In the indie comedy “Sleepwalk with Me,” PRI host/producer Ira Glass Glass contributes to the adaptation of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s personal story about trying to make it in the stand-up industry and having to cope with his real-life sleepwalking disorder in which he acts out his dreams – sometimes violently. Prior to the film, Birbiglia shared his story in a number of formats, including on the radio during a 2008 episode of PRI’s “This American Life,” as an off-Broadway one-man-show, and in a best-selling book.
During an interview with me, Glass, who is credited as a co-writer and producer on the film, talked about his bizarre dreams and going head to head with “The Avengers” at the box office.
Mike has told his story on the radio on “This American Life,” performed it as a one-man-show on stage, and written a book about it. What did adapting it into a film bring to the story that these other formats did not?
Well, I don’t want to pretend his story was like a crappy jalopy driving down the road beforehand and now is this fancy car driving down the road like it’s so much better, but what you can do with film is just so different. What we added a lot in the film that you don’t see in other versions is that you get to watch Mike go from being a really terrible comedian to learning how to be Mike on stage. People really responded to the story of him becoming a comedian. When he’s sad at the beginning, he’s so terrible.
There are, of course, challenges when it comes to promoting an indie film. What did you learn about the process and how much cash do you think you really took out of the director Joss Whedon’s coffer (“Avengers” director Whedon made a satirical video about boycotting “Sleepwalk with Me” because it would hurt his blockbuster, which is still playing at theaters)?
Obviously, Mr. Whedon declared a war on us. We were shocked that such a thing could happen. He was so scared we were going to take money away from “The Avengers” and that people were going to be going to our film instead of his. It’s funny because it started off like a joke war between us and then we just learned about our first weekend grosses. Our weekend total was $68,000 per screen. That was so much higher than Joss’s opening weekend, per-screen average of $47,680. So, we trounced him as long as you don’t look at the fact that “The Avengers” was in 4,400 theaters and we were in exactly one. We look forward to earning every dollar “The Avengers” made plus one dollar. We look forward to making $5 billion and one dollars.
You started as an intern at PRI and climbed the ranks to where you are today. Was there ever a specific time during your internship or early in your career where you though maybe this wasn’t the right profession for you after all; maybe second guessed yourself like Mike’s character does in the film with his stand-up career?
Yeah, that’s definitely one of the things I related to in the story. I spent a lot of time in my 20s wanting to be a reporter and to be on the air, but I wasn’t good at it at all. I was 27 or 28 before I was competent radio writer. My parents would tell me to go to medical school. They wanted me to do anything other than this thing I didn’t seem to have too much talent for.
Stories from “This American Life” have been used as inspiration for other films and there are still more in the pipeline. Personally, what story over the last 17 years do you think would make for a good film?
It’s hard for me to answer that honestly because we have half a dozen films that are now in development. If I pick out one I feel like I would accidentally be dissing the others. But one of my favorites for sure is the story that aired a few years ago about this minister named Carlton Pearson who was a rising star in the evangelical movement. He ran this kind of fire and brimstone kind of church. But then he came to realize he didn’t believe in fire and brimstone anymore. He didn’t believe that God’s message was that there was a Hell if you didn’t accept Jesus. He started to preach it and he lost everything. It’s just an incredibly, old-school, cinematic classical kind of thing where you have this funny, super-smart guy who follows his ideals and loses everything. It would be a great part for a Jamie Foxx or a Will Smith. We’re just at the point of almost finishing the script for Marc Forester (“Monster’s Ball,” “Quantum of Solace”) to direct. It’s so exciting to be thinking about that becoming a movie. I wouldn’t be involved in a movie like that in the same way I’m am involved in this. They have an amazing director and an amazing screenwriter. I would kind of say, “That’s awesome.”
I know you don’t sleepwalk like Mike, but which one of your dreams do you think could be adapted into an interesting film?
That is a really funny, good question! What’s so sad is that all of the dreams that I have that I remember are anxiety dreams. My subconscious is so unimaginative. My dreams fall into two variations. In the first one, I dream I need to finish the radio show and I’m on deadline and I’m not going to make it. The other dream is basically the same thing, but for some reason I don’t have any clothes on.
What have you learned about yourself now that you’ve added screenwriter to your credits?
One of the nice things about learning any new craft is that you really appreciate other people who do it. There are things I notice now in movies and TV shows that I never noticed before. I’ve stopped being a civilian when I’m watching TV shows or movie and notice how short a scene is and how economically it is shot and how concisely and beautifully somebody does something and how they get a point across with just a gesture or a look. That’s really an unexpected gift. I’ve always liked movies and TV, but now I feel there is a level of understanding I have for it.
As a radio guy, what were some of the challenges of writing something you knew would have to have scenes that people were not only going to hear, but actually see?
If you’re on the radio telling a story about your girlfriend, you can simply refer to her as ‘my girlfriend’ with an affectionate tone in your voice and people will buy that you love each other. But in a film, you have to physically create an actual human being. You have to figure out how you’re going to communicate that love. I have to say, as a first time filmmaker, that was one of the most vexing problems we were working on up to the very last week of editing.
As you get ready for bed every night, do you worry about Mike?
No, I have to say, I don’t think of Mike as I lie in bed at night. Mike is worrying about himself so much you don’t have to worry about him. He does 10 times the worrying that any person would. My mind is racing when I go to sleep. Sometimes I just lie there. Usually what I’m thinking of are stupid things I said to people during the day.
The film has earned some pretty favorable reviews from film critics so far. Are you disappointed you received a negative one from NPR?
No, I didn’t even know that! NPR panned us? Those bastards! In that case, I just want to say I hate all their programs; this NPR that you speak of. I didn’t know that. They panned us? NPR?
Yeah, one of their film critics, Stephanie Zacharek, didn’t like it.
Well, I’m glad that at least it shows that nobody is on the take and doing their honest jobs and giving their real opinions and not doing any favors for anybody else. I can’t believe it. Everybody loves us and the one place we get a bad review is on NPR? Et tu, “All Things Considered?” Et tu, “Morning Edition?”