Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me: an interview in three acts (with guests)
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
- Amy Schumer had to be talked into making the show of her dreams
- Joe Hill on his new novel, Locke & Key’s end, and why ideas are just glue
- Kristin Scott Thomas has no time for nonsense
For someone whose work is largely based on his own missteps, Mike Birbiglia has managed the transition between media with surprising confidence. Originally a traditional stand-up comedian, Birbiglia has spent the last five years transitioning into the arena of one-man shows, allowing the jokes to find their place among more poignant personal observations. Much of the material in Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia’s first film as a director, has been aired in other formats: in comedy clubs and on theater stages, via his regular appearances on This American Life, and in his book of the same name. But the stories haven’t worn out their welcome—especially his failed engagement to his longtime girlfriend, Abby, played in the film by Lauren Ambrose, and his troubles with what was eventually diagnosed as REM Sleep Disorder, which almost killed him when he jumped through a second-story window in his sleep—and the film is as likable as Birbiglia himself. Amid the chaos of Sleepwalk’s world première at the Sundance Film Festival, The A.V. Club caught up with Birbiglia twice, first in the company of his co-stars Carol Kane and Marc Maron, and then with his producer and co-writer Ira Glass—and again seven months later, after the dust had settled and the film was being readied for theatrical release.
Act 1: Sundance Film Festival, January 2012
Cast: Mike Birbiglia, Carol Kane, Marc Maron
The A.V. Club: Carol, how did you end up playing Mike Birbiglia’s mother in the film?
Carol Kane: I auditioned to play his mother on a brilliant TV show that he wrote about his life—
Mike Birbiglia: That never was on television.
CK: That never got on a television. And he was kind enough to want me to play that part, but some other people did not want me to play that part.
MB: [Laughs.] And the powers that be…
CK: But we had such a good time when we met and when we read and everything, and we just remained in each other’s lives. I went to see Sleepwalk, the play, and Mike was saying, “You know, I’m writing the movie, and you’ll play my mother in the movie.” And I thought—you know, because about 40,000 people have said to me, “I’m writing a movie, and when I make it, you’ll be in it.” And then you say to your agent, “You know, he said I’d be in it,” and it’s just not true at all. But Mike gave me his word and he stuck to his word, and that’s how that happened.
AVC: Mike, onstage or in the Sleepwalk With Me book, you’re talking about yourself and people you’ve known, using their real names and playing all the parts yourself. But in the movie, you’re playing a character called Matt Pandamiglio, and you cast actors in the other roles. Do they become characters then, or are they still the people you knew?
MB: No, they completely became characters. And that was part of the reason why I decided to go with fictional names over real names, because if you bring Carol Kane to set with a script that says what you wrote, she’s going to do something that’s better than what you wrote, and thus it becomes a character that is much more interesting than what you can put on the page. Marc is the same way. Marc is one of the comedians who I really looked up to in the way that I look up to him in the film. I had that particular conversation with a womanizing comedian, with someone else. You can probably guess who. Maybe. I don’t know. But I had a lot of conversations with Marc about honesty in comedy when I was starting out, and so that part of it was from my conversations with Marc. When Marc comes to the set, he brings his bowl of creativity. And I think, with actors, the best thing that you can do is not get in their way. Some of the great directors, like Woody Allen, you hear him talk about working with actors, and he says it’s all about good casting. It’s about picking the right people and then just saying, “Go ahead.” And if it’s not working, it’s your job as director to go, “This is not working. Let’s try something else.”
CK: But that’s just amazing that you were aware of that on your first movie, because many first-time directors feel a need to have a great deal of control on their first film, and tend to squeeze you down.
MB: Oh, that’s interesting.
CK: Yeah, I guess out of some kind of fear. But you had this incredible trust in us, and I felt the same way about you. But as I say, many first-time directors tend to be control freaks.
AVC: Marc, your character is named “Marc Mulheren,” which is very close to your real name. What did Mike tell you about who you were supposed to be playing, and to what extent you were simply meant to be yourself?
Marc Maron: Well, I understood that it was a comic that he was opening for when he was younger. I’ve been that guy, and I’ve had guys in my life that were that guy, so I got it fairly quickly. It’s advice I’d give to people, but not everyone can take that advice.
MB: Yeah, that’s very accurate.
MM: A lot of people are petrified of that, and that sort of works as this weird turning point in the film for his creativity. That’s who he really is, too. Because to get comfortable in doing that type of comedy is a big risk. It’s difficult for a lot of guys. A lot of people are funny so they can avoid themselves, not so they can be themselves. I think Mike’s the opposite.
MB: When Marc and I first met, one of the reasons we had some discord that is documented in my WTF podcast episode is that I think I was a little inauthentic in my early comedy. And I think Marc was like, “How come this guy’s successful and he’s inauthentic? That’s kind of bullshit.”
MM: Yeah, and then I misread you wanting me to come to your show for so long as you saying, “I’m doing it too now,” as opposed to, “Just come watch.” And I wish I did.
AVC: I’m glad that got ironed out.
MB: Again. [Laughs.]
MM: Again. No, I’m very proud of him and it was a great piece of work. He flew me out for these two scenes, but seeing the whole movie, I was very impressed. And it got great laughs and made me cry a little bit, which is easier as I get older.
MB: We literally flew Marc out—I think he was the only actor we flew out. Ira [Glass] and I just split it ourselves, because it wasn’t in the budget to fly actors.
