Mike Birbiglia's brand of highly personal humor is autobiographical and universal at the same time. He has turned his stories of blundering romance and miscued relationships into a successful career. He appears regularly on public radio's "This American Life" and fills big theaters with his one-man show (his monologue "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" sold out the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust stage in February). When he decided to turn his bestselling autobiography "Sleepwalk With Me and Other Painfully True Stories" into a movie, he brought "American Life" host Ira Glass to produce and co-write. Earlier this month the three of us talked by phone.
MB I love Minneapolis. The Guthrie -- I'm not making this up -- was my favorite show of the entire tour. It made me think I should shoot a TV special there because it has this three-quarters-in-the-round seating arrangement, it's ultramodern and it allows for a thousand people to be so close and intimate to the stage. I just need to do this. And I'm excited that we're premiereing at the re-opening of the Uptown.
Q "This American Life" has featured more than a thousand stories. What made this one the first you wanted to produce as a feature film?
IG It seemed like it might be fun. I could imagine the structure of the film where you start it off at this party for his sister's engagement where people are putting pressure on the main character to get married, get a life, get a career. A very ordinary place for people in their 20s. And that starts his first sleepwalking incident that night. Then these increasingly spectacular and very funny sleepwalk dreams that illustrate his increasing anxiety. Then ending with him leaping through a window [while asleep] and having to decide about his future. Once I could see that structure, I could imagine the film and it was possible to go forward.
Q This story has proved popular as a radio monologue, a theater piece and a book. What is it about sleepwalking through life that resonates with people?
MB I think it's one of the most convenient metaphors ever. It's like if a metaphor came true and then you made that a movie. I think what's relatable about the film is the character being in denial about all these problems in his life. To people in my generation, that's very real. Plus we're in the middle of a comedy boom, sleep disorders are becoming more common -- 4 percent of the population now. We have accidentally the most marketable movie ever.
Q You were working with a spare-change budget. How did that affect the film?
MB We were thinking of directors like Lynne Shelton ["Your Sister's Sister"] or Miguel Arteta ["Cedar Rapids"], but they don't want to go back to driving a Yugo after they've been driving a Mercedes. [Birbiglia took on the directing duties.] We wanted to hire a live jackal for one dream sequence, but we couldn't afford it.
IG We couldn't afford to fly people in to appear in the movie. We bought Marc Maron's ticket out of our own pockets. A lot of this was do-it-yourself. IFC [Films, the distributor] was able to book the film into 34 theaters, so I said, "Let's turn to our fans and see if we can do better." So there was a grass-roots campaign, and by the time we opened, we were in 146 theaters.
MB And now we're in a feud with Joss Whedon.
IG Joss caught wind of it. He posted on his blog that "The Avengers" is now down to 400 theaters, and I can feel these guys breathing down my neck. We must stop this film. Then Birbiglia and I said, OK, you want war, you got war. We posted a video on our website that declares we will earn just as much as "The Avengers" has earned, plus one dollar. So that's $1.5 billion and one dollar. So far we are completely on track and we look forward to beating his worldwide gross.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 On Twitter: @colincovert