When comedian Mike Birbiglia opened his one-man show Sleepwalk With Me in 2008 at the Bleecker Street Theatre in New York, he didn't anticipate that it would become material for a popular piece on This American Life and a New York Times best-seller. He especially didn't think it would turn into a feature film.
Birbigilia had never made a film before. And he was initially hesitant to make one about his dangerous sleepwalking condition, because he wanted to distance himself from the topic he had been immersed in for more than four years.
The film, also called Sleepwalk With Me, is co-written and produced by This American Life host and creator Ira Glass. It revisits Birbiglia's account of his troubled relationship with an ex-girlfriend, his experiences as an aspiring comedian and his denial over his REM behavior disorder.
Birbiglia now takes medication for the disorder. But, as he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, his anxieties about making the film infiltrated his dreams.
"My brain would not shut off when I would go to sleep," Birbiglia says. "So I would have dreams that I was directing myself in a scene in my bedroom, and that the cameras were rolling, and my wife wouldn't be asleep yet ... and she would walk into the bedroom and I would be adjusting lights, and my wife would be like, 'What are you doing?' and I'd say, 'We're shooting,' and she'd say, 'Um, Mike, we're not shooting.' And I'd say, 'I'm sorry, but we are,' and the way I would say it was actually sort of patronizing, like she didn't get it."
While making the film, Glass says he was surprised at how immersed Birbiglia became in the realities of what they were filming, despite the fact that he was playing a fictional version of himself. Birbiglia re-enacts a scene where he sleepwalks, jumps through a hotel window and has to get 33 stitches in his leg.
"It hadn't occurred to me that it would be emotional for [Mike] to do that," Glass says. "I remember it wasn't until we started shooting the scene that I thought, 'Oh right, this is utterly real.' "
Birbiglia was a finalist for the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor for the novel Sleepwalk With Me & Other Painfully True Stories, and he's a frequent contributor to This American Life. Sleepwalk With Me premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
On visualizing the dream sequences for the film
Mike Birbiglia: "I think that our big discovery was, 'Let's make them feel as much like real dreams that you would have or that I would have, as opposed to 'dreams' that you'd see in movies.' And so that was where the field idea came from, because we talked about, 'What if we shoot this stuff outdoors, the lighting is a lot better, there's a lot more that Adam [the cinematographer] could do to make it look visually very interesting, and vivid, and real, but also a little bit surreal at the same time.'
"We wanted the dreams to feel almost like you don't necessarily know they're dreams until a certain moment. There's a certain moment where it clicks in, because my dreams in real life are so convincing that I'm utterly convinced that they're happening, which of course is why it makes sense that I act them out."
On playing himself
Birbiglia: "It's not the easiest thing. ... I think your tendency when you play yourself is to accentuate something about you that you think is the funny thing about you.
"I listened to this interview once with Jerry Seinfeld that really influenced my comedy and all of my writing, which is that when you're starting out in comedy, it's the audience that tells you what's funny about you. And you need to listen to that and make a note of that. And I think I developed that doing standup for 13 years, and so that was the hard part of developing my persona.
"But then doing it on film, all I would really have to do — and a lot of this was with the help of Seth Barrish, who co-directed the film and directed my one-man plays — is just relax into it and do less, do less."
On banning dream sequences in television and movies
Ira Glass: "I think they're cheap. I think it's a cheap move. Even in The Sopranos, when they did that extended long dream sequence, I just feel like it's a cheap move. Even on shows I like — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos — it never, ever works for me. I feel like you're trying to show us the character's feelings through means that you should just do in scenes that are happening in reality. A TV drama is already a made-up world, and then you have to create a made-up world within the made-up world, I just feel like they always feel obvious. And I hate symbolism."
On overcoming anxieties about marriage
Birbiglia: "It's so much better than I thought it was gonna be. I almost can't even put to words how happy I am that I got married. ...
"Ira and I actually talk about this a lot when we're out to dinner or hanging out – there's something about being in an argument and ending the argument with, 'Well, the point is, we're gonna be together for the rest of our lives.' That's a real argument ender in a certain way, I think in a really healthy way. We're gonna make this work no matter what."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are Ira Glass, the creator and host of "This American Life," and Mike Birbiglia, a regular contributor to the show. They've collaborated on the new film comedy "Sleepwalk With Me." The co-wrote the film, Ira produced it, Mike directed and stars in it.
"Sleepwalk With Me" is a fictionalized version of an autobiographical story that Mike has told on "This American Life," as well as in an off-Broadway one-man show and a memoir about Mike's experiences finding his voice as a comic while dealing with relationship problems and a really dangerous sleepwalking disorder.
He was diagnosed with REM behavior disorder, in which you act out the behavior that you're dreaming, and you often dream that you're being chased. Let's start with an excerpt of Mike Birbiglia's one-man show that was recorded at The Moth in Brooklyn and broadcast on "This American Life" in 2008. He's describing a sleepwalking incident that nearly killed him while he was staying at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington, where he had a comedy gig.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I fell asleep and I had a dream that there is a guided missile headed towards my room. And there's all these military personnel in the room with me, and I jump out of bed, and I'm, like, what's the plan?