MM: Yeah, it was nice. I don’t love Staten Island, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Act 2: One Hour Later
Cast: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass
AVC: Mike, the movie is very much about your character finding his voice as a performer. What was it like to stage the early performances, when he’s basically a lousy stand-up?
MB: The thing about when Ira and I develop stories for This American Life is, it’s usually the stories that I’m totally uncomfortable telling. I’ll be like, “Hey, what do you think of this story?” and he’ll be like, “Eh, all right. Kind of boring. We’ve all heard shit like that before.”
Ira Glass: I don’t say it’s boring.
MB: No, you go, “There’s no surprise.” That’s what Ira will always say.
IG: That’s different from “It’s boring.” Boring is a little harsh.
MB: Well, you know what’s a funny thing. I pitched a story from my book that—did you read my book?
MB: Okay, so that breakup on the island story—
IG: Don’t ask him if he read your book! It’s so putting him on the spot.
MB: No, no! Oh my God, I totally assumed he didn’t read it, so I was going to explain what the story is. But now I don’t have to. … So anyway, there’s a breakup on an island that happens, and I pitched it to Ira and another senior producer, Julie Snyder, and Julie Snyder wrote an email to Ira about why they weren’t going to accept it on the show, but she just sent it to me. [Laughs.] By accident! She didn’t even send it to Ira, she just sent it straight to me. I got an email that started, “Ira, here’s why Mike’s story doesn’t work with the island.” I can show you the email, it’s hilarious. She goes, “It’s a funny and well-written story,” so it’s like a compliment, but she goes, “There’s no surprise,” which is what they’re always looking for in their stories. “And there’s nothing that makes it unique from anyone else’s breakup story enough for it to be a compelling radio story.” I’m paraphrasing. So I wrote back, I replied: “Julie, I think you might have meant to send this to Ira.” [Laughs.] She was so mortified, and she wrote back this long email. But I just thought it was the funniest thing that ever happened. The point is, whenever I talk through what could be good for their radio show, it’s always these stories. I’ll throw ideas around and he’ll go, “Eh, okay. That’s pretty good. I don’t know,” and then I’ll go, “I’d never tell this in public to anyone, but this happened.” Like this story where I got beat up in high school.
IG: You were embarrassed about it when you told it to me.
MB: Visibly embarrassed. “Did you ever hear this story about me getting beat up in high school, and I left the school?”
IG: In shame.
MB: I left in shame. I was beat up so badly, I left the school. I left the town.
IG: Whenever he was reading the story, we were like, how do we fix the plot point here of “I left the school.” Like, how is it that you come out of that looking okay? I feel like all that you invented was, “And here’s what I have to tell you: Running away works.” [Laughs.]
MB: People identify with that stuff.
IG: It’s funny, because we were talking about this week: That was one of the rules for when they wrote Freaks And Geeks. It was one of the [Judd] Apatow rules. He and Paul Feig would look for the most embarrassing material possible from the writers.
MB: So, to answer your question in a circuitous way, when I’m workshopping those stories, I’ll go out and record myself live, I’ll send it to Ira, he’ll give me notes, I’ll go out again. Always, I bomb the first couple of times. There’s nothing funny the first time about telling a story about getting beat up and it makes you leave high school.
IG: I have to say, to speak to his point, you bombed at higher levels. [Birbiglia laughs.] You know what I mean? It’s clear you know what you’re doing onstage. The bombing you do in the movie when you’re portraying yourself in college is not the bombing that you hear in those recordings when you’re just working with bad material. You’re a good person, bad material. A very comfortable performer.
MB: So anyway, I tried to channel my college self, when I first started doing comedy.
IG: One of the things that happened when we started screening the scenes of him being bad, is that they would get laughs, and we would be like, “Oh, fuck! He shouldn’t get laughs.” But actually I feel like they’re getting the right kinds of laughs, where you’re kind of laughing at his awkwardness. One of my favorite parts of the movie now is this thing that actually I don’t think even the audience laughs at. It’s this bit where he’s standing onstage and talking about pandas. And he just goes on this long digression. He loses energy in the middle of it, which I find it hilarious, but I don’t think the audience ever—
MB: I think they enjoy it, though.
IG: I don’t think they enjoy it the way where they laugh.
MB: One of the things our cinematographer did that was really extraordinary and way above my expertise—he was a cinematographer, Adam Beckman, on the TV series of This American Life—is he put this really harsh light on my face in those scenes, and then put close-ups on the audience that was being judgmental. I think it really worked to our advantage in understanding what it feels like to have that kind of judgment.
IG: A very still shot.
MB: And we made this choice to have that moment happen where he tells a personal thing, he tells a joke about his girlfriend—
IG: He finally succeeds.
MB: He finally succeeds, we see that look on his face, we go to a lot of handheld camera from that point on.
AVC: Because you’re not quite as pinned to the brick wall.
MB: Yeah. And from that point on, we’re in the condo with the comedians hanging out, they’re eating pizza, it’s all fun and it’s handheld. That was a decision Adam and I came to from watching a ton of movies together. He would come over to my apartment, we’d watch all these movies and we’d be like, “We like this, we like this, we don’t like this.” And we decided, “What if the first half of the film is mostly on sticks, and the second half is mostly handheld?” It’s kind of a joke between me and Adam; we had no idea it would work. It wasn’t done in another movie, it wasn’t like we saw it in The Godfather and said, “Let’s rip off Gordon Willis’ work here.” We just came up with an idea, and I think worked pretty well. I find it really emotional when I watch that part of it.
