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.
At the same time things weren’t going well with his career choice of stand-up comedy, they also weren’t going well in his private life. He had girlfriend troubles, and parent troubles, just like anybody. Then the sleepwalking problem came up, a manifestation of his unsettled mind. Not everybody has that.
At one point, he woke up covered in glass after crashing through the window of his hotel room. “Like the Hulk,” as he says in his act.
That was the key — the act. His disappointments, troubles, and frustrations became part of his onstage storytelling, and for once people loved the jokes. The worse his life got, the more material he had.
In Sleepwalk With Me, the character (clearly based on himself, but with the name Matt Pandamiglio) makes the same discovery Birbiglia did in real life. Pain wasn’t funny, but everyone had it, and if you could get people to laugh at yours, it made theirs a little more bearable, too.
“Over the years, I managed to develop this comedy career, went from opening act to headliner at comedy clubs, to playing concert halls, and had an off-Broadway show with Sleepwalk With Me,” Birbiglia recalls.
Then he met Ira Glass, the host and creator of Chicago Public Media’s This American Life, a show dedicated to stories — big, small, strange. Anything goes.
HURTS SO GOOD
This American Life put his sleepwalking tale on its show in 2008, making his story about crashing through the window the centerpiece of the program, and later brought him back to tell stories on other programs — including one Birbiglia says is among his most painful memories: getting his ass kicked in ninth grade when he transferred schools.
“For years, I could not tell people that story. I was so ashamed, so deeply ashamed. Now, I’m telling it on a national radio show. But for literally 10 years, I didn’t utter a word about that story to anyone in my life. Then slowly, over time, there’d be moments where I’d be having drinks with friends and be like, ‘Listen to this …’ and I’d tell that story. People laughed so hard, and I became comfortable with the concept that you can talk about these things you’re ashamed of, and more often than not you find a deeper connection with people by telling those stories. Those are the stories you should tell. The one thing you’re most reluctant to tell. That’s where the comedy is.”
Though Glass had a hit radio show, beloved by millions, he also had that familiar dream shared by Birbiglia: he wanted to make movies.
“We started to see some of the stories be converted into films six or seven years ago. It began kind of independently of us,” Glass said at Sundance this year. “A screenwriter named Scott Burns and [director] Steven Soderbergh took a story they heard on our show, and turned it into the film The Informant! And we were just like, ‘Oh — I guess movies can be made from stories on our show.'”
They now have several projects in the early stages of development, but Sleepwalk With Me was TAL‘s first big cinematic endeavor.
Glass wanted to make a film. Birbiglia wanted to make a film. “We decided, ‘Why not try to make this a film?'” the comedian says.
“From the moment he suggested it, it was obvious it could be a movie,” Glass says. “You have a character going through this change, that anybody could relate to. He’s not dealing with his life, he’s got this situation with his girlfriend, he’s got a job he’s not crazy about, and he’s no good at, and then you have this really dramatic and super visual element, which would be the sleepwalking.” While the character stumbles blindly through dark bedrooms, the film allows the audience to see the surreal fantasies playing out inside his head, such as winning something his brain calls “the dustbuster olympics.”
Birbiglia and Glass developed the script for Sleepwalk With Me with Birbiglia’s brother Joe and acting coach Seth Barrish (who co-directed the film.) They hoped to make it for around $3 million or $4 million, and found some early studio interest, but the process wasn’t moving fast enough for them, and the executives wanted more changes than they were willing to make. “Ira and I are both not of the Hollywood mindset of, like, ‘Let’s keep developing …’ Both of us are just very much doers. And there’s an upside to that and downside of that. Ira produces a national radio show every week. It’s absurd, the amount of productivity involved. It is insane.
“We’re both always in the process of writing and producing and completing things. So when someone involved in the process goes, ‘Oh we’re not going to complete this thing, that we had spent all this time on.’ We were like, ‘No. No, we are. We’re just going to go make it for less money.”
They ended up getting about a quarter of what they hoped, but got some lucky breaks along the way. Adam Beckman, the cinematographer who worked on Showtime’s This American Life TV series, and Geoffrey Richman, who edited the documentaries The Cove and Sicko, agreed to join the project.
James Rebhorn (Independence Day) and Carol Kane (Taxi, Scrooged) play his parents, while Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) co-stars as his long-suffering girlfriend, and Birbiglia recruited comics such as Marc Maron (host of the WTF podcast), John Lutz (30 Rock), and Kristen Schaal and Wyatt Cenac (both of The Daily Show) to make cameo appearances.
“This very low budget film is really robust in a lot of ways because these people believed in the project. I will owe people forever for helping me make this,” Birbiglia says. “I’m just praying they all don’t plan to write and direct and star in their own movies.”
NOT FUNNY THE FIRST 10 TIMES
If this story were a report on This American Life, this would be the part where the greater meaning would crystallize, and we’d reflect on what it reveals about who we are — or who we’d like to be. Birbiglia’s tale has a happy ending — the movie got made, was a hit when played the Sundance Film Festival last January, and is now doing well in limited theatrical release (though it will do better if you click here and go see it at a theater near you.) He’d like to make another indie film soon.
But those neat resolutions are rare in real life, which is why we so often prefer the way things play out on the big screen.
Probably the happiest ending is not just that he made the movie, but that he’s still around. His dreams could have broken him — metaphorically speaking — when he lost everyone’s money on the ill-fated Extras short, or flopped repeatedly in his early days as a traveling comic, or he could have literally been broken when he crashed Hulk-like through that hotel window. But he made it, so we can all laugh about it now. To paraphrase Nietzsche: that which does not kill you… can be kind of hilarious.
“Yes, you need time, certainly from the embarrassing moment. And you need to get to the point where basically you’re not quivering as you tell the story,” Birbiglia says. “That’s the thing about telling these stories for the first time. They were not funny the first 10 times I told them onstage because I was so deeply uncomfortable telling them. The audience in front of me would feel bad, and you don’t want them to feel bad for you. Telling those stories enough times, and actually bombing with them, helped find the little nuggets of comedy. You realize if I build out that, and build out this, it becomes a story the audience likes.”
Does he still bomb today the way his novice character does in the movie?
“All the time. Any time I try anything new,” Birbiglia says. “It takes a tremendous amount of failure to make those stories work.”
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