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  • 08.24.12

How Ira Glass Took “This American Life” To The Movies With “Sleepwalk With Me”

Comedian Mike Birbiglia caught Ira Glass’s attention–how else?–by telling a great story. Now the pair has turned Birbiglia’s play Sleepwalk With Me into a film, and broadened the This American Life brand in the process.

How Ira Glass Took “This American Life” To The Movies With “Sleepwalk With Me”

One thing Ira Glass knows is how to tell a compelling story. He also has a genius for recognizing one when he hears it.

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Personal narrative is the driving force of This American Life, Glass’ long-running public radio show, which helped launch the careers of renowned raconteurs David Sedaris, John Hodgman and Sarah Vowell, and hosted a parade of already established ones, from David Foster Wallace to Joss Whedon.

Unofficially, This American Life has been a magnet for comedians over the years. “Just for whatever reason, there have been a lot of funny people on the show who are great at telling stories,” Ira Glass says. Now one of those comedians has inspired the host to get involved in taking a story from the radio to the big screen.

Ira Glass /Courtesy of Showtime

The story of Sleepwalk With Me‘s journey to theaters (it opens August 24th) began when Mike Birbiglia adapted the incidents eventually depicted in the film into a book and an off-Broadway play. Around that time, Ira Glass heard a recording of the comic talking about jumping through a window in his sleep, and decided he wanted to put it on the radio. The two would go on to co-write the screenplay, while Glass and This American Life produced it.

Although Birbiglia first appeared on the show in 2008, he’d wanted to be on This American Life for years. It was a transitional time; he was in the middle of metamorphosis from standup into a longform storyteller, dealing in funny, full arcs with heartfelt hooks. “Getting to work directly with Ira on developing my ability to tell stories is one of the luckiest things that’s ever occurred in my life,” Birbiglia says.

While the comic is a former film-writing major who’s always wanted to write movies, Glass had no such aspirations. It wasn’t until past guests on the radio show began selling their stories to movie studios that the idea of expanding into films started looking like a smart business move.

“It seemed like we should get into movies because it would be a way for This American Life to raise money, and for every dollar we could raise from the movie business, we wouldn’t have to come and beg our listeners.”

Over the past seven years, a handful of This American Life projects have bounced around Hollywood backlots. The show had a first look deal at Warner Brothers, and later at Dreamworks, with five or six scripts in development. Only one film stemming directly from an episode of the show actually made it to production: the Paul Feig-directed family fest, Unaccompanied Minors, which is an adaptation of episode segment, “In the Case of an Emergency, Please put Your Sister In An Upright Position.” Glass and This American Life had very limited involvement, however, beyond merely giving the go-ahead for Unaccompanied Minors to be made. “[Sleepwalk With Me] is the first film I got involved in at this level of rewriting on the script and actually being there in the editing room,” he says.

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Although there are still two promising projects in development—a Paul Rudd vehicle about cryogenic freezing with documentarian Errol Morris attached to direct, and another about a lapsed-belief minister, with Marc Forster directing–Glass will only be working on them sparingly, giving script notes and playing a mostly background role. Sleepwalk With Me is the only film so far that the host and his show have thrown their full weight behind.

“The idea for me was it would be nice to make a film that felt like the radio show,” Glass says. “One of the things I feel proudest of is that it’s like a much funnier version of any story we’ve ever done, but it still has the same emotion.”

Cementing the radio show feel, Birbiglia (as his winkingly named counterpart, Matt Pandamiglio) breaks into the action throughout the film to narrate the proceedings. It was a touch the filmmakers originally rejected from the early drafts for not being cinematic enough. Ultimately, during the editing process, the idea of talking directly to the camera emerged as the optimum device to help move the story along. “It was more like stand-up, and more like what I know of somebody narrating on the radio,” Glass says. “I felt like we accidentally came to the thing that was most familiar to us, and in doing so, we harnessed Mike’s crazy superpower of being able to talk with an audience and really connect with them.”

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia is one of the more broadly relatable comedians working today. Handsome in a regular-guy way, similar to Mark Duplass, his co-star in this year’s Your Sister’s Sister, he seems like someone you’ve known and liked for years. Even if he is the funny guy telling stories on stage, those stories have the lived-in, unembellished feel of bar stories. And like most bar stories, Sleepwalk With Me is also about relationships. What makes it feel like a proper This American Life story, though, is that most adults have had similar should-I-stay-or-should-I-go moments in their relationships, just not with the added twists brought on by the movie’s titular sleep disorder.

“One of the things that works about the merger of my stuff and This American Life’s is that the show doesn’t push comedy on people, but they allow for comedy to occur,” says Birbiglia. “They say, ‘Let’s keep it all in. Let’s keep in the comedy and keep in the tragedy. Let’s tell a story that really feels like something.’”

The comic and the radio host worked on the screenplay with actor (and Birbiglia’s co-director) Seth Barrish. Also joining them was Mike’s brother, Joe Birbiglia.

“It very much was like an editing job,” Glass says of the collaborative screenwriting process. “Mike would write a draft, and then we would all go in and be like ‘Okay, this doesn’t feel right over here, or this is taking four scenes to do, and does it need four scenes?’ Then we would brainstorm about what needed to be fixed and how to fix it.”

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The four writers had open-ended sessions, sometimes all together, sometimes working in almost every possible permutation of pairs. Since Barrish and Birbiglia are both actors, they would act out some scenes together and improvise dialogue, which was quicker than sending Mike off to write it on his own.

“The advantage I had was that I’m not an actor–I’m just an audience member,” Glass said. “So I could sit back, watch what they came up with, and be like ‘I’m bored’ when a scene wasn’t working.” The radio host had a devil’s-advocating partner in Joe Birbiglia, who wasn’t afraid to relentlessly needle his brother about where more jokes were needed in a scene.

One of the biggest challenges in transitioning the stage show into a film, however, was finding the right ending. While the play had an entire B-plot about Birbiglia’s relationship with his father, which was the original focus of the ending, Glass knew intuitively that the movie should go in a different direction.

“From the beginning, I was saying: ‘It can’t be about the dad. It’s a movie–it needs to be about you and the girl,’” Glass says. “After we learn something about the relationship with the girl, we don’t care about the dad.” When the others eventually agreed to change the ending, though, there was still the matter of figuring out how it should actually be done.

“One of the very last things we put in, two days before we locked picture, was a final monologue to the camera, something that came out of brainstorming in the editing room,” Glass says, putting a race-against-the-clock Hollywood ending into his tale of going Hollywood. “It took a lot of tinkering, but we made that ending work.”

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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