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Mike Birbiglia Makes Joss Whedon a Generous Offer and Hustles His Film, 'Sleepwalk With Me' (Q&A)

The actor-comedian speaks with THR about his indie hit and how he plans on teaming up with the "Avengers" director.

Mike Birbiglia on stage - H 2012
Getty Images

It's taken years of hard work and months of hustle, but Mike Birbiglia's passion project, Sleepwalk With Me, is starting to take flight.

The actor-comedian co-wrote, directed and stars in the semi-autobiographical story of a Brooklyn-based aspiring comedian who battles relationship issues and a sleep disorder as he hits the road on a tour of grungy, low-pay stand-up jobs. He's told the story in many formats, including a book and off-Broadway one-man show, and now the Sundance-selected film is officially in more than one theater.

The film opened at New York City's IFC Center over the weekend, and Q&A's with Birbiglia and his co-writer and co-producer Ira Glass after every screening helped them earn a three day total of $65,000, a theater record.

Film Review: Sleepwalk With Me

In fact, that number topped the $47,000 per screen average of this spring's hit The Avengers, which added fuel to the faux-rivalry staged between Birbiglia and Glass, and the superhero flick's director, Joss Whedon. The two sides filmed humorous smack-talking videos last week, in which the Sleepwalk duo promised to top the Avengers' $1.5 billion worldwide gross after Whedon jokingly urged his fans to boycott the film.

This weekend, the film opens in select theaters nationwide, including in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. The pair just booked a weekend screening at the historic Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, as well, just a few months after distributors told them they couldn't sell it out.

THR spoke with Birbiglia about the fake rivalry with Whedon, the state of independent movies, hustling and the watering hole in Brooklyn where some of the film was shot.

THR: We posted those videos with Joss Whedon the week before it came out. Did you stick it to him after that first weekend box office?

Birbiglia: Yeah, I really stuck it to him. He was on 4,300 screens and we were on just the one. I said to him, I was on my JetBlue flight here, and I watched The Avengers again on the little screen for $5.99, putting more money in his dowry, and I had this revelation, which was: here were these superheroes, putting their egos behind them to work together for the greater good. And I thought, what me and Ira and Joss ought to do is pool resources, combine Sleepwalk With Me with The Avengers, and together we can all make $3 billion, and just split it 50/50.

THR: I think that would be financially the best thing to do.

Birbiglia: I think that’s just the right thing to do. I think Ira and I, since we’re en route to beat his $1.5 billion, we’re taking the higher ground, but I think that’s the right thing to do, and that’s why we’re willing to do it. And Joss accepted, and everybody saw it at WGA, and he said, "I accept, I agree with you, and I’m proud to be a part of it."

THR: I think that’s applause-worthy, you’re doing the right thing.

Birbiglia: I mean, obviously it’s a joke, but it’s so laugh-worthy because, I think The Avengers -- and I loved The Avengers, by the way, it’s awesome, and the direction is mystifying. I spent a couple hours after the WGA event the other night just being like, "So how did you shoot this scene? Did it take a week to shoot the scene? When you go home at night, and you know that you’ve only shot like 1/10th of a scene, is it a cliffhanger? How do you fall asleep at night, knowing there’s so much that you haven’t shot, so you don’t know how it will come out?" And he was like, "I don’t sleep very well, I sleep like three or four hours, and I’m completely anxious."

Our campaign has now gotten us to 170 movie theaters, which is a ton for an independent film. Not simultaneously yet, just over the course of the next month or so, I think it’s booked at 170 theaters. But if it does well, I think it’ll stay in the theaters that it’s in this weekend and next weekend, and then theoretically it could be in 170 theaters at once. So it’s exciting, but it’s funny. I put the whole thing in this laughable perspective of what big budget studio films make financially, and what small, low-budget indie films make. And it’s a silly comparison. They’re not even in the same ballpark.

