Mike Birbiglia: Awake and alert

August 24, 2012

The great thing about doing a one-man-show-length monologue, like “Sleepwalk With Me,” Mike Birbiglia says, is that you can go anywhere you want with it, almost as quickly as you can say it.

“I can be talking about considering going to the doctor about my sleepwalking –and then say, ‘Let me tell you about this thing that happened to me when I was 19’,” Birbiglia explains, sitting in the Thalia Café at Manhattan’s Symphony Space, where he recently screened the film (which opens in limited release Aug. 24). “I’m able to go leap-frogging around in an extremely elliptical way. With a monologue, you can be unendingly elliptical.

“Sometimes people say ‘You’re the best at digressions.’ And that’s actually a real compliment to me.”

In a movie? Not so much: “Film is so immersive,” he says. Also expensive.

“I tell a story in the stage show about going to Alaska with my sister, and we saw a bear – like, up close – with our fishing guide. Now it’s a nice story. But you can’t rent a bear and fly the production to Alaska for such a low-budget film.”

Indeed, there were thoughts initially of simply filming Birbiglia’s stage presentation, which played off-Broadway from 2008-09: “There were people who wanted to do that – like Spalding Gray and ‘Swimming to Cambodia’,” he says. “We approached various directors.”

Birbiglia and collaborator Ira Glass (of “This American Life” fame) instead wrote a fictionalized film, told in the first person but with other characters to fill out the story. The plot deals with Birbiglia developing a dangerous case of sleep-walking, even as he gets pressured into proposing to his long-time girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) and tries to get his fledgling stand-up-comic career off the ground.

When they showed the script to directors, their initial choices to direct all had trepidations about shooting the whole thing for $1 million.

“I got concerned about having my voice watered down, if I wasn’t working with a director who could execute the vision I had for the film,” Birbiglia says. “I had always wanted to direct a film. It was a necessity that then became a passion that came together with me directing, because of the budget. I mean, I’d love to direct a $5 million movie. But no one in their right mind would give me a first film to direct for $5 million.”

When he’s onstage, Birbiglia approaches the material as a story-teller who’s more interested in the story than the telling.

“When I tell them, the stories are very stripped-down. It’s about the storytelling – and not about the gymnastics I go through as an actor,” he says of the one-man show. “I’m not the guy who’s doing a pitch-perfect version of my grandmother and the mailman. And, in a monologue, you can only go on so long explaining what your parents are like.”

In a movie, however, you can cast actors – such as James Rebhorn and Carol Kane – to play your parents, removing the necessity of explaining them at all: “My parents seem much more lived-in for the movie because they’re filled out by these consummate actors,” Birbiglia says. “They bring so much life and creativity and personality.”

And you can turn the sleep-walking dreams you had into full-blown dream sequences – but dreams that initially fool the audience about how real they are. “And not those ‘movie’ dream sequences,” he says. “We wanted people to say, ‘My dreams are just like that.’”

A long-time stand-up comic before he turned to the one-man show, Birbiglia now has a second show-length monologue, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” which he’s been touring and which he hopes can be filmed in 2013.

But that depends on finishing the screenplay to his own satisfaction: “It’s hard for me to plan my life because I don’t know when things will be done. It’s a dilemma a lot of artists face. When I handed in my book, I kept asking my editor if I could have the book back for a few more days? It’s the same thing when I’m touring a show. I’ll write a line in the afternoon and insert it in the evening. The work you do is never done. At a certain point, you have to show your work.”

Like a number of stand-ups, Birbiglia tried to go the TV route, helping to develop a half-hour sitcom at CBS in 2008. But the pilot didn’t get picked up as a series, a fact Birbiglia credits with propelling him to “consider betting on myself” and work seriously to bring “Sleepwalk With Me” to an off-Broadway venue.

“I think about what if the TV show had gone on the air and I shudder a little,” he says. “You look at the shows that did make it on to the air that year and I think they’re all off now. I don’t think one pilot that got an on-air order is still on the air. It wouldn’t have been the best way to realize my material. So I’m glad it didn’t happen.”

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