Mike Birbiglia Talks Sleepwalk With Me

Mike Birbiglia Talks Sleepwalk With Me, on Blu-ray and DVD today!

As 2012 comes to a close, you're sure to see a lot of Top 10 lists. On my own personal list, lingering somewhere in the top 4, is comedian Mike Birbiglia's acting and directorial debut Sleepwalk with Me. Based on his popular stage show and best selling book, the story recounts his bouts of sever sleepwalking, which interrupt his career and his relationships. It's a hilarious and poignant look at one man's attempts to get his life in order, and we love it!

After a brisk theatrical jaunt that was overwhelmingly successful, Sleepwalk with Me made its debut on Blu-ray and DVD this past week. To celebrate the release, we caught up with Mike to chat him up about his first foray into cinema and what it means for his career going forward.

Will we see more films from this talented young comedian? Here's our conversation.

This is going to make me sound like an idiot. But I didn't know what this movie was about, and we got this special video from you, where you are dressed as a bellhop, box office ticket-tearer. The sound was turned down when I watched it, so I assumed that was the movie. That it was about two guys working in a movie theater.

Mike Birbiglia: You saw the Youtube video of Ira Glass and I in our costumes?

Yes. And I thought, "Well, that looks like a weird movie."

Mike Birbiglia: You thought the movie was the Youtube video? That is hilarious. That is insane. No. I mean, it stands to reason that there would be some confusion. All kinds of confusion, because this is my first feature film. And it is Ira's first feature film. So, yeah. There was no point of reference. We are at the movies. It's not like we even had TV commercials. All of that Youtube stuff was an attempt to have a presence out there, that would counteract our lack of a budget to market this movie. It sounds like it did double duty on your part. It sounds like it went overboard. (Laughs)

It wasn't until I heard you on Marc Maron's show that I thought, "Wait, that sounds like something I need to see." So I went back, and I watched the movie. And I fell in love with it. This movie is just so awesome...

Mike Birbiglia: Thank you so much! That means so much to me.

People love this movie. Was it weird to have it playing in just that one New York theater? How did that experience play out for you?

Mike Birbiglia: Well, it ended up being in 350 movie theaters. Just in that first weekend it was in that one theater. I can bring you up to speed in three sentences. The movie was something we shot in 2011. It premiered at Sundance and at SXSW in 2012. Then, it got distributed by IFC Films. It had a very small platform release. It had a very low ad budget, and it had a low prospect in terms of how many theaters it was going to play. The trajectory was that it would play between ten and thirty movie theaters. Then Ira Glass from This American Life and I reached out to our Twitter followers and our Facebook friends, and we asked people to request the movie at their theater. What happened was, we ended up being booked in 350 movie theaters. In that way, it was sort of a Cinderella story. Its not like Little Miss Sunshine, where it ended up playing on 4000 screens, but it was far more than people expected. Ira and I decided that on opening weekend, and this is what that video is referencing...They decided, "Hey, you could do a Q&A every night at the IFC Center in New York." Ira and I were like, "Well, we've never made a movie before. Why don't we go to all of the screenings?" So we went to eleven screenings every day. I think it was 33 screenings all together, and we added midnight screenings. At the end, I did 35 Q&As in 3 days at the IFC Center. Then, we ended up breaking the IFC Center's all time record. Then we broke the record for per screen average for a first time filmmaker. (Laughs) It ended up being this big, small thing. We ended up playing in theaters for 11 weeks. At the box office, I think it did 2.2 million, or something. This week, it comes out on iTunes, and it will be on VOD. It has made its rounds. It's interesting. It's not universally beloved. It didn't get nominated for some of these big awards and things. But it struck a nerve with people. The people that feel strongly about it feel really strongly about it. That's really, probably, the most exciting thing for us. There are a lot of people that it had a big affect on. That was very exciting for us. It was thrilling. First time films are hard. Even with some of the greatest directors, you look back at their first film, and you are just going, "That movie is kind of bad." Our movie has its spots, certainly, but it played. Audiences got into it.

In terms of this being your first film, how did the directorial duties get split up between you and Seth Barrish?

Mike Birbiglia: I decided I wanted to be the director. It's a little confusing, because the DGA doesn't recognize...Neither of us are in the Director's Guild. They wouldn't recognize the type of collaboration that we had. That is to say, I am the director. I brought him on as a co-director. Not in a 50-50 sense. I wanted him to be specialized in performing. Particularly my performing. My concern was that I'd seen some directorial debuts where the lead actor is the director, and I have seen it where the performance isn't so strong. Seth Barrish is my favorite living, acting theoretician. He wrote a book about acting, a play that I think they are re-releasing. He taught Anne Hathaway. He taught scores of wonderful actors. I wanted him to really watch my performance very closely, so that we didn't have a movie where everyone is good except the lead. (Laughs)

Sleepwalk with Me really doesn't have the earmarks of an amateur or first time director. It's not a sloppy piece of work...

Mike Birbiglia: We were very luck that we landed Adam Beckman, a cinematographer who has shot and won Emmys for This American Life. Ira Glass is close friends with him. He really took to the screenplay, and then was very extremely meticulous and proactive about going with me to the locations, and photo storyboarding almost every location we shot in. When we arrived at each location, we had a blue print of what we were going to shoot. That really helped, because when you are dealing with, what was in our case less than a million dollar budget, you are losing money every five minutes. (Laughs) The fact that we were able to work with this expert photographer, I think it really changed the look of the film that I could have never done on my own.