THR: I loved The Avengers this year, but I realized that all my favorite films thus far are ones that were made within $2-3 million or less, and I just want people to be able to see movies like that, and not only big budget films like a Total Recall or other summer tentpoles.

Birbiglia: Total Recall is going to be the butt of all jokes. I made a Twitter joke last week: "Nobody Asked, and Hollywood Answered: Total Recall the Remake."

But you look like the sort of independent films that got me into indie filmmaking in the first place. Films I saw in theaters like Swingers and The Ice Storm and Sweet Hereafter -- films that were very touching to me in a pivotal point in my life, and I really hope people go and see those types of films, because those types of films are being made now. Celeste and Jesse is great, Ruby Sparks is great, Beasts of the Southern Wild is actually doing very very well, which is great. Another one that’s coming out, Hello I Must Be Going is a really beautiful film.

PHOTOS: The Scene at the Sundance Film Festival

What Ira and I have done is taken matters into our own hands. We’ve taken the economic hardship of indie film into our own hands, and just kind of come at it in this uber-grassroots, no-shame kind of way. So far, it’s working, and we’ll see what happens this weekend. I’m in Los Angeles doing Q&As, Ira is in Chicago doing Q&As. I think three of six of mine are sold out, and a whole bunch of his are sold out, and he’s playing this big venue in Chicago. In those places, I know we’ll do well. I was clicking around a little bit, San Francisco at 7:30 is sold out and we’re not even there. So that’s the exciting thing for us. We just want to be the red rocket on the space shuttle. We want to fall away and have people go to the movie. We don’t want to chaperone the movie for the rest of its life. We’ve become like the stage parents of our child with this movie. We’re like, "Okay, go out there and project!" That was my little joke I made the other night.

THR: You guys are definitely hustling. Some filmmakers go on twitter and show up on TV shows, but you don’t usually see filmmakers literally showing up at theaters to promote their movies.

Birbiglia: I think it’s because this deep labor of love, and it’s something that we spent so much time and energy and heart and soul into this film, that when we went to Sundance, and all of a sudden people were saying to us, "This is a small film," that’s something people said to us a lot on the business side. They were like, "This isn’t going to end up on a lot of screens." And we were just like, why? And they were like, "Well, it’s just not that kind of film." And we were like, "No, we made it to be that kind of film. We made it so that teenagers can go and parents can go and grandparents can go. We made it so that all kinds of people would love it and laugh and feel something." So when people told us that, we were a little bit, really put off by it.

THR: So tell me about how the Ziegfeld thing came about, what’s the plan?

Birbiglia: It’s booked there, I think four or five screenings a day, all weekend. I think Ira and I were kind of shocked by that, because we didn’t ask for it. We actually, it’s funny, because we had asked for it this summer, as our opening. And we were like, opening weekend, we can do the Ziegfield and we can go and we can be there, and everybody was like, no, you can’t sell the Ziegfield. And we were like no, we can! But now, in the second weekend we’re at the Zigfield, but we’re not there. We’re actually trying to Skype Q&A into the Zigfield, but I don’t know if it’s technically possible with our limited resources.

I think that’s happening is that the excitement that Ira and I have for the film, the goal is that it’s infectious, and that people are like, well if these guys are willing to make themselves look like jackasses and wear these old-timey Hollywood usher outfits, they must care about this. And if they care about it, and I trust what their past work is and I like that work, then let’s give this a shot. I feel like that’s what’s happening.

THR: I think you should hold a special screening in Union Hall in Brooklyn.

Birbiglia: I would love to do that. I love that place.

THR: I saw it on screen and was like, "What?! Is that it?"

Birbiglia: That is simultaneously the most cinematic looking, yet hard to light location that you could ever imagine. Because the high ceilings, it’s so big. It’s so beautiful, my god.

THR: It’s where we would go to pretend we were rich when we were just out of college.

Birbiglia: Yes! It's the perfect place to pretend you're rich.