Breakfast with Curtis premiered last summer at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and was by far the standout narrative film of the festival. After playing a series of festivals around the country last fall, the film is returning to Los Angeles for some well-deserved recognition. The film was recently announced as the winner of the Film Independent Spirit Awards Jameson FIND Your Audience Award. It was also nominated for the John Cassavetes Award to be given at the Spirit Awards on February 23rd. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) will be hosting a Q&A screening of Breakfast with Curtis on February 21st at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, which will include him moderating a Q&A with the cast and crew. Tickers are currently on-sale on Fandango.
Breakfast with Curtis begins with Syd (Theo Green), an eccentric bookseller who five years ago created a rift between the residents of his three-apartment, bohemian home, and the more straight-laced family living next door. When Syd gets the inspiration to begin a new creative endeavor, he enlists the help of the socially awkward teenager Curtis (Jonah Parker), the son of the opposing family. Syd and Curtis enjoy a bond that brings back together their group of family members and neighbors for a deeply emotional and joyous seminal summer. Curtis’ parents are played by his real-life parents David Parker and Virginia Laffey, and his younger brother Gideon Parker appears in the film as “Young Curtis.” Syd’s romantic partner, Pirate, is played by Theo’s real-life partner Adele Parker. Living with Syd and Theo are Fenchy and Paola, played by real-life couple Aaron Jungles and filmmaker Laura Colella. Colella used her friends, neighbors, and Jonah Parker’s “Breakfast with Theo” YouTube series as inspirations for a film that’s “loosely based on fiction.” When this incredible cast of artists was last in LA, I had the pleasure of speaking with all of them for almost an hour. We enjoyed a deeply informative and entertaining conversation, and here’s what they shared with me about blending reality and fiction and crafting Breakfast with Curtis.
Jackson Truax: Laura, what was the impetus for making Breakfast with Curtis, and writing and directing such a personal project using your home, friends, and neighbors?
Laura Colella: I’d been working on a project for a few years that was a bigger-budgeted project… I had sent it to a lot of people, gotten a lot of meetings and great responses to the script. It was still in that kind-of-impossible-to-get-the-funding-for stage. I really was itching to make a movie… I just shifted gears and tried to think of something that would be a very hands-on project that I could do without going through this whole funding rigmarole. I talked to my friends and neighbors who lived within thirty feet of me… I proposed the idea. They were immediately on board and psyched. Then we started talking about story ideas. I said, “If I can write a decent script, then I’ll buy the camera. I’ll make the investment…” That’s how it shook out.
JT: The living arrangements that are portrayed in the film, do they mirror where you all live in real-life?
Theo Green: It wasn’t portrayed. It’s reality. What you saw is what it is. We just had to change one picture on the wall. And that’s it. That’s where we live.
Aaron Jungles: That house is a three-apartment house. It’s three separate apartments.
Adele Parker: Sadie [Yvonne Parker, who also appears in the film] is my and David’s mother. And also the landlord.
JT: The film portends to be “loosely based on fiction.” Both in the creative process of making the film and in the narrative itself, where do your real lives end and the fiction begin?
Laura: The story is completely fictional. What’s real is the background. That gives the fiction a level of reality I think that most fictions don’t have. I think our real-life relationships, the reality of the locations, those are the things that give the story a different, added texture that maybe most fictions don’t have… Whether or not there are elements in the story that are true or that are based on reality, I don’t think really matters to the audience so much as that they get the feeling that there’s a connection between these people that runs pretty deep, or that they have a real common history.
JT: How did you approach these non-actors about portraying these roles, and what was their initial reaction to taking on the project?
Adele: I said, “Laura, I really hope I don’t ruin this for you.”
Virginia Laffey: She was so encouraging and positive. And she was in charge. She let us know what she wanted and told us what to do. And we all trust her.
JT: In playing these characters that blended reality and fiction, to what extent were you guys, “acting”?
Virginia: That was kind of hard for me… I thought, “I don’t know how to act.” It was hard, to be someone I don’t really like as a person… We’re not about sheltering the kids. Obviously, we are [in the movie]… So that doesn’t ring true.
