Mike Birbiglia is not timid about his personal life. After working the door the DC Improv and struggling as a comedian, he found his voice by telling stories with a gentle, sincere tone. In one of these stories, Birbiglia describes how his bizarre, potentially life-threatening sleepwalking problem became a catalyst for important changes in his relationships. The story eventually became Sleepwalk with Me, an off-Broadway one-man show that had a successful eight-month run in 2008. The show caught the attention of Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Along with his brother Joe and co-director Seth Barrish, Birbiglia and Glass adapted the show into a film, one that Glass helped produce.
Sleepwalk with Me opens locally tomorrow, but I had a chance to speak with Birbiglia a few weeks ago, when he headlined the same venue where he once worked the door. As we sat down to talk, I noticed that he was carrying around scraps of wrinkled paper.
Washington City Paper: What are all these [papers that you’re carrying with you]?
Mike Birbiglia: This junk? I recycle paper, so I have ideas written on the back of a film script. I didn’t even notice until you asked. Yeah, this is the material I’m doing at the D.C. Improv tonight. On [the script side], I wrote check marks next to the lines I thought were good.
WCP: Did you direct the actors to behave like a character from a script, or a person from your life?
MB: Oddly, neither. I just wanted [them] to read the lines as they’re written. However they came out, I wanted to see whether that reading was working for that scene. I wanted to see whether it was believable. That was the most important thing for me: that a scene feels like it’s just happening. It’s not so overacted. In so many movies, this person is just forcing us to feel a certain way. The acting is not loose; it feels too tight.
WCP: Were you ever striving to make the scenes an accurate representation of your past?
MB: No. That’s why I changed my character’s from Mike Birbiglia to Matt Pandamiglio. At a certain point in the script process, it became so disconnected from what had happened that I could no longer justify [using my name]. This isn’t a documentary. My parents live in Massachusetts; the Pandamiglios live in Long Island. Once Carol Kane shows up on set and starts saying those lines [as Matt’s mother], they’re totally different than I could imagine. They’re better, they’re funnier, more interesting. All of a sudden we’re focusing on this character and not my mom.
WCP: Can you talk a little bit more about your writing process?
MB: Inevitably, in any successful off-Broadway show, someone will say, “This should be a movie!” At first, I blew off the idea. I built the show in a certain way, and I didn’t want to change that. But then I thought, “Sleepwalking is very visual. Dreams are very visual. It has a complex love story.” The more I thought about it, the more I thought it could become a unique film. I started writing it with Ira; as time went on, my brother Joe worked on it, and so did Seth, the director of my one-man show. It was a very collaborative process.
WCP: What specific roles did your collaborators have?
MB: Ira focuses on story, stakes, and making sure that we care about everything. Obviously, he does that every week on his radio show (in a way that’s mind-boggling).
Seth focuses on a play/script have what he calls “a larger realization.” He wants the realization to be unexpected, but was always there, you know? Seth also focuses on grounding characters, making them real and unaffected. That’s what we have in common, and why he’s directed my stuff. When I saw something he directed, I thought, “I want to do something like that, where the person on stage is not forcing us to feel one way. They’re just telling the story with no affect.” He calls it “non-acting acting.” He teaches that, and even wrote a book on it.
Joe, my brother, is just a wizard of jokes. He’s a fountain of comedy. He’s always collaborated in everything I do, and his lines/tweaks are in everything I do.
WCP: When making the transition into film, were you concerned that something would be lost since you’re no longer performing in front of people?
MB: Live performance and film are their own art forms. I think the movie and one-man show are very different from each other. In a performance, you’re able to actually steer the audience in ways that are so fast and immediate. You can let the audience in on things, and give them a feeling for what something is like without showing them a whole scene. There’s this line in the show where I say, “I didn’t see a doctor, but I did buy this book The Promise of Sleep by Dr. [William C.] Dement. This is a very unfortunate name for a man trying to instill calm. He should go by the pseudonym ‘Dr. Happysleep’ or ‘Dr. Chamomile Tea.’” There’s something compact about this joke; in a film, you need to blow it out. We need to see Dr. Dement in the car. We have to depict that I’m feeling sleepy, a little bit delusional. There’s all this information coming in.
