SXSW Dialogue: Mike Birbiglia Talks 'Sleepwalk With Me' and Giving the Audience Permission to Laugh at His Pain

SXSW Dialogue: Mike Birbiglia Talks 'Sleepwalk With Me' and Giving the Audience Permission to Laugh at His Pain

Mar 20, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me is the directorial debut of comedian Mike Birbiglia, who also wrote the screenplay (based on his one-man show) and stars as a thinly veiled version of himself. It's also one of the best films to screen at SXSW, a very funny, very sad and ultimately moving look at how comedy is often born from immense emotional (and occasionally physical) pain. It's a hugely personal film, loosely based on events in Birbiglia's own life and is easily one of the best films ever made on the subject of stand-up comedy. sat down with Birbiglia and his producer Jacob Jaffke to discuss working with This American Life, making the transition from the stage to the director's chair and giving the audience permission to laugh at a character's pain. But first, Birbiglia told us about what was on his mind at that very moment: breakfast.

Mike Birbiglia: My hotel has that card that you put under your door for breakfast and when I checked in, they were like "You've got to put the card under your door for breakfast! Our breakfast is great! Great breakfast!" I was like…oh, man, I can't wait! I was going to bed last night at 3:00 in the morning and I notice that the earliest breakfast time is 9:00 and I have to be out the door at 8:00 to do interviews.

Jacob Jaffke: So you didn't get the breakfast.

Mike: I called the front desk and I asked "Is this a mistake? Is 9:00 the first time?" They were like "Oh yeah, yeah. 9:00." I was like, ah, sh*t. No breakfast for me! Except this right here!

(He motions to a fruit platter on the table.) Probably healthier, though. A Texas hotel will give you brisket covered with cheese. Anyway, let's get this thing started. One of the production companies listed at the start of the film is This American Life. As a big fan, this was pretty exciting. How did you get them involved?

Mike: I had been working with Ira Glass for several years on stories for This American Life. I did probably six or seven stories for them. We have a good working relationship. We're very candid and frank with each other. He's a really extraordinary comedic and story-minded thinker. They were interested in getting into film and I was looking to make this film and we were like "Let's do this together." What was it like making a movie after years of stand-up comedy and one-man shows? Was there any crossover in your regular creative process?

Mike: There's definite crossover in the sense that the audience cares about the same things. They care about things that have stakes, like a sleepwalking disorder that's dangerous, where the character might die. Jokes work. Jokes are good on stage and they're good in films. Where it's different is that you really have to have all of the characters in the world be real and believable. If there's any character you don't buy then your out of the film. That's why the casting of the film was so crucial. Jen Huston, who did our casting…we were very fortunate to have her. She's cast many great comedies. She cast Girls, Lena Dunham's show, Sacha Baron Cohen's recent movie, tons of great stuff. The casting is really key and the cinematographer is really key. Adam Beckman, who shot the This American Life TV series shot the film. He's a really brilliant guy and he brought a lot to the dreams particularly. Our goal with the dreams was to make them like people's dreams, not movie dreams. Speaking of the casting, there are a lot of familiar faces and names who pop up in this film. Were people lining up to be in the film or did you have to call in a lot of favors?

Jacob: Favors!

Mike: I would call so-and-so and they'd be like "Yeah!" But they were favors in the sense that I'll be doing a lot of $100,000 films for the rest of time.

Jacob: "You know, I was thinking about doing a movie, too…"

(Everyone laughs.)

Mike: Exactly! But honestly, a lot of them are friends. I knew Jessi Klein could come in and knock this out of the park. Wyatt Cenac. Marc Maron. I just called Marc and said what do you think of this? "I'm in." David Wain came in on 11th hour's notice.

Jacob: There was a hurricane. Kristen Schaal and Rich Blomquist-

Mike: They're fiancees, now.

Jacob: - they were in Edinburgh when  a hurricane hit the east coast and they couldn't get here.

Mike: All of the flights were stopped. She was supposed to play Lauren Ambrose's character's best friend, now played by Aya Cash in the very last minute. It was supposed to be Kristen Schaal, but she ended up playing the college student activities coordinator. Stand-up comedy is a solitary experience where you go on stage and repeatedly fail until you craft something that's good. What was it like to suddenly be a film director, where, in addition to making art, you're a team leader who everyone is looking to for answers? How was that transition?

Mike: It's funny that you use the word team leader, because what the experience was most similar to in my life was being in student government where it was like "All right guys, we're going to do the homecoming dance! You do the streamers! You make the punch! You get the DJ!" And then you get some people who are like "Homecoming sucks!" But it doesn't suck. It's awesome! You have to be this cheerleader. Sometimes you don't even believe what you're saying. Sometimes you have to convince people of something and you know that some part of that is a little bit doomed. Maybe…I don't know…the ball… The disco ball?

