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FUTURES: 'Sleepwalk With Me' Writer-Director-Star Mike Birbiglia Builds a Career Out of 'Funny With Pathos'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 23, 2012 at 9:26AM

Mike Birbiglia came to Park City this year as a popular comic and emerged as an acclaimed filmmaker, writer and actor following the great reception his film debut, "Sleepwalk With Me," received at Sundance.
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IFC Films Mike Birbiglia in 'Sleepwalk With Me.'

Why He's On Our Radar: Mike Birbiglia came to Park City this year as a popular comic and emerged as an acclaimed filmmaker, writer and actor following the great reception his film debut, "Sleepwalk With Me," received at Sundance. The film won the Best of NEXT Audience Award (beating out Craig Zobel's button-pushing "Compliance") and found a home at IFC Films.

The comedy -- co-written by Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish and "This American Life" host Ira Glass -- is a semi-autobiographical tale based closely on Birbiglia's popular off-Broadway show of the same name. It centers on a struggling comedian (Birbiglia), whose growing anxieties about settling down with his girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) take the form of vivid dreams that cause him to sleepwalk. The film opens at New York's IFC Center Friday, August 24, and expands throughout the country the following week.

What's Next: Birbiglia isn't messing around with the formula that brought him praise and indie-film cred. He told us that he's in the process of adapting his latest solo play "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" into a sophomore feature. The show, which explores Birbiglia's bumbling love life, ended its successful off-Broadway run March 18, 2011 and is currently touring the States after playing around the world.

READ MORE: NEXT Winner 'Sleepwalk With Me' is a Showcase for Comedian Mike Birbiglia

"It's about how I basically decided to get married without believing in the idea of marriage," he told Indiewire about his latest screenplay. "It's about giving up on the idea of being right on things."

Whereas "Sleepwalk With Me" is a largely autobiographical tale like the play that inspired it, Birbiglia is doing things differently for his follow-up. "I've done a draft of it, and in it the character's not autobiographical," he said. "In the play he's a comedian, and in the film he's a journalist. There are definitely ways that it eases away from autobiography. I just like when you look at people who have long careers in film, they're able to make films that are far away from themselves, because they're metaphorical. It creates more opportunities, I think."

So, first things first. I've been actively following this feud between you and Joss Whedon. Have you two made peace?

Joss is going to be Joss, and we're going to be us. We will defeat him. I think there are some people who don't understand how we'll do it, but we have a secret plan.

How did that whole thing come to be?

Ira. Ira had him on a "This American Life" live event years ago, which I was on. He did a song from "Dr. Horrible" and I did a story.

"I didn't want to become this kind of Lifetime memoirist."

What gave you the impetus to adapt "Sleepwalk With Me" for the screen?

I was working on another screenplay at that point and it had a lot of similar themes. It was called "Waking Up Ben." It was about a guy sleeping through his life. I was writing that and people kept telling me I should just adapt "Sleepwalk With Me" for the screen. But I thought it felt too personal. I didn't want to become this kind of Lifetime memoirist. But at a certain point I was like, why not give it a try? I thought there were elements that would work. Dreams work cinematically, and I thought sleepwalking would work too, visually. Once I started on the journey, there were so many things about it that worked cinematically that I just pushed on through.

I was surprised to learn in reading a first-person story you wrote for us prior to Sundance that you had always wanted to make a feature film, even before striking it big as a comic.

That's what I wanted to do. I couldn't afford it. It was part of my five-year plan, it just took 14 to happen. I was like, I'm going to become a comedian, it's going to go well, then I'm going to write a film with that comedian persona. It just took forever. I'm 34 now!


IFC Films "Sleepwalk With Me"

Was "Sleepwalk With Me" the type of film you envisioned making back then?

Yeah. A movie is never quite going to be what you think it's going to be. I remember having lunch with Craig Zobel, who did "Compliance." I have this habit of really picking the brains of people who's films I really like. At the time, I was asking Zobel, Lena Dunham and Noah Baumbach questions. One of the things Craig Zobel said was, "A film is never what you think it's going to be. You shoot it, then it's another thing, and then you mold it from there." That's a completely accurate statement.

Tonally, it's exactly what I wanted to, even since I was in college. I wanted to make something that made me feel the way I feel when I see a James Brooks film, or those Woody Allen films from the middle years. It doesn't look and it's not edited in the way I imagined the film would be, but it's striking the right balance between drama and comedy that I was hoping for.

Given that you performed the "Sleepwalk With Me" one-man show for a good long while off-Broadway, how did you keep the process of translating it to the screen exciting and fresh for you?

Making a film is beyond exciting. It's so exciting it's exhausting. It's such a different medium. Having to collaborate with your cinematographer, your actors, your production designer, etc., is all-consuming. The idea that it would be boring in any way is not even possible.

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And I think the fact that I put it out in all those formats helped shape the feature. It gave all the department heads and the actors some confidence. Like, Mike doesn't know how to direct a feature, but he knows how to make things funny with pathos. That counts for something.

IFC Films "Sleepwalk With Me"

How did you juggle wearing so many hats while making this film?

Very clumsily [laughs]. No, I'm actually looking to do it again with my show "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend." I'm working on that right now. It was very hard to juggle. I was fortunate to have co-director Seth Barrish. He and I have been working together for six or seven years. He really knows what I like and what I don't like. We can almost not speak about certain things and just know.

Now that you've made your mark as a filmmaker, do you see yourself going down a similar route -- writing a solo show then adapting it for the screen -- for all future film projects?

It's funny, because this summer I did stand up for the first time in a while. I just loved it so much. There was part of me after making the film that was like, well, I'm just going to make movies from now on. But after doing that show, the murkiness I feel doing a play, a movie... I think the murkiness will be the thing that's unique about what I'm doing and not the thing I'm ashamed of. I think it might be I workshop in front of audiences and then I convert that into film. That might be what I do for the rest of time.

This article is related to: Futures, Interviews, Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me