It’s a pretty common dream: Let’s make a movie.
Every kid who grew up with a video camera had it, even if it ranked in likelihood alongside becoming a “major league baseball player” and “astronaut” as possible professions.
Mike Birbiglia also had this dream — though he has a lot more of those than he knows what to do with.
The actor-writer-director’s new film Sleepwalk With Me, which expands nationwide today, is a fictionalized version of his bizarre experience with somnambulism — that is, acting out his dreams while still asleep — an affliction that hit him during one of the worst periods of his life.
It also turned out to be one of the best times of his life, or at least a very fortunate one. It gave him a story to tell, and everyone knows that’s the main ingredient for making a movie. That and money.
Here’s the story of how Sleepwalk With Me became a reality (with help from This American Life‘s Ira Glass, grappling with him in the photo above.)
“I had wanted to make films since I was in college,” says Birbiglia, 34. Now he’s one of the country’s top stand-up comedians, but back then he didn’t have a very promising future in entertainment. “I made a short film called Extras, long before the [Ricky Gervais] TV series came out, but it was about the same thing: professional extras.”
But he didn’t know what he was doing, and his amateur filmmaking endeavor turned into a fiasco. “I lost so much money and didn’t even finish the short,” Birbiglia says. “I found it to be completely devastating. I had borrowed money from friends and friends of my parents, and I used all the money I made from waiting tables in high school. I couldn’t even finish editing the film. I was so deeply embarrassed.”
So he gave up. “I was like, ‘I just can’t… make… movies,’” he recalls.
That’s when he began chasing another quixotic career: stand-up comic. The appeal at the time was that comedy seemed, if not easy, at least less hard. It was just him and a mic. He didn’t need to invest his parents’ friends’ money to rent film equipment and pay a crew and maybe end up again with a pile of unusable footage. If he failed, nobody would know. Nobody except the people in the room watching him.
Birbiglia wasn’t fueled by crazy ambition, he just saw a bunch of other comics making a living and thought: if these guys can do it, maybe I can too.
A WANNABE COMEDIAN WALKS INTO A BAR …
“I was working the door at a Washington, D.C. improv at the time, and comedians would come through town. They were not national headliners, but opening acts, making 500 bucks a week or 300, or whatever it is,” Birbiglia says. “I thought: ‘I could live on that.’”
He also liked the idea of writing and performing his own material, which fed the creative impulse he felt. So he went for it, and realized again… he had no idea what he was doing. “It’s much more difficult than it sounds,” Birbiglia recalls with a pained laugh. “It was grueling. It was really hard and long hours driving to parts of the country where people don’t want to go.”
He also wasn’t good. But comedians, even the most successful ones, will tell you that nobody is good when they start out. It’s a profession built on failure — humiliating failure, where you either “kill” or you “die” onstage.
Birbiglia died a lot.