Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Sleepwalk With Me is fuckin’ hilarious. It’s true. I wasn’t well versed in Mike Birbiglia’s work until this movie, but I’m not a fan for life… or at least until he starts sucking, whichever comes first.
Sleepwalk With Me is one of those kinds of films where you know in the first 30 seconds you’re in love with the movie. That kind of reaction to a film usually happens at film festivals because of a lack of preconception. I say in the interview that I didn’t know much about this movie at all and that’s true. I had seen one still, predominantly featuring Lauren Ambrose, and heard it was good. That was all.
It’s a film about comedy, drama and what’s left when those two things bang heads. It’s about an up and coming comic who has commitment issues. Across the board, by the way, not just with his girlfriend. He doesn’t take anything seriously and that leads to some personal strife and growing and all that fun stuff you find in indie movies.
But it’s funny, so all that serious stuff shouldn’t dissuade you. Don’t take my word for it, take Joss Whedon’s…
When I saw this film at SXSW I did something I don’t usually do… I begged. Oh, man, did I beg. I was offered an interview with Birbiglia in the weeks leading up to the festival, but I wanted to see the film before committing. I love interviews, but at film festivals my focus has to be on the movies… But I saw this film and I begged the lovely publicists to set up something with me and Mike and they made it happen.
Below is a chat between me, Birbiglia and producer Jacob Jaffke about all things Sleepwalk With Me, ranging from how awesome Lauren Ambrose and Carol Kane are to how autobiographical the movie is, as well as getting talking-to-the-camera advice from Ferris Bueller himself and other fun little tidbits. Fair warning: there are light spoilers (and one not so light spoiler, but I did mark that one). Enjoy.
Quint: Going in, the only thing I knew about Sleepwalk With Me was that people at Sundance loved it and Lauren Ambrose was in it.
Mike Birbiglia: I feel like that if people know that, it’ll be a hit! (laughs)
Quint: But I have to say, within the first 25 seconds of the movie whenever Mike breaks the fourth wall, Ferris Bueller style, and addresses the audience, I knew I was in for the rest of the film. That totally worked for me.
Mike Birbiglia: I actually called Matthew Broderick to ask him advice about talking to the camera.
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah. He said an interesting thing, he goes “When they were shooting FERRIS…” I love FERRIS. It’s so classic… He said that they re-shot some of the stuff with the camera and John Hughes gave him this direction, which was “Maintain eye contact with the camera, because it’s like you’re having a conversation with someone and if you are averting your eyes,” like we naturally do as actors, “then they are not going to trust you.” I thought that was really interesting.
Quint: That was it? You didn’t ask for Sloane’s number?
Jacob Jaffke: (Laughs) That’s the purpose for the phone call actually, the ulterior motive.
Quint: And I noticed that there was no FERRIS ending. You didn’t have something after the credits. “What are you still doing here? Go home!”
Mike Birbiglia: (Laughs) Oh you’re right, we didn’t have the “What are you still doing here?” That would have been a complete rip off!
Quint: The only way it would have worked is you would have had to do it like 100% committed, come out with the towel…
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah, exactly. They say “Steal from the best and cover your tracks,” that would be a case of like “There’s tracks everywhere.”
Quint: So, are you going for an EGOT? Do you know what an EGOT is?
Mike Birbiglia: No.
Quint: It’s when somebody gets an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
Mike Birbiglia: (Clapping) That’s so great! An “EGOT?”
Jacob Jaffke: We are now!
Quint: I was going to say, because you have a book, a play, a movie, and you need album. Is there an album?
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah, there’s a SLEEPWALK WITH ME live album. I’m not going for an EGOT. I think I’m too small time for an EGOT, because I’m off Broadway.
Quint: An EGOT would really put you on the map, I’m just saying…
Mike Birbiglia: I’m off Broadway and then I’m an indie film, which is like the second tier versions of those, but no it’s just truthfully it’s a story that I’ve enjoyed telling in these different mediums of media and then with film I’m glad that I did it last, because it’s the hardest. I had never directed a feature film and so if I hadn’t done it last, I feel like I wouldn’t have had the confidence to just say “Tonally, this is right and this is wrong. This works. This doesn’t work.” I feel like I knew it backwards and forwards at that point.