The adaptation process is very time-consuming. There are all these instances where I thought, “Oh, of course that should be in the movie as ‘blank.’” It turns out that “blank” is easier said than done. There’s a lot of trial and error.
Also, in the one-man show, I am standing there in front of an audience, so they know this is important to me. They kind of get I’m a decent person, no matter what I say, because I seem nice. The same is not true for film. If [an actor] does something nefarious, the audience quickly thinks, “I hate this guy. Here’s a 40-foot image of this guy’s face, and I hate his face.”
WCP: That’s funny because, while I was watching the movie, I didn’t like your character for the first half.
MB: I want that to be the case! I don’t like movies where we just love the characters the whole time because they’re perfect. Nobody’s perfect. That’s what movies are for: to take a complex situation and make them relatable. I want people to feel catharsis and think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve messed up in that way as well.”
WCP: I liked your brief scene with Marc Maron where you decide to use more personal material. Did you come to that decision quickly?
MB: In real life, the process was much more gradual. There was a period of about three years where I started amping up my personal stories. In 2003, I told my story for The Moth. It was a much smaller organization at the time—-there was no podcast or radio show. It was the first time I had a taste of performing something more vulnerable, and I thought, “That feels more natural to who I am.” I’m not slick and smarmy and… what’s that word people use to describe VH1 talking heads?
MB: Right. I’m not snarky. I’m humorous through my earnestness, so that’s what I should be doing.
WCP: What did you think of the controversy surrounding Ira Glass and Mike Daisey?
MB: I loved both episodes. That’s all I’ll say… Ok, I’ve read some of Mike’s retractions and blog posts. In some of them, I agreed with him and in others I didn’t. It’s very complex. I don’t know whether it’s true, but now I’ve heard he’s made [The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs] all factual.
WCP: Yes, he has. I just saw the new show at Woolly Mammoth.
MB: That’s good because his is a story that needs to be told. People deserve to know where their iPhones come from. The Chinese people deserve that, too. In that way, I’m rooting for him, but when you’re telling a story about a multibillion dollar corporation, you owe it to everyone to get your facts right.
WCP: In light of that, when is exaggeration useful in telling a personal story?
MB: Exaggeration is tricky because, in some ways, it’s good in extreme moderation. A joke’s structure is a set-up and a punch line. The set-up is at its best when it’s entirely accurate; the punch line is at its best when it’s almost accurate and pushes you a hair farther. When I developing my one-man show, I thought I’d have it where all the jokes I say are basically true. Even in the punch-line part, so that the audience has a trust in what I’m saying. There’s this joke in the movie (“I don’t want to get married until I’m sure nothing else good can happen”). That’s a joke, and it’s also not a joke. The punch line is true, but what makes it funny is how few people are saying it, exactly.
Another example from the movie is where I ask my girlfriend, “What do you fear most?” and she says, “I fear you’ll meet someone else. What do you fear most?” I reply with, “Bears.” Again, this is true: I have a fascination with bears, I think about them all the time. In my dreams as a kid, many of them ended with a bear clawing me. So that’s true, and it reveals a larger truth about me. But then again, that [bear detail] in the conversation never happened.
WCP: What was it like to put on the director hat?
MB: I would always tell people that writing a book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Directing a movie is unimaginably harder. It’s harder than any situation I could have possibly conceived. But then when it ended, I thought, “I’m definitely going to do that again.” I get the feeling directing is akin to the adrenaline rush people have when they jump out of a plane. Once you do it, you think, “How can I not do it again?”
WCP: That’s the same reason I’m afraid to get my first tattoo.
MB: Exactly! Get one and soon your whole body will be covered in them.