Comedian Mike Birbiglia's directorial debut, Sleepwalk With Me, is a funny, downbeat, and surprisingly heartbreaking sort-of memoir. It chronicles his simultaneous struggles with a go-nowhere comedy career, a long-term relationship at its make-or-break point, and the kind of sleepwalking where you actually walk around and jump off of things.
Helping make the film happen was This American Life creator Ira Glass, a broadcasting legend and now, possibly unwillingly, a bona fide film producer. He spoke to us about the process of switching from radio to film.
You first came across Mike through The Moth, is that right?
Yes, basically somebody sent us the monologue of him doing the sleepwalk story – the story of him jumping out the window. I didn't know his work at all, but it seemed like it would be great for the radio so we called him up and asked him if we could put it on, and then after that we started collaborating on stories, and he began to just write stuff for the radio show.
What was the process of going from radio to working together on this film?
Mike had been doing the sleepwalk story as a much longer hour-and-a-half piece; whereas the versio we put on the radio was 15 or 20 minutes. So he was telling it as a longer one-man show in New York and getting great reviews and doing great business, and he wanted to make a movie of it. He was working on a script, he'd just started that process, and he asked if I wanted to produce it. We had such a nice experience collaborating together when he was writing stories for the radio show, so I did it mainly because it seemed like it could be fun, and I like him, and I like working with him, and I didn't think it was going to be much work, which was a foolish thought. By the end I'd spent so much time sitting in with him as he wrote it that I eventually just became one of the writers of the film, and spent months working on the writing and raising the money and going to the editing room and thinking through reshoots and promoting it.
Did that burn you out?
Yes, it absolutely did. It 100 per cent did. I'm not sure I would be so interested in ever doing that again. I feel like there are things about filmmaking that I had no interest in knowing that I now am deeply resentful that I know, both in the technical aspects of making the film, and in the marketing and distribution of it. I feel like there was no reason to pierce the membrane and be on the other side of the magic, I was perfectly happy being on the side of the magic I was on when I was in the audience. I think I feel this way partly because we were such beginners and we just didn't know how to write the screenplay in a way that would work, and we discovered once we shot it, 'Oh, we really didn't know what we were doing, we really have to fix a lot of this now'. We had to invent our fixes. It really was like people stumbling blindly through a maze that we made somebody pay a million dollars to buy for us. You know what I mean? At the end of the maze was the million dollars that we needed to give back to them. It felt like an incredible responsibility and a very difficult creative problem. And it's weird to spend so long thinking about an hour and a half of something...
You do an hour every week on This American Life and that just gets done. You've got a team that does it with you, of course...
Yes, and we are world experts on how to do it. When it comes to making a radio show, we know as much as anyone knows, but that said, there were parts of making the film that were really interesting. I don't regret it, except for when I do. The people we worked with were really wonderful, the editor and cinematographer and the actors. The radio show has other films in development with various directors, with Tim Robbins, Marc Forster and Errol Morris, and I think, on those projects, my intention is to be much less involved. I'd be involved during the part where the screenplay was getting written and giving notes and stuff like that, but then once the screenplay is written it will be different.
Can we ask you a little about the monologue at the end (without spoiling the film for readers). That punchline at the end, it's brutal. It's an incredible ending.
I agree! It's funny because that was one of the very last things that we added. The monologue was shot a week before we finished editing, and the entire production team was arguing about it up through the last day of cutting, so we invited Lena Dunham in. At one point she came into the editing room and watched it, and spoke so eloquently. She spoke in this way where it was just like, 'right, you're a genius'. She very quickly summarised, 'here are the six reasons why you should be doing this'. She just knocked through them, and at the end I was just like, 'wow, that was very articulate'. As long as I live I will always be grateful to you, Lena Dunham, for settling this question in that room.
Sleepwalk With Me is out in Australian cinemas on Thursday April 4, a full list of screening locations is available here. Mike Birbigilia is performing in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from March 28 to April 4, and at the Sydney Opera House on April 5. There are also some cool events coming up to celebrate the film's release, including:
Melbourne: Preview screening Saturday March 31, 7.30pm at Cinema Nova, followed by Mike Birbiglia live Q&A, plus Ira Glass live via Skype from the U.S. Tickets on sale at the Nova website.
Sydney: Launch screening Friday April 5, 8.45pm at Dendy Cinemas Newtown, followed by Mike Birbiglia live Q&A. Tickets on sale at the Dendy website here.