Wide Awake with Sleepwalk With Me writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia
by Steve Prokopy Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 12:44pm
An interview with Mike Birbiglia
Although Mike Birbiglia began his career as a stand-up comedian, his act has evolved to the point where he has become more of a comedic storyteller, retelling some of the most painful events of his young and adult life in across comedy albums, appearances on the Public Radio series “This American Life,” a book, and in theater performances, including a successful off-Broadway run.
Birbiglia’s debut as a feature director-writer-lead actor is Sleepwalk With Me, based on his one-man show, which chronicles his early years as a comic suffering from a chronic sleepwalking disorder that occasionally endangers his life and the lives of those around him. The story deals with stress that comes from his condition, as well as his limp act and a fading relationship. The film is funny, charming, and front-loaded with universal, anxiety-laden truths about pitting expectations others place on you against simply following one’s life ambition. I sat down to talk with Birbiglia to discuss the transition his story took from stage to book to the big screen, and working with Ira Glass (credited as a co-writer) to fine tune the screenplay.
SP: Was the transition of your comedy career from joke-joke-joke to more talking about your life really as simple as someone saying, “Hey, you should talk about your life.”
MB: That’s the movie version for sure.
SP: So it wasn’t a single incident, but was that how it worked for you where you thought “This is where it’s probably going to work best for me.”
MB: That was based in a few different people, like one person was Mark Maron, who was a disciple of that school of comedy, and I knew him a little bit. In New York, we had a love-hate relationship [laughs]. My first manager gave me this piece of advice once where he said, “If you write abut yourself, no one can steal it,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. That is one of the frustrations of being a stand up comedian, we’re all swimming in the same pond and you do get frustrated. I don’t watch many stand-up comedy specials, but I saw a clip of someone’s special the other day where almost verbatim they have a bit that is in my notebook and I just have to go, “Alright, can’t use that one.” And it’s a bit I really like.
The more I found the audience was engaged and the more I thought, “They are engaged because I’m engaged and I’m giving myself to this to some extent.” There’s something I realized in my 20s about observational comedy or clever comedy where you look at someone doing it and to some degree you just have this thought in your mind like, “Yeah, I could have written that.” And when someone tells you something personal and revealing about themselves, you’re like “Oh thanks.” It’s a different reaction. I’ve never watched someone who tells a truly inspired personal story and thought, “I could have thought of that.” No, you couldn’t have. That happened to that person. Something happened where I was put in these situations and was asked to tell stories, and I realized, “I’m actually better at this, and there’s something happening that’s more exciting to me.”
SP: Observational storytelling comedy has opened up stand up for a lot of people. When I hear people like you tell stories about their life, it’s identifiable. More than likely somewhere in your show, we will think, “I’ve been through that. I’ve lived through that.” I think it’s opened up comedy for people who weren’t maybe that interested in just hearing joke after joke.
MB: I agree. There’s something special about being in an audience and having one person on stage say something that in a different context would be off the wall. If someone had said it at work, you would be like, “Oh my God!” But you’re in a room where everyone is laughing, and there’s something deeply cathartic about that.
SP: The version of you in this movie, there might be some people in the audience who might not ever like him, and I don’t mean that’s because you are unlikable; it’s because he does some unlikable things. Is it more important that we like him or that we understand him?
MB: No, I don’t think you have to like him. I’m always afraid of the word “likable” when writing anything. I try to use the word “relatable” and I think that the character is relatable, because the character is misunderstood. No one in his life thinks that he can do what he wants to do and no one really believes in him, and I feel like that’s relatable. I feel like that all of the time.
SP: His girlfriend seems very supportive.
MB: I think that that’s the paradox if the film. She is the one person he’s closest to in his life, and he can’t tell the truth to her anymore, because of his changing feelings. That was painful in real life, and I think that’s what works about the film.
For most people when they watch the film, the moment where it makes you cringe is when he starts talking about her on stage, because you’re just going, “Oh no. We like her. Why is he doing this?”
SP: It’s very clear he doesn’t ever want her to see him perform. We don’t ever see her in the audience of one of his shows. Did the girlfriend who was sort of the model for this never see that material?
