Rarely will a writer/director open up and reveal the swirling ideas slowly cementing inside a developing project. For Mike Birbiglia, putting that ever-changing story in front of an audience is all part of the process.
Birbiglia does it all. He's a stand-up comedian, a monologist, an author, and an actor (with Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian emphasis). Like funnymen-turned-filmmakers Woody Allen and Mike Nichols, Birbiglia eventually added screenwriter and director to his resume with 2012's "Sleepwalk with Me" — and without forsaking any of his other roles. As 'Sleepwalk' prepared to enamor crowds at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Birbiglia began performing his next autobiographical one-man show "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" in an Off-Broadway stage in New York City. Two years later, "Sleepwalk with Me" arrived in theaters while "Girlfriend's Boyfriend" completed a tour spanning the globe. For many performers, that would signal the end of a show's lifespan. In the case of Birbiglia, it's just segue to the next phase.
On June 2, Birbiglia takes his final bow for "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" with a grand send-off in New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall. Surprisingly, as the comedic Renaissance man tells me, he'll still be tinkering with the "script," improvising upon and feeling out his story of "a lifetime of romantic blunders and miscues that most adults would spend a lifetime trying to forget." It's a loose method that helped the "Sleepwalk with Me" film script take shape and, according to the Birbiglia, is once again informing the way he crafts the screenplay for his intended film adaptation of "Girlfriend's Boyfriend."
In anticipation of the big Carnegie Hall show — for which there are a few more tickets left — I spoke to Birbiglia on bringing the theatrical side of "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" to a close and the task of rebuilding it as a feature film. Like the tweaking he does from show to show, Birbiglia says we shouldn't expect a straight port when it comes to his next endeavor.
Matt Patches: Based on scheduling since you debuted 'Sleepwalk with Me' at Sundance, I imagine you've been on tour with 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' since leaving the festival.
Mike Birbiglia: What haven't I been on tour with? I just got back from Australia and I don't think I'll ever do this specific thing again. I was in Australia doing my one-man show 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' and releasing 'Sleepwalk with Me' at the same time. It was just too much. I love Australia and overall I had some great experiences, but by the end of it, I was a shell of myself.
Have you decompressed as you close out the show and start on new projects?
MB: No [laughs]. The polite answer is 'yes,' that you would say at a party so you don't feel bad for the person you're talking to, but the real answer is 'no.' I'm on adrenaline and fumes. I was excited on the flight home from Seattle. On the plane I came up with a story I'm going to improvise at the top of the show. So I'm excited about that. The things that get me excited are sometimes so small.
You're keeping the show, the story on its toes.
MB: That's always the goal. You want to take people by surprise and you want to take yourself by surprise.
Does capping the show at Carnegie Hall before you go off and make a movie out of it feel like a significant step? Another way of reinvigorating the story before turning it into a movie?
Before answering, Mike provides a foundation by sending me a video he shot with friend Ira Glass, seen below
MB: My agent Mike Berkowitz — who is credited in 'Sleepwalk with Me' as 'Mike Birbiglia's consigliere,' because we decided to make up a credit that hasn't been in movies before that has a nod to film — is my advisor in all things. He said, 'You can't do this show anymore.' I had done it in Australia and London and 70 cities in America. I've done it everywhere. He said, 'You have to write a new show.' And I said, 'No I have to keep rewriting it and rewriting it. I'll go to Scandinavia and then China.' Like a crazy person about it.
Once you start writing something obsessively, it's almost like someone has to rip it from your hands in order for you to put it down. Once you see the possibilities of rewriting. 'Oh I could take this passage that's about how I first met my wife and I could make this scene into a scene that's 30% better and it would only take a month of work.' The next thing you know, you're in a rabbit hole, doing it to every three minute chunk in the show. Then it's 10 years later and the show is 5% better. Berkowitz says, 'You could write a whole new show in a year and that would make you happier.'
How does that thinking apply to adapting the show into a screenplay?
MB: It's funny you ask that because I'm at this very distinct artistic crossroads right now. For the past year I've been adapting this show into a screenplay. I really love the screenplay, but there's a part of me... I just filmed the show itself in Seattle last week. There's a part of me who thinks, 'Maybe it's not a movie.' Maybe it's just a concert special that lives as it lives. I have a lot of screenplays ideas and my next film is something else entirely. Here's all I know: Now that this show is done, it's going to clear my brain for the next six months for what's my next movie and what's my next show.
If you record the show, put it out on DVD, then wait a decade to make it into a movie, you could be the next Tyler Perry.
MB: I can't say that the comparison hasn't been made before [laughs]
But like 'Sleepwalk with Me,' I imagine 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' won't be a straight up adaptation.
MB: I have to say, the screenplay is much different than the show. The character has a different profession, the characters meet in an entirely different way, the romantic scenes are entirely different from the romantic scenes in the show, and it has a different name. It's this thing where, because I'm working outside Hollywood, it's freeing. If I had signed an agreement that said I was going to adapt 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend,' they'd be expecting me to show up with that. Because I have this freedom of self-producing, self-directing, and working on a low-budget, I can make those decisions.
