Conversation: Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass on Their New Film, ‘Sleepwalk With Me’
“Sleepwalk With Me” began life in, well, in the real-life sleepwalking episodes of comedian Mike Birbiglia. It’s seen life as a one-man theater production, a radio story on “This American Life,” a book, an album, and now it’s a movie.
Mike Birbiglia stars in, co-directed and co-wrote the film. His co-writer, the film’s producer, is “This American Life” host Ira Glass. I recently spoke to both of them on the phone about their movie, which opens in theaters Friday.
(A note about how we recorded the interview: A few minutes before we were set to begin, our recording booth had some technical issues and quit working. But Ira Glass came to the rescue and recorded our conversation using his studio at “This American Life.” Thanks again, Ira.)
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. “Sleepwalk With Me” began life in, well, in the real-life sleepwalking episodes of Mike Birbiglia. It’s seen life as a one-man theater production, a radio story on “This American Life,” a book, an album, and now it’s a movie. Mike Birbiglia stars in, co-directed and co-wrote the film. His co-writer, the film’s producer, is “This American Life” host Ira Glass, and welcome to you.
IRA GLASS: Nice to be here.
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Thank you very much.
IRA GLASS: And we should say this is the weird situation where Jeffrey, where you are doing the interviewing, but I am full fidelity and you are on the phone, and that was because it seemed easier to record it from the “This American Life” studio with you and Mike on the phone, so that’s why it’s going to sound a little weird to people.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike, let me start with you. as I’m listing the various forms this took, I guess an obvious question is, why a film? Was this just a natural next step?
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: What’s funny is when you have a successful Broadway or off-Broadway show — and I didn’t know this at the time — but basically I’ve learned that if that happens everybody tells you that you should also make a film and that that is the only logical thing that you can do. So a ton of people were telling me to make a film at that time, and at first I kind of dismissed it. I wanted to make a film, but I didn’t want that as a film. But then the more that Ira and I and a few other people started charting out what the plot points and what the story points would be, it actually seemed like it actually was a very cinematic story.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ira, I know you were involved fairly early on. What was the biggest challenge for you in trying to make this work?
IRA GLASS: I mean, what attracted me is that it seemed like it could be a nice film. It wasn’t more complicated than that. And the biggest challenge was then figuring out how to make a movie. Mike had studied how to make movies and he’d made movies in college, but I knew nothing. Between the two of us, I think we made like .78 of a real movie person as we went into it, and we spent two years writing a script. Honestly there are so many things about structuring a story for film and telling a story for film that are really different from doing radio.
JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an example, like one big thing that’s different.
IRA GLASS: The story beats are just fast and need to be visual, like every feeling has to express itself in something that you can see. So for example, the story of “Sleepwalk With Me” is a guy who’s in his 20s and it’s very relatable, and he’s not sure if he should stay with his girlfriend and should we stay together, should we get married, and he’s at a point in his career where he’s not sure if he’s going anywhere as a comedian. A lot of the movie is about him learning to be a decent standup comedian, but when the film starts he has a tremendous amount of anxiety about all these things. He’s not expressing and he’s not doing anything about it. And in a movie you need to express those kinds of things physically and you need him to express it through action. And one of the things that actually seemed like it would make it a filmable story is the fact that you could express it through these sleepwalk dreams. He’s having this anxiety and the anxiety results in these increasingly spectacular sleepwalk dreams. So that was good, but figuring out exactly how to stage it and how long the life scenes with the girlfriend and how much exposition about his career and how long the sleepwalk dreams should be and how soon into the dream should you realize that it’s a dream. It’s like the stage management of all that is weirdly a very technical thing once you get into it, like how many seconds are you going to stay on this plot point before we feel like, ok you got it, let’s move on. All of that was the stuff, kind of the nuts and bolts stuff of doing it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike, pick up on that, because I would think that every different format that you tell this story presents these very kinds of questions, right?
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, and to dovetail on what Ira’s saying, like when I’m working on a radio piece with Ira, often the questions he’ll ask to kind of further the story and make it a more lived-in piece of radio is he’ll say, how does this character feel? How do you feel about what’s happening? How do you feel about when you were beat up in high school, at your all-boys Catholic school? How did you feel when you found that your high school girlfriend was only keeping you as a backup boyfriend and not as your main boyfriend? And that’s the crux of those radio stories. In film, it’s like the moment your character says how that character feels, there is something where the audience kind of tunes out. They are like, no, no, that’s not how we want to understand this. We want to understand it visually and that’s how we take it in. For example, there were criticisms of the early cuts of the film that they didn’t understand why the two characters, Matt and Abby, were together. And we reshot that. The main character shows up at her work and gives her a bottle of water and some nuts as a snack and says basically, how was work and kisses her and says hello. It’s funny because it’s so insignificant, but it’s much more powerful than saying to the audience, I’m in love with my girlfriend, she’s in love with me, we have a relationship that we’re happy in.