MB: They do that?
IG: Not really. Have you ever talked about that in an interview?
MB: No. I don’t do talking points.
IG: From this point forward, everything I say in this interview is going to be something I’ve never said. How many interviews have we done?
MB: [Exhales.] Fuck.
IG: I want you to take that pledge with me.
MB: “How many interviews have you done?” is like, in a new relationship, “How many people have you slept with?”
IG: I’m sorry. [To AVC.] Is it disrespectful to have that conversation in front of you? She told you we’ve interviewed with other people before this, didn’t she?
MB: Have you ever had that “How many other people have you slept with?” conversation with your wife? I haven’t with Jenny. I kind of know. You kind of get it after a while.
IG: I’m not sure we’ve ever tried to have a conversation where we get all numeric about it. But she’s slept with a lot of people. I was for that. I like her.
MB: Yeah. Other people should want to have sex with her too! I’m sorry: Questions?
IG: We’re only giving answers we’ve never given before.
AVC: You’ve come at this material in several different media—onstage, on the radio, in print—and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Has your understanding of what it’s about changed as you’ve come at it from different angles?
MB: I’ve got to repeat a story, because it’s so fucking pertinent to what he’s saying. [IG protests.] But I only said it in one other interview, which is a couple of weeks ago. Ira said to me, he was like—oh, no, he said it in a fucking interview, he didn’t even tell me he was going to say it.
IG: I thought it was so obvious, I thought you knew it! I didn’t think I was breaking any news.
MB: No, no, it wasn’t obvious! [Gets into a boxer’s crouch as if challenging IG to a fistfight.] Nobody knew! Nobody thought it, nobody knew. [Sits.] Okay, that’s the original part, that’s not in any other interviews. … So, he did an interview that was like, “It became clear that the Matt Pandamiglio character—”
IG: He had to learn the same lessons as the director that he was learning in the scenes in the film. He would literally be learning to direct the scenes, and then play the part of himself learning the same lesson. Specifically, the Matt Pandamiglio character doesn’t want to give people the hard truth, he doesn’t want to confront people.
MB: Much like Ira as well.
IG: Much like me as well. But see, I have a kind of passive-aggressive thing going on that I think people who work with me, get close to me, come to recognize as more toxic than simply—
MB: And charming.
IG: —except for the charming part. Just saying, just to be honest about it. And since this is an interview where we’re not going to repeat anything we’ve said before. So I don’t feel quite so innocent about it, regarding myself, I feel like there’s a part of myself that I have to constantly keep an eye on because I know my natural tendency. But you, I think you’d have to confront people who weren’t doing their jobs in the way that they needed to for the film to be good.
MB: This is breaking news not said in any other interview: Just this week, I confronted some people who I worked on the film with and told them how I felt about the collaboration.
IG: This is a really good time to do it, several weeks after the film, pretty much as the film wraps.
MB: Because I learned the lesson from the film.
IG: I think the thing that happens, though—I get the feeling watching the film 9 million times as we’re editing it, don’t you feel that certain moments come back? You’re saying, “Do you see the material differently?” It’s almost like you feel the thing again. You sort of put it to bed and then you actually have a feeling about it again.
MB: We have things like that all the time, where someone will say to me, “I’m really moved by this moment where you’re talking to Alex Karpovsky and he’s talking about his shitty life, or what he perceives as shitty, and—”
IG: It’s this scene where Mike is playing a comedian who’s just at level nothing, and Alex is one level above him, and he has a terrible—he’s not that funny, but he has this air of entitlement, like, “Why am I not more famous?” and he does a really funny job of playing the part.
MB: After a while, we got so used to the scene that we’re like, “Oh, this scene’s functional. It’s the scene where Matt meets his agent.”
IG: Then the other thing you think is, “Alex is really putting it out there. Good for Alex.”
MB: So, someone said to me when they saw the film, “What really emotionally hit me was that moment where someone is explaining how sucky their life is, and Matt is going, ‘Oh my God,’ you can see in his eyes, ‘I want that. That sounds like the best thing.’” At a certain stage, that was meaningful for us. And I forget that it’s meaningful, because as a filmmaker you’re like, “We’ve just got to deliver the story.” And certain things get layered after a while, like, that’s in the stew, but we have to deliver the stew. After a while, you don’t even know what’s in the stew.
AVC: That happens with writers as well: “We need you to drive two hours, see a show, come back and review it by 9 a.m., and we’ll pay you 50 bucks.” “Awesome!”
MB: There’s a funny “Aristocrats”-style plug-in joke that comedians tell. Todd Glass actually told me this. He’ll tell it the best. I’ll do it right now and it’ll be sucky, but it’ll be fine and you’ll get what I mean. So one comedian is talking to another, and the one comedian says, “I just got back from this gig in West Virginia.” And the other guy goes, “Oh, how was it?” And he goes, “The worst gig ever. It’s at this cabin, it’s at some guy’s house where he has comedy on the weekends. And his wife is this 75-year-old woman who smells bad, and you have to fuck her after the gig. They have food, but it tastes like it has arsenic in it, and you’re afraid that you’re not going to make it out alive, and then they short you on the money, it’s supposed to be $75 but they pay you $40, and then at the end of it, there’s supposed to be a shuttle bus that you go home on, but the shuttle bus never runs, so you have to walk about seven miles to the train depot.” And the other comic goes, “Who books it?” I just made up the whole first part, but the joke is the “Who books it?” Comedians have that in common. Marc Maron, he’ll tell that joke all day. He loves talking about those gigs, because he loves that concept of, if you love something enough, it just doesn’t matter. I think that is one thing that people latch onto about the film, is that idea. It doesn’t matter if you’re a stand-up comedian or whatever you’re passionate about. You’ll pretty much do anything to do it.