What's wild is that I've changed the show about 25% since it played Off-Broadway. I'm unable to do the thing that Broadway actors do in plays, sometimes for years. The same exact blocking, the same exact lines. I'm a little bit uncomfortable with that. Every night I'm looking for ways to try something else. That informs the film process as well.
How has your approach as a writer and filmmaker changed having evolved 'Sleepwalk with Me' from theater piece to film?
MB: One of the things that has changed from the film writing process on 'Sleepwalk with Me' to the writing process of 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' adaptation is that I'm entirely writing from pictures and scenes. The last time around was, 'How do you take this piece of dialogue from a one-man show and turn it into a scene?' This adaptation is much more abstract. 'What happened in this chunk of the show and what is a film sequence that is cinematic and interesting and has momentum and expresses the characters well?' In a lot of ways, I'm coming at adaptation from a different perspective.
As someone with a strong career in writing, do you bring visual ideas to your scripts? Or is that the hardest part?
MB: I'll tell you, before 'Sleepwalk with Me,' I really didn't. Now I definitely do. I'm attempting to write pictures.
When I wrote the screenplay for 'Sleepwalk with Me,' I was imagining that another person would direct it. So I was using all my undergraduate film writing amateur expertise of 'don't direct on the page' because someone else was going to direct this. And then I ended up being in a situation where I couldn't get it financed at a micro-studio level. There were a lot of people who passed on the movie. So I was like, 'If no one's going to finance it, I'd like to direct it. I know what I would do with it.' And it did well enough that someone is letting me do another movie. So I'm writing the script entirely directing from the page. I know what it's going to look like. Unlike the first time around.
Do you feel an obligation to fans of your stand-up, one-man shows, and comedy albums to faithfully replicate the story when you adapt it to film? Do they stand in for Hollywood executives in your own mind?
MB: Yeah, that is absolutely front and center for me. I was very aware of this with 'Sleepwalk with Me.' Before it came out, we showed it to a lot of people who had never heard the album, then we showed it to people who had. I was watching the response closely, and I would say almost uniformly, that people who heard the comedy album had the response we had, me, Seth [Barrish, co-director], and Ira. Which is that it's different. In a lot of ways it's a different story. That being said, there were critics and bloggers who said, 'Eh, I like the album better.' Mitch Hedberg has a funny joke where he says, 'You can't please all the people all the time. And last night those people came to my show.' It's true. It's all going to collide in a way.
The thing with film is that it's so wide-reaching compared to comedy. When I release my comedy special, half a million people will see it. If I release a movie, five to ten million people will see it. Who am I beholden to in that equation?
Having been immersed in 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' for so long, this may not be an issue, but there must be a certain pressure that comes with a follow-up film. Does it strike you as more difficult than making your frist movie?
MB: I don't think anything will be more intense than making the first film. If anything's harder than that in life, I quit life [laughs]. It was so hard.
In one of Obama's books he talks about entering the Senate for the first time. You're so excited to be in the Senate — but it's a little like drinking from a fire hose. You want the water, but maybe not that much that fast. That's the gist of it and that's what directing your first feature is like. There's so much you can't learn. People come at you with questions all day you don't know the answers to most of them. You haven't thought of the color palette for this scene or the wardrobe for this character. I was really fortunate that I had such a talented crew.
Do you see 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' building off the techniques of 'Sleepwalk?' The film felt reflective of your comedy style in many ways. Is there a 'Birbiglia film' stamp you hope to return to?
MB: I don't think there's a stamp yet because I haven't made enough things. But my goal is to keep making unique choices that are ultimately personal. One of the things that's really empowering about making a movie outside of Hollywood is that there's no one in charge of you, ultimately. I always think of the smaller guy in 'Mullholland Drive' who's in charge of everything. Whenever I've worked on anything in Hollywood there's always that.
Does your script for 'My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' continue the storytelling style of 'Sleepwalk with Me?' Breaking the fourth wall to interact with the audience?
MB: Not yet. But I'm also open to it. This stage doesn't have that.
The crossroads. Anything is possible.
MB: One of the things that people identified with 'Sleepwalk with Me' was the folksy nature of it. It looks a little bit handspun. Handspun with care. People were able to say, 'That's my movie!' because it felt like it was from a person and not an entity. So I feel like that's what I'm striving for in subsequent films. I want them to feel folksy. That's what I like. I like the movie 'Once.' I like the earlier Woody Allen films that feel like they have a lot of love built into them. A lot of passion. I love 'The Trip' with Steve Coogan or 'In the Loop,' the Iannucci film.
Or ''Frances Ha" is the perfect example. It's the epitome of what you can do in this day and age. Noah Baumbach, who could easily make a film for $10 million because he's had success, he chooses to make a low budget film with SLR cameras. When I saw that film it reminded of if Michael Jordan showed up at the park. 'Hey, anyone want to play?' [Laughs] You see it and it's like, oh man, he's dunking on independent filmmakers.
Baumbach has thrown down the gauntlet.
MB: Challenging all independent filmmakers. He's saying you could take inexpensive cameras and shoot a bunch of handheld, improvised scenes. Or you could compose and stage a perfect film that is entirely financially viable. No higher power would sign off on a black and white, SLR film. It's such a wildly unlikely film. That's where I want to go. I want to keep making unlikely films.