Quint: It feels very natural and that was one of the things that I noticed right off the bat, that confidence of you talking to the audience. I understand that was a last minute decision. So how glad are you that you did it?
Mike Birbiglia: Very glad. It wasn’t comedically clicking. We were screening it for audiences in New York. Ira [Glass] and Jacob were setting up these test screenings with like THIS AMERICAN LIFE’s fans on Facebook. It wouldn’t even say like “It’s Mike Birbiglia and an Ira Glass film,” it’d just be like “There’s this thing…”
Jacob Jaffke: It would like “show up on the street corner at 7:00pm in Brooklyn and that’s it, thanks.” I would get 10,000 emails. (Laughs) They’d be like “I’ll pay you for this” and I’m like “You don’t even know what this is!”
But it’s important, because I think we recognized how delicate that balance was. It is such an emotional movie, but it’s also we want it to be a very funny movie and we wanted to make sure we were hitting the funny and the emotional at the same time. It is a balance, so I think those screenings were really important in deciding “What’s the tone going to be?” and “Where the laughs are going to come in” and “When are we going to pull them back?”
I think there is this stigma around test audiences that’s kind of negative, but I think it was really positive, because we knew exactly what we were looking for. I think you go into test screenings like “Is this good” and we were like “No, we are looking for something a little more refined than what we are doing.”
Quint: I know a lot of filmmakers hate test screenings, but they don’t hate test screenings themselves, they hate that the studios use them as weapons, because the studio will know what they want the movie to be and since they are recruiting the audience…
Mike Birbiglia: I was doing a sitcom pilot for a network a bunch of years ago, which didn’t go and I’m so glad it didn’t, but the reason it didn’t go was they tested it in Vegas with people just walking down the street like “Come on in. You want to see something?” And it didn’t test well and I’m so glad that it didn’t, because it was kind of just a watered down version of what I do.
Quint: All right, so in that instance the test screening helped you.
Mike Birbiglia: It saved my ass, yeah.
Quint: I don’t know any filmmaker that doesn’t like the ability to fine tune their work and that’s what test screenings can offer. It’s just that little thing when the studios force it.
Jacob Jaffke: Ira tried to use it as a weapon. No, I’m just kidding. He didn’t do that at all. Without him and his support, a movie of our size wouldn’t have that luxury and so it was really an invaluable thing that we had that resource at our disposal and Ira was eager to reach out to the fans and make sure that they could help us in that way.
Quint: So, I have a friend who writes for Popular Mechanics and she was saying that when she interviewed you that you said they actually made the pizza pillows in the film.
Mike Birbiglia: Oh yeah.
Quint: And you ate them all.
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah. Our prop master was a woman named Kirsten Thorson and she designed the Pizza Pillow. She’s very proud of it. She designed it in cooperation with a pizzeria in Brooklyn.
Jacob Jaffke: Roberta’s in Bushwick. Really, they are great.
Mike Birbiglia: And so the pizza pillow tasted really good. I think usually in movies when you see people eating stuff or whatever it’s like the people are so grossed out by what they are actually eating, they have to pretend that they are enjoying it. The pizza pillow is extraordinary. It was some of the best pizza in the world and…
Quint: It didn’t seem to be very practical, I noticed though.
Mike Birbiglia: It’s not practical. (Laughs) The moment you bite in, the sauce comes out and is dripping down your shoulder.
Quint: Yeah, your shirt is not going to survive a Pizza Pillow, I don’t think. It was a good idea. It’s thinking outside the box.
Mike Birbiglia: Literally. (Laughs) “Outside the pizza box.” “TM.”
Quint: So we should touch on the actual sleepwalking in the movie. Since I went in not knowing too much about it, I didn’t know how autobiographical it was… You know, I go to a lot of film festivals and see a lot of film fest movies that can go dark and when you get to the point about the doctors telling you “Hey, if you had this condition you can murder your partner.” I was like “Man, this is going to go into some really strange places…”
Mike Birbiglia: Oh, cool!
