It’s pronounced BUR-BIG-LEE-UH.
Having developed one of the most honest and self-deprecating personas of any comic working today, Mike Birbiglia has become a rock star on college campuses and in stand-up clubs around the country. Always willing to make fun of himself and his easy-to-mispronounce last name, Birbiglia has amassed a cult following through his stand-up shows, his blog (“My Secret Public Journal”), and his regular appearances on radio shows like “This American Life” and “The Bob & Tom Show.”
Already admired and respected within the comic community, Birbiglia is now venturing out into a new domain: filmmaking. His first feature film is called Sleepwalk with Me, and is based on the one-man show he performed off-Broadway in 2010. Birbiglia co-wrote the script and directed the film, not an easy feat for a guy used to working solo on stage. “Directing a feature film is like showing up to a middle school field trip and saying, ‘So, I’m going to drive the bus,’” says Birbiglia. “And then people go, ‘What do you mean? You don’t know how to drive the bus.’ And I say, ‘I know, but I’ve been watching the bus driver and I feel like I have the hang of it. I feel like I have a bus driving aesthetic.’”
Sleepwalk with Me, which will be released in St. Louis on September 14, follows a mid-30s guy named Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia) as he struggles to launch a career as a stand-up comic. Matt is also battling an increasingly dangerous sleep disorder that starts with sleepwalking and eventually escalates to jumping through a hotel window, something that actually happened to Birbiglia.
Filming that scene “was life imitating art imitating life to an absurd degree,” muses Birbiglia. “We shot that scene in an actual La Quinta Inn, which is the hotel whose window I jumped out of.” Birbiglia describes the film as “most autobiographical” both in terms of his sleepwalking experiences and trying to succeed as a comic.
Earlier this year, Sleepwalk with Me won an award at the Sundance Film Festival, something Birbiglia says was a huge confidence booster. “It was an Audience Award for our category, called the Best of Next! category,” explains Birbiglia. “It was for innovative storytelling. For me and Ira [Glass], who produced and co-wrote it, it was very reassuring, because the audience is who we want to make happy.” Birbiglia admits he was totally surprised by the honor and completely underprepared, which led to his “babbling for three minutes” and then leaving the stage.
Even audiences who haven’t seen the movie yet are already showing their support of Birbiglia and Sleepwalk. Since the film’s distributor (IFC Films) isn’t a huge operation, both Birbiglia and Glass asked their audiences to go online and request that Sleepwalk be brought to their city. “We went from 34 theaters to 101 theaters as a result of the #bringsleepwalk Twitter campaign,” Birbiglia says proudly. “There is definitely a democratization of media right now where people can decide what they want. As an artist, you don’t need a big studio or big distributor to get your stuff out pretty wide.”
That “democratization” is both a good thing and bad thing, according to Birbiglia; Twitter, specifically, is a double-edged sword. “It definitely makes comedians work harder, because you have to come up with six things that are funny a day or else people get mad at you,” he says laughing. While in St. Louis, Birbiglia actually had an interesting Twitter encounter with Pi Pizzeria in the Delmar Loop. After tweeting a picture of himself in front of The Pageant, Pi (which is located across from the venue) responded and invited him to come over for lunch. “I replied, ‘I was just there!’” says Birbiglia with a grin. “They know me by my Twitter handle, but don’t recognize my face.”
So will there be more directing gigs in Birbiglia’s future? Absolutely, he says. Making a movie “was hardest thing I’ve ever done and I have to do it again,” Birbiglia says excitedly. “It’s addictive. Now that I know how, how can I not do it?”
He attributes the film’s success to both his audience and the incredible crew he worked with. “Movies are so fragile,” Birbiglia points out. “If you don’t have a group of people that are really strong, it can fall apart.” That strong support came from people like his casting director Jennifer Euston, who he says was invaluable. He also learned a lot from veteran director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Wanderlust), who filled in last minute as one of Matt Pandamiglio’s friends. “David was very mentor-like in this process,” Birbiglia says of his long-time friend. “He was so helpful and gave me a hugely generous amount of advice.”
Though Sleepwalk with Me hasn’t even been released yet in most cities, Birbiglia is already looking forward to his next project: another film based on his one-man show called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which chronicles his decision to get married despite his misgivings about the institution of marriage. “I’ve written the first draft of [the script],” he says optimistically, “and I hope to start shooting in 2013.” With such tenacious plans for his new career as a director, Birbiglia may have to put his stand-up career on hold. If fans ever need a dose of Birbiglia’s signature humor, though, there’s always Twitter. | Matthew Newlin