Interview: Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk With Me)

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By Simon Miraudo
April 10, 2013

Sleepwalk With Me is a sweet-natured and astutely observed comedy about a struggling stand-up with an increasingly dangerous somnambulation problem. I want to say Australian audiences have had to endure a long, cruel wait for it to arrive on our shores, but the fact is it was only released in the United States back in August of 2012. That said, even eight months is too long for something this good. Mercifully, writer, director, and star Mike Birbiglia recently came to our fair country with this lovely little film tucked under his arm. Adapted from Birbiglia’s one-man show of the same name – and produced by This American Life’s Ira Glass – it tells of his real-life relationship dramas as well as the development of his singular comic voice.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of Sleepwalk With Me here.

Though I wasn’t able to speak with Mike Birbiglia during his whistlestop tour of the nation, he kindly answered the following questions via email.

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SM: You direct, write, and star in Sleepwalk With Me. Were you always keen to cover all three bases, or did you merely want to star in it and eventually wound up directing? Alternatively, did you always want to direct, and potentially plan on hiring another actor?

MB: All of those variations! I spent time talking to other directors, but at a certain point got advice from actors who direct themselves – Jeff Garlin, Lena Dunham, and others – who told me that if I wanted to maintain my vision, I should direct it myself. I’m so grateful they told me that.

SM: Were you concerned at all about adapting your one-man show, which worked so great on stage, into a movie?

MB: Sure, yeah. I’m anxious about most things, but this particularly. But I also felt like I knew the story so well that I had a chance to really convey the story well.

SM: What role did Ira Glass play in taking it from the stage to the screen?

MB: A gargantuan one. He’s an incredible writer, mentor, and friend to me. And on top of that, he told his This American Life listeners to see it, which has just been incredible. Basically, getting some of the most savvy filmgoers and lovers of story out to the movie theatres. In America, we were originally booked in only 10 cinemas, but with my Twitter feed and Ira’s radio show, we rallied people to petition their theatres and we ended up on 150 simultaneous screens and 350 screens total.

SM: What’s the process when telling an autobiographical tale? Are you adapting the one-man show, or are you starting from scratch and going back to your life?

MB: It started as a very different screenplay, but when we got into the edit we started putting more and more lines from the show into the narration. The movie rides the line between comedy and tragedy and we needed a bunch of the narration from the one man show to assure the audience, “It’s gonna be ok. This guy will be fine.”

SM: You go by the name of Matt Pandamiglio in the movie, and many of the characters are playing variations of themselves. Marc Maron as Marc Mulheren is another. When did you make the decision to edit the identities?

MB: Partly out of respect for the real life people (not myself) and then partly as a wink to audience that it’s me, but it’s not exactly me. I mean, it’s not a documentary certainly.

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SM: On that note, a big part of the movie is about your character coming to terms with his comedic style, and not being afraid to tell stories from your life, no matter how painful they might be. Do you ever find yourself censoring yourself, or is that no longer a consideration for you, when telling your personal stories?

MB: Of course! I think long term I will be heading towards fictional narrative films. I feel like there’s a period in your life where you can be autobiographical, but after a while it does wear on you. My rule of thumb is to always criticize myself most in the stories I’m telling. It’s tricky though, because comedy is often about being critical.

SM: This is your directorial debut, and no one would have held it against you if it wasn’t particularly ambitious in a visual way. However, there is that long, single take in the hotel towards the end of the movie. It’s a necessary, and greatly effective shot, and it helps build to the climax. Was that something you considered prior to production? That there had to be at least one shot in there that looked cinematic?

MB: We had a tremendous cinematographer: Adam Beckman, who won Emmys for This American Life, the TV series. He was extremely thoughtful. We scouted all of those locations pretty intensely; apparently much more than indie films of our size are able to. I love that hotel shot. Even on the day we shot it, we considered scrapping it because it was so damned involved. But I’m thrilled that it worked. It’s one of my favourite 2 or 3 shots in the film. John Lutz [as the hotel clerk] is particularly good in it.

SM: Playing drunk or drugged can often be a trap for actors, and I’d suggest sleepwalking would fall in that category too. As an actor, how did you figure out the most convincing way to do it? Did you have any recordings of yourself sleepwalking?

MB: No, but I have a wife and she is a very good recording device, among other things.

SM: I understand the framing device of you driving around and narrating the story was added quite late. What wasn’t working with the film that caused you to add that in?

MB: Like I said, the comedy/tragedy calibration was rocky. It was feeling quite tragic, so we shot some narration in the past tense so the audience knew I would be ok. i.e. “I’m going to tell you a story.”

SM: I greatly enjoyed your part in Girls last season [as a prospective employer of Lena Dunham’s character Hannah] . Would you be willing to do more acting in other projects?

MB: I hope so! I’m so focused on my own projects that I only take acting work when I love the director, and Lena is one of the greats.

SM: How about directing someone else’s screenplay?

MB: I’ve been sent some. It’s hard for me because my first instinct is to rewrite, because that’s how I treat my own writing. I rewrite obsessively. So once I start rewriting, I think, “Well I should just write one from scratch.” So that’s where I’m headed these days.

Sleepwalk With Me is now showing in select cinemas across the country.

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