Jonah Parker: The character, I like to think he’s a lot different from me… So that was a little bit of a challenge. At the same time, I really like acting. So that made it fun. But also, Laura was there throughout the whole thing, telling me what I needed to be doing and helping me figure out how to get to the right place for it. So she made it so it was all very easy to figure out what she wanted.
David: Laura knows us so well, that our voices are in her head, all the time.
Aaron: The challenge was to…not act like yourself, just to be normal and natural.
JT: Gideon and Jonah, prior to Breakfast with Curtis, had either of you had any experience with or interest in acting?
Gideon Parker: We’ve both been in school plays, mainly musicals. But we’ve never really been acting in movies before. So this was a new experience.
Jonah: It’s something that I’ve been interested in for a while. And something that I’ve been studying. And that I keep studying. But I’ve never done anything like this before. So it was fun way to try a different kind of acting method than on stage.
JT: The character of Curtis in the film is clearly very intelligent, at least in certain areas, but seems almost trapped in a social paralysis. As a result, he seems very characteristic of someone on the autism spectrum. Was that something you were ever conscious of when writing the character?
Laura: I wasn’t thinking autism, so much specifically, as much as someone who probably has a strong, creative drive. He’s kind of in a rut. He’s built these walls around himself… He’s home-schooled. For me, the film is sort of an opening. I kind of think of Syd’s character as someone who identifies with that. Who maybe could have been a little bit that way himself, as a child.
Jonah: But definitely social anxiety.
Virginia: It’s interesting… Because his anxiety makes us as parents try to help him in a way that doesn’t help him. So we’re homeschooling, and that’s actually isolating him more. So this experience allows us to let go. For me…it’s like, “Why not? Gotta try something.”
JT: Laura, as writer and director, how did you navigate balancing all the different characters and all the different interpersonal dynamics and subplots?
Laura: It came together pretty naturally. I didn’t have to do a lot of balancing… I didn’t do a lot of rewrites or anything like that. It came together pretty well that everyone had a certain presence, and a lots of different interactions. So Jonah interacts with Sadie, an older woman, for a couple of scenes. And he interacts with my character in one scene for another reason. David becomes friends with Pirate, even though there’s been some bad blood between the two houses. And Frenchy’s always got these crazy projects. So those were kind of places where everyone could shine and interact with other people.
JT: Theo, you’re clearly a funny and interesting guy in real life, and your performance is so hysterical and so memorable. Was it a challenge to find the comedic timing and delivery of these lines? Or is the character so who you are in real life that it really is you?
Theo: I honestly don’t remember. I think that Laura must have implied that she wanted the lines read, verbalized in a particular fashion. I was thinking about that also. Because I didn’t expect the movie to be a comedy. I entertain people in real life. So I’m thrilled that it’s a comedy. But to answer your question, I don’t remember. But she had to have, because there are certain scenes that I know that I’m acting. Even though, I can try to blur this for you murkily, “Is that me or it is me playing Syd?” Well, I’ll stop short of the idea of schizophrenia, but I do have an alter ego named Syd. And I insisted that my character be named [Syd]. But I’m convinced that [Laura] must have told me how to do each group of lines. But I just don’t remember. She gave me wine the whole movie. I can’t even tell you, Jackson. This is daily life. You want to talk about this more? I could go on for a couple of hours. But you have a job to do.
JT: Did any of you have any boundaries, as far as things you didn’t want to do on film, or parts of your lives you didn’t want to show?
Aaron: Well, I’ll wear a dress for food in real life.
Virginia: We actually had ladies lunches in real-life. The first time we had one, he put on a dress and came over and said, “I’m here.” Just for the food. So that was the spark for that. As far as things we wouldn’t do –
Jonah: It definitely came up. She just sort of gave us the script and we read it. I don’t think anybody really had, I didn’t have any –
David: She also talked to us, as she was writing and before she was writing. She talked to us about our characters.
Aaron: And she asked us about storyline ideas. We kind of dredged through our memories of interesting incidents we thought would make good ideas for the script.
Virginia: We felt like we agreed to make a movie with her. She gave us the script and these were the characters. But it’s not us. It’s “loosely based on fiction.” Every now and then, because [David and I] both teach in college, someone will say, “What are your students going to say?” Well, we’re acting. I’m dancing with a zucchini at the end. But I’m acting.