IG: I also think often with movies about people who do creative work, that people aren’t bad for very long. If you think about Amadeus, he’s always kind of a genius. Even in the old musicals, where somebody wants to get their break, as soon as they’re allowed onto the stage, suddenly they can totally sing and dance. Or there’s one number where somebody goes, “Oh, you just put your foot like this and your arm like this and your other arm like this.” “You mean like this?” [Glass does a vaudeville pose.] That’s the creative process in those movies, versus this movie, where you actually see what most people who end up doing creative work go through. There’s a few people who are your Malcolm Gladwells, your David Sedarises, your Tavi Gevinsons, your Mozarts, who are talented from the time they’re beginning, but most of us, as the film documents, most people are bad before they’re good for a long time. And I think that’s something that people associate themselves with.
MB: Sedaris was instantly great?
IG: Sedaris I saw reading at clubs that seated like, 40 people, before he had a book contract. He was cleaning apartments for a living. And he had written his first book and it was in a drawer. To be fair, he was in his late 30s, he had been working on that book for years, and he had—
MB: I hate hearing these “instantly good” stories.
IG: I’ll take Sedaris off of the list, actually, because it took him a long time to get to that point.
MB: But Lena Dunham is that. Instantly good. It kills me. She’s a good friend of mine, but it kills me. I just marvel at her. She was very helpful on this film.
IG: There was a whole dramatic day, the last day we were locking picture—I didn’t even ask her to show up in the edit room, but it’s almost like she was called in as an expert witness.
Act 3: August 2012
Cast: Mike Birbiglia
AVC: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which you’re touring with now, climaxes with a scene where you act out the discomfort of the inevitable “Stairway To Heaven” slow dance in high school. As you’re dancing, you weave in a number of wordless gestures that have been seeded throughout the show, finally emulating a gymnast who stumbles on the landing and then does that triumphant upraised-arms flourish as if they meant to all along. It’s impressive, especially since some of those gestures seemed like complete throwaways the first time around.
MB: That was a very emotional and visceral piece of writing, with the dancing and all that stuff, that I came up with the final week before we went up in New York. I called my director, Seth Barrish, and I go, “I have this idea, and it’s crazy, and it’s just: Lights go down, lights come up, ‘Stairway’ comes on, and I’m just dancing like I did earlier, and we have a strobe light, and it’s crazy.” And Seth goes [dubiously], “I don’t know, we’ll take a look at it.” Because it’s so hard to pitch on the phone. It’s so insane. And then we did it at the Barrow Street Theater in a rehearsal, and everyone was just looking around going, “That was fucking good. There’s something there.” There’s something about it that you can’t describe to somebody else, but it works.
AVC: You talked at Sundance about pitching to This American Life, how Ira Glass will hear a story you think is interesting and ask, “Where’s the surprise?” Stand-up comedians obviously get feedback from the audience, and they might hear from other comics after the show, but you’ve moved into working with directors and producers and book editors in a more actively collaborative relationship.
MB: Well, I feel like I have both in that sense. I feel like I have an editor, director, and an audience. I like—and this drives some people crazy who I work with—I like a lot of input. I like hearing from a lot of people how everybody feels. I think because I’ve been working in front of audiences for so many years, I’m able to take in the input, good or bad, and just say, “This is the part I agree with that you’re saying, and these are the parts I don’t agree with.” It actually helps me. There’s my brother Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish, and Ira Glass, and they all bring a certain type of critical eye, each from a very different perspective. It accumulates into what I end up putting out. I feel very fortunate to have these guys. I don’t feel like a lot of people are fortunate enough to have these expert critics around them working in tandem with them to support their vision. It’s something that I built up over years and years and years. When I was starting out, I thought I would go into comedy and there would be a mentor, like the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Almost Famous, in my life, and there just wasn’t. It was really frustrating for me because I desired that so much. There’s a few people in the last few years, between Ira and Nathan Lane, and it’s surprising because those are people not in my profession. That was the thing I didn’t see coming, that Nathan Lane, who’s a famous stage and film actor, and Ira Glass, who’s this famous radio producer and host, would understand what I was doing and contribute to it in some way.
AVC: And at the same time, not see it in exactly the same way you do.
AVC: There’s still time.
MB: There’s still time. It’s probably the best-case scenario, actually, because I think what happened is, the net result is something unique from stand-up and unique from what other people are doing.
AVC: Among other things, Sleepwalk With Me is kind of an origin story.
MB: Yes. It is. I’ve never described it as that, but it is.
AVC: Your character is driving hundreds of miles to do gigs at tiny colleges, and when you get there they ask you to host a lip-sync contest.
MB: And loving it.
AVC: And then there’s that scene with Marc Maron’s character where he tells you that comedy is only worth something if it’s honest. That’s sort of a mentor moment.
MB: It is, yeah. It’s my fantasy of what I wish had happened. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did that realization just come out of watching other people perform, seeing what worked and what didn’t?