Mike: Yes! Maybe the disco ball isn't going to spin, but you've still got to hang it.

Jacob: You've got to have that for when everyone slow dances to the Celine Deon Titanic song.

Mike: It really is like that. It's…I forgot the question. Transitioning from the solo act of being a comedian to be a director.

Mike: Oh, yeah! The upside of it, and I get this from talking to who worked on the film, they'll say "You were so calm during the film!" And no I wasn't. I think I look calm in life-

Jacob: I think you were so tired.

Mike: I was so tired! I never flipped out, I never yelled at anybody. I never did any of that shit that some weird, insecure directors do. No David O. Russell-style outbursts and rampages?

Jacob: Did we ever have anything close to that?

Mike: Not with me! Maybe with some other crew!

(They laugh.)

Mike: I'm so sorry. That was an inside joke. You've told this story across many mediums now. It was part of your stand-up routine, then your one-man show, then a book and now a movie? Do you think you've finally exorcised these demons and are ready to move on?

(Everyone laughs.)

Mike: I'm done! I'm done with sleepwalking! I feel like I'm done with this story. I'm moving onto this show I'm presently touring with called My Girlfriend's Boyfriend. We were Off-Broadway last year, we're going to London in May. This month, we're going to…Jesus Christ…California, Illinois, Connecticut, Massachusetts… Yeah, but I'm glad the film is the last part of the sleepwalk project because it was the film I was least experienced in. By the time I got to the film, I knew it so well that I felt confident. I felt confident about the tone of it. I never felt insecure about directing an actor to act a certain way. The film feels so intensely and painfully personal. How do you make a movie about so many horrible things happening to you and still give the audience permission to laugh?

Mike: I think that's why the direct address from the car is so crucial (Birbiglia narrates the film straight to the camera from behind the wheel of a car). Those are the permission to laugh moments. We shot those in post because we were screening it to audiences and it was not getting the laughs it was getting last night and we were like "But it's so funny!" But you've got to listen to the laughs and if they're not there, you've got to figure it out. People didn't feel they had the permission to laugh, so we went out and shot those. Our regular cinematographer wasn't available. Everything was wrapped. Everything was done.

Jacob: We recognized it was going to be a tricky balance from the get-go. We set up these test screenings from the rough cut on. We were able to utilize the This American Life audience and their social networking powers to say "Hey, we're doing a thing…"

Mike: You'd go on Facebook and it wouldn't even say what it was.

Jacob: There's this THING happening in Brooklyn…

Mike: We wouldn't say if it was my movie or anything.

Jacob: People would show up and say "What is this?" and then they'd sit down and realize "Oh, it's a movie!" We'd listen to where the laughs were happening and a lot of that initial feedback was very crucial in helping us understand what you were talking about. They want to laugh, but we're not telling them that it's okay to laugh.

Mike: People were like "This is SAD!"

Jacob: And we'd go "No, it's funny!" Isn't all comedy just infinite sadness plus reflection?

Mike: Yes, absolutely. I don't know about all comedy, but a lot of it is distance from pain. What we didn't have in the film was distance. We didn't have my character in the present saying "It's okay. Look at me. I'm fine. I'm driving a car!" Sometimes, it's as simple as that to tweak a joke. I'm getting the signal from the publicist, so I'm going to go with the obvious closer. After you're finished with your current tour, do you plan to pursue a film career? I'm thinking about Woody Allen, who managed to transition from being a stand-up comedian to being a hugely successful filmmaker.

Mike: I'm very interested. I'm working on a screen adaptation of My Girlfriend's Boyfriend right now. Woody Allen's career is the most interesting to me because I feel like he was able to take what he was doing on stage, which was very personal, and dimensionalize it. His movies are really moving. That's what drove me to that type of movie. I want to make this type of movie. You're laughing, you're laughing, you're laughing, but then you're like oh, wait…this is something much bigger.

Jacob: I think the great thing about Woody Allen is that his comedy is so validating. I'm seeing these characters who are exceptionally flawed in ways that I am too and it's like, oh, I'm okay, other people go through this. This movie has a very similar effect where he's going through this thing with his girlfriend and his feelings are weird and wrong he feels like a bad guy for feeling this way, but he's not. Everyone feels this way.

Mike: Not to be coy, but that's why I always called it Sleepwalk With Me. I wanted it to be inclusive. I wanted people to come and laugh with me and feel…well, hopefully the goal of comedy and all art is to make people feel less alone. Well, it's a great movie. The publicist is giving me a stare down, so I think we'd better call it a day.

Mike: You better watch out. That guy will f*ck you up!

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