Quint: I don’t know, could you touch on the condition itself?
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah. It’s called “REM Behavior Disorder” and it’s something I wasn’t diagnosed with for a long time and I’m diagnosed with now. It’s a condition where people have a dopamine deficiency and it’s basically the chemical that’s released from your brain in your body when you fall asleep that paralyzes you, so you don’t act out your dreams.
It was something that for a long time I didn’t want to talk about, because it’s embarrassing. I think it’s actually important for the movie, because it gives stakes to the movie. It shows you that this guy is so in denial that he actually is finding out that he could kill somebody with what he has and he’s still not dealing with it.
With all of my comedy, whether it’s in my book or in my shows, what I’m trying to do, sometimes successfully and some times not, is go to the most painful places. That’s why my book was called SLEEPWALK WITH ME AND OTHER PAINFULLY TRUE STORIES. I find that if you can go to the painful parts, if you can come out the other side and find comedy in it then you’re gold, but there are certainly tons of stories it seems on the cutting room floor where I couldn’t find the comedy and ultimately it’s just sad. (SPOILERS) For me, the most powerful image in the film is the sleeping bag at the end, because it’s dark in a way. It’s like this guy’s going to have this thing for the rest of his life and that’s very straining. (END SPOILERS)
Quint: He doesn’t go to the doctor and then find a cure. He just finds out how to live with it, yeah.
Mike Birbiglia: And I think that that’s more true to people’s experience of having a disorder or disability or weakness of some kind. It’s that nothing has cure. There are very few things that have a cure, but you can face them and sometimes that’s the best thing you can do.
Quint: What about the importance of casting Lauren? I think with that character you need somebody who is a good actress, and she kills it in the film, and…
Mike Birbiglia: Oh yeah. We were just talking about that today. She does such a good job.
Quint: It’s actually kind of a delicate character to play, because you don’t want her to be the victim of the relationship. She’s also culpable with where it’s gone, so you don’t need… You need somebody to hit that balance and still be somebody that the audience in a way kind of falls in love with, too.
Mike Birbiglia: Lauren was attached to the film for about year beforehand and she did the Sundance Institute’s reading that we did in New York a few months before we shot. It was actually my wife, Jenny’s, idea to approach her because Jenny and I were talking about how it’s important… precisely what you are saying, it’s important that the female character is so strong that you can’t feel sorry for her. We had readings at certain points where we had other actresses, because Lauren wasn’t available, do the reading and it’s a different movie. All of a sudden you are going “Aw, the poor girl,” but you don’t want to say that. Ultimately they are two people who are coming into adulthood and they are both a little bit in denial about this thing.
Quint: I was sitting there kind of dreading the breakup scene. There’s always that moment in these kinds of movies and I get weirdly anxious about them, but what makes it really work here is that it’s actually a good thing. It’s such a reversal of my expectations. Their marriage wouldn’t fix anything, it would only make things worse.
Mike Birbiglia: No, no I know.
Quint: So I really enjoyed that aspect.
Mike Birbiglia: Thanks. A lot of the feedback we get, like we were just talking to this girl who was saying like it made her cry at the end, because she’s going through exactly the same experience right now and for me, that…
Quint: So did you just break somebody up? Is that what you’re saying?
Mike Birbiglia: I don’t know. I’m not getting involved! (laughs) No, but that’s been really meaningful for me at these festivals is when people have an emotional response to it, because as a comedian what you want is you want people to laugh, that’s most important, but then if they can laugh and feel something, I can’t ask for more than that.
Jacob Jaffke: It’s the best of both worlds.
Quint: The movie is easy to recommend to anybody, because it’s funny. You don’t have to put any caveats like “Well, if you’re not in the mood for a kind of depressing thing…”
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah, I always have to do that with my parents. I’m like “You should see it, but the person is in a coma…”
Quint: “BLUE VALENTINE is maybe not a good anniversary movie…”
Jacob Jaffke: This movie in particular, it’s like I like movies that make you connect and not through gimmicks, not like “I’m going to trick you to connecting to this movie.” I like movies that try to just be bold enough to say “I have a story to tell and I think you can learn something from it” or “You can get something from it” and you can connect with it.
