Capone sits down with Public Radio superstar and SLEEPWALK WITH ME producer/co-writer Ira Glass!!!
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I discovered at a recent series of screenings of the Mike Birbiglia-written/directed/starring SLEEPWALK WITH ME that his co-screenwriter/producer Ira Glass is the most famous man in the world. As he and Birbiglia have been doing in various cities all over the country (and presumably more in the coming weeks as the film continues to expand), Glass was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago to do post-screening Q&As of the movie pretty much all weekend at nearly every screening of the very funny and poignant movie. He'd agree to introduce an 11am showing, the audiences would show up to capacity (or damn near it); midnight show, no problem. Just by putting the word out via various social media, people (largely listeners of Glass's wildly popular "This American Life" radio documentary show on Public Radio) arrive by the thousands.
For many years, Glass was a Chicago dweller, and part of his success was bringing on great storytellers (in addition to his regular team of reporters) to his radio show, including the likes of author David Sedaris and the aforementioned stand-up comic Birbiglia, who turned his tales of relationship and career woes into a one-man show and a book (and now a movie). In my interview with Birbiglia, he said he considered Glass (credited as co-screenwriter, along with Mike's brother Joe and Seth Barrish, also credited as co-director) his "…Story Jedi. He's a real stickler for perfection in telling stories and I think in a lot of ways, that’s the reason the film works, because there were scenes that I really liked, and he would just go, 'We're not feeling anything from this character,' and I would be, 'No, but it’s funny, because of this, and it moves the story.' He would just go, 'No, we need something that is more along the lines of this.' In a lot of ways, he did a lot of dramaturgical work on it. His standards, I have to say, in his radio show and his TV show and with this movie, are absurdly high."
When Glass came back to Chicago for the SLEEPWALK WITH ME screenings, I got a chance to sit down with him, and what I loved about the discussion is how almost immediately he reverts to being a reporter, asking me questions about my job and schedule. Even more exciting is that he has other ideas for stories that might make good movies. Please enjoy my interview with Ira Glass…
Capone: I'm actually coming to one of the screenings at the Music Box tonight.
Ira Glass: Have you seen it yet?
Capone: I have, but I just want to see it with a crowd, bring some friends down with me.
IG: That’s amazing that you would be able to see it more than once. I would imagine with your job, you wouldn’t have time to see anything again.
Capone: The second time was to remind myself of the movie, so I could actually write about it, and then Mike came to town in June, so I talked to him then.
IG: It’s funny, I think these audiences with Public Radio crowds that we are doing in New York and L.A. and here are going to be the most excited audiences we are ever going to get. It’s like a festival audience, like that’s the feeling. You know how when a film is at a festival, people are so excited for it? That’s what this feels like.
Capone: I was at SXSW this year and missed it there somehow. It completely escaped me.
IG: We were a last-minute addition.
Capone: So this has got to be kind of unusual for you. Usually you set a story down, it's a true story, and you’re done with it. It might replay so someone else can listen to it, but you yourself don’t have to keep telling the same story over and over again. How unusual for you to keep rehashing the same stuff for this press tour and these Q&As.
IG: It is, yeah. At this point, since last Friday, I’ve done 37 Q&As and probably not quite as many press, but just about. I feel I have a lot of interesting things to say about the movie, but I don’t have so many that I can produce a new one on every interview. So I apologize for that in advance.
Capone: No, I apologize if I hit some of the same questions, but there are some basic things we want to hit.
IG: Honestly, the experience as a reporter has made me totally appreciate why big stars just lie. You totally understand why Bob Dylan in his interviews just makes shit up. In a weird way, it’s almost like you have more integrity if you start to make stuff up, because it’s like at least you’re living in the moment instead of just repeating something you said to another reporter.
Capone: It’s probably more interesting for him to have a new story to tell every time.
IG: That’s what I’m saying! You feel like a living person. So I won't switch into that mode in this interview, but I just find it so interesting.
Capone: Just let me know which ones are the lies. I’ll still use them. I have read a few interviews with you where you’ve talked about some of the biggest challenges of turning Mike's story from the one-man show and the book. There were so many different versions of this story. Were there certain things from the stage version and certain things from the book and maybe even the way he told some of these stories on your show that you wanted to preserve, that you didn’t want to lose in that transition to film?
IG: There were definitely certain elements. Overall one of the things is that he's charming on stage, he’s just a charming talker. He knows how to connect with an audience and I thought “Well, we should use that.” Then there are certain lines that I really loved. I remember when I first saw him perform the stage show, there’s a line that’s even in the trailer where he’s talking about realizing, after the first dangerous sleepwalk, he says something like “At that point I realized, this is kind of dangerous and I thought ‘Maybe I should see a doctor,’ and then I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll have dinner,’ and I went with dinner.”