MB: I watched people like Marc Maron and Doug Stanhope, and other confessional comedians who I admired. Also, my first manager was this guy named Lucien Hold, who has since passed away. He was the original talent booker for The Comic Strip on the Upper East Side, so he passed [i.e. let onstage—ed.] Jerry Seinfeld and Larry Miller and Chris Rock, and Eddie Murphy used to play there when he was 18 years old. He took me under his wing, and one of the things he said at one point was, “You should really write about yourself, because no one can take that away from you. No one can steal it.” That was very instructive toward where I went.
AVC: You’ve said your biggest regret with Two Drink Mike was including topical jokes that didn’t hold up over time.
MB: Yeah, it is. That Missy Elliott joke is ridiculous. There’s a few where you’re like, “Wait, what song is that?” And the Nelly song, I think is on that album. But I actually like that album a lot. I think 80 percent of that album holds up in a really good way, and 20 percent you’re like, “Huh, you didn’t have foresight on that.”
AVC: The stuff that’s in Sleepwalk With Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, that doesn’t date.
AVC: People will still be dancing to “Stairway to Heaven” at their senior proms in 50 years.
MB: And maybe “I Want It That Way” from the Backstreet Boys.
AVC: As well they should.
MB: They should. It’s held up.
AVC: You’ve said one of the things you learned from writing one-man shows as opposed to doing more traditional stand-up is that “the writing has to be about the audience.”
MB: That’s right, and I firmly believe that. That’s something Seth taught me. In other words, when you’re writing something, no matter how specific and personal it is to you, you need the audience to feel it’s about them. That is the balancing act of writing something personal, is that you need to get really specific with yourself and somehow make that feel really specific to the audience. I’ll give you an example of that. I’m trying to come up with an analogy right now for the stage. Last night I performed at Union Hall, and I’m doing so many talk shows and personal appearances that I want to be able to say things in a comedic way about making the film that people will understand, that’s relatable. But making a film is actually entirely unrelatable. There’s nothing relatable about it, it’s nothing like anything anyone has ever done, except like, 100 people in the world. You need a million dollars to do it. Not only do you need a million dollars, you need to be willing to blow a million dollars. It’s a small subset of the world, and fortunately it wasn’t my own million dollars.
So I came up with an analogy this week that I think is going to work, and it worked last night onstage. Directing your first film is like showing up to the field trip in seventh grade, getting on the bus, and making an announcement, “So today I’m driving the bus.” And everybody’s like, “What?” And you’re like, “I’m gonna drive the bus.” And they’re like, “But you don’t know how to drive the bus.” And you’re like, “Well, I’ve been watching the bus driver, and I’ve been playing close attention. I’ve been watching other people’s bus rides. I know what I like, I know when I think a bus ride is good, and I have a notebook of things that I’ve written down that I’ve observed about other bus rides.” Sometimes you drive the bus to the location, sometimes you drive off a cliff. That can happen. So it feels very risky, but then if you get to your destination, it feels like it pays off in such a big way.
AVC: With Sleepwalk, everyone can relate to doing shitty jobs and paying your dues. But jumping through a second-story plate-glass window in your sleep is something almost no one can relate to.
MB: Ira has said—I’m stealing this from him—that it’s the perfect autobiographical story for film and theater, because it actually happened, and thus it’s relatable, and it’s a perfect metaphor for what’s happening. It’s threading the needle of this thing that is so unlikely, where the metaphor and the literal both match up. That’s why it works as a book and a show and a movie. That’s what I’m always trying to do, is come up with, “How do you take something that happened to nobody and make it feel like they understand where I’m coming from?” The bus analogy, I think the reason it works—and it’s only worked once, so who knows if it’ll work again—but I think the reason it works is people have been in over their head. Everybody’s been handed, like, a fire extinguisher and someone said, “You’re in charge,” and someone goes, “I don’t know how to use a fire extinguisher.” Everybody’s had something like that happen. That’s what Seth means when he says, “Make it about the audience.” It’s always about, how did something like this happen to them?
Movies are so personal. I used to have this joke where I said, “Movies are the new religion.” I was talking to this girl and said, “I hated that movie,” and she was just like, “That movie is the reason I stopped cutting myself.” And then I had to pull it back, like, “It was pretty good. I liked the ending, when she stopped cutting herself. I thought that was redemptive.” [Laughs.] There’s something so personal about movies that it’s hard to slash someone’s movie. Sometimes you’ll be talking to somebody and they’ll be telling you how much they love a movie, and in your mind, you’re like, “I could say three sentences that will make you cry,” when you realize that that movie’s full of shit.
AVC: There’s no distinction between “That movie made me cry” and “That’s a great movie” when lousy movies make you cry all the time.
MB: True. Yes and no. I always say to people, whenever we disagree on something, “If you felt something from that, that’s great. I’m glad that that happened.” Because that’s what art is supposed to do, is make you feel something. Great. Certain movies, it just surprises you when it does. You go, “Huh. Okay.” I’ll give you an example: The Sixth Sense. If that movie made you cry, that’s wonderful. But for me, with movies that have a trick like that—The Others is a great example. For me, The Others is a beautiful film, and they’re very similar films—I won’t give away why, although it kind of gives it away by comparing the two. The Others I can watch again and again and again. I’ve seen it like, three times, it makes me cry every time. The Sixth Sense, you see it once and you go, “Oh, that was good.” You see it again and you go, “Oh, this movie’s not that good.” Because once you know the thing you know, you realize that the movie is an elaborate trick. The reason The Others was so meaningful to me is this idea of perspective, and this idea that she doesn’t realize the whole time that, without giving it away, there’s a lot that she doesn’t realize. But by realizing it, she has a catharsis, and we have a catharsis, that what she learns is okay, too. That makes me cry. It makes me choked up even thinking about it, because perspective is so emotional. And it has nothing to do with God or religion or anything. It just has to do with the fact that our perspective is always skewed, and it always will be.