BIRBIGLIA: And they say: It's come to our attention the missile coordinates are set specifically on you.
BIRBIGLIA: And I thought that's very bad because, you know, I don't have a plan for that one. So I decided to jump out the window in my dream, and as it turns out, in my life. And there are two important details. One, I was on the second floor of La Quinta Inn; and two, the window was closed. So I jumped through a window like the Hulk.
BIRBIGLIA: And I say that because that's how I described it at the emergency room in Walla Walla, Washington. I was like you know the Hulk, you know, he just kind of jumps through stuff? So I jump through the window, and I scream aaah, and what was remarkable is that people who have this disorder are capable of doing things they couldn't do in their everyday life. It's like blacking out drinking, where you don't feel any pain or inhibition.
I jumped through a second-story window, and I landed on the front lawn of the hotel. I took a spill, I got back up, and I kept running.
GROSS: In the fictionalized movie version of "Sleepwalk With Me," Mike Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, a comic living in a small New York City apartment with his girlfriend Abby, played by Lauren Ambrose. While Abby is pressuring him to get married, he's trying to launch his comedy career.
He finally gets some dates at small venues, but audiences haven't been laughing. In this scene, Mike has just had a terrible set opening for comic Marc Maron. After the show, Maron, who plays himself, has this talk with Mike.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SLEEPWALK WITH ME")
MARC MARON: (As Marc Mulheren) Hey, you did OK, man.
BIRBIGLIA: (As Matt Pandamiglio) Yeah?
MARON: (As Marc) Well, you know, OK is kind of a strong word, but you tanked. I thought it was funny, but I'm a comic. I'm sick, so...
BIRBIGLIA: (As Matt) Yeah, all right.
MARON: (As Marc) You've just got to keep telling yourself you're killing, and it'll all fall into place, you'll figure it out.
BIRBIGLIA: (As Matt) Thanks.
MARON: (As Marc) You married, or...?
BIRBIGLIA: (As Matt) No, well, kind of. I don't know, I have a girlfriend, and it's serious, you know, it's just, you know, we've been together for a long time.
MARON: (As Marc) Are you all right, man?
BIRBIGLIA: (As Matt) Yeah, yeah, it's just - you know, I've decided I'm not going to get married until I'm sure that nothing else good can happen in my life.
MARON: (As Marc) You should say that onstage.
BIRBIGLIA: (As Matt) Yeah, that wouldn't go over so well at home.
MARON: (As Marc) We're not at home.
BIRBIGLIA: (As Matt) Are you married?
MARON: (As Marc) Kind of.
GROSS: That's my guest Mike Birbiglia with Marc Maron from Mike's new film "Sleepwalk with Me," which he co-wrote and directed, and also with us is Ira Glass, who co-wrote and produced the film. Welcome to both of you, and congratulations on the movie.
IRA GLASS: Thank you.
GROSS: Mike, this has been a comedy monologue, a popular "This American Life" piece, a one-man show, a book. So was there a little part of you that was saying I'm tired of this story, I want to move on to a different story?
BIRBIGLIA: Well, we're working on the video game, and it's really shed a lot of light on what really happened. No, I - yeah, yeah, absolutely.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, because it's so personal, and it's something I live with every day and that my wife Jenny lives with every day. And so in some ways I did want to get away from it, but, you know, Ira was making this point to me early on, which is, like, the film audience is just, size-wise, so much larger and wider than the niche audience that you're playing to that it's actually telling it to an entirely different group of people. And so I felt like that was a good reason.
GLASS: I was surprised when we got to shooting how flash-backy it was for you. Like, it hadn't occurred to me until we filmed, right, we're putting you back into a hotel room where you're going to have re-enact jumping through the window. And it hadn't occurred to me that it would be emotional for you to do that. And I remember it wasn't until we started shooting those scenes that it was, like, oh, right, this is utterly real.
GROSS: Was it emotional for you to do - go back and re-enact those things?
BIRBIGLIA: It was, yeah. It was - and we shot at La Quinta Inn, at an actual La Quinta Inn, and I had jumped out a window at a La Quinta Inn. And while we were shooting there, for the convenience of the production, I stayed in a room at La Quinta Inn.
BIRBIGLIA: And so it was like - I mean, I was acting out a scene from my life and meanwhile living in this situation where, you know, I was very sleep-deprived, and I was very anxious, which are two of the things that aggravate sleep issues. And so it was not ideal, I have to say.
GLASS: It's funny because I - at some point during the shooting, you told me that you were doing a lot of sleepwalking as we were shooting. Like when you would go home at night, we would have these, you know, 16-hour, 17-hour days to shoot, which was really bad for somebody with your disorder, and you would be sleepwalking, and the sleepwalks would be about making the movie.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, my brain would not shut off when I would go to sleep, and so I would have dreams that I was directing myself in a scene in my bedroom and that the cameras were rolling, and I would actually be - my wife wouldn't be asleep yet. She goes to bed later than me. And she would walk into the bedroom, and I would be adjusting lights.