David: One of the things that I’ve always liked about Laura’s films, all the films that she has available, is that she has a very gentle and loving attitude toward her characters. There’s never anybody in her films that you go, “Yeah, that’s a real asshole.” Not just because of the plot. You feel like she cares about the people that are in the film. She cares about the characters as people.
JT: Did you guys do a lot of improvisation during filming?
Laura: The most improvised scene was…where we’re out in the backyard and we’re all together and the dead leaves are on the ground. Syd is shooting a “Breakfast with Syd” episode with Curtis. He’s talking about the cat that’s buried behind the Buddha. There’s all this stuff that’s happening at the same time. Theo improvised the dialogue. We had talked about him doing something about the cat buried behind the Buddha. Because there is a cat buried there. He improvised that dialogue… There are maybe three bits, at least, in the film where it’s the “Breakfast with Syd” episode. And those are the actual [improvised] videos that they did together. I excerpted it.
Jonah: They predated the film.
Theo: It’s called “Breakfast with Theo” on Youtube. This channel that Jonah and I did together.
JT: How did “Breakfast with Theo” come to be?
Jonah: Theo…has a long history of, since he was first living with Adele, he gets up in the morning and talks to himself. He starts rambling.
Theo: Regardless of who’s in the room.
Jonah: Pretty much.
Adele: The first night I spent in his apartment, I woke up and heard him talking in the kitchen. I thought, “Oh no. Is somebody here? Should I get dressed?” He was just talking to himself. He does that.
Theo: I invented something in the seventies. I said, “It’s Breakfast with Theo.” I think I secretly wanted to be on the radio or be with Johnny [Carson] on TV or something like that. So I just started talking. You’ve got to get the vocal chords exercised. I think I was just lonely… I woke up to many days alone. I think I just started talking. As if there were people there.
Jonah: We just started filming it. And putting it up on YouTube and Facebook.
Aaron: Jonah started adding all the psychedelic special effects.
Theo: I spiked his tea.
JT: Breakfast with Curtis isn’t entirely broad comedy or family saga or interpersonal drama, but rather takes those elements and fashions something so bittersweet and nostalgic. Was that your initial vision of the film? How did you execute that in writing and shooting?
Laura: I wasn’t so much thinking about how it would come across, as trying to accurately portray the spirit of our interactions and our relationships. So I was just trying to capture something more than make something sweet. I think that’s what was really my focus. Just trying to capture the energy of our yard, and hanging out together in the yard and how that feels.
Aaron: But I remember, because I live with Laura, I get all the behind-the-scenes stuff, there was a little worry about, “Can you capture that ephemeral quality of that spirit that you feel when we’re having these parties and when we’re laughing and we’re doing all this. And can this really be captured in this way? Can that come across?” So there was a little worry about that, and wondering if that was going to work. But for me, the moment when the meaning, or the heart of the film hit me [was] the scene of Jonah and his father in the kitchen with the chips. I was almost in tears when we were shooting it. Because, for me, I just realized that was the heart of the movie. I don’t even know if I even read the whole script, except for the one reading that we did, then we just jumped in and were shooting… But seeing that moment in that house, that’s the moment that Jonah is telling his Dad that it’s okay. His Dad is saying, “Okay, it’s okay.”
JT: The film feels like it’s the documentation of your seminal summer, as well as a testament to all of our seminal summers. Did you feel nostalgic as you were making it? Or do you feel nostalgic watching it now?
Jonah: It sort of was a seminal summer for me, in reality… The movie was a big part of that. But also, I was going to a new school the next year. There were a lot of new experiences happening that summer… I had basically lived with these people for pretty much my whole life. So there was a little bit of a nostalgic feeling. But not in the way that, all of that is over now… It was a movie that had a lot of elements which I remembered…from when I was pretty little. I can remember similar things happening… It felt nice. Maybe not exactly nostalgia, but it felt like something I had lived through. It felt very familiar.
