Just after the world premiere of his film “Don’t Think Twice” at the South by Southwest Film Festival in the spring, writer-director and costar Mike Birbiglia declared to the audience that he was going to “hand deliver” the film around the country. The suggestion of such a personalized rollout seemed to fit with the heartfelt film and its lived-in feel.
“I didn’t plan to say that, I improv-ed that,” Birbiglia said in an interview the next day, noting that plans were already well underway for him to make a national tour with the film. “But it’s something I’ve been thinking about. There’s an electricity to it.”
In the film a long-running New York City improv comedy troupe known as the Commune — played by Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, Tami Sagher and Birbiglia — find themselves at a crossroads. The theater that has been their longtime home is shutting down so they need to either find somewhere else to perform or consider disbanding. This causes all of them to take stock of where they are in their lives.
“Don’t Think Twice” is Birbiglia’s second feature as writer-director-performer, following 2012’s “Sleepwalk With Me,” an adaptation of his autobiographical one-man stage show of the same name. He has also created and starred in the one-man shows “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” and “Thank God for Jokes.” Birbiglia has also appeared as an actor in “Trainwreck” and “Orange Is the New Black.”
Originally from Massachusetts, Birbiglia lives in New York, where he has been a fixture on the stand-up and improv comedy scenes and is a regular contributor to the radio program “This American Life.” Birbiglia’s wife, Jen Stein, a consulting producer on “Don’t Think Twice,” made an observation to him that sparked the initial idea for the new film.
“She goes, ‘Your stand-up friends are so mean to each other and you improv friends are so nice to each other,’” Birbiglia recalled.
From there, Birbiglia set to work exploring the group dynamics of improv in relation to what is often the harsh individualism of show business. “I wrote down this line on my wall that ended up being a guiding principal of the film. I wrote, ‘Art is socialism but life is capitalism,’” he said. “It’s not even in the movie because it’s too on the nose. But it sparked the idea, ‘That could be a movie.’ I want to see a movie about how life isn’t fair and I want it to be hilarious.”
Birbiglia, Gethard, Sagher and Key all have backgrounds in improv comedy. Jacobs and Micucci were newcomers to the form but picked up some key techniques during a few weeks of rehearsal before shooting began.
“Improv from the outside has always looked to me like magic,” said Jacobs, best known for her work on the series “Community” and “Love.” “It looked like they were connecting through symbols and signs that we couldn’t see. But then I realized it’s just listening and knowing each other and following these very basic rules. So it kind of felt like lifting the veil on improv for me.”
The particulars of improv are revealed to the audience as well. When the Commune troupe is onstage in the film, Birbiglia shoots the scenes to put the viewer onstage among the performers. This technique creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy, conveying the connections that improv performers feel to one another as well as the energy they can get from the audience. Birbiglia credits director of photography Joe Anderson and Steadicam camera operator Michael Fuchs with making the scenes possible.
“At the outset, Joe Anderson and I talked about how filming theater is boring. And that’s a hurdle we were going to have to deal with,” said Birbiglia. “We decided the camera had to be one of the actors in the group. It was like how you’d shoot a dance scene or a fight scene. You had to be in the action.”
The performance scenes, shot with live audiences, were also a mix of scripted material to hit certain story beats and genuine improv moments to capture an exciting, high-wire energy.
“We were relatively meticulous in regards to saying the lines that were on the page,” said Key, an Emmy nominee for the sketch show “Key and Peele” and recently in the movie “Keanu.” “And then other times, we improv. Then what Mike did is he interspersed them, so that you the viewer won’t be able to detect the improv sets that were planned and the sets where we’re actually improving.”
Birbiglia was already a number of drafts into writing a screenplay based on his second one-man show “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” when he set that aside to begin work on what would become “Don’t Think Twice.” He began enlisting friends and other writers and performers to come to a series of readings and give notes on the in-progress screenplay.
Ira Glass, host and producer of “This American Life,” had also been a producer on “Sleepwalk With Me.” He attended many of the readings of “Don’t Think Twice” and eventually came on as a producer for the new project as well.
“Part of the Birbiglia technique is he basically workshops the script like he does stand-up,” said Glass, sitting alongside the filmmaker. “With stand-up you go on the road to work the material and here there are so many drafts of the script and he is shockingly unshy about asking people to sit in on readings.”
Birbiglia’s unorthodox, open-to-collaboration methods continued into postproduction. Far earlier than is typical for a feature film, he and Glass began organizing small test screenings with audiences of public radio listeners to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.
And Birbiglia has made good on the promise he made from the stage at the film’s SXSW premiere, appearing with the movie all across the country and holding classes at local improv theaters.
“One of the reasons I made the film was, when I directed ‘Sleepwalk With Me,’ I didn’t know how to direct a film. I had to learn,” said Birbiglia. “And I realized after the film as I was taking inventory on the process, that the way that I learned was all the things I had learned from improv when I was like 19. The principals of ‘say yes’ and collaborating, that it’s all about the group. Filmmaking is very much about that.”
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