Ira Glass Interview

by Patrick McGavin Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 1:03pm

Ira Glass, the celebrated producer award-winning journalist of the NPR broadcast program This American Life, has always been a hybrid artist. Now, he has made a triumphant shift to filmmaking as a co-writer and producer of actor and stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalking with Me.

During a whirlwind visit where he hosted a series of sold-out shows at the theatre, Glass talked about the genesis of the product.

What were the great challenges in conceiving this material as a movie?

Ira Glass: There were several changes that were fundamental. When Mike told the story on stage of the true story of what happened, what happened didn’t have the structure you need for a movie. In real life, Mike had been sleepwalking since the time he was a teenager. In a movie, you’d want to show the very first sleepwalking incident. In real life, he jumped through a plate glass window while sleep walking and almost died.

I told him, ‘I never made a movie, but I’ve been to the movies.’ In the movies, if you do something and you almost die, you have to learn something from it. In the one-man show, there wasn’t much about him becoming a stand-up comedian and that’s something we really invented with the movie. Truthfully, watching the film now, I really feel like the most successful part of the film is the stuff we completely invented.

What was the chronology of your interest in his story. You heard about him and you produced a piece on your show [in 2008, called Fear of Sleep].

Ira Glass: He didn’t develop it with us. He started to tell the story on stage and he recorded it and somebody thought, ‘It’d be perfect for This American Life and sent it to our senior producer. I think the thing that made it so perfect was that it was a story that had some darkness but it was also very funny. The situation that Mike’s in, he’s in his twenties, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life, he’s got to get it together. He’s a lost soul who’s supposed to turn himself into an adult but hasn’t yet. There’s something easily relatable about it and have this surprising and spectacular thing with the sleepwalking and then also this weirdly specific world of trying to be a stand-up comedian.

Did it always strike you as something that could be made into a film?

Ira Glass: I didn’t think that until we figured out the structural problems. There’s a point in the movie, about two-thirds through, where he does something he shouldn’t, he’s the hero of the story and we’re supposed to care about him, and his real story was playing out as a movie. There was also the incidents of the sleepwalking, and I knew that could be super visual and rendered in really cinematic way. On stage, when he talks about his girlfriend [played by Lauren Ambrose in the movie] in an affectionate way, it made the relationship seem real.

Up until the last week of editing, we were struggling to find a way to make the relationship real. We’d show the rough cut to people, and nobody bought the relationship. It didn’t seem like a real relationship. We didn’t know how to do it, we weren’t good enough screenwriters. We did all kinds of things to fix it and shore it up.

Mike’s stories seem very much of a piece, a Don Quixote quality about dreamers and mavericks who go against the tide and want their stories told.

Ira Glass: As producers, we have tendency in ourselves to go towards these kind of stories. We have a lot of stories about somebody who’s got some dream or goal. That is a kind of story I’m attracted to. I think the reason why is because we’re often confronted, as reporter, with telling stories, or exposing people that are believed to be fakes or phonies. I was working on a story, about a judge in Georgia [a prize-winning piece called “Very Tough Love“], and I kept thinking while I was doing it, This is not my usual gig.

Typically, I follow somebody who’s kind of normal who’s on a quest, it gives you the pleasure of watching what the quest is and then getting tested. It’s a fun kind of thing to watch go through.

At the beginning, Mike wasn’t a subject. He was a contributor, he was telling stories about himself. We didn’t have funding and he had an idea. I want to make this film. This was last year, and he said, we don’t have funding, but we have to shoot by the summer in order to meet the deadline to get into Sundance [in January, 2012], and I’ve cleared my touring schedule. He said, if we’re going to start shooting in the summer, we have to start hiring a crew. He just started hiring them, out of his own savings. He said, I will not accept no. He just started spending money. We got financing, hired a line producer and started scouting locations.

Once we shot the film and showed it to people and learned that it was bad, he wouldn’t accept it. There were things we took out of the film that he was very analytic in saying, This is killing us right here, stuff that I thought was fun to watch.

At our level, that was very difficult. The stage show was getting laughs where the film isn’t and it’s the same material. He said, ‘I think what’s going on is, in the stage show, I’m the present talking about this thing that happened in the past and so you know it all worked out.’ It was a kind of tragedy for plus time equals comedy thing. He completely re-shot the narration. Then suddenly, when the story became the present with him talking about something that happened in the past, the film got laughs.

How has your relationship evolved since you first became aware of each other?

Ira Glass: I know him as well as I know anybody. I feel like after this experience we’re brothers. I feel like, I know every mood he has, backwards and forwards and he’s completely all true. There’s this other part of him that just not going to accept defeat. I remember when he was on the radio show. I remember saying to people, ‘That guy is going to be more famous than any of us.’ He had an air, in a very friendly way, of I’m going places.

In many ways, this is such an unlikely thing. Most filmmakers never get their movie made. He did a one-man show, and he said, I’m going to make this into a movie. Three years later, it’s a movie.


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