AVC: It’s like you’re telling a story about yourself that you’ve told 100 times before, and then all of a sudden it hits you: “Wait a minute. I’m the asshole.”
MB: I have that sometimes when I watch my film, because I have to watch it at festivals for the Q&As, and I look at it and I go, “I’m such a loser.” [Laughs.] I’m looking at a 40-foot version of my face and just going, “Not only am I playing a loser, but I am a loser, for making this movie about myself. What am I doing? I’m some kind of egocentric maniac.”
AVC: There’s a big difference, though, between a one-man show where you’re playing all the parts and it’s clear that every word onstage is literally being filtered through you, and a film, which has a quasi-objective feeling to it. You’re still the main character, but everyone else exists in the flesh as well. Did that change how you depicted them?
MB: Me and Ira and Joe had to spend an extraordinary amount of time working on Abby, because in the play, she’s depicted in basically a couple of paragraphs, and in the movie you really have to write a character. In the early drafts, there were people saying, “This film is misogynist. It’s a two-dimensional version of a female character.” What’s frustrating is when people call you a misogynist and the things that are in the script happened, and you’re like, “You are declaring me something and all I’m doing is reporting what occurred.” But they’re not wrong. I mean, they’re wrong to say I’m misogynist, but they’re not wrong to say that at certain points in the writing process, it was a two-dimensional character on the page. Just because it happened doesn’t mean that it’s a fully conceived character. So that was the thing I had to reconcile, and that was hard. One thing that was really fortunate is that James Rebhorn and Carol Kane, they really brought something to those characters that was not on the page, and that was way above and beyond what was on the page, and Lauren [Ambrose] did, too. The three of them and Cristin Milioti as my sister, they brought a lot. I mean, you bring great actors into a film, and all of a sudden you’re getting Carol Kane’s brilliant version of those words. At one point, we’d done a couple takes of a scene and she came over to me and said, “What do you want? What do you think my character should be here?” And I said, “Carol, what you’re doing is so much better than anything I can imagine, that all I can say is a) we have it, and b) do anything else that inspires you and we’ll have that, too.” You can’t compete with Carol Kane’s and James Rebhorn’s and Lauren Ambrose’s level of expertise and creativity. All you can do is collaborate.
AVC: So at that point, is Carol Kane’s character no longer your mom?
MB: No it’s not. It’s something else entirely.
AVC: And you just have to accept that?
MB: The directors I like, the Billy Wilders and Woody Allens, will say that casting’s 90 percent of it, and then you just have to get out of the way of these actors. If you pick the right actors, you don’t have to say much. There’s this famous story, I think it’s in the Cameron Crowe book interviewing Billy Wilder [Conversations With Billy Wilder], when he’s talking about working with one of the guys from The Apartment.
AVC: Jack Lemmon?
MB: Yeah, I think it was Lemmon. The first movie they did, he goes, “Do less,” and then they do another take, “Do less,” and finally he says, “Do less.” And he goes, “Billy, I’m not doing anything.” And he goes, “Exactly.” [Laughs.] And it’s almost too perfect of a story. Like, did that happen really?
AVC: That’s what you get for interviewing a great writer.
MB: Exactly. [Laughs.] But that’s precisely how I feel about it, and that’s how Seth feels about performance. Both of us are just like, “Do less, do less, do less. Make less of it, throw it away. Let’s do one for fun.” Those are all the takes that are in the movie.
AVC: There’s a joke on Sleepwalk With Me Live where you say, “Love makes people do crazy things, like kill people, or shop at Crate & Barrel.” It seems defining somehow that you put those two things in that order, like either you’re burying the punchline or you’re implying that shopping at Crate & Barrel is crazier than murder.
MB: I’ve never analyzed that joke, thanks. I’d never thought about that. Last night I did some jokes about movies. This is, I think, probably the funniest one about movies, which is: It frustrates me that the marketing of movies now, they get away with, some movies will say, “From the studio that brought you…” From the studio. My joke is, if they can say, “From the studio that brought you,” they should have to list all the movies.
MB: It’s like, “From the studio that brought you Chinatown and Garfield.” Oh, okay. That’s technically true. “From the studio that brought you Citizen Kane and Katy Perry 3D.” And then I was trying to think of my own marketing ploys, like I could say, “From the kid you beat up in high school: Sleepwalk With Me.”
AVC: That’s a good idea.
MB: Funny, right? I’m so irritated by that marketing and I hope it goes away. Ira and I talk about this sometimes, in terms of making the next movie, that we really want to have a relationship again with this company Bedrock that financed three quarters of the film. WBEZ Chicago financed the other quarter. They just said, “We trust you guys. You’re very funny and talented and can tell a story. Go do it.” Studios don’t do that, and I don’t know that I ever want to be in a situation where someone’s telling me, “Actually how you need to tell the story is this,” who isn’t a director.
AVC: That was your experience from…
MB: From television, yeah. Very much so. And I don’t think I could go back to that. That’s why Louis [C.K.] is so fortunate. I think that’s why Lena [Dunham] and Judd [Apatow] are so fortunate, because Lena had made a movie, so she had proven that she can write and direct and star, which no one ever wants you to do.
AVC: She also had Judd Apatow running interference for her, which helps.
