Birbiglia and Glass discuss Sleepwalk
Posted September 5, 2012 at 10:08 pm in Lifestyle
There is a great scene in Sleepwalk with Me when comedian Mike Birbigliaâs character, a stand-up road comic, emcees a talent show at an unnamed college. Barely five students are sitting in the audience.
After the show, a few students come up to him completely enamored by his presence. Their excitement is a stark contrast to the dim auditorium hall and the lonesome road life of Matt Pandamiglio, the fictional funnyman Birbiglia portrays.
The low-budget film, produced by Ira Glass and his public radio show This American Life, follows an aspiring comedian who struggles with a sleep disorder, a deteriorating relationship and defining his career.
Birbigliaâs real-life experiences informed the scene at the fictional college.
âI was those kids and then I was the comedian, so I relate to all of them,â Birbiglia said last week at a roundtable interview at the SLS Hotel about his film, an adaptation of his autobiographical one-man show.
Birbiglia did, in fact, begin his career as one of those studentsÂ when he worked at an improv club while attending Georgetown University.
âI worked the door at the Washington D.C. improv and it was like going to comedy college,â Birbiglia said. âAll of a sudden, Iâm consuming tons and tons and tons of the greatest comedians touring America.â
After his shift, Birbiglia said he would sit by the back wall and watch the likes of Margaret Cho and Mitch Hedberg.
Birbiglia captures this love for comedy in Sleepwalk, but instead of the one watching, he is the comedian on stage â albeit one who struggles to find his footing for the majority of the movie.
Having worked in public radio for much of his life, Glass comes from a different background than Birbiglia. Glass produces and hosts Public Radio Internationalâs This American Life, which features quirky and often emotional stories. His mastery of storytelling, combined with Birbigliaâs appreciation of comedy, creates a film that both say has a unique universality.
âIt actually doesnât skew toward a generation,â Birbiglia said. âItâs about being a person and having a family and having a life and having dreams.â
These audiences, though, had many different reactions to certain parts of the film.
At screenings for the film, Birbiglia noted three very unique responses for one scene in particular: Some audience members laughed, others didnât and some of those who didnât laugh were angry with those who did. Birbiglia said he was delighted by these reactions.
âLaughter is such a visceral response,â Birbiglia said. âSo the movies that move me are like Terms of Endearment or Squid and the Whale where you donât even know whether to laugh or cry. Itâs just life. Itâs just too true.â
Sleepwalk, though, isnât the first time Glass and Birbiglia collaborated. Glass first met Birbiglia several years ago after a radio producer suggested he watch a stage version of Sleepwalk. Since then, Birbiglia has contributed several times to This American Life.
Though many of the stories on the radio lend themselves to use as cinematic subjects, Glass said it was challenging to transition from audible storytelling to visual storytelling.
âThings that I would know how to do on the radio turned out to be really a challenge in making a movie,â Glass said.
Glass also said that in the stage version of Sleepwalk, establishing the relationship between Birbigliaâs character and his girlfriend (portrayed in the film by Lauren Ambrose) required no more than stating the fact with emotion. But developing a believable relationship on screen took a bit more development.
âBy having an affectionate sound in his voice, you believe that they had a real relationship and that they liked each other,â Glass said. âTurning from that into actual scenes that a great actress would be able to play âŠ Â that was so hard.â
For Glass, producing the movie was an exhaustive effort. After he completed Sleepwalk, Glass said he said he would not be coming back to producing any time soon, at least in the same capacity.
âI love the movies but I feel like itâs just a weird, time-consuming, sort of a thankless job where youâre herding a lot of people into place to make something happen,â Glass said.
Currently, This American Life has several other stories being adapted for the screen, including one about cryonics and another about Carlton Pearson, a defrocked Baptist minister.
âThere are about a half-dozen stories from the radio show that are being developed as films, and some of them very beautifully by very skilled people,â Glass said.
As for Birbiglia, he is planning to adapt his current show My Boyfriendâs Girlfriend into a film. He will be performing the show in several California cities this fall.