JEFFREY BROWN: I wondered about that, too, especially that relationship is a hard one to capture. I mean, there you are playing this incredibly insecure person as a comedian, as a potential husband, insecure to the point of paralysis. Of course, you’ve got the wonderful Lauren Ambrose playing this, so you’ve got to somehow let us all understand the motivations behind the relationship.
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Like in the scene, which in some ways is not the funniest scene, but it’s in some ways the most important scene in the film, is the scene where I’m walking with my sister played by Cristin Milioti, and she’s says, I don’t understand why you’d want to break up with Abby because she’s so perfect, which is what the audience is thinking when they watch. And I say, you know that’s the problem — people think the best thing about me is my girlfriend. I think we reshot that scene even though the first incarnation of it, the first draft of it was pretty good, but we actually felt like in the screening it became clear that that scene needed to be very precise in terms of what we were saying, in terms of how my character felt about the relationship.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do I understand, Ira, I think I read that you got a lot of this feedback through Facebook? You kept making adjustments, precisely things like that?
IRA GLASS: Well through Facebook, basically because the public radio audience — we have a lot of people who are friends with the radio show on Facebook, who follow us on Facebook, or they don’t follow us — they’re friends with us on Facebook –
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Ira, come get with it –
JEFFREY BROWN: Watch your terminology, right?
IRA GLASS: Sorry, sorry about that. I’m very, very old. Anyway, last fall when we were editing the film, basically we would go onto Facebook and we would say to people who knew the radio show, we’d say, look ok we want to screen something tonight, we can’t tell you want it is, but just if you are coming we’ll show you this thing. And every time we’d do it, 50, 60, 70 people would come out, and so twice a week, sometimes three times a week, we would be able to show the newest cut of the film to a real live audience that hadn’t seen it and had no investment in it, and then we could notice where they laughed. We’d notice and then afterward we can ask them what worked for you, what didn’t work, what bothered you, what didn’t make sense. And we completely remade the film based on that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Really?
IRA GLASS: It’s an indie film, it’s a very low-budget film. At our budget level it would have been impossible to do that without having the public radio audience to drive it .
JEFFREY BROWN: Of course. But when you say remade, it’s more than just re-doing certain scenes or adding a scene like the one that Mike was talking about of him bringing the water to his girlfriend.
IRA GLASS: No, we substantially, we changed a lot of the film. We added a number of things. We beefed up the story where Mike is becoming a standup comedian, because people really liked that and it was getting laughs, and we changed the way that narration was done in the film, the way that we shot. When we shot it at first, we had these intricate scenes where in the middle of the scene Mike would be talking to a character and then he would turn to the camera and narrate to us in the audience. And for a variety of reasons we felt like that was not working, and we replaced that, him turning to the audience, with Mike in other settings that we put him into narrating to the audience that worked a lot better.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike, maybe I’m picking up on the personality that comes through in this story. I don’t know if it’s the real personality, but would these screenings have been terrifying for you or did you come to really see them as opportunities for how to just make a better film?
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: They were both of those things that you are describing. There were some nights where I would come home to my wife and I would say, This is a complete disaster. And then —
JEFFREY BROWN: Right, right, and somehow I imagine you saying that on any given day when you come home, right?
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Yes, it’s not an unusual phrase. But then toward the end of the process, after the final three or four screenings, I came home I remember one time and I said, I think we made a really good movie. It was very audience-tested in the way that my standup comedy actually is audience-tested, which was not by design but it was just sort of how it happened.
JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you both before I let you go, is it something you’d think about doing again? Ira?
IRA GLASS: Well, I would think about it, that’s for sure. Mike?
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: People ask him this a lot and I feel like he never says the same thing in interviews that he says off the air, so I’m going to just out him on this. I feel like Ira is, correct me if I’m wrong, you wouldn’t necessarily do the nuts and bolts on set, in the edit every day producing type of work that you did, but the creative side of being a producer and giving script notes and giving notes on cuts and things like that and being part of the crew, you might consider doing.
IRA GLASS: Yeah, that is true. Like if I didn’t have to leave my day job so much to sit for re-writes and to — you know, Mike and I spent two years re-writing the script together. If I didn’t have to leave my day job so much to do that and could just give notes and be further in the background, then I might consider it, yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: We will leave it at that and wait to see what happens, right? “Sleepwalk With Me” opens around the country. Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass, thanks so much for talking to us.
IRA GLASS: Thanks.
JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.