And my wife would be like what are you doing, and I'd say - we're shooting. And she's say, Mike, we're not shooting. And I'd say, I'm sorry, but we are.
BIRBIGLIA: The way I would say it was actually sort of patronizing, like she didn't get it.
GROSS: So, but I thought that nowadays, you're sleeping in a sleeping bag with mittens on so that you can't get up and walk while you're asleep.
BIRBIGLIA: I don't use the mittens as much anymore just because they're so restrictive, but I do sleep in a sleeping bag. But, you know, you can get out of the sleeping bag, it just takes a little more, it takes a little more maneuvering. And so I could have - I'll sometimes have incidents, but they're nothing like - and also I take medication that was based on my diagnosis, which is called REM behavior disorder, and so it - even the sleepwalking incidents I have are much calmer than the ones that I used to have.
The ones - the RBD incidents are commonly like sprinting away from, you know, military folk or, like, animals or wild animals, or, you know, they're terrifying, like, I need to get away from here, or I will be killed kind of urgency. And the medication I have does not allow for me to feel that way.
GROSS: My guests are Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass. We're talking about their new movie "Sleepwalk With Me." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guests are Ira Glass, the creator and host of "This American Life," and comic and actor Mike Birbiglia. They co-wrote the movie "Sleepwalk With Me." Ira produced it, Mike directed and stars in it. It's based on Mike's experiences with a sleepwalking disorder. His monologue about it was broadcast on "This American Life" in 2008.
So Ira, here's a question for you. When you first Mike's monologue, "Sleepwalk With Me," and you wanted to put it on your show, and this was years before you collaborated on the movie "Sleepwalk," did you feel like you needed to fact-check? Does he really sleepwalk like that and, like, jump out of a window in a motel? It just sounds so extreme. Do you ask to, like, see his scars or, like, call a psychiatrist and ask about it?
GLASS: I mean, truthfully, if we put the story on our show today, we would do that, but that was years ago, and we weren't doing that with these personal monologues. On "This American Life," we had this incident with Mike Daisey, where Mike Daisey came onto our show and told a bunch of things, and we fact-checked, and as I've said on the air, like we didn't do it properly. And since then, because we learned later that he had misrepresented himself in a number of ways in the monologue about Apple Computers, since then, we've been much more aggressive about fact-checking everything, and people who come on doing personal monologues have the unfortunate experience of us calling and fact-checking everything. So if we would have run the piece today, we actually would have fact-checked the entire thing.
GROSS: How would you have done that?
GLASS: Well in this case, I mean, I feel like we would ask to see - I mean, any photographs or medical records. I mean, we would ask to somebody who knew Mike at the time. We would just ask for any kind of proof that he could give us that the thing had actually happened.
But at the time, because it was part of the - he recorded it as part of the Moth Storytelling Series - which purports to be true - we really didn't think about it. I mean, at the time, our feeling was, well, even if this isn't completely true, it kind of doesn't matter, he's just a funny guy telling a story. And we just didn't think about it the same way that we thought about the journalism on the show, where everything is, you know, at a much higher standard.
GROSS: Well - but now you're convinced it's true.
GLASS: I am convinced it's true. I've seen photographs, and I am 100 percent convinced it's true, yes.
BIRBIGLIA: Ira called me after the Mike Daisy incident occurred, and he goes: Mike, you better have jumped through that window.
GROSS: That's really funny. So let's talk a little bit about the process of transforming this monologue into a movie. The first thing we see in the film - and this is a very important decision in terms of how you decided to make the film - the first thing we see is you, Mike, in the car, talking to us, the viewer, in an acknowledgement that you're making a movie and that we're watching a movie. And so the first thing you tell us is to turn off the cell phone.
GROSS: OK, so why did you decide to start that way, you know, as a monologue to the viewer acknowledging that you're in a movie onscreen, that we are watching it and that you don't want us to interrupt your movie with our cell phone?
BIRBIGLIA: There's a funny sequence of events that led to those monologues being in the car. The way it was written in the script was that the monologues in the film are embedded in the scenes, akin to like the Matthew Broderick movie "Ferris Bueller," where you'll be in the middle of eating lunch with someone, and then you'll look over at the camera and say here's how this lunch is going, that kind of thing.
And we shot it that way, and then what we found was that when we got into the edit that somehow that was just too campy. It wasn't fitting with the tone of the film, which was kind of like an autobiographical, realistic tone. And then the other thing that was happening is that the laughs weren't that good.
In the movie, like we did test screenings with all these "This American Life" Facebook fans. Like Ira would literally...
GLASS: Two or three times a week, yeah, two or three times a week all fall. These were the most low-rent test screenings, where we would basically go onto the "This American Life" Facebook group, and we would say, like we're going to do a screening of a thing we can't tell you what it is, but just show up, it's free, and then 70 or 80 people would show up.
BIRBIGLIA: People would have no idea what they were coming to see because we couldn't say what it was. We didn't want distributors coming and seeing early cuts of it, that kind of thing. So it was very below the radar, and so what we found was that we showed the movie, and no one was laughing at the parts that we thought were really funny.