Virginia: There was a real, strong sense that this was this time capsule of our family… This is a moment that we’ll always, always have. So, in that sense, I don’t know if that’s nostalgia, or just plain appreciation for the great opportunity that this was for us as a family… So that maybe informed it… But the interesting thing, in terms of the bittersweet thing that you were talking about…I feel like one of the really beautiful things about the film, and what I think sets it apart, is that life is never just good or just bad. It’s bittersweet. So the beauty of life is the fact that happiness is tinged with a little bit of sadness and melancholy. Especially, in the later part of the movie, it just kicks in and it just fills your heart. I so appreciate that. You don’t get that a lot, I don’t think.
Adele: It’s just a great record of our lives, even though it’s loosely based on fiction. It’s a great record of this environment and our relationships… And this great time that we had together making it.
David: We’re creating nostalgia for the future… For me, that was always in my mind… There’s one scene in the movie where Sadie’s beginning her dream sequence… She puts her hat on and gives this look. I just laughed at that. Her health has been bad for the past few months. She’s been going through a health crisis recently, just before we came. She was in bed for a week. She was in the hospital. At one point, she stood up, she was able to stand up with her cane, and she gave me exactly that look. She’s doing fine now. But in that look, it captures something about who she is. I think her character in the movie really captures a lot… Of course, the kids are already two feet taller than they were. So that part of it’s nostalgic.
JT: A lot of the nostalgic feel comes from the fact that the film feels so timeless. Was that something that was important when crafting the film?
Laura: I, at least subconsciously have an aversion to placing anything in a particular place in time… Pop culture references, those things I instinctively don’t put in my work. Because I do want things to be timeless, and not in a pop culture context.
Aaron: Also, you were pretty much limited to the environment of the yards and the houses. That added a timeless quality. Because those things haven’t changed that much in the fifteen years that I’ve been living there.
Theo: There’s a scene with computers. I don’t know how to tell what year computers were like that. Other than that, it’s from ’72, unless you look at the computers.
JT: Is there anything in particular you’re hoping audience members will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
Theo: They can call us and schedule a lunch with us. I want to talk to every person that sees the movie. I’ll talk to them all. I have a lot of free time. I mean, I work for a living, although –
Laura: Well –
Theo: Loosely speaking.
Aaron: He can take a half-day.
Theo: As the credits roll, I hope people take note of whatever the credits say, and then make time to come over and see us. We’re obviously, we all get a little moody and we all want our private time. But we also, we do like hanging out and pontificating about everything from A to Z.
David: Yes, we love pontificating.
Theo: So when people read the credits, I hope that they are feeling good. That they enjoyed it. And that they come back and see us real soon.
Laura: I just want it to be as simple as I just want them to say “Wow. That was great.” And really, to want to see more movies like this. Because it’s hard to get movies like this out there. Because there’s much more of a focus on traditional dramatic elements that are more extreme. This is focusing on the more subtle aspects of human existence that I think a lot of people can relate to.
Aaron: It just seems that life is getting so increasingly hectic. I’m an artist. I’m self-employed. I’m my own boss. But I work seven days a week. Everybody needs to relax and enjoy life a little like we do in the movie.
Jonah: I just hope someone watching it feels the way I feel when I watch it. Because when it ends, especially seeing it on the big screen and all polished, and the colors and the sounds are all polished. It leaves me with that bittersweet feeling. But at the same time, definitely there’s something very happy about it. I always feel very relaxed… I feel like it’s been accessible for a lot of people. It’s definitely different than a lot of what’s out there. But it’s something that a lot of people would really enjoy. I just hope they do.
Virginia: That’s what I feel. I hope people feel the way I feel at the end, which is great. It’s just happy and uplifting. But it’s not as simple as good and bad. All the human emotions are in there.
Adele: Similarly, I hope people hold that experience of a range of emotions and keep that with them.
David: People saying, “I really want to come and hang out.” I don’t know. It’s like, if the characters are real enough and warm enough for people to have that feeling –
Adele: That’s a good compliment.
David: That just makes me feel great, when people have that reaction.
Laura: And ultimately, I don’t want people to come hang out with us. I want people to create their own things like this.
Aaron: That’s true.
Gideon: I just hope they’ll be feeling like they had a good time watching it. And that, these people, these characters, they have a great life. And this is a great idea, a great story… A great –
Laura: Slice of life.