On the first Sunday in November two years ago, 50,643 people finished the New York City Marathon — and one actress (and her double) pretended to.
The actress, Jillian Bell, plays the title role in “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” about a hard-partying but unhappy 20-something who takes up running with the hope that it will be the thread that pulls her life taut.
In the film, which opened last week, Brittany’s goal is to finish the New York marathon. To make it feel authentic, the filmmakers had Bell run parts of the 2017 race — pulling off a logistical feat that Paul Downs Colaizzo, the writer and director, said felt like “its own marathon.”
Television shows and movies have often filmed characters at sporting events. (A “Curb Your Enthusiasm” scene where Larry David goes to a Dodger game actually exonerated a fan of a murder charge; the camera caught him in the stands shortly before the killing took place.)
But “Brittany Runs a Marathon” had to get it right during an event that happens only once a year and involves tens thousands of people who spent hundreds or more on travel and entry fees and would not want a film crew impeding their stride.
The film’s producers went three months before the race to the New York Road Runners, which puts on the event. The Road Runners hadn’t been approached by a feature film before, said Chris Weiller, the senior vice president of media, public relations and professional athletics. But the Road Runners has worked with documentaries and reality television shows (“The Real Housewives of New York” also shot at the marathon in 2017) and has a special projects division for such requests.
For those they grant, the Road Runners assigns one or two production assistants to be with filmmakers on race day, getting them in and out of security and making sure that their filming doesn’t interfere with other runners.
They also explain what is and is not allowed. The production originally wanted three crews of 22 people each. It got the three crews but only eight people each. Margot Hand, a producer, said the film wanted to shoot on the Queensboro Bridge, but the Department of Homeland Security, which controls access to bridges, wouldn’t allow the film cameras during the event.
Though Bell did not run the full 26.2-mile course from the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to Central Park, no one could say for sure how far she did go, because she ran several segments of the race repeatedly so the crew could do multiple takes of each scene.
The A crew filmed with Bell, and hit key marks in the race, including the start, First Avenue in Manhattan, a scream tunnel of spectators and the finish line.
The crew would film a few takes, get in the van and move to the next location, escorted by two production assistants to get them through security and the maze of street closures.
Because the crews were so small, everyone doubled up in duties — including Hand and Bell herself, who carried stands for lighting and tripod legs.
They didn’t have enough room to bring anyone from the costume department, so Hand was in charge of a backpack full of Baggies, each one with clothes pre-sweated to match each segment of the marathon run. Bell had to make quick costume changes.
“She was changing in coffee shops,” said Hand. “Sometimes you forget when you’re on big movie sets, with everything so structured, and everyone has a place,” she said. “You really felt it that day, touching everything and doing anything and creating everything.”
The B crew picked up shots (mostly from behind) of Bell’s double running different parts of the race. Then a third crew filmed other parts of the marathon — crowd shots, other runners — to get the feeling of that day.
They were also able to use footage from the race’s broadcast, including a shot of Shalane Flanagan, the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years, on her way to the finish line. (Flanagan’s finish is also remembered for her R-rated victory shout, but that is not seen in the film.)
Hand said she was not sure what they would have done if they hadn’t been able to film during the actual marathon. The movie didn’t have the budget for visual effects that could digitally and convincingly put Bell into the race.
When a terrorist attack in Manhattan killed eight people days before the race, she said, they just held their breath and waited to see if the race would still go on, and then if they’d be able to shoot during it. They also shot on a set in Brooklyn three weeks after the race (they had saved real-life “props,” like Gatorade cups and pink and orange Dunkin’ Donuts winter hats) for additional close-ups. They were fortunate the weather was the same then as on race day.
One other complication came from the camaraderie that permeates the entire race.
Other runners, unaware that Bell was acting, tried to help her when she pretended to struggle, which required some finessing by the crew to make sure they still got their shots.
Colaizzo, the writer and director, was not surprised that other runners jumped in. He got the inspiration for the film after watching a friend run the race in 2014.
“It’s a world of support wherever you turn,” he said. “If you don’t feel motivated by the goodness of humanity on that day, then, you should just go to bed.”