And so me and Ira and Seth Barrish, my co-director, and Jeff Richmond, who was our brilliant editor, had this kind of banging our heads against the wall. And finally we said: You know what? I think the reason it's not getting laughs is that it's too sad that what we're watching is the disintegration of a serious romantic relationship and, you know, this guy's, you know, deteriorating health. And it's just not funny, it's too sad.
And so what - we decided, and it was funny because it was just - at first it was me and Jeff Richmond. In the edits, we just - taking out a digital camera, and he would shoot me monologing to camera as thought it were in the past, as though - instead of in the present.
GROSS: And so you - the monologue's in the present, but the action is in the past?
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, and - precisely, and so I was going, you know, so what happened was, blank, as opposed to here's what's happening now. And we dropped those into the movie, in the test screenings, and all of a sudden things that got no laughs all of a sudden were getting big laughs.
And we were, like, oh, we're really on to something. So let's place this somewhere. And I had always had this idea - it was actually my brother Joe and I had conceded this idea, like, a couple years ago but had never done it - which was what if the whole - all the monologues of the film are based inside a car, and it's just very casual. I'm driving a car, and I'm talking to the audience member and guiding them through the story.
GROSS: So Ira, you arranged these test screenings through the "This American Life" Facebook page. You know, so many filmmakers really hate test screenings and focus groups because the outcome of those is often: OK, so we're going to take the tragic ending of your film and turn it into a happy ending because the audience had a better response. And it's usually out of the director's hands and, like, some, you know - you know, like there's a studio or a producer or somebody who's saying this is the change you have to make because it's more popular.
So you were doing these, you know, yourselves. So there weren't people above you who were going to tell you what you needed to do. But did you have any doubts about the focus group process? Like, you don't do focus groups for "This American Life," right? You have confidence that you know what works, and you do it.
GLASS: That's true, but in the course of making any story, especially a big, complicated story, the process of the radio show is that we go through it again and again and again, we re-edit and re-edit and re-edit, and on each new edit, on each new - in each new draft of the story, we bring in somebody who has never heard it to get the reaction of somebody who's never heard it.
So in a way, pulling in a test audience for these redrafts we were doing on the film felt exactly like that. It's like we could give it to fresh eyes and see where it would work. And really, you know, when you're doing a comedy, it's so important to find out where the laughs are and if things are getting laughs, and you can adjust the jokes to make the laughs work better.
GROSS: Did you give them, like, questionnaires or just, like, listen where the laughs were? Did you do a Q&A afterwards? What was your way of getting as much information as you could?
GLASS: At the end of each one, I would go up in front of the group and ask a bunch of questions on things we were wondering about. You know, you can edit so quickly now. We had a rough cut, you know, four or five days later that we could start to show to people and start to change. And at the beginning, and really for the first, like, month and a half of that process, the big problem in the film is that people didn't buy the relationship between Mike and his girlfriend, which is the central relationship in the film. And people just didn't see why they were together, and they just didn't buy them.
And we tried many, many things to fix it, and so one of the things I would go up and ask the audience is, like, do you like him, do you like her, do you believe them as a couple? What do you think of them as a couple? And in the early screenings - Mike, I hope this isn't an exaggeration - like people, like not only did their relationship - like it made people mad. Like it made people mad at them and mad at us.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, it did.
GLASS: Like people who were close to us would start going: What is wrong with you? Have you never been in a relationship? Like, do you not understand what it's like to be in love? Like, we would get comments like that. Like people got very mean about it, and we just went in and adjusted a number of things.
Most dramatically, like, somebody told us about this movie trick that I had never heard of and that is completely different...
BIRBIGLIA: I told you about it.
GLASS: You told me about it, yeah.
BIRBIGLIA: Like, there's a whole book about it called "Save The Cat," which is essentially if you have a character that's unrelatable in a script, have them do something nice early in the film, a la saving a cat. And from that point on, people will like the character.
And I kind of - truth be told, I kind of hate the book because I think it's - it's so simple, and I think it's used kind of for evil in certain ways by studios. They'll be like we need him to save the cat more. And then it's like a whole movie about saving a cat. But I feel like it actually was an applicable lesson to our film.
GROSS: So what's your save-the-cat moment, yeah?
GLASS: So we put in a scene, it's like 40 seconds long, and it's very - it's like the third scene of the film. And basically Mike just picks up the girlfriend from work. Nothing happens. Like if you notice, nothing happens. He, like, he brings her some water and some nuts. They have like a little chat about where they're going.
You don't need the scene to make the story work because you could just skip it, and it works. All that happens is that you see that they get along. It's literally the only message of the scene, and once we put it in, it was like a miracle cure. And I to say, like, I've been making stories on the radio my entire adult life. Like I feel like I knew every trick to make a story work on the radio: you move this thing to here, and you raise the stakes this way, and you raise a question this way.
That was like something I had no idea. I had no idea this was a move.