MB: The reality of it was, she knew that I had jokes about her, but I feel like the more I went on the road, the more specific the jokes got and the less she saw them. For film construction, we had to assemble it that way story-wise. That’s also why I’m “Matt Pandamiglio” and not Mike Birbiglia.
SP: The condition you have is called…”?
MB: REM Behavior Disorder. Something like 60 percent of Americans sleepwalk, or some really high number. I was shocked by it. A guy whose real name is Dr. Demented [who appears in the film as himself] wrote a wonderful book on sleep and sleep habits, and it’s a big problem. People are sleep deprived in our country. It’s a really common and dangerous thing.
SP: In addition to co-writing the screenplay and being the lead actor, why did you decide piling directing on top of those was a good idea?
MB: I always wanted to direct films, since I was about 19 or 20 years old, and what I discovered was that I couldn’t afford to financially. It’s so expensive. I was directing shorts and just burning through money and I realized that making movies is the opposite of having a job. You are spending money, so it’s the opposite of taking in money. So it was a little like a suppressed dream all through my 20s. When push came to shove with this movie, I wasn’t going to direct it. It was with a company that makes a lot of films and it was going to be a larger-budget film—maybe as much as $7 million, but then they decided that they didn’t think the script was ready, and Ira and I felt like the script was ready. So we parted ways amicably, and we said “Let’s try to make it for $1 million.”
I’m friends with Lena [Dunham], and she made TINY FURNITURE; I’m friends with like Jeff Garland who had made I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH. There were a lot of people who I was friends with, like Craig Zobel who did COMPLIANCE this year. They all said to me, “You should direct it, because you’re the closest to the material.” Jeff Garland literally said to me, “If you hire a director, you’re just going to fight with him the whole time. It was other filmmakers who gave me the confidence to direct.
SP: What were Ira’s contributions to the screenplay?
MB: It’s a really complex crediting, but all three of the other writers (Glass, brother Joe Birbiglia, and Seth Barrish] are people who I have collaborated with intensely over many years. Ira and I worked with each other over the last four or five years; Seth I worked with for about eight year; and my brother I had been working with since I was 19 years old.
I always held the master document, but we would have sessions of just me and Ira or just me and Seth or me, Ira, Seth, and Joe. I’ve always felt that the thing about Ira is that he’s a real “story Jedi.” He’s a real stickler for perfection in telling stories. In a lot of ways, that’s the reason the film works, because there were scenes that I really liked, and he would go, “We are not feeling anything from this character,” and I would be “But it’s funny, because of this, and it moves the story.” He would just go, “No, we need something that is more along the lines of this.” In many ways, he did a lot of dramaturgical work on it. His standards on his radio show, his TV show, and with this movie are absurdly high.
SP: The relationship with the girlfriend, and almost equally the relationship you have with your parents in the film, are fueling these dreams and sleepwalk incidents.
SP: Assuming that’s true, how did it feel coming to the realization that these outside forces were controlling you?
MB: Realizations occur over time. It’s very rare that we kind of have “ah-ha” moments that exist in fiction and film. The Mark moment of, “Oh, I should talk about myself on stage,” in film that moment has to exist, because an audience can’t compute a passage of time realization. In terms of having a realization that my family and all of these pressures were affecting my dreams, I would say I’m still getting that now. I’m not even fully there yet.
It’s tricky, because it’s a combination of a biological disorder that I have, which is similar to behaviors where people have dopamine deficiency, and also that I have extreme anxiety about things that I’m repressing. I think it’s mostly my fault, like I’m a people pleaser in some sense and I want to make people happy. When you have a duel goal, where one is you want to do this very unorthodox thing with your life—in this case being a comedian—and then the other thing, which is to make everyone else in your life happy when no one really understands what the other goal is.
Steve Prokopy is the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News (http://www.aintitcool.com), where he has contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone” since 1998. In 2005, he also joined the staff of the Chicago-based media outlet GapersBlock.com as the site’s Friday film critic with his Steve@theMovies column.