MB: Oh, I know. Oh yeah, because he’s got such an unbelievable track record. As far as I can tell, [Louie and Girls] are two of your best shows on television right now. I’m trying to think of what else. But even stuff that’s more mainstream, like Modern Family, I don’t think the network is too involved with Modern Family. My feeling is that that guy, I don’t even know his name, but I have a feeling that he’s kind of running the show over there. I don’t know personally.
AVC: There are obviously those who disagree, but it seems like you find talented people whom you trust, you give them money, and then you let them do what you’re paying them for, whether they’re directors or reporters.
MB: Speaking of being a reporter, I made a joke offhandedly last night in Brooklyn, which I might develop. I said, I feel like everyone who lives in Brooklyn—because I just moved back to Brooklyn, I used to live there and then I moved here and then moved back—everyone in Brooklyn is trying to be a reporter who only writes one article a year, and it’s a cover story for Rolling Stone, and they’re just hanging out the rest of the time. I feel like that’s the goal of Brooklyn.
AVC: As opposed to writing three articles today.
MB: Of course, of course. That’s what everyone’s reality is.
AVC: You have that bit in Sleepwalk where you’re talking about how when you’re self-employed, checking your email is like playing a slot machine.
MB: Yeah: “Refresh. Refresh.” It’s interesting because I made that joke on Sleepwalk With Me Live, and that analogy is now being used in scientific studies. I saw that on the news the other day, somebody said on one of these Dr. Phil-type shows, or Dr. Oz, that it’s actually a physical response that’s happening with our devices and our emails. It’s like a slot machine we get addicted to. And it’s like, that’s my joke! You hacked my joke, Oz!
AVC: You do apparently get a tiny little dopamine jolt every time a new email comes in. Not enough to affect your mood, but enough to make you keep checking.
MB: Absolutely! Couldn’t agree more. If you’re self-employed, forget about it. When I was a kid, my dad used to call us from work, like eight times a day, and it was a big running joke with me and my brother and my sisters, he would call and go, “Any calls? Any mail?” And then he would say goodbye. That was it. It’s always existed, but now it’s instant.
AVC: You mentioned doing another movie. At what stage is that?
MB: Oh, I’m just writing the script. I’m not selling it, I’m not—
AVC: Is it My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend?
MB: Yeah, and it’s going actually considerably well in light of how long I’ve been working on it. I went away for two weeks with my wife to Leicester, Massachusetts, we took a writing retreat and I wrote a draft. I wrote 90 pages in two weeks, and it’s not good. But by writing it, I understood how it could be good, and what the problems are and what the obstacles are. Which is, in a lot of ways, the hardest thing to do, that first draft where you go, “I know this isn’t good, and I’m gonna keep doing this.” So I feel pretty good about that. About that failure. [Laughs.]
AVC: Being mostly on the other side of it now, with a film that you wrote and directed and has been seen by real people, what do you take away from that experience and what would you want to do differently next time?
MB: So much stuff. This [pulls out Kazan On Directing] is a great book, if you ever have a chance to read that. Just priceless. One of the things he says that I recommend to everybody in the world, in any city, for whatever public transport this applies to, he says, “Don’t take taxis.” He says, “Take the subway.” Which I do. I’m always on the subway. It’s funny because most people don’t know who I am, but sometimes people will recognize me, and they’re just like, “What are you doing on the subway?” And I’m just like, “This is how you live. When you’re alive, you take the subway.” I think that Kazan is right. He goes, “When you’re in a taxi, you’re not living. You’re being transported from one place to another in this completely sterile environment where nothing is happening.” You’re in this little box where nothing is occurring. When you’re on the subway, you’re witnessing life and you’re experiencing and seeing things you might never see again, and interacting with the world in a way that’s profound. So, anyway, I’m reading a lot of directing books. I’m reading that Billy Wilder book, I’m reading the Kazan book, I read that Sidney Lumet book. Miguel Arteta was one of my mentors, and introduced me to the Sundance Lab and everything. He had me read this book that’s out of print, Jerry Lewis’s book The Total Film-Maker. I have a document on my desktop which is called, “Instruction Manual for Movie 2.” I started writing this during editing. Stuff hits me all the time. There are certain things, and some of them are like, absurdly frustrating, but true. For example, I wrote down, “Try to cast some stars who will have some international appeal.” The optimistic side of you just goes, “Oh, we don’t need stars, we’ll cast whoever we want,” and then you get to these festivals and you start talking about distribution, and they’re like, “Well this person’s worth this, and this person’s worth this.” It’s not that I’m looking to make a lot of money, I just want to make the investors back their money that they paid to make the movie.
AVC: And just get it released.
MB: Yeah, get it released in Britain, get it released in Australia. So that was one of the frustrating ones. And then I wrote down what I view as the most important departments, like your first A.D., your cinematographer, your editor, your composer, your line producer, production designer, script supervisor. So important, the script supervisor, which people had told me, but you don’t realize until you’re making a feature, because I’d only made shorts. Script super isn’t as important in shorts, but in a feature, when you’re trying to keep everything in order in your head because you’re shooting in a lot of locations and you’re shooting out of order, without a good script super you’re kind of screwed. So that’s one.
AVC: Continuity is one of those things that really trips up first-time filmmakers, like bad sound. It just reeks of amateurism.
MB: It’s true, yeah. This is really getting significant: Do takes on the close-ups that have long pieces of silence. Just have it, because you need it. Long periods of thinking silence. Nothing, listening, the character listening. Because things like that would take 10 seconds to shoot, mean thousands of dollars that you’d have to lose to reshoot it, basically.