GROSS: Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia will be back in the second half of the show. Their new film is called "Sleepwalk with Me." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ira Glass, the creator and host of "This American Life" and Mike Birbiglia, a comic, actor and regular contributor to show. They collaborated on the new movie comedy "Sleepwalk With Me." They co-wrote it, Ira produced it, Mike directed and stars in it. The movie originated with an autobiographical monologue about Mike's sleepwalking disorder. It was broadcast on "This American Life" in 2008 and was adapted into an off-Broadway one-man show and a memoir. The movie is a fictionalized version of the story.
So Ira, you're a producer of the movie "Sleepwalk With Me." What does that mean?
GROSS: What was your job?
GLASS: Oh my god. It means nothing good. It means nothing, nothing good.
GLASS: I honestly, like I don't, I don't understand why people produce movies. Like you're not doing any of the central creative work. Like you're not the screenwriter, really. I mean I ended up getting involved in this, heavily in the screenwriting with this so close, but like you're not the screenwriter, you don't get the pleasure of writing, you don't get the pleasure really of editing, you don't get the pleasure of directly, you don't get the pleasure of performing. You know, like you don't get to do any of the fun things. What you do is...
BIRBIGLIA: Though, you do make a cameo as the photographer in the wedding scene.
GLASS: I do make a cameo, yes. But, you know, you don't get the, you don't get to do any of the things that are super fun about making work. And instead, you're responsible for the entire thing. You're frightened for months that it's not going to work. And you're constantly corralling people and then you are the annoying person looking over people's shoulders saying like what if we held this shot for like eight more frames? You know, like all you're doing is looking over people's shoulders, kind of backseat driving every part of the process, which is not pleasant and it's just like, honestly, it's just a terrible job.
BIRBIGLIA: I just want to say for the record that Ira's quote/unquote "backseat driving" feels a lot like front seat driving.
GLASS: Noted. But, you know, I just...
GLASS: Well, that's more like being a radio producer. When you're radio producer you're the one that's in charge in a weirdly different way. You know, like I'm producing somebody's story for the radio show, like I'm thinking through all the pot points with them and directing them in the studio myself. And, you know what I mean? Like - and being, and doing the editing myself on the computer. And so it's just a different, it's a very different thing that some people I'm sure are cut out for.
GROSS: As some of our listeners will know, I played myself in a very short film that was shown in the movie theater broadcast of "This American Life." and it was a short film that Mike wrote and directed and played himself in. Ira produced it and Ira was on set the whole time, giving us all advice about how to make it better. And so I got a little taste of what it's like to play yourself. And Mike...
BIRBIGLIA: And we should point out it was called "Fresh Air 2; 2 Fresh 2 Furious."
GLASS: And it's up one YouTube if anybody wants to watch it.
GROSS: All right.
GLASS: For free.
GLASS: Terry's great.
GROSS: So Mike, so you played yourself in that movie, but although in the new movie you play a character named Mike...
GROSS: Pandamiglio. I was about to say it the way the people who get it wrong in the movies say it. You're really playing yourself, more or less.
BIRBIGLIA: Sure. Yeah.
GROSS: And I think giving yourself is another name is a kind of out to say yeah, some of this is exactly what happened and it gives you deniability if somebody wants to save you...
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. Sure.
GROSS: I didn't say that. I was nicer than that. So anyways - but I want to know what it's like for you to play yourself and whether you have to be more yourself then you are in real life in order to play yourself in a movie. And then Ira, I want your reaction to watching Mike as a friend in real life and watching him play himself on screen. So Mike, let's start with you.
BIRBIGLIA: It's, it's not the easiest thing, in the sense that it's - I think your tendency when you play yourself is to accentuate something about you that you think is the funny thing about you. And I listened to this interview, once, with Jerry Seinfeld that really influenced my comedy and like all of my writing, which is that when you're starting out in comedy it's the audience that tells you what's funny about you and it's, you need to listen to that and kind of make a note of that. And I think I developed that over, you know, doing stand-up for 13 years, and so it actually - so that was the hard part of developing my persona. But then doing it on film all I would really have to do - and a lot of this was with the help of Seth Barish, who co-directed the film, and had directed my one-man plays, is just relax into it. And often it's just kind of like there's like this famous story where Billy Wilder is talking to Jack Lemmon in the first film that they did together. And he did the scene, they said cut and he went over - Billy went over to him and said yeah, that was nice. Just a little bit less. And they go again and he goes, cut. That was nice. Just a little bit less. And finally Jack Lemmon just got really frustrated and he goes Billy, it's like you don't want to do anything. And Billy Wilder says, exactly.
BIRBIGLIA: And I put a show business voice on it to make people know that we're talking about show business. But that's actually - I don't even know if that story is true but it actually perfectly encapsulates what it's like to try and play yourself, is you just got to do nothing and do less. Do less.
GROSS: But you said that the audience taught you which part of yourself is the best part of the comic persona. So which part of yourself did you discover that was?
BIRBIGLIA: Oh, well, over the years, for sure, I discovered that being earnest with the audience and leveling with the audience in a real way is the best thing that I can do. And...
GROSS: Which is what your character discovers in the movie.
