Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass on Their Sundance Hit ‘Sleepwalk with Me’

Director Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass at the premiere of Sleepwalk with Me. Photo by Todd Oren/Getty Images.

Claiborne Smith

Sleepwalk with Me is much funnier than the outline of its plot indicates: A man has lived with his girlfriend for eight years, but doesn’t really love her. Succumbing to family pressures, the couple gets engaged. His anxieties manifest themselves in a disorder that is eventually diagnosed as rapid eye movement behavior disorder, which causes its sufferers to actually act out the dream they are experiencing.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia—known well to listeners of This American Life—has already published a book about his life and disorder, and that book in turn is based on the confessional, intimate, and self-deprecating stand-up comedy Birbiglia mines from his own life. Now Birbiglia’s story is a film that he directed (although he goes by another name in the film) and co-wrote, a film that premiered on Monday in the NEXT showcase at the Library Theatre.

Acknowledging that “it’ll be awkward,” Birbiglia nonetheless asked the people who helped him create the film to come on stage to answer the audience’s questions, at which point a bevy of approximately 20 people walked down the aisle, including Ira Glass, the host of This American Life and the producer and co-screenwriter of Sleepwalk with Me.

I really enjoyed the movie—it’s heartwarming and funny—but tell me about the process. You had a one-man show and what happened from there?

Birbiglia: Well, around the time the original one-man show ran off Broadway for about eight months I did a piece of this story on This American Life. Ira and I became friends and we talked and said, ‘Well, why don’t we turn this into a film?’ It has so many visual elements and so many intimate elements, and sleepwalking is such an intimate event, but so wrongly depicted. It’s always [he holds his arms out like he’s a walking zombie]. We’d never seen it accurately depicted.

You all have experience taking previous live work into different iterations like This American Life—what was the most important lesson you all learned as screenwriters?

Ira Glass: There’s a point when we told the radio show’s listeners on our Facebook page that they could come and watch test screenings of the film, but we won’t tell you what it is. There was a period early on when people were like ‘I don’t get them as a couple. What’s their deal as a couple?’ So we added a scene very early on where he just picks her up at work and after we added it, someone told us this story, which I guess is a famousy screenwriter story, where a guy wrote a book called Save the Cat.

Apparently there was some movie where the main character was a tough guy and people would see test screenings and hate him. And so the filmmakers were like ‘Let’s have him save a cat.’ So in one of the first scenes, he saves a cat. This story is so apocryphal sounding. It was told to us by somebody who knows the movies, and we were like ‘I guess that’s what you do.’ So we just had to have a scene where the couple seems a couple where he picks her up from work and they seem like a real couple. It’s 32 seconds long, and then after that, the audience never said to us, ‘They don’t seem like a couple.’ So “save the cat,” that’s the lesson.

The movie starts off with that “this really happened” line – that sets the expectation that the film has a documentary authenticity, but then your character is introduced and he doesn’t have your name. Can you talk about the line between reality and fiction? And that’s your brother over there, isn’t it? He worked on the screenplay but he’s not in the film – did you make him disappear?

Mike Birbiglia: That’s very accurate – he doesn’t exist (pointing to his brother Joe Birbiglia). Ta-dah! The reason we changed my name – and we talked about this for hours and hours – we didn’t want it to be a documentary, we didn’t want it to be “my brother is my brother … and my ex-girlfriend is my ex-girlfriend.” I’m comfortable telling my story, but I feel weird filling out other people’s characters who exist and who I care about.

Q: For the performers, several of you have worked with other directors – what makes Mike a really unique director to work with?

Birbiglia: There’s a compliment from them in the question.

Carol Kane: Actually, I have to tell you I was stunned by Mike’s ability to direct – it’s as if he’s been doing it all his life. He was so calm, he made his choices, he was so open and collaborative. I felt completely comfortable, as though I was working with a longtime, great director, which shocked me. I’ve always loved his work as a writer and comedian, and now am completely confident in what a great director he is as well.

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