I remember sitting in the audience thinking, “You could not express that thought in fewer words.” That’s like a poem--a perfect piece of writing--and there was a point where it wasn’t in the film, because when we first wrote the script, we had been told it’s a hacky move to have narration, and we had written a script where Mike would turn to the audience in the middle of the scene and talk to the audience, but then we ended up cutting all of that out. Honestly it was hard to let it go, because it’s really beautifully choreographed. If you think about how hard it is to stage a scene and where the camera is--I mean we’re beginners, right?--and then have him turn to the audience and turn back to the action and make the action work. It’s delicate and it worked as filmmaking, but it didn’t work with audiences.
Somehow it made the action happening in the scene seems contrived or fake, or you knew it was an artifice. So we ditched that and went to the thing we do now where Mike is in a car driving to a place, and he talks to us from the car and suddenly that let us put in a lot of the writing that I had really loved from the stage show. So I wanted to preserve that, and in the end we did end up preserving it, but we took a long route around.
Weirdly when I watch the film now, the part of the film that seems the most assured is the plotline that isn’t in any of the other forms, and that’s him becoming a stand-up comedian--that really wasn’t in the stage show, and it wasn’t in the radio version. It’s not in the book in the same way. It really was something that we invented and wrote wholly for the movie, and honestly I think it’s one of the parts of the film that works the best.
When we shot the film, it was way smaller, and then we would show the film to audiences, because we could bring out Public Radio audiences and just say “Come on out.” We would just go on Facebook, and fans of the radio show would come out. So we had these audiences that we could have, which was so invaluable, and usually a film of our size with such a small budget wouldn’t be able to afford test screenings, but we were doing two or three screenings a week, and the audience really responded.
And at some point we realized, “We just need more laughs in the film and we have a professional comedian who's the star. Let’s just put him on stage and do more stuff.” And weirdly and accidentally, I feel like the thing that is in a way the most cinematic story--even more than the sleepwalking in a way--like the real movie-ish story is of Mike going from being a terrible comedian to being a really good one.
Capone: That is a great story, and I think historically in film, the story of the stand-up comic is almost never done right. I asked Mike when he was here, “Was there really someone who said that to you? 'Don’t just tell jokes, tell stories from your life.'” And he goes, “No, no.”
IG: Of course not, but we’re making a movie.
Capone: I had a feeling the answer was no, but at the same time there probably was some moment where he realized that’s the type of humor he would function best in.
IG: Oh there definitely was. It’s weird, because it’s such a classic example of how the truth gets turned into a movie. The true story of his life is that he was an observational comedian like the character in the film in the beginning. And those jokes in the early act, which bomb, are the real jokes from his early acts. He didn’t write jokes for the film, he just took those--The Cookie Monster joke, the "A-Team" joke--from his actual act. What’s a lie in the movie is that he actually became quite good at doing that kind of comedy, observational comedy, and that was his first success.
Gradually, he started to talk more and more about himself on stage and obviously when you are talking about yourself more it has so much more punch. Some comedians say "It’s like you’re serving a full meal instead of candy,” but other stand-up comedians have commented--I know Mark Maron has--that nobody has done a film about a road comedian, which is weird given how many comedians have been documenting their own lives, including Larry David and Seinfeld and Louis CK. All of whom worked as road comedians and are all super-skilled at capturing their experiences on film. It was weird that there was any territory left to mine.
Capone: I asked Mike this and I’ll tell you what he said after you answer, but what is it you added to the screenwriting process? What was your specific role?
IG: My role in making the screenplay was just like my role on the radio show, which is I’m a good editor. I feel like it sounds immodest, but I’m a good editor and could tell when stuff wasn’t working in the screenplay. Since Mike and I collaborate well, we would just brainstorm, and he would say four things, and I would be like, “This is the one. Go with this one. This one is great.”
Capone: Would you say that based on whether it was funny, or whether it was pushing the story forward?
IG: Well ideally you want to do both. Occasionally, I would come up with a line that would get a laugh, but that was very, very rare. Almost everything that gets a laugh is Mike or his brother, Joe, who put a lot of funny lines in. No, I feel there are certain things that give the film more feeling and that I was very insistent on, like the very last monologue in the film.
For people who haven't seen the film, all through the film Mike is talking to the audience, and there’s one last time that he talks to the audience where he actually tells the audience, “When we started making the film I had a hard time understanding why my girlfriend stayed with me all of those years, and so I went and asked the person who the movie is based on.” He tells the audience from the screen and then he tells what she says, and that was one of those things where it was something we had struggled with in the screenwriting: “How do we get across her point of view?”
And truthfully we weren’t successful in making it come across in the scenes, and we were in he edit room, and Mike and I would talk about this story, about how he drove to see the real-life person who Lauren [Ambrose]’s character is based on and what she said. I was like “You should think about writing that,” and he wrote it the next day, and we shot it the next day, a week before we finished the film.