BIRBIGLIA: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Terry, I'll be honest, there are some parallels between Mike Birbiglia and Mike Pandamiglio.
GROSS: So Ira, can you talk about watching Mike off screen just in real life and watching him on set playing Mike, and then watching him on screen seeing how that all worked out?
GLASS: I'm pausing because...
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)
GLASS: ...because I'm not sure I have anything smart to say about this, so I just want to give an alert to the radio producer and maybe just want to give a heads up to your tape cutter about that.
GROSS: Thank you.
GLASS: So, but I will endeavor to answer if need be.
BIRBIGLIA: So you're so controlling.
GLASS: I'm so professional. Whatever. I just feel like oh, I'm so experiencing this interview as the tape cutter sometimes, in a sense.
BIRBIGLIA: That's such a charming quality, Ira.
GLASS: Watching Mike play himself on screen, he plays himself as himself, like it is a very close simulation of his real personality. I mean I knew he could play himself, because that's what he does on stage. I mean when you go up on stage and, you know, you tell jokes or you tell stories, you know, you are playing a version of yourself for the audience. But it wasn't until we started filming that it occurred to me wait, I had no idea if he could act. Like we had gone through at that point...
GLASS: ... we had spent two years working on the script and it literally never occurred to me that like I had never seen him act. And then watching him was really interesting because he did it great right away, and was holding his own from the very first day we were shooting. It wasn't until after that we talked about it, Mike and I, and you told me oh, right, you had done a lot of improv and a lot of acting, like I had no, we have never even discussed it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new movie "Sleepwalk With Me," which was on monologue on "This American Life" and then became a one-man show, and then a book and now it's the movie. The monologue is by Mike Birbiglia. It's an autobiographical monologue and now movie. He's the star of it, the director. He's my guest, along with Ira Glass, the founder and host and producer of "This American Life," and he is a co-writer and producer of the new movie.
So let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new movie "Sleepwalk With Me," my guests are Mike Birbiglia. It's based on his autobiographical monologue. He stars in the movie and directed it. Also with us is Ira Glass of "This American Life." And the story had been a monologue, years ago, on "This American Life" and Ira is now a co-writer and producer of the film.
Let's talk a little bit about adapting the sleepwalking sequences into film. There are terrifying things that happen to you, Mike.
BIRBIGLIA: You know you think you're...
GROSS: ...being chased by a jackal. You think there's a missile that's aimed toward your motel room.
GROSS: I mean - and, you know, these usually end with you like running for your life or falling off of something.
GROSS: And you get hurt or you could've gotten really hurt at the end of each dream, in real life, because you are acting out the dream because of your sleeping disorder. So, in translating into a movie, what did you both discuss in terms of what you wanted the look to be? Did you wanted to be funny? Did you want it to be scary? These are decisions you have to make.
BIRBIGLIA: We actually had what we called the dream meetings, where we discussed the dreams. Ira as a real pet peeve about dream sequences in movies.
GROSS: What's the pet peeve, Ira?
GLASS: Yeah. I'm against it. I think invariably they're bad.
GLASS: Invariably they ruin a movie.
GLASS: I feel like...
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. Yeah.
GLASS: ...if I were the Federal Communications Commissioner I would not ban dirty words in television shows. I would ban dream sequences.
GLASS: I think that they ruin every TV show that they're in.
BIRBIGLIA: But so we would have these dream meetings with our production designer and our cinematographer, and Seth and me and Ira, and we would talk about like what are these dreams going to feel like because it's really going to affect the entire movie. And I think that are big discovery was let's make them feel as much like real dreams that you would have, or that I would have, as opposed to dreams quote/unquote "that you see in movies." And so we wanted to dreams to feel like almost like you don't necessarily know they are dreams until a certain moment - like there's a certain moment where it clicks in. Like the moment was like the moment that I go from running into field to being on top of an Olympic podium, OK, then we are in a dream. Or, you know, the scene where like I'm with Jessi Klein, the other comedian, and we're like having a romantic interlude and then there's a pillow made of pizza. That's a dream. And so that was sort of our goal was to have the - because my dreams in real life are so convincing, that I'm utterly convinced that they're happening which is, of course, why, you know, it makes sense that I act them out.
GLASS: Actually, like there was a big discussion about do we know from the beginning of the dream that it's a dream. And it was our editor who pointed out that that was a real problem. Like if you know it's a dream from the beginning then you're just like OK, it's a dream and then there's nothing pulling you forward and it's a story problem, because the moment you realize it's a dream you're kind of, it's done. And so we, for each one, we had to build in a way that you wouldn't know at the very beginning and then there would be a moment.
GROSS: So Ira...
GROSS: ...why would you have the SEC ban dreams in TV shows?
GROSS: What is so horrible about dream sequences?
GLASS: I think they're cheap. I think it's a cheap move. And, you know, even in "The Sopranos" when they did, you know, that extended long dream sequence, I just feel like it's a cheap move. Even on shows I like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Sopranos" - it never, ever works for me. I feel like you're trying to show us the character's feelings through means that you should just do in scenes that are happening in reality. I mean the, you know, like a TV drama is already a made-up world, and then you have to create a made-up world within the made-up world, I just feel like they always feel obvious. And I hate symbolism.
