Ira Glass works with Mike Birbiglia in 'Sleepwalk with Me,' loves MN audiences
When comedian Mike Birbiglia approached radio host Ira Glass to co-write and produce the film Sleepwalk with Me, Glass had no interest.
"It seemed like it was just going to be more homework, so I wasn't so intrigued at first," Glass says.
Birbiglia and Glass had worked together on Glass's public radio program, This American Life, and the pair got along great, but Glass had no production experience and wasn't eager to get involved. But as Birbiglia began to lay out the storyline for the film, Glass's interest piqued.
"I was starting to be able to picture the film in my head, and once you can picture a story then it's like, 'I want to get in there and make sure that the story is good and that no one messes it up,'" Glass says.
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The film follows Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), a struggling standup comedian/ bartender who can't seem to get his comedy off the ground and can't commit to Abby (Lauren Ambrose), his girlfriend of eight years. Mounting pressure from his parents (James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) to figure out a career path and get married combine with the stress of his relationship with Abby, and are too much for Pandamiglio to handle. He begins to suffer from a severe case of sleepwalking, where he acts out his dreams, getting himself into troublesome and life-threatening situations.
Glass says that they changed Birbiglia's name in the story because they did take creative freedom with the character, but the majority of the film -- including most of the dreams -- come from Birbiglia's real life. Sleepwalk with Me is based off of Birbiglia's standup set and one-man, off-Broadway show that Birbiglia and Glass adapted into a screenplay.
As they moved into production, Birbiglia and Glass hit numerous roadblocks, and weren't sure that the film would even pan out.
"I was not aware of just how long we would really be lost in the woods," Glass says. "I've never worked on anything where really up until the last week it seemed like it wasn't going to work out."
Sleepwalk with Me was subjected to numerous audience reviews, and people consistently said that they didn't like the film. Glass says feedback showed that people didn't find it funny, they didn't connect with the characters, and they didn't buy Mike and Abby as a couple.
"Mike observed was that it was the exact same story and a lot of the exact same jokes that he told onstage that killed in the stage version, but weren't getting any laughs in the film. We made a movie out of material that had proved itself to work, so clearly the problem wasn't the inherent idea and the material -- the problem was us. We were not presenting it in a way that people were enjoying it," Glass says.
There were several turning points for Birbiglia and Glass that were key to the current success of the film. Glass cites one of the biggest changes as modifying Pandamiglio's narration in the film. In early versions of Sleepwalk with Me, Pandamiglio would turn to and speak to the camera during the middle of scenes. Audiences found that this felt artificial, thus lowering the emotional stakes.
Another problem Glass found that audiences were having was that they didn't know how the film would end and therefore felt uncomfortable laughing during Pandamiglio's hardship.
"When Mike is doing his standup, he is onstage so you know that things worked out okay and you know that he got through it and he lived to tell the story," Glass says. "You could laugh at it because there was a distance to it. In the film there was no time."
To add both distance and time, Glass and Birbiglia added in an opening dialogue where Pandamiglio speaks directly to the camera stating, "I'm going to tell you a story and it's true... I always have to tell people that."
This was one of the seemingly minor changes that helped audiences connect with the film.
"As soon as we added the narration in the car, everything changed," Glass says. "Even things that were exactly the same now got laughs."
The film showed at Sundance to great success, and has been garnering rave reviews from audiences.
"It got to a point where it won Sundance and was doing great with audiences. In theaters, it kills," Glass says. "It's original, which is one of the advantages of doing it independently -- you can make something that's different."
Glass says that he has several favorite memories from the film, but one that stands out was the first day on set where they shot a scene with Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn, and Carol Kane.
"Up until that point, it had just been an imaginary idea," Glass says. "The first day was the first time where everyone was in a scene together, and watching them shoot was just crazy. It was like, 'This is a movie and that's really Carol Kane.' I knew that we made a deal with Carol -- she'd come to readings and I'd met her several times, but to look into the monitor and see her filming was crazy."
Prior to the Uptown Theatre screening of Sleepwalk with Me on Friday, Glass says that he couldn't wait to come to Minnesota to show the film. Both Birbiglia and Glass have been doing press since January, traveling to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and other cities across the country. Minneapolis was their last stop.
"We started with really amazing screenings, but I feel like the screenings we do in Minnesota are going to be the best ones we're going to do," Glass says. "First of all, as someone who's in public radio, every time I've done a show in Minneapolis or St. Paul, they've been the most amazing and enthusiastic crowds. The single most competent person in public radio works in Minnesota and his name is Tony Bol. He organizes Minnesota Public Radio's events and we were lucky that he saw we were coming to town and he was our hookup. I think people would have been interested in the film and curious anyway, but with Minnesota Public Radio on our side, they whipped up excitement in Minnesota to a crazy fever pitch.
The nicest thing that will have happened to us for the whole run of the film is that we're going to be in Minnesota for the last time we're doing press. I feel like we're going to get to go out on a high note. I've been excited for the past few weeks knowing about this screening and what it is going to be like."
IF YOU GO:
Sleepwalk With Me
Now playing at Uptown Theatre
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