First published on 26 Feb 2013. Updated on 4 Apr 2013.
Mike Birbiglia once jumped through the second-storey window of a hotel while he was asleep. The New York stand-up storyteller’s passion for this unbelievable tale, which has already been documented in both a one-man show and a book, brought him to This American Life producer Ira Glass, which resulted in a feature film version.
Mike, how much trouble did you have convincing people with money that this was a good idea?
Very few people had faith that people would come out to see the movie with no major stars. If you were to pitch me: “There’s going to be a comedian. And he’s going to be really soft-spoken and earnest and tell stories. And the stories are not going to involve sex and he’s not going to curse much.” If you tried to sell Mike Birbiglia as a concept, no one would buy it. Same with Ira. He really struggled to get his show off the ground, because it’s a very artsy concept for the radio, where you need to grab people quickly.
How hard was it to translate tried-and-true material with punch lines into this much subtler cinematic story?
I’ve been saying this joke onstage lately, but when you’re a first-time filmmaker, you have to convince people you can do this colossal task that you don’t know how to do. It’s like showing up in seventh grade for the field trip and saying, “I’m going to drive the bus.” And everyone’s like, “What do you mean, you don’t know how to drive a bus.” And you say, “Well, I’ve been watching the bus driver, and I feel like I’ve got a sense of it. And I’ve been watching other bus drivers, and I have my favourites, and I feel like I have a bus-driving aesthetic and that’s going to carry us through.” And some people get off the bus. And that’s fine. But most people stayed on the bus for this film.
You used your name in both the show and the book, but in the movie you play Matt Pandamiglio. Why adopt a character now?
Two autobiographical movies stuck out to us: Private Parts and Annie Hall. Howard [Stern] chose to use his name. Woody [Allen] chose to use a kind of spoof on his name. Although I respect Howard, he was clearly looking to make one movie. I want to have licence in the future to depart from my real life.
Are you cured of your sleepwalking now?
I did sleepwalk during the making of the film, because I was sleep-deprived after working 15-, 16-hour days. But outside of the movie, to some degree, yes. I’m like the character, who isn’t cured but is dealing with it. He doesn’t have a 180-degree transformation but maybe a 30-degree transformation.
The supporting cast really helps to give the story more pathos. Lauren Ambrose is lovely as your girlfriend.
A director I really admire saw the movie and said, “The parents are a really effective device in the film, because you see the parents, you see that their world is really nice, and you see Matt’s life and you go, oh, god, this guy really is a fuckup.” [Laughs]
Sleepwalk with Me screens from Thu Apr 4.