GROSS: I know. Dream sequences are so often about like bad symbolism. That's my big gripe with them. Yeah.
GLASS: Yeah. I'm against symbolism. I feel like symbolism comes out of the kind of English class thinking, that has no place in our entertainment.
GLASS: And I will stand by that for the duration of this interview.
GROSS: I think I'm going to stand with you.
BIRBIGLIA: OK. And I too.
GROSS: So Mike, one of the things that you say in the movie, as a comic, is that you have to be delusional to be a comic. And you say if it weren't for denial of wouldn't be a comedian. You have to be able to walk on stage and bomb, and walk off and think - that went great.
GROSS: And so I mean even in comedy it, you know, from the way you describe it I'm sure this is true, you have to have confidence in what you are doing even if it's not fully worked out yet, otherwise you couldn't possibly perform.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. That's absolutely true. And I think it was also true of making the film. Like, you know, making your first film is a really, it's a very bold - bold and audacious are the positive words that you would associate with it.
GLASS: The negative words might be delusional or insane. And you really have to sort of - it's like you're walking on the bus for the field trip in seventh grade and you say to all your fellow students, like, so everybody, guess what? I'm going to drive the bus.
GLASS: And then people are, like, but you don't know how to drive the bus. And you're, like, I know, but I've been watching the bus driver and I feel like I have the hang of it. I've been watching other bus rides. I know which ones I like. I know which ones I don't like.
GLASS: I feel like I've developed an aesthetic of bus driving. And, man, does it not work with some people. Like, some people - and I would say on this film, a majority of the people who made the film - and it was a wildly collaborative effort - and in this case, like, enough people got on the bus.
GROSS: Ira, I'm imagining you thinking I'm going to write the press kit myself. You know, for people who've never seen a press kit, when a new movie is released the press gets, you know, somewhere between, like, an eight and a 25-page press kit that gives you, like, the synopsis of the movie.
GROSS: ...and bios of everybody who's in it.
GLASS: Yes. OK, OK, yes.
GLASS: Yes, yes, yes. The answer to what you're saying is yes.
GLASS: And I did rewrite the synopsis. I did. I went in and rewrote the synopsis. But then I stopped. I haven't seen the rest of the kit. I don't know what else is in it. I know nothing. But I did rewrite that synopsis. Yes.
GROSS: I knew you would.
GROSS: And you did that because?
BIRBIGLIA: Because he was front seat driving.
GLASS: Because - yeah, exactly. Because, as a professional editor, it had some constructions of language that I found simply empty and annoying, and I was just like no one will blame me for this wording, but if offends me. And I just can't. I just can't be.
GROSS: And what about the movie poster and the trailer? Did you have a hand in that?
GLASS: I did, but that was just the normal amounts.
BIRBIGLIA: No, it wasn't, Ira.
BIRBIGLIA: You and I recorded separate audio for the trailer in your studio.
GLASS: Yes, we did. OK, we did that. OK.
BIRBIGLIA: We were not happy with the trailer cut, so we went and recorded audio and we injected it into the trailer. So you're just not - you're not being truthful.
GLASS: Well, the people who made the trailer made it in a very traditional way, where everything is going very, very, very fast, and we made them slow it down a bit and tell the story, but not reveal too much of the story.
They kind of - in early passes, they did the thing that happen in trailers, where they tell the entire story of the movie, and we're like, no. And, yeah, I guess we got involved.
GROSS: My guests are Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia. We're talking about their new movie "Sleepwalk with Me." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guests are Ira Glass, the creator and host of "This American Life," and Mike Birbiglia, a comic, actor and regular contributor to the show. They co-wrote the new movie "Sleepwalk with Me." Ira produced it, Mike directed and stars in it. It's about his experiences dealing with a sleepwalking disorder while launching his comedy career and reaching a turning point in his relationship with his girlfriend.
Since the movie's in part about the decision to or not to get married and what makes a relationship work, how do you see this fitting in or not fitting in with all of the, like, wedding movies that have been being produced in the past few years?
GLASS: I mean, we were worried about that. Like, we didn't want it to be, like, one of those, like, you know, many, many movies about the boy who couldn't decide if he was going to commit.
BIRBIGLIA: There were drafts - many, many drafts of the script where people would read it and they would say this is completely ridiculous. A woman would never act like this. And I would say this is what my ex-girlfriend said and did, almost to the word.
And it's strange when you're dealing with criticism where the person is absolutely in denial that any - I mean, it's a very - it's a contentious gender issue. I mean, women don't like how they're depicted sometimes in movies. Men don't like how they're depicted sometimes in movies. And - but the reality of this movie is, like, these are things that actually happened.
I mean, my ex-girlfriend came to our premier at BAM, and I introduced her to Ira...
GLASS: Your ex-girlfriend, the one who the movie's based on.
BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. She came to the movie, and she actually - and she and I are still friends, like I say in the movie, and she was really choked up. And she was, like, I'm so glad that there's a document of this period of my life, you know, because I think it was really special. And I really - she goes, it's so - the thing that you say in the movie - I don't want to give away the, basically, the end of the movie. But the essence of it, she says is, you know, we weren't splitting up because we didn't want to hurt each other.
Like, we loved each other too much to hurt the other person. And meanwhile, of course, that's the great contradiction, is we think we're saving someone else, but really, we're trying to save ourselves.
GROSS: So I have one more question. Ira, this one's for you. I remember you back when your press photo, your publicity shot was you with a piece of paper covering your face, because you wanted to be a radio person and not a visual presence. And we all...
GROSS: And most of us on radio really cherish the invisibility of it because...
GROSS: ...you're just a voice. You don't have to think about what you're wearing or your hair or your body. People aren't going to judge you on how you look or whether you're attractive enough. And people can always imagine you're really, you know, fantastic looking, and you don't have to really be in real life.
GLASS: Or they won't imagine anything at all. You'll just be a voice.
GROSS: You could just be a voice. But now, I mean, you've got like not only, like, the cameo in "Sleepwalk," but you do these, like, movie theater versions of "This American Life" where you're on the large screen. And you had your TV series and everything. So you, as a presence, are a very visual presence now, which I'm sure has changed your life in some surprising ways. And if so, I'm kind of curious to hear about it, and if it's changed how you feel about your physical presence.
GLASS: I mean, it hasn't changed that much. I mean, occasionally, somebody will spot me on the street and say they're a fan of the radio show, but even that's pretty low-key. Like, honestly, it hasn't changed very much. I mean, honestly, the reason why I gave up the idea that I would never be photographed to publicize the radio show was because after two years of doing it, my sisters, Karen and Randi, informed me that it was just obnoxious, like it was funny for two minutes and then...
GROSS: Or that it became something of a shtick. But then you had to just be out there...
GLASS: It was a shtick. And then - yeah.
GROSS: ...and be comfortable with yourself being out there.
GLASS: Yes, but - yeah, I know. But I feel like you're stuck with that if you want to publicize anything. Like, as it turns out, you can't publicize a radio show in America without having yourself photographed. Like, no one will write an article about you unless they can take a picture to go along with it.
And so then you're kind of stuck, and then you're being photographed and then you have to think about what you look like. And then I just decided I wasn't going to care. Like, I cared for a while and then I just decided, like, I weigh more than I want to and I don't like the way my hair looks and I don't think about my clothes.
And you know what? I'm just not - I just - I - you know, I could devote energy to caring about that, but it's just too much. I just don't want to. I don't want to think about it, and I don't have to and it doesn't matter. And there came a point in doing - when we did the TV show, I consciously set out to lose weight to be on television - not because anybody asked me to, but because I knew that I was going to have to look at a lot of pictures of myself, and like anybody over 40, that is not something you look forward to.
GLASS: And I just thought, like, I just want to make that process more like something I could stand. And so I've just - you know, so I just try not to think about it. Like that's really, like, that's my incredibly sophisticated technique, is just like I feel like it's just part of running a business, and I'm in the public and I don't mind it and I don't cherish it, either...
BIRBIGLIA: Also, I just want to, like...
GLASS: ...like the appearing visually. Yeah.
BIRBIGLIA: I don't know if you mind me telling this story or not, but I feel like Ira, in some ways, is the least phased or the least changed by his own celebrity of anyone who I've ever encountered. Like, one time we were in a Starbucks and - getting coffee. And this guy just came up to Ira and was, like, hey, you're Ira Glass. And Ira's, like, yeah. And he just started, like, the guy just started pitching Ira a story for the radio show.
BIRBIGLIA: He started telling this long, elaborate story. And I was like, yeah, Ira, we gotta go. You know, I was just trying to bail him out like you would your friend at a party who's being hit on. And Ira didn't want to leave. Like, he's listening to this guy's story. And we're leaving. We walk down the street, and I go, Ira, what do you do? You just talk to random people at the Starbucks about their stories? And he was like, yeah, yeah, that's what I do. That's my whole job.
GLASS: Sometimes those stories work out.
GROSS: Did that you ever happen, that you got a story on the street that you used on your show?
GLASS: Not on the street, but I have gotten stories from people walking up to me. I have.
GROSS: You have just encouraged everybody to walk up to you and pitch you...
BIRBIGLIA: I know. That's why I'm saying you don't have to use that if Ira's uncomfortable with it, but it's true.
GROSS: You are no longer safe anywheres.
GROSS: All right. Well, thanks to both of you. Congratulations on the movie, and it's really been great to talk.
BIRBIGLIA: Thanks, Terry.
GLASS: It's been nice to talk.
GROSS: Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia collaborated on the new movie "Sleepwalk with Me." Ira produced it. Mike directed and stars in it. It opens in New York this weekend, and then begins opening in other cities next week. You'll find a link to the trailer, as well as links to the videos of Ira and Mike's mock feud about "Sleepwalk" with Joss Whedon, director of "The Avengers" and creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," on our Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. And you can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.