If you haven’t heard the story yet, here’s the crux: Mike Birbiglia once jumped through a second-story window of a La Quinta Inn while he was asleep. The New York stand-up storyteller’s passion for this unbelievable tale, which has already been documented in both a one-man show and a book, brought him to This American Life producer Ira Glass, an unlikely funder in Web producer Bedrocket, which resulted in a feature film version. The New York comic talked with us about the latest incarnation of Sleepwalk, along with how he became an unlikely director.
Okay, how exhausted have you become talking about this same portion of your life?
Very exhausted. I’ve been performing my next show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, all over the world, and after 40 cities, I’m sick of that, too. I think I might release a new hour special this winter just so people remember I’m a comedian.
Are you finished directing or did Sleepwalk make you a director, too?
The moment we wrapped, I was like, “Let’s do it again.” It was the hardest, but oddly the most addictive, thing I’ve ever done. Since then, I shot a short for This American Life—Fresh Aire 2: Too Fresh, Too Furious—right after and the short Ira and I shot [to promote the opening weekend of the film in NYC]. I’ve been wanting to shoot everything.
How much trouble did you have convincing people with money that this was a good idea?
Very few people had faith that people would come out to see the movie with no major stars. I have an unlikely comedy career. If you were to pitch me: “There’s going to be a comedian. And he’s going to be really soft-spoken and earnest and tell stories. And the stories are not going to involve sex and he’s not going to curse much.” If you tried to sell Mike Birbiglia as a concept, no one would buy it. Same with Ira. He really struggled to get his show off the ground, because it’s a very artsy concept for the radio, where you need to grab people quickly.
The two of you seem to be the engine behind an awful lot of the promotional stuff.
When we went to Sundance, people were like, “Sundance is going to be crazy. You’re going to be up till 5 or 6 every night, brokering deals behind closed doors in hotel rooms.” None of that happened! We were all in bed by 10:30, watching Sundance parties we weren’t invited to on Showbiz Tonight. It couldn’t be less glamorous. “Oh, look, Ice-T is at Sundance! Wait, we’re at Sundance. How come we’re not at the thing Ice-T is at?”
We won an audience award and the critics liked it, but no one wanted to buy the film. IFC, to their credit, takes small risks on movies that no one will take a risk on. A couple of months later they were like, “We’re going to release it in ten cities,” and we were like, “Can we do more than 10?” I go on tour, Ira goes on tour, and we regularly sell out 2,000-seat venues in these 30 cities. We convinced them to get it up to 34. Then, Ira and I were on the phone at midnight four weeks ago, and I said, “What if we got a list of IFC’s favorite 200 theaters and we go on the radio and to our e-mail lists and say, ‘If you want our movie to come to your town, tweet at these people.’ ” It went from 34 to 115 theatres. We’re everywhere.
How hard was it to translate tried-and-true material with punch lines into this much subtler cinematic story?
I’ve been saying this joke onstage lately, but when you’re a first-time filmmaker, you have to convince people you can do this colossal task that you don’t know how to do. It’s like showing up in seventh grade for the field trip and saying, “I’m going to drive the bus.” And everyone’s like, “What do you mean, you don’t know how to drive a bus.” And you say, “Well, I’ve been watching the bus driver, and I feel like I’ve got a sense of it. And I’ve been watching other bus drivers, and I have my favorites, and I feel like I have a bus-driving aesthetic and that’s going to carry us through.” And some people get off the bus. And that’s fine. But most people stayed on the bus for this film.
You used your name in both the show and the book, but in the movie you play Matt Pandamiglio. Why adopt a character now?
Two autobiographical movies stuck out to us: Private Parts and Annie Hall. Howard [Stern] chose to use his name. Woody [Allen] chose to use a kind of spoof on his name. Although I respect Howard, he was clearly looking to make one movie. I want to have license in the future to depart from my real life. I love Bullets Over Broadway, but I’m pretty sure Woody Allen hasn’t killed somebody. I wouldn’t mind making a movie where someone murdered someone else.
After the show, the book and the film, do you feel by now you’ve learned the lessons you needed to from these events?
I did sleepwalk during the making of the film, because I was sleep-deprived after working 15-, 16-hour days. But outside of the movie, to some degree, yes. I’m like the character, who isn’t cured but is dealing with it. He doesn’t have a 180-degree transformation but maybe a 30-degree transformation. If you ever see a movie where the character learns he’s never going to drink again, never going to sleepwalk again, it’s a little disingenuous, because it’s unearned. It doesn’t feel like life.
The supporting cast really helps to give the story more pathos.
Someone made this point to me; a director I really admire saw the movie and said, “The parents are a really effective device in the film, because you see the parents, you see that their world is really nice, and you see Matt’s life and you go, Oh, God, this guy really is a fuckup.” [Laughs]
Birbiglia and Glass will participate in a Q&A after each of the seven opening-day screenings at IFC Center Fri 24.
Review: Sleepwalk with Me
Birbiglia somnambulates into print
More in comedy