly onto screen or did a certain amount of interpretation and exaggeration have to take place?

Colella: In retrospect, this was probably critical to the performances and interactions seeming fresh and genuine. Everyone was earnestly and instinctively trying to be truthful to what was happening in the scenes. With the exception of Aaron (who plays Frenchy), they’d never acted in films before, and completely trusted my direction and weren’t looking at themselves. I think the fact that we had all known each other so long does translate onscreen into a strong sense of connection under the surface, and gives the cast a unique chemistry.

DW: There are many elements of this film — the color of both the décor and the performances, the way the characters seem to be able to materialize anywhere (except for Curtis), the fluidity of the space, the sound design (which at certain times used reverb to evoke a kind of drunken stupor) and the unhurried, buoyant pace of the story — that give it a dreamlike or fairytale quality. I know Ryland Aldrich at the Twitch Film blog made allusions to a kind of Never Never Land in his review of the movie. How do you see this story in the context of ongoing tradition of coming-of-age tales?

Colella: I think the dreaminess, oddly enough, comes from an attempt to portray reality as accurately as possible. As a coming-of-age tale, I think it’s an unusual one because it’s not told mainly from Curtis’s perspective, and focuses more on the antics of the adults swirling around him. I think for audiences, this means it’s not just about adolescence, but also everyone’s ever-present potential for growth. You don’t have to be young to have a seminal summer. And here in the northeast especially, we feel change constantly and very palpably with the seasons, so that’s an important element in the film, too.

DW: In the film, Syd and Curtis haven’t talked for years when they team up to create a series of web videos for Syd’s online bookselling business. He’s clearly a very awkward kid who has trouble opening up to people. The camera seems to provide Curtis with a kind of therapy. It allows him to keep a comfortable distance from Syd, experiment, and acclimate to his surroundings until he feels comfortable with his neighbors again. At the same time, it provides him a creative vehicle to express himself without having to actually articulate himself. I think this helps him overcome his estrangement. Has filmmaking had this kind of role or effect in your own life?

Colella: To be honest, filmmaking is a mystery to me. I love every aspect of production and post-production, but if I think too much about the process, or why I’m making movies, or about movies in general, my brain short-circuits. It seems unfathomable. I read a wonderful quote recently by the late, great filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, who was my teacher for a year at Harvard. It may sum up my experience with filmmaking: “You have to forget about pain, gain and fame. If you can forget about that, you may be able to make films happily.”

DW: It seems like you are very adept with working with a loose narrative and that you benefited from a close, trusting relationship with the actors. I for one thought it allowed your images to breathe and a unique rhythm to come to the fore. Would you like to continue working in this style on future projects?

Colella: The shoot was a great experience in part because of its small scale. The crew size was 1-3 people most of the time, and was never more than a half dozen or so for the bigger scenes. I was operating the camera most of the time, which I thoroughly enjoy. I think the intimacy and speed of setups enabled the actors to be very relaxed and focused. Sometimes they’d complain mildly about having to wait around a little to shoot, and I’d just laugh and say you have no idea!

DW: What was production like? It sounds like it was really stripped down.

Colella: After making two features with bigger budgets and full crews, which involved a lot of agonizing fundraising, I was thrilled to be able to make a movie immediately for little more than the cost of the camera, a Canon 5D Mark II. At our premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I was amazed at how great it looked on a huge screen. The accessible technology is so liberating. I was also lucky to work with a fantastic Executive Producer, Michael Jackman, who hooked me up with first-rate post-production technicians in NY, sound designers Bella & Feuser and Harbor Pictures.

DW: Your work has been featured at over a hundred festivals in the US and internationally, reeling in dozens of awards. You’ve been honored with a Sundance Institute Directing and Screenwriting Fellowship and made it onto Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film.” You also teach at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Which of your many accomplishments really stands out for you?

Colella: You’re very sweet! The main thing I can be happy about, and hope to sustain, is the ability to make films that I’m proud of, and that people can enjoy. The career highlights you mentioned are all wonderful and I’m extremely grateful for them; but I think it’s important to admit that overall, I’ve actually been dealt a much bigger hand of rejections and professional disappointments, and this is probably true for most directors. These don’t outweigh the good things at all, but still require very thick skin to process and I think are the part of the “pain” Raúl [Ruiz] was referring to [in the above-mentioned quote]… It’s why it’s important for me to love and find gratification in the making of the work, rather than in what can result from it. Sounds Buddhist maybe, but it’s really pragmatic!

DW: As a former film student, I remember continually encountering budgetary limitations and having to conceive creative approaches to working around them. Is the type of resourcefulness you demonstrate in this film something you encourage in your students? How do you go about getting your friends/neighbors on board with your projects?.

Colella: Absolutely, resourcefulness is essential, and limitations inspire creative solutions…like filming your neighbors. I also try to encourage students to be as well versed as possible in all aspects of production and post. It empowers them with the ability to go into production more readily, makes their writing more cinematic, and makes them stronger in whatever role they would ultimately take on.

DW: Do you ever ask your students to help on your films?

Colella: I had a RISD student, Michael Fails, working with me on most of Breakfast With Curtis. He usually recorded sound, but his knowledge about lighting, shooting, directing, and design made him completely invaluable.

Breakfast with Curtis is in the early stage of the festival circuit, with screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival and a November screening in Rhode Island. More information on the film is available on its website.

Breakfast with Curtis is in the early stage of the festival circuit, with screenings at the Vancouver International Film Festival and a November screening in Rhode Island. More information on the film is available on its website.