Capone: I’m really surprised that wasn’t in the original show, because that seems like a really profound moment, to get an answer that has probably been eating at him for a very long time.
IG: I know, and it wasn’t a part of the original show and it’s funny, because we did an event with Joss Whedon in L.A.--our rival, our nemesis…
Capone: Yeah, I’ve seen the video.
IG: And Joss hadn’t seen the film and he saw the film, and we told him afterwards that that was the very last addition to the film. We didn’t decide on that until the day we locked picture, it was the very last day. I was arguing for it for like a week, and Mike wasn’t sure, and our editor, Jeff, who has impeccable taste, was kind of “There’s pros and cons to this” about it. And Joss said what a lot of other people have said, “It’s hard to imagine the movie without it.”
Capone: Mike said you were the “Story Jedi.” He said you were the guy that would always fight--even if he had this great scene that he thought was really funny--to move the story forward, you were usually not in favor of it. Does that sound about right?
IG: Yeah, that’s about right, and then Mike had the unfortunate or fortunate experience of then working with Jeff Richmond, who was our editor, who edits documentaries in addition to features; he did SICKO and THE COVE, both of them very difficult films to edit and make into entertainment. I mean if you think about what those are, even though with both of them he was working with super-talented people, and Jeff also was a very functional editor in the same way I think he brings to documentarian's like insistence on story. So Mike had two people like that.
But honestly one of the great things about working with somebody who's a comedian is that I feel like I have a civilian sense of humor, and we would be brainstorming, “What do you do in this scene?”, and I would say, “This is the type of thing that would happen,” and then Mike would be lying on his couch and he would say a funny line, and it was like, “Okay, then it will work.” You can point him in any direction, and he can make a joke.
Capone: You said something earlier that I hadn’t considered: “We're beginners here.” Was it strange after this many years into a career that you’ve been doing all of your adult life, that you are starting something in which you’re back to being a beginner? Is that unnerving? Is that exciting?
IG: That was the great and horrible thing about it. I’m not used to being incompetent. [laughs] I’ve been competent for a while at the radio and I really was not used to being an idiot again. To get in situations where Mike and I would know, “This isn’t working,” and we would have no idea how to fix it--literally no idea. We didn’t know any of the tools that you use, and then you just have to start making things up and hypothesizing. Yeah, it was both great and terrible.
I think anybody who makes any kind of work, you know what you want is to put yourself into situations where you’re doing something that’s really hard for you, and you go into it with the faith that if you put yourself into that situation somehow you will find out a way to make it happen, a way to make it work. That’s the best kind of experience you can have if you make things, you set yourself a new goal and then you achieve it, and we do it all of the time on the radio show. We'l try to invent premises for ourselves that are so hard for us as a staff. Even as the most experienced documentary staff in the country, maybe in the world, in terms of radio documentary. We'll try to invent stuff for ourselves that seem just impossibly hard, but this was at a whole other mind-bending level where the film was just bad for a really long time before it got good in a way that was frightening and profoundly humbling.
Capone: I don’t know if you’ve seen it performed, or saw Steven Soderbergh's movie, of Spalding Gray's GRAY’S ANATOMY, where he had an eye problem and he might have lost sight in one eye. But rather than just go to a doctor, he turned it into an experiment and wanted to see if he could try out all of these types of medicine that might cure him, and that was the monologue, that journey to kind the cure. SLEEPWALK WITH ME really reminded me of that, because Gray was pulling in things from his personal life, as he always did, the same way Mike pulls in his anxieties as a reason for these dreams and the sleepwalking.
IG: I feel like I’ve seen parts of it, but I’ve never seen the whole thing and so I don’t feel like I remember it well enough to comment on it. I do remember that Soderbergh seemed very worried that it wasn’t going to hold the audience to just have Spalding sitting there talking.
Capone: He interviews doctors in the film version, just talking about the disorder and different medicines, like not just western medicine, but all types.
IG: That's interesting. By itself, it’s not interesting to hear about somebody’s dreams, it’s not interesting to hear about sleepwalking. It’s not interesting to hear about somebody’s disease. The only thing that makes it interesting are the ways that it glues to the experiences that they are having in their life that are more emotional and more relatable. That was what was good about the story as something to make into a movie, that it had this thing that was unusual and extraordinary and surprising, which is the sleepwalking, but totally melded to this experience that most people go through in their 20s of feeling lost and, “What am I going to do with my life? When am I ever going to get my life together?”
Capone: There is a percentage of people that may come out of this movie not liking the Mike character, not liking the way he handles the girlfriend situation. I asked Mike and I’ll ask you, is it more important that we like him or that we understand him.
