Ira Glass, host of the weekly public radio show “This American Life” for 17 years running, knows hard work. But even he wasn’t prepared for the screaming match at the crescendo of production on his first film, the new comedy “Sleepwalk With Me.”
“The whole thing was traumatic,” said Glass, recounting the scramble to raise money, the rushed five-week shoot in New York, the withering criticism from test audiences and the fight with director and star Mike Birbiglia over the film’s ending. “It was a shocking amount of work — the despair-making sort of work where you aren’t really sure if it’s ever going to work.”
“We turned a corner where you felt comfortable shouting at me,” Birbiglia said.
“And vice versa,” Glass added with a smile.
FOR THE RECORD:
“Sleepwalk With Me”: An article in the Aug. 30 Calendar section about the movie “Sleepwalk With Me” said that Chicago public-radio station WBEZ put up one-third of the $1-million production budget. WBEZ provided one-quarter of the budget. —
As “Sleepwalk With Me” arrives in theaters this month, Glass and Birbiglia are finally enjoying the fruits of their labor. The movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and sold to IFC films, opened at New York’s IFC Center last weekend to strong box office returns — thanks in part to the support of fans of “This American Life,” which airs on about 500 stations and has approximately 1.8 million listeners. This week the film, which was directed by and stars Birbiglia, expands to Los Angeles and soon will be in about 150 locations nationwide.
The quasi-autobiographical “Sleepwalk With Me” is based on Birbiglia’s story of somnambulation that he had recounted on the radio program several years ago. Birbiglia, 34, plays Matt Pandamiglio, who is reluctant to marry his longtime girlfriend and throws himself into his fledgling comedy career, taking low-paying gigs performing for uninterested college students or drunken bar patrons. While on the road, Matt’s occasional sleepwalking problem gradually worsens, culminating with him jumping through the second-story window of a low-rent motel in the middle of the night.
Glass is frequently approached about turning the radio show’s quirky tales of everyday people into films, and the program even hired an executive from Warner Bros. in 2006 to help cultivate both nonfiction and dramatic movie projects inspired by the segments. Though “This American Life” now has about a dozen films in development, with Glass attached to most of them as a producer (meaning he reads scripts, goes to meetings and helps to flesh out ideas), none had come to fruition when Birbiglia came to Glass with the idea for “Sleepwalk with Me” — and asked him not just to produce it, but help write it.
“I definitely said, ‘No. I have no interest. It seems like a pain in the ...,’” Glass recalled.
But Birbiglia wouldn’t take no for an answer. He had staged a one-man stage version of “Sleepwalk With Me” off-Broadway at the Bleecker Street Theatre in 2008; it had a sold-out, eight-month run that began just as part of the tale aired on “This American Life.”
Having majored in film and playwriting at Georgetown University, Birbiglia had long harbored a desire to make a movie. After college, he tried to make a short film but ran out of money and pursued stand-up instead. Yet his cinematic ambitions wouldn’t die, and he showed drafts of a “Sleepwalk With Me” screenplay to friends in the film business, including Lena Dunham and Craig Zobel. Their response? “Dude, make it already,” Birbiglia said at Sundance, sitting next to Glass on a distressed leather couch.
The two made for a bit of an odd couple. At the Utah film festival, Glass was dressed in a suit and his trademark hip professor glasses, while Birbiglia — in clunky hiking boots, a polar fleece and jeans that were fraying on the bottom — looked as if he had just finished an overnight shift at a local ski rental shop.
Their work styles are decidedly different too: While Glass has a deliberate sensibility, Birbiglia is more spontaneous. When the comedian decided to begin production on “Sleepwalk With Me,” for instance, he only informed Glass of the news three months before the start date.
“You somehow talked me into this and just started spending your own money hiring people when we still didn’t have any financing,” Glass said, looking at his partner. Fortunately, the team was able to convince WBEZ — the Chicago public radio station that produces “This American Life” — to put up one-third of the $1-million budget and the web producer Bedrocket Entertainment to finance the remainder.
Glass helped refine the script (but is credited only as a producer, not a writer on the film). And when cameras started rolling, he came to the set every day, making sure everything was running on schedule and offering advice to Birbiglia.
After filming ended, things got worse for Glass when he and Birbiglia started showing early cuts of the film to test audiences composed of “This American Life” listeners — and received scathing responses.
“It was miscalibrated,” Birbiglia said circumspectly.
Glass elaborated: “In the sense of: We wanted people to like it, and they didn’t, and thought we were bad people.”
As the pair edited the film and tried to incorporate audience suggestions, Glass and Birbiglia found their friendship tested. Hours before they were supposed to lock the final version of the film, they were still at odds over which of two possible endings to use.
“Over the course of the day, Mike kept bringing people in and soliciting their ideas about the ending,” Glass said. “I was like, ‘Wait, we have to be finished in a few hours — who are all these people? What is happening here?’ I had had enough of Mike and of everyone.”
The next day, the two made up, and since Sundance, they’ve been riding high.
“Honestly, showing the film at Sundance was one of the most emotional work experiences I’ve ever had,” Glass said in a phone call this month from New York. “I found myself tearing up over and over, and I couldn’t believe we had gotten to the point where the film had gotten as good as it did. The fact that we figured out a way to fix something that at one point made us feel utterly hopeless — and that it’s continued to get an enormous response since — is great.”
Glass and the “This American Life” team are moving forward with other films, including a movie about cryogenics starring Paul Rudd and directed by Errol Morris, and a story of an evangelical preacher with Marc Forster. But don’t expect Glass to fully abandon radio for Hollywood — the pace, he said, just doesn’t suit him.
“The complete inefficiency of it — that you could work on something for two years that is only 90 minutes — it’s just absurd.”