Mike Birbiglia: And I think it’s interesting having seen it now a thousand times, I get different perspectives all of the time. This week it’s really struck me how great the cinematography is by Adam Beckman and the editing by Geoff Richman. The work of those two guys is really extraordinary and the movie wouldn’t be what it is without them, because a lot of the story is subtle and Beckman does these things with light that are just these really nice touches and the choice of focal length in certain moments of the film… A lot of that is him and I think we were really lucky to have him.
Quint: So how accurate is the portrayal of the parents? Is that pretty much it?
Mike Birbiglia: (Laughs) Well…
Quint: No matter what your answer is, I have to follow it up with “Have they seen it?”
Mike Birbiglia: They haven’t seen it. Hopefully they are going to see it this summer. We are going to hopefully screen it near them, but I mean… there are elements certainly of crossover, but I have to say the reason why the character’s name is “Matt Pandamiglio” and it’s “Linda Pandamiglio” and “Frank” is that it’s not a documentary. I mean once you enter a cinematographer and actors and a costumer, I mean it’s not you anymore. It really isn’t, it gets away in this way that is better than it could be… or it’s different from how it would be in a documentary. If you give Carol Kane a script, you’re going to get a lot of Carol Kane, you know?
Quint: Which is awesome.
Mike Birbiglia: Which is far more entertaining.
Quint: I miss her in films.
Mike Birbiglia: She’s great.
Jacob Jaffke: She’s fantastic.
Mike Birbiglia: She was wonderful to work with and she improvised so many lines that made it in, more so than anyone else and she would do them as is and then also would add on lines and we ended up using a lot of them. She is really such a gem.
Quint: Obviously, the model that exists for smaller films these days is limited theatrical and video on demand. Now, comedy plays so much better with a crowd. Laughter is infectious. I imagine you want people to see this one in a theater more than alone on their couch, right?
Jacob Jaffke: Our intention on making this movie was “Let’s make this for the big screen.” That’s why we brought Adam Beckman on. We were like “We need a cinematographer who will make this look amazing on a theater screen” and that was really important to us when selling the movie and finding the right home for it. This is why we are happy that IFC has it.
Mike Birbiglia: They have such great comedies, too. In my opinion three of the best five comedies in the last two years, IN THE LOOP, THE TRIP, and TINY FURNITURE are three of my favorite comedies for sure.
Quint: I was lucky enough to get to talk to Louis CK about his comedy concert film and he was really hoping to get a wide theatrical release on that. It didn’t happen, but I miss those kinds of films. Comedy just works better in a group and when I grew up it was Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Modern audiences don’t get that kind of opportunity, unless it’s The Redneck Comedy Tour.
Jacob Jaffke: It’s called BLUE COLLAR!
Quint: There’s a red neck under the blue collar, so maybe that’s where I got confused. But yeah, I think it would be amazing to see that.
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah, I would love to see that come back as well. I’m definitely toying with the idea of doing a comedy concert type thing.
Quint: That’d be great. So, what’s next for you guys?
Mike Birbiglia: I’m working on a screenplay adaptation of MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND, which is my next one man show and that ran off Broadway last year and Jacob’s got a whole ton of films on his queue.
Jacob Jaffke: Trying to get some stuff off the ground. I’m working with a filmmaker named Graham Reznick on a movie called HEXAGRAM with Glass Eye Pix in conjunction with Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok and trying to get that together. Yeah, but I’m excited for this movie more than I can tell you.
Sleepwalk With Me is opening in New York this Friday and rolling out to over 100 theaters across America shortly after. Click here for a complete list of dates and venues. Word is Birbiglia and Ira Glass will be at every single showing at New York’s IFC Center theater this weekend to give As to your Qs and grease some palms.
The film is great and I hope you guys get a chance to check it out.