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Sundance 2012: Mike Birbiglia on Turning His 'Sleepwalk' Stage Show Into a Film (Q&A)

The writer and star of "Sleepwalk with Me" discusses working with Mike White, contributing to public radio's 'This American Life' and his first trip to the Sundance Film Festival.

Mike Birbiglia on stage - H 2012
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Mike Birbiglia

Thirty three-year-old comedian Mike Birbiglia is best known for a story he tells about running out of a second-story window of a hotel in Walla Walla, Wash., during a bout of sleepwalking. Birbiglia, who suffers from REM behavior disorder, has shared the story in his off-Broadway show Sleepwalk with Me, and a book of partly the same name (Sleepwalk with Me and Other Painfully True Stories, a 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor finalist and New York Times best seller). Now, Birbiglia is coming to Sundance for the first time with a film -- also called Sleepwalk With Me -- that is based on his one-man show. Birbiglia directed and stars in the film; he also co-wrote and produced it with Ira Glass, host of Chicago Public Media’s public radio show This American Life, to which Birbiglia contributes. (Birbiglia’s brother, Joe Birbiglia, and theater director Seth Barrish are also co-writers.)

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The film, which premieres today, Monday, in the festival’s Next section at the Library Center Theatre, stars Lauren Ambrose and Birbiglia as a burgeoning stand-up comic who struggles with his career, love life and sleepwalking disorder. Birbiglia spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his disastrous experience making a film in college, his first trip to Sundance and working on the script for Sleepwalk with Me with writer-actor Mike White (Enlightened).

The Hollywood Reporter: Tell me how this project came about.

Mike Birbiglia: Around the time that Sleepwalk with Me the play was coming out (in November 2008), I submitted one of the stories to This American Life and they wanted to air it and that’s how I got in touch with Ira and we became friends. Over the course of the run of the play, Ira came to the show three or four times and he did a post-show Q&A one night. We recorded a piece for his TV show on Showtime and I prepared more stories for his radio show. So we were working on a lot of projects together, and it was around that time that the idea came up, “Why not make Sleepwalk with Me into a film?” Ira was developing film projects, and I wanted to make a film for a long time. So for about two years we worked on the script and then we made the film on a very humble budget.

THR: You’re known for your stage and radio work, but you always wanted to get into the film business?

Birbiglia: I was a screenwriting major in school, I went to Georgetown, and I wanted to make films as my profession. When I was in college I made a short film, it was actually called Extras, and it was long before the (Ricky Gervais) TV series, in ’97, ’98. Basically, it was a complete disaster; I spent all my life savings, all the money I’d made waiting and bussing tables. It was a bad taste in my mouth, where I felt, I guess you can’t make movies because they just cost so much money and all you do is lose money. It seemed like a losing game, you know?

THR: Did the process on Sleepwalk with Me leave you wanting to make another film?

Birbiglia: A few weeks after we wrapped I had lunch with Michelle Satter, who runs the Sundance Institute’s feature film program, and one of the first things I said was, “The good news is I’m ready to make another film.” (The Sundance Institute paired Birbiglia with Mike White, who served as his writing mentor on the project.) It was hands down the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, hands down -- nothing even compares -- and I came away going, “That was hard. I want to do that again.”

THR: The tale from your stage show that involves you sleepwalking out of a second-story motel window is your best known story. Does it bother you that this is what most people know you by?

Birbiglia: No, it certainly doesn’t bother me. Anyone who has seen the show or listened to the story knows that it’s thematically about the idea that, for me, sleepwalking is the thing that for a long time I was uncomfortable talking about. For other people, it’s whatever kind of neurosis or weakness or ailment that they have, that people are often embarrassed of. For me it’s not really about the sleepwalking per say. When I tell the story it’s more about the idea that telling a personal story about yourself is actually cathartic. It opens you up to connecting with people, as opposed to kind of distancing yourself.

THR: Was it a longtime aspiration to get a film into Sundance?

Birbiglia: Yes, in a big way. Yeah, I mean, to be honest with you, the day that (Sundance programming director) Trevor Groth called me to tell me that they accepted the film in the festival was one of the best days of my life. I’m still kind of wrapping my brain around it.

THR: How did you come to work with Mike White and this project?

Birbiglia: I got to work this small part in (2011 Sundance film) Cedar Rapids, but I was on set for about a week, and so I was always picking (director) Miguel Arteta’s brain on directing because I was planning to direct Sleepwalk with Me. And after that film was written, he read my script and he gave me notes -- really extraordinary notes -- and he recommended me to the Sundance Institute, and they wanted to get me to work with a writing mentor. They asked, “Who would you want to work with?” and I said that a dream choice would be Mike White. Mike White and Miguel Arteta have worked on a lot of films together, they did Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, a bunch of other collaborations. And Mike White said yes. He read the script and he gave me notes and we had a bunch of phone calls.

THR: Are there any films at Sundance that you’re interested in checking out?

Birbiglia: Yeah, I’m going to see Craig Zobel’s film, Compliance, which I saw a cut of, and loved it. I can’t wait to see the final color-corrected and mixed version. I’m excited to see Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton’s movie, which I’m actually in. I have a cameo; I’m in the first scene. I have not seen it, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, I would’ve gone but I was shooting this movie during Toronto.

THR: Since it’s your first time going to the festival, have any veterans pulled you aside and offered advice?

Birbiglia: People keep telling me how hectic it is. Constantly people are telling me how hectic this festival is and I just can’t grasp how anything can be more hectic than making this movie. I can’t imagine how hectic it could be. I have no expectations whatsoever. I mean, I really don’t. I feel good about the film, I think people are going to laugh, I think people are going to enjoy it. 

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller