Ira Glass: the iconic voice, and mind, behind hit radio show This American Life is a man uniquely well versed in storytelling. So it may come as a surprise to hear the accomplished producer almost came a cropper bringing comedian Mike Birbiglia's story to the big screen. Sleepwalk with Me is Birbiglia's wry account of relationship angst, expanding comedic horizons, and an increasingly dangerous sleep disorder. But it turns out adapting this successful one-man show into a movie became a bit of a storytelling nightmare… and that's before Joss Whedon – director of The Avengers – declared war on the film!
I think it was actually the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on
Now this story has been a long time in the telling, but I wonder if you can take me back to the first time you heard Mike's tale: what was your impression?
The first time I heard it was a recording. I didn't know him or anything, but somebody simply referred my staff to this recording of him telling like a 15-minute version of the story on stage – of him having these sleepwalks and eventually jumping through a window – and I thought it was really charming and really interesting, and relatable…weirdly relatable. So that's how I first got to know Mike; we put that on the radio and then we started to develop stories together for the radio show.
So he had this very successful one-man show that he wanted to turn into a movie and he asked me to come and produce it. And we worked really well together and I really liked Mike and so it seemed like it could be fun. [But] I really did not suspect how long it would be, and that I would get as deeply involved in it as I did.
How long was development?
It was probably two or three years before we were ready to shoot the script. And then when we shot the film – you know the technology is so fast, they're cutting it together as you shoot. And just a couple of days after we shot it we could look at the first cut of it and it just didn't work at all. [Laughs]
Then we went back in for trying to re-engineer the entire film: writing more things, and taking things out and restructuring things, and moving things around, and rethinking the way narration works in the film. There were just enormous changes from beginning to end.
That's fascinating, because you've spoken about “the building blocks” of the anecdote: action followed by a moment of reflection. So was it was a complete surprise to come across all of these problems?
Yes. It was a horrible surprise. [Laughs] I think it was actually the hardest thing I've ever worked on. I think most of us who do journalism; we're never in a situation where we are spending like three, four years on one story. It just feels crazy to me that we were still working on the thing.
And the rules of making a film work are really different from what it takes to make a radio story. There were so many things that surprised me, like there was a point where, in early cuts of the film, we would show the film people and it just wouldn't get laughs. It was the same jokes that were in the one-man show, which just killed; the one-man show just brought down the house every night.
[Then] at some point [Mike] realised the one man show works because, 'it's me in the present, telling the story. You can relate to me, and I have the same attitude about the events that you do in the audience. Where as if I'm not in the present, narrating – and you can relate to me in the present – the only person you have to relate to is me in the past, and that character isn't relatable.' Which is such a weirdly abstract thought for a person to have! Then he's just like, “let's go shoot all of this narration.” So we went and shot all the narration kind of on the cheap. Then from the very first day that we put it in, suddenly all the things that had not gotten laughs – the same exact jokes – got huge laughs.
So you had to break the fourth wall to have it all come together.
Yeah, it's funny, it's a very old storytelling idea, where you need somebody to relate to in a story or else it won't have any emotion, or power, or relatability. But the fact that it wasn't even getting laughs, like, I wouldn't have guessed that. I just feel like that's a lesson that I'm sorry that I had to learn.
Now let's talk about this boycott from Joss Whedon. Whose stroke of genius was it to pick a fight with that guy?
[Laughs] I got in touch with him because he's been on the radio show and he's a buddy. I said, “Could you do a little promotional thing for our film?” And I sent him a paragraph or two, [and] then he wrote that thing that he was declaring war on us. So I believe that the credit goes to Joss. So, yeah, he took my dumb email and turned it into that, and then declared war on our film on the grounds that, you know, he said our film was going to distract people from The Avengers, and The Avengers was running out of theatres and he heard we were gaining theatres. And then at that point it really was war; we had videos back and forth. Then, to our amazement, on our opening weekend we made $47,000 or something per theatre, which beat The Avengers opening day average per theatre number. But having said that, we were in just one theatre, and they opened in like, several thousand theatres. So for total they were far ahead of us.
But that's when you move the goalposts and claim the victory, right?
Yeah, that's exactly what you do.
Is this the beginning for a broader umbrella for This American Life and you producing more creative projects outside radio? You've already done the TV show as well, but is this a proof of concept?
I mean, this isn't the first thing we've done. Like you said, we've done a television show for a few years. Then periodically we've been doing these cinema events which broadcasts in North America and in Australia as well, where we do our show on state with different acts, and animation, and dancers, and music – and we beam the show around the world. And those are big production undertakings. And we do have another half dozen films in development right now: one with Tim Robbins directing, one with Mark Forster directing, one with Errol Morris directing and Paul Rudd starring. Though to say that makes that sound like the films are way more real than in fact they are; they are all films with very solid scripts, but they are films in that stage where there is a good script, but we still need to get the money together. Get the money and the cast.
And is this under the This American Life imprimatur?
Yeah, absolutely. But in those films I feel like our collaborators are way more experienced that Birbiglia or I was. This is Birbiglia's first film. All these other films are with people who have won Academy Awards and are super skilled at what they do. Like, I look forward to not being as involved.
It's more like I get to do the fun part, like, talking about the story and how do we do this? And what's an interesting way to tell this story? And then other people completely execute it; people who are world experts at [filmmaking].
There is a lot of refreshing, funny honesty in this film, which feels pretty rare these days, why do you think that is?
I think we had the advantage in making the film that there was no adult supervision, and so there wasn't the kind of burden on the film to be serious, or conform to rules. We did a lot of things that if we had had a studio backing us up, they wouldn't have let us do. Like, in general, people frown on having narration in films; that is considered kind of a hack move. There are a lot of things: people need romances to work out a certain way in films. There are all sorts of things you can do when you're at a very low budget level that we have the freedom to do.
Now Mike's coming out here to perform in Melbourne and at the Sydney Opera House, so are there any tips you want to pass on about handling Australian crowds?
[Laughs] No, I have no tips at all. I wish I had an answer as funny as the question! No, I got nothing. You lobbed that over the net beautifully and I am failing as an interviewee to rise to the level of the question.
Not at all! You just have to be kind to the locals I'm sure.
That's true, that's true. He's a huge Australia enthusiast. He had toured Australia before I did, and one of the reasons I did was because he insisted how fun it would be. I think he's just amazed that there could be an entire country of people who speak English with an accent. He just doesn't get over that.
Sleepwalk with Me
Saturday 14 December, 10:20PM on SBS VICELAND (streaming at SBS On Demand after broadcast)
Director: Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish
Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn
What's it about?
Matt (Birbiglia) is a promising stand-up comedian struggling with the stress of a stalled career, a souring relationship with girlfriend Abby (Ambrose), and the wild episodes of severe sleepwalking he is desperate to ignore.