What was the decision to change the names of the characters, since this was based on a real story, and you are playing yourself. Here Mike Birbiglia becomes Matt Pandamigilio...

Mike Birbiglia: Its funny. It was over writing many drafts of the film. I wrote over twenty drafts of the film. What became clear is, what started off as a true story, as I adapted that to the page, over time, you go after better story telling and more visual storytelling. Characters who, in real life, didn't, you know...At first, everyone had their own names, but then I looked at the script and said, "Well, my ex-girlfriend never said that. I never did that. May parents never said that or did that." So, it didn't seem right somehow, to have these people have their own names. The other thing is, in the long term, I'm not someone that wants to make one film. I want to make different kinds of films. Two of the models I looked at were Annie Hall and Private Parts. Both movies, I love. Annie Hall was Woody Allen, who intended to have that one film be a cannon of films. He made his character's name Alvy Singer. Which is a very transparent nod to his own name. Diane Keaton is Annie Hall, people actually call her Anne, and her mother's maiden name is Hall. That was sort of the idea. As opposed to Howard Stern, who just wanted to make that one movie. He's like, "Oh, I'm Howard Stern. This is the Howard Stern movie. This is it." For me, it had to do with the veracity of it, and where it fit into what I hope to be a series of movies.

What other types of movies are you interested in making as a filmmaker? Do you have a set goal in terms of where you want to go as a director?

Mike Birbiglia: Sure, yeah. I feel like everyone wants to make a movie that they feel passionate about watching. For me, when I was in college, studying screenwriting, I immersed myself in Woody Allen, and Cameron Crowe, and James L. Brooks. What appealed to me about those movies, and what I aspire to, is that these are movies where you are laughing all the way through, and the story sneaks up on you. The meaning and the emotion sneaks up on you in a way you don't expect. I feel that, when a movie does that, it is successful.

You bring up Woody Allen, and I am familiar with Bobcat Goldthwait's work as a director...But there doesn't seem to be too many directors out there that got there start in stand-up...Maybe I'm wrong...

Mike Birbiglia: Louis C.K. directs his show, which is very much like a series of short films. He has directed a couple of films. Pootie Tang...

Pootie Tang, of course. That should have come to my mind as soon as I brought up the subject. (Laughs)

Mike Birbiglia: Right. (Laughs) Anyway, I'm not sure...I consider Lena Dunham a comedian. She is a close friend of mind, and was a mentor on this project. She gave a lot of great notes on drafts of the script. She was actually in the final day of the edit. She came in and looked at an alternate ending. We actually had two endings that we were alternating between on the final day of picture lock. She actually played a very instrumental role on that final day. It all depended on the way they were cut. We had two different edits of the ending. We were looking at both of them side by side. They weren't drastically different from one another. But they were...I won't say what it was, because I don't want to take away from people's experience of it. (Laughs)

So, the alternative ending isn't on the Blu-ray?

Mike Birbiglia: No, no...

I see some DVDs with alternate endings or scenes, and that always bothers me...

Mike Birbiglia: I can't stand it. Joss Whedon has a great song about that. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, have you seen it?

I haven't ever watched it, but I am familiar with what it is...

Mike Birbiglia: He has a song about how DVD extras are horrible. How deleted scenes are essentially kind of horrible because it takes all of the magic out of your experience.

Yes, it does. I don't know if you are a fan of the Evil Dead movies, but I got a copy of the Evil Dead 3, and the ending is completely different from what I saw in the theater. And I loved the original ending. I hated this alternate version, but it was the only version I had. I never watched the movie again.

Mike Birbiglia: (Laughs) Yeah. You are asking the audience to emotionally invest in something. Then later, you are like, what we really wanted it to be was this. That is why I'm not telling you what the other ending was. The ending we have is much better. We were lucky. The financier who worked on the movie also produces This American Life, they were completely hands off. They said, "Make the movie you want to make. We trust you." That was a very fine luxury that we had. Were it not for that, the movie wouldn't be what it is.

I read that you'd cast Carol Kane as your mother in a TV pilot, basically the same role she plays here. What was that TV series? Was it similar to the movie in anyway?

Mike Birbiglia: It was a TV pilot that never made it to series. And you know what? She never got cast. I tried to cast her, but was blocked by people more powerful than me. I won't say much more about that. But we became friends through that process. And we kept talking about how, when I make a movie, I want her to play my mother. Because she is such a wonderful actress. She is so simultaneously emotional and hilarious, and she had a huge amount of improvised lines in the film that really heightened what was there, and made it better. I feel very fortunate to have worked with her. She would always take what was there, and she would honor what was on the page, but bring something better, also.

I've been a fan of hers since Taxi, going back to when I was a little kid.

Mike Birbiglia: She is never not good, which is rare.

It's surprising that they wouldn't want her for a TV show.

Mike Birbiglia: Its insane. I think they were wrong (laughs).

Sleepwalk with me was a stage show, then a book, and now a movie. Is there any other form that this can take?

Mike Birbiglia: Ira Glass always says that it will me an atrismal cheese plate, which we are working on.

Last question, when you were on the Marc Maron show, the subject of his IFC show came up. Are you going to be involved with that in any way? Are you doing a guest spot on it?

Mike Birbiglia: Not that I know of. I would love to. He has my number.

So no cameo?

Mike Birbiglia: Not that I've heard of!

Sleepwalk with Me is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, VOD, and Netflix.

Cinemark Movie Club
B. Alan Orange