AVC: So you have somewhere to go when you edit. You don’t have to do, like, a—
MB: A super-wide.
AVC: Or a jagged cut-in that looks like it’s only there to plug in a hole.
MB: Yeah. For the shooting schedule, I would build in reshoots. I would just say to the financier, “The way this is gonna best work is, we’re gonna shoot for four weeks, then we’re gonna edit a rough assembly for two weeks, then we’re gonna have a one-week reshoot.”
AVC: Soderbergh does that.
MB: A lot of people do. I think for certain of the films Woody did. I think a lot of studio films from the ’30s and ’40s had it consistently. They would just be like, “This is the schedule. Eight weeks [of shooting], then four weeks of edit, then four weeks again.” [Laughs.]
AVC: How different is it assembling a film or a one-man show versus putting together a stand-up set, where you have a stack of note cards and you make sure you close with something big?
MB: Well, the thing is that I haven’t done a classic stand-up special since 2007. What I Should Have Said Was Nothing was my last one. I would say it’s very different. Those two things are, yeah, they’re wildly different. The thing Seth taught me about building a one-man show—and I understood elements of this from playwriting before that—is that everything ideally is building toward the end, the main event. If you listen to the Sleepwalk With Me live album, for example, and you take apart each bit, you listen to it twice, you realize that everything I say actually in some ways informs the final moments of the entire play. I think that’s a really important, actually easy thing to try to do. It’s amazing how many people don’t do that, if you think about it. You’ll see great comics, I won’t name names, but the best comics in the world, and I could watch them and go, “Oh, that final bit is good, but if you had sprinkled in some things along the way, it would have helped us understand how you got to that, then we would be euphoric at the end, as opposed to just laughing.”
AVC: TV is the worst in that respect, especially sitcoms, where the A story and the B story often have nothing to do with each other. Often the only answer to, “Why are these two stories in the same episode?” is, “Because these three actors needed something to do.”
MB: Yeah, that’s TV. They gotta put something on. I mean, TV has too many cooks, and it also has powerful actors who are like, “Where’s my fucking scene?” [Laughs.] And you’re like, “Here it is, Miss Rosemary,” or whatever it is.
AVC: So be careful with casting stars.
MB: I know, I know. It’s true. Hopefully this movie allows my name to be the star, so I don’t have to depend on that. I don’t think that will happen, but I think that would be the hope. That would be the best-case scenario. I think that the best-case scenario is people like it enough that they’ll allow me to make whatever movie I want, trusting that I’ll make something that people will like. The worst-case scenario I think is just that my fans see it, Ira’s fans see it, they like it, they recommend it to friends, it has a long digital life. I think that’s the worst-case scenario, so I’m actually not that worried about what’s happening.
AVC: Sleepwalk has the Walla Walla story, where you jump through a window in your sleep, and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend has the car-accident story, where your car gets totaled by a drunk driver and somehow you end up being held responsible for the damages. It becomes a story about accepting things that aren’t right because trying to correct them is making you crazy, but it’s a hard lesson to swallow.
MB: Well, yeah. People come up to me after the show, and they’re mad on my behalf about the car-accident situation, and even you bringing it up right now, it makes me mad. Somehow when I do the show, I’m disconnected from the anger when I perform it, and so I forget that it actually happened, but when people bring it up in real life, it’s as though when I’m performing it’s like a dream, and they’ve woken me from the dream, and I’m like, “Yeah, I am mad!”
AVC: Do those pivotal stories present themselves organically? Do you know they’re going to be central to the piece when you start putting it together?
MB: Yeah, that show was born out of when I did the “Return To The Scene Of The Crime” live episode for This American Life. It was funny because it came out of me being in Ira’s office telling him this car-accident story, and being so mad about it, and he was like, “There’s not enough of a story here.” Like, it’s just another car accident. I was hit by a drunk driver and they made me pay for a car, for the drunk driver’s car. And he was like, “Nah, that’s not enough of a story.” And I was like, “Do you understand what happened? The blah-blah-blah, and blah-blah-blah and blah-blah-blah.” And he was like, “Well, that’s interesting.” The anger and the degree to which I thought that I was right was more interesting than the actual series of events. So it was a melding of those things, combined with the romantic story with Jenny, that became this thing where we made that story and it was really well-received. As a matter of fact, there were certain people who became fans who I never would have expected. Adam Savage from Mythbusters got in touch with me and was like, “That makes me cry every time. I’ve listened to it a lot of times, I’ve played it for my wife.” It was really connecting with people, and around that time Seth and I said to each other, “You know, this is maybe a good main event for this show.” So we built it around that. If you think about the show, all the stories leading up to it have to do with me and Jenny having this kind of rocky relationship combined with truly rocky and painful dalliances with romance early in my life, which stuck with me for my whole life. And that’s what the movie is basically about. How can we learn to let go of pain that inevitably happens to everybody? Everybody’s had an awful first kiss or an awful boyfriend or girlfriend or an awful thing, and there’s a part of you that wants to be like, “I will remember that forever, and I will never forget that, and don’t you tell me to forget that!” But then at a certain point you have to say, “I have to let that go, I have to live.”
AVC: And you have to let go of your perfect ideas about how the world should be and deal with what it is.
MB: Yeah, just forget about it. Which of course, brings us back—maybe I can end this perfectly—to movie-making, which is you write the script, you make the blueprint, you photo storyboard, and then you throw it all away.