Ira Glass thinks it’s crazy for anyone to make a film. Ever.
But when his “This American Life” contributor Mike Birbiglia wanted to follow their 2012 collaboration “Sleepwalk with Me” with a film about an improv comedy troupe, Glass went along for another ride.
“It’s very hard for anybody who tries to make things for a living,” Glass said in our video interview at SXSW the morning after the film’s rousing premiere. “It’s hard to make anything that’s good… It struck me even more this time how many things have to go right, in every scene, every sound cue, it’s almost like every minute of the film is another 15 things that you can screw up.”
The Film Arcade
But Birbiglia, who learned a lot writing, directing, starring, and releasing “Sleepwalk with Me,” was up for the challenge. “It’s like nine art forms — you’ve got photography, acting, music, sound— all of them have to work in concert.”
“Strip it all out,” said Glass. “And you’ve got radio. It’s is so easy! I’m so grateful for my day job. Seriously.”
Needless to say, these two men are very funny when they are together, whether riffing on our Indiewire SXSW house party “like a Richard Linklater film with no plot,” or recalling with some horror the enormous number of public appearances they made to entertain audiences into coming to see “Sleepwalk with Me,” which was such a sleeper success ($2.3 million) that it spurred more filmmakers into traveling with their movies.
“It’s become a thing now,” said Birbiglia, “that filmmakers are asked to travel with their movies and do Q & As and rally support. What people don’t realize is we’re professionals. We’re lunatics, we get audience participation, Ira says crazy things he would never say on the radio. When we do our thing it’s like a circus.”
“We promoted the hell out of it,” said Glass. “I apologize.”
For this movie, Birbiglia assembled the movie’s improv troupe with veterans — Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher and Kate Micucci, among the best improvisers in the world — along with romantic leads played by TV stars Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs (“Community”). She had never done improv in her life. She was recommended by Lena Dunham, who assured Birbiglia that Jacobs could do anything. At a series of readings, that proved to be true.
Frank Oz, who participated at one reading, recommended that the group spend a lot of time together, because it’s all about the “chemistry between the characters,” said Birbiglia. “‘Take them out bowling, hang out, spend time together, that’s your movie.’ We did it.”
At one reading, Greta Gerwig told Birbiglia that it was crucial to figure out how to shoot the improv theater scenes. Again, he followed her advice: “I talked to the cinematographer about how to shoot this in a way that feels like we’re one of the improvisors instead of one of the audience.”
Making the movie was intense for Birbiglia and his troupe of six. He was crying on stage at SXSW. “It was very personal to all of us,” he said. “We all lived certain elements and characters, it takes years to create something that’s 90 minutes long. The movie itself is very emotional.”
The theme of the movie, “what’s special about it,” he said, “is it’s true of the group of us—you could feel it during the few months, we all looked at each other and we weren’t complacent about the work. We have this thing that’s special and we know it can be great and we have to focus and hold each other up to the highest standard.”
“It gelled in a nice way,” adds Glass. “It’s about something— anyone who does creative work, you get to a certain level: ‘I’m doing sort of OK, am I ever going to succeed?’ You get to a point where you are competent at the work, you watch other people get successful, you’re as good as them. It’s very confusing. ‘Should I quit?'”
“This business is so fickle,” Birbiglia said.
At SXSW, the movie played so well that A24 and other distributors made bids, but backer The Film Arcade opted to take the movie out themselves. Opening weekend in New York at the Sunshine, Birbiglia, Glass and the crew are doing Q & As and will proceed to do a 20-30 city tour as the film broadens throughout August. Check your local listings.
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