IG: I think if somebody doesn’t like him, they're not going to like the film. I wish I didn’t have to say that, but I think the honest truth is because it’s a comedy, you can’t just understand him. You can just understand somebody in a tragedy. You can just understand the characters in THE HURT LOCKER; you don’t have to like them. But something like this, for it to seem funny, which is the whole point of it, you have to like him. And truthfully, we were really careful to try to keep him likable, and when he starts doing unlikable things, we try to phrase it in a way where it’s clear that he knows that he is doing things that are unlikable, he knows they are bad, and he lets the audience know that he sides with them.
Capone: I love that line where he says, “Don’t forget, you’re supposed to be on my side.” That’s my point, he’s well aware.
IG: I know, I know. He's well aware. And then in earlier drafts of the film and some of the cuts of the film, we put in more of Lauren’s side. At one point, we had a moment where he came back in the middle of going away, and you saw more of their relationship starting to fray, and it made you feel too bad for her, weirdly. It made him seem like a bad boyfriend in a way that suddenly once you started to think about him as a bad boyfriend with an extra scene of him not being around when you would want him around, which gives more of her side. If you start to think too much about him being a bad boyfriend, you lose sympathy, and then the film stops working.
Capone: With this story were you looking for moments in Mike’s story that were more universal? Or was it also interesting to find things where unique to him, that are unique to this situation and make him stand out as, “This is why this story is worth telling.”
IG: That’s a really good question, and I’ve never thought about it this way, but I think the truth is for any story to work, you have to have both things going on. It has to be universal and it has to be so particular to the person. I’ve literally never had this thought before [laughs], but it's good that you raise the question. I think it’s really true that it needs to be super relatable; there need to be moments where anybody can have entrance, but it utterly needs both the specificity of his weird disorder and then also I think the specificity of he’s a comedian. I feel like that helps it so much, that he’s not just anyone, but he’s got this specific thing going on in his life with such a specific world, and you get to enter that world that makes it just such an interesting and more pleasing experience.
Capone: As painful as this birth might have been, would you consider doing this again? Mike has another one-man show…
IG: I'm not sure I'm supposed to say this, but he’s already written a draft of a screenplay for it.
Capone: I’m going to see the new show when he comes back to Chicago in November.
IG: It’s really good. Maybe this is bad to say, but after SLEEPWALK WITH ME I wasn’t sure like, “What else has he got? How many experiences does one person have?” [Laughs] So when I went to go see the new one-man show, I was a little bit skeptical, like “How is this going to hold together?” And it’s such a beautiful show and weirdly way less lumpy than SLEEPWALK WITH ME. SLEEPWALK WITH ME you can tell is the very first thing that he did and you can feel him cutting and pasting it together whereas the next one is so assured, and I’m sure the screenplay will be much more assured too now that he’s had to shoot scenes, and he knows how to do it. I would consider it. It’s hard, because I have a day job.
Capone: That’s true. That does cut into your work.
IG: Like as you and I sit here, there’s a 45-minute story about a revolutionary new way to think about how to educate kids that is so exciting that I’m in the middle of writing and I’m halfway through. I feel like, “I should get back to that,” but instead I’m sitting here with you promoting the film and I feel like it’s a puzzle.
Capone: I have work back home to do too, so I completely understand. Thank you so much. It was great to talk to you.
IG: It was a pleasure to talk with you.
Capone: Perhaps I’ll run into you tonight at the show.
IG: That would be great. That's exciting that you get to see it with a crowd. Thank you.
-- Steve Prokopy
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Sept. 19, 2012, 10:31 a.m. CST
Sept. 19, 2012, 10:35 a.m. CST
Sept. 19, 2012, 10:39 a.m. CST
Sept. 19, 2012, 12:40 p.m. CST
Just give me news, don't wrap it in a shiny package. That's why I don't watch television news. And most of the stories on this show are human interest. Human interest stories are, 3/4 of the time, banal. The show is self-indulgent and pandering, and the people who run it come off as smug and obnoxious. After Foxconn I felt a little justified in my extreme dislike of this guy and his show.
Sept. 19, 2012, 1:10 p.m. CST
I love This American Life, and Ira Glass is just an amazing storyteller. Great interview, Capone.
Sept. 19, 2012, 1:48 p.m. CST
the issue with the program is, how many of the human interest stories are actually true glass has been scammed at least twice, so who knows how many stories that are told are fact or fiction
Sept. 19, 2012, 2:06 p.m. CST
by Magnus Greel
NPR superstar is a stretch. Niche celebrity on a niche network. What's next? Steve Inskeep on E!? Dating tips from Diane Rheme in Cosmo?
Sept. 19, 2012, 2:36 p.m. CST
Great interview, Capone. Thanks for doing it, and for covering this movie.
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