MICF: Mike Birbiglia talks Sleepwalk With Me


Based on the true story of love gone stale, carving out a career in comedy, and dealing with a slightly deadly sleepwalking situation, the film is the screenwriting, acting and directing debut of long time stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia.

After a successful run at Sundance and SxSW in the US last year, “Sleepwalk With Me” is finally graduating overseas and the first stop is Australia. In town to perform his stand up show “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” and promote the film’s release, we caught up with Mike to talk Aussie humour, getting into a verbal sparring match with Joss Whedon, and how the shrinking of the world could be a good thing.

It’s great to have you here in Melbourne and I have to saw I saw your show “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” last week and I really enjoyed it.

Mike: Thank you very much.

Have you enjoyed your time at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?

Mike: Yeah I love it here. My wife and I are here together and we were just thrilled with the town. We had come in 2011 to the Sydney Arts Fest and people had told us all about Melbourne, you know ‘where you really have to go is Melbourne’, but it really is lovely, great restaurants and a great walking town. We walked all over the place. And the shows are incredible here so it’s pretty exciting to be in this company.

Do you find any differences in audience reactions in different countries?

Mike: They’ve been great. The lives shows have been great but with that I can make adjustments on the fly. I now know that cotton candy is not called that in Australia it’s called Fairy Floss. And then I just move on from it. But with the movie you can’t make adjustments [laughs]. That would be a real trick if you could do that. So I watched it the other night at Cinema Nova and it really seems like its crossing over. It really plays for big laughs. I hope people see it on the big screen. I think comedy is best as a communal experience and when you see people laughing at things that you’re laughing at – as an audience member you share that. And sometimes they laugh at things you don’t laugh at and I feel like comedy is fun that way, it’s sort of like a live sociological experiment.

Yes, people were predicting the death of cinema when television came in, and it hasn’t died and it isn’t going to, and I think that is definitely why. I first saw “Sleepwalk With Me” at SxSW last year and I thought it was fantastic. I have to say I didn’t know much about it going in, I was literally sitting in the audience going ‘oh it’s about a comedian, this should be good.’ I thought it was fantastic and I actually included it in my ‘Top 5 films you didn’t see’ list.

Mike: Oh cool!

I was so excited when I heard it was coming to Australia. As an independent filmmaker is it great to be able to extend into other countries?

Mike: It is. This is our first foray into country and we were really fortunate that Sharmill Films was interested and saw the potential in the film here and to be honest with you I’m deeply curious as to how it’s going to play here. I’m very proud of it, I think it combines emotion and comedy in a way that I was aiming to, but you honestly never know so I’ll be curious.

Well I think our sense of humour definitely aligns. I saw as well you got a little extra push in the marketing area with a video from Joss Whedon who told everyone NOT to go and see the film because it’s so great and we should be supporting corporate America not fantastic independent films. Classic Whedon. Do you know how that came about?

Mike: Yeah it was just kind of a funny thing. It was Ira [Glass]’s idea and he had this thought that what if Joss makes a statement against our film that that would be a funny thing. Because [“The Avengers”] was such a mammoth film – you know a billion dollar film – and ours is such an art-house film. So he sent it to Joss and we didn’t know what was going to happen and about a week later Joss sends back that first video. And it went viral. Joss really improvised and made it his own and it was a real gift from Joss from one filmmaker to another. It was really lovely. And then we did a bunch of videos back and forth, there’s a sort of series of rivalry videos. I think that helped the film a lot I think it gave it a lot of extra attention.

Yes I think when you don’t have “The Avengers” marketing budget this kind of organic promotion is so great. I’m a huge Joss fan so I think people would have paid attention.

Mike: Oh god yeah, definitely.

And your current show “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” do you have any plans to make that into a film as well?

Mike: Yeah I’m working on the adaptation of it now. I’m hoping to shoot it maybe sometime this year. It strays from the autobiography quite a bit. Long term I would like to make films in which I’m not beholden to my own life [laughs].

You did so well with your cast in “Sleepwalk With Me”…

Mike: I feel very lucky between Lauren Ambrose and Carol Kane and James Rebhorn and Marc Maron and Wyatt Cenac, Jessi Klein and Kristen Schaal, they just really brought so much to their roles I could never have even imagined. Like with Carol and Jim there’s something on the page and then what they do is completely transcendent and real and vivid in a way that you just can’t writ. It’s just a gift great actors can give to directors.

And that was your first time directing as well.

Mike: Yeah exactly. So I was particularly tenuous in that they could have just completely disrespected the process but they didn’t. They treated me with the utmost respect and it was a real gift. It means so much to me still.

The cast came together so well and I’ve heard that is the true talent of directors – getting the casting right from the start.

Mike: Yes it’s everything.

And would you want to act and direct the next film as well?

Mike: Yes I would like to direct the next one for sure, in fact, as I’m writing this next script I’m really writing it to direct. A lot of the things I’m writing are really instructions to myself [laughs]. When I wrote the first film I was really writing it for another director so I was leaving a lot of blank space for them to take licence on things. But with this one I write in music cues and specific locations, it really is to shoot.

So you’ve learnt a lot from your first experience.

Mike: Oh yeah and I’m writing much more from pictures with the second one, I’m building scenes out from the visual versus building them out from pieces of dialogue.

So is that something you want to balance going forward – filmmaking with comedy shows?

Mike: Yeah I think long term it would be great to make 10 or 15 films. And I love stand up and I love live shows but I do think that there comes a certain point when it becomes harder and harder. You know I’ve been on the road for 15 years I feel like I could do it another 10 years but I don’t know if I could do another 30 [laughs].

So first Australia with “Sleepwalk With Me” then the world, is that the plan?

Mike: Yeah I really want to see how many countries we can play in. It’s funny I was talking to Eddie Izzard recently and he was saying you know the world is getting smaller and smaller in a lot of ways. He’ll go to places like in Eastern Europe, places where you wouldn’t think they would speak English as much…and they do. Because the kids grew up on English and on English media. And he’s playing shows in Moscow and I do think the world is shrinking in this way. And I would love to be a part of that [laughs].

Sleepwalk With Me is now playing nationally in Australia and is premiering at the London Sundance Film and Music Festival in the UK on Sunday 28 April.