If you listen to the podcast "This American Life" regularly, funny man Mike Birbiglia is a household name to you. You may not ever be able to pronounce his last name, but you'll definitely remember his bizarre true stories about his wonderful, horrible life. It's hard to forget a guy who tells about the time he sleepwalked himself out the second floor window of a La Quinta.
Birbigilia took his sleepwalking woes and made a hit one-man Off-Broadway show about it called "Sleepwalk With Me." Shortly after, he made a live stand-up record and wrote a book of the same name. His sh*t luck was good luck, and the continued success of this act pushed him to make a feature about it called -- you guessed it -- "Sleepwalk With Me."
I met up with Birbigilia at USC, who was there screening the film for Leonard Maltin's screenwriting class. Before the Q&A started, we sat outside on a fancy bench (USC seriously is a dashing campus) to talk about the film.
So you were sleepwalking once and you jumped out of a two-story window.
How does it feel to be the world's first accidental action star comedian?
[laughs] That's funny, actually. Joss Whedon, Ira Glass and I were joking about that the other night that the obvious, logical extension is to have the sleepwalking character in "The Avengers 2" but I don't know what his signature would be other than jumping through the window.
He would be the George Reeves [who played Superman in 1952] where he just jumps through the wall and just saves someone right when they need to be saved.
That's right. Well it's funny because I actually do think in some odd way the action aspect of the film is what propels it from being a simple rom-com into something that has life or death stakes to it. Which is what makes it a little bit of a hybrid.
I'm glad you said that because I'm going to bring up the more serious tone in a little bit … so "Sleepwalk With Me" was a one-man show, you wrote a book about it, and it was a live stand-up album. Now you've made a feature film of it –- how did you mix up the jokes verbatim from the act while adding fresh material for the fans that are familiar with the book, album and show?
I feel like when we were adapting scenes, whenever it was possible, we would just try to fill things out. Truthfully, it was making visuals of the jokes. The scene with the Colleen agent. The scene was in a lot of ways expositional. He shows up and she says, "I don't have anything for you," and he says, "I'll take anything." Then she says, "Well, I have this one thing but nobody would want it," and he says, "I'll take that." We were photo storyboarding with our cinematographer and it became clear not enough was happening. So I call Joe Birbiglia, one of the screenwriters on the team, and asked if he could come up with some kind of visual that could supplement that scene. He came back with the popcorn concept with the headshot cone she puts the popcorn in. [laughs] I think it's brilliant -- it's one of my favorite moments in the movie. A lot of it comes out of necessity and the next thing you know it becomes a memorable scene.
Also, one of the best things about the film is the cast. You get the pressure of the dad because James Rebhorn is so good and you get the pressure from Abby [his girlfriend in the film, played by Lauren Ambrose] because Lauren is so real. She plays it so real and you get why he [Matt, Birbiglia's character] feels guilt and you feel what he feels. And that's what makes it worth watching on the screen versus the other forms.
That's one of the scenes from the film that stands out in my mind -- Matt is so excited to get this gig and she's just excited to eat her popcorn. [laughs] It's just funny how that works out.
[laughs] He's just so naive to how bad a situation is.
The film is extremely relatable. Your character is this struggling comedian with a lot of heart and determination and that's what's so relatable. With you being a comedian, how hard is it to poke fun at the most hardest moments in your life, including times when you've been a complete jerk?
It's definitely not the easiest thing to do. When it was a one-man show, the cheating story for example, I had that story in my notepad for a year before I had the gall to put it on stage because I knew the audience would hate me. And, they did. [laughs] It was nuancing it over time to try to find the humanity in there that made it work eventually. It ultimately works in the film because I spent so much time with it, figuring out how to make that relatable. I think it's one of the most important parts of the film. What I always studied in screenwriting from my mentor John Glavin was that the most interesting characters are characters with shades of gray. It's hard to do that autobiographically. I'm a comedian and want to be liked and that's not something that makes people like you.
Something that really breaks the tension is when you look at the camera and say, "Remember you are on my side." I loved that. It feels like it's this generation's "Ferris Bueller."
I hope so! [laughs] Because of last week, it's starting to feel like it might become bigger than anything I could possibly do.
It was a hit when it played at one theater in New York last weekend.
We beat "The Avengers." I don't know if you've followed the joke but we beat Whedon's per screen average. His per screen average is 47 and ours is 68 but he was on 4,800 screens and we were on one. We were yelling, "We declare victory! We will pull our resources with 'The Avengers' and together we will make three billion dollars and split it 50/50. That's our declaration." [laughs]
We'll see how it goes this weekend when it goes to 29 theaters. It's a big question of, "Is everyone going to have this [positive] response?" It's exciting.
Going back to the serious tone of the movie, the one thing that this movie shows is that great relationships don't always work out.
In the end, Abby tells you she never left you because she didn't want to break your heart. That's something that a lot of people have experienced. Why do you think it's important to tell it that way versus the traditional "We just broke up and went our separate ways" Hollywood ending?
Actually, that monologue came out of the edit because we felt like there was something missing. Me, Seth Barrish, Geoffrey Richman our editor and Ira [Glass] banged our heads against the wall thinking about what are real things that happen in my life that can encapsulate the feeling of this breakup -- what's relatable about it, what's universal about it -- so we shot that. That was actually true to my life and it actually came out in post. Sometimes I don't like to tell people that because I want people to experience it as I experience it. When my ex-girlfriend saw the movie, she was really touched by it. She said, "It's amazing how in life you never get to see the other side of a breakup." She felt really lucky in a certain way because part of her life was encapsulated. It's funny because some people have said this week in different articles [that] I'm being unfair to my ex-girlfriend. She saw it, loved it and said, "I feel so lucky we broke up because it was the wrong thing for both of us."
That's one thing I admired about the film is the relationship because it was a great relationship and it just didn't work out. It was great watching it because it's something the audience isn't used to seeing.
One of the lines that was in the early drafts of the one-man show that always felt on the nose was, "Sometimes you meet the right person at the wrong time." And I just feel like that's so true. It's true with so many things -- jobs, friendships and deep relationships. Timing is everything.
I couldn't agree more.
I love your mom tattoo. It's badass.
Oh, thank you. I actually got it about five weeks ago. My mom is actually flying in tomorrow and has never been to L.A. before. I'm taking her all over over L.A. -- she made me book a TMZ bus tour and she's so excited about that.
Oh my God -- no way. That is going to be unreal.
So yeah, thank you. She's the reason why I'm sitting here in front you of -- she's supported my passion for movies my whole life. She even took me to see "Terminator 2" in the third grade so I owe her a lot.
"Terminator 2" is so good. I love it.
So talking about Ira Glass, he's produced a lot of great stories on "This American Life." What do you think it was about "Sleepwalk With Me" that influenced him to want to co-write and produce a feature about one of the stories?
He says I tricked him. [laughs] He says I lured him into a Steve Jobs-esque reality of distortion field. He says that about me, that I was like, "C'mon, let's make a movie, it'll be fun," and it made him feel like it would be fun. Then cut to "Oh no! We have no idea what we're doing. What the hell's going to happen?" [laughs] He says it's a perfect story to make cinematic because it has dreams and sleepwalking and it has a metaphor that's literal. [laughs] How often do you have that?
I love it. So, let's talk about your character Matt. He's trying to find his voice as a comedian and he finds it through trial and error and that's how it works for a comedian.
Of course, yeah.
How much trial and error did you have with the "Sleepwalk With Me" material until you finally found its niche? I remember you were saying that some of the audience hated you during the cheating sketch. When was the transition when you knew it was all going to work?
This is so crazy -- I started writing the one-man show "Sleepwalk With Me" in 2003. So many years ago. It took me about five years of working on it before we took it Off Broadway and another two years before we made it into a film, so it was a lot of failure. I was trying out a lot of material at stand-up comedy clubs. I'm telling a story about cheating on my ex-girlfriend at a comedy club in a comedy club. People at comedy clubs don't like that story too much because they're like, "Hey, we're trying to just enjoy our drinks and not think about what we've done wrong." [laughs] It was definitely hard and there were setbacks.
I always had a sense of destiny that storytelling was going to return in comedy. Richard Pryor was one of the great storytellers in the 70s and '80s, and then we went into a Seinfeld-era kind of comedy. I always thought it would come back because ultimately it's a very human form of comedy. Cut to here I am and one of the most popular shows is Louis C.K.'s show, which is completely a comedian doing personal storytelling material. I feel like I had a revelation a few years ago and a bunch of other comedians had it simultaneously. It feels like a movement, but because we're comedians we're not organized. We don't talk to each other about it. [laughs]
Louis C.K. and Larry David will be very proud after seeing this movie.
I hope so.
Watching your self-deprecating comedy made me feel so much more comfortable about all the hang-ups I've had in my life. What I love about "Sleepwalk With Me" is that it's follows a guy with the worst luck and by the end of the film I want to be him because of his determination.
Wow, thanks. That makes me feel great.
"Sleepwalk With Me" opens in over 25 cities today. Get your tickets here.