James Rebhorn’s Glory: Mike Birbiglia on Sleepwalk with Me

Making the anti-romantic comedy, feeling shlumpy and what's in store for 'Girls.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


I saw Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical film Sleepwalk with Me at SXSW, its second stop after Sundance. Now that it’s out in theaters, I got to chat with Birbiglia on the phone. After a couple minutes he switched from a cell to a landline which made him feel closer to me. “We’re going to have a landline level of personal connection,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to lead to a lot more intimacy and much more personal revelations.” In the autobiographical film, he plays a standup comedian dealing with his relationships, who not only sleepwalks but acts out the dreams he’s currently having.


Mike Birbiglia: Fred, Topel, right?


CraveOnline: Yes, it’s spelled Tope-Ul but we say Tope-Ell. You’d never know unless you heard me talk.

You’re singing to the choir.


How much sleep have you gotten for today?

I flew in last night after doing 35 Q&As this weekend literally in New York City. I did 35 Q&As after screenings. Then I flew to Los Angeles last night, I arrived in my hotel room about 1:30AM and then I woke up at 9AM to do publicity. That’s sort of where I’m at.


How did they show the movie 35 times? Did you rent out an entire multiplex?

We had two screens at the IFC Center.


So every 45 minutes you did a Q&A?

Yeah, exactly.


What were your thoughts on taking some material you may have talked about in standup and adapting that into a screenplay?

I have to say, it was a surprisingly positive experience in the sense that film is such a different medium than theater that it had enough challenges and fun aspects to play around with and to be creative about converting. But then because I had told it in other forms, I was able to have confidence that I could make it work. One of the things that’s hard if you’re a first time director, your actors and your crew are kind of like, “Is this guy going to pull this one out? I don't know if this guy can make this movie.” I feel like with this it was like the cast and crew kind of knew he’s kind of stuck the landing in these other formats, let’s just take his word for it that he can do the same in this.


What is your unique take on relationship problems?

I don't know. I mean, how do you describe it? Maybe I can bounce off that.


I called it irreverent in my SXSW review. There are a lot of movies about young people dealing with relationship problems.

Well, what’s the straight ahead version? What do you think is the standard conventional take?


Hmm, what was out in the ‘90s?

Maybe I can answer without that. My take is the original incarnation of Sleepwalk with Me when I started writing it as a one man show was I had just come off of a breakup, this breakup that this is based on. It was originally a play. I wanted to make a play about a breakup where the breakup is actually the right thing to do. It’s kind of the anti-romantic comedy. Most romantic comedies are kind of building the case for why these people should be together. And this movie’s building a case for why they shouldn’t be together. The obstacle of an anti-romantic comedy is making people feel okay about that at the end. Some of it’s in the writing and some of it’s in the casting of Lauren Ambrose. It was actually my wife’s idea because we wanted to find somebody who emanates such strength and humor that you actually couldn’t feel bad for her in a certain way. There’s something about Lauren Ambrose that’s so special where you look at her and you just go, “Well, she’ll be fine.” Look at her, not just because she’s pretty but because she has such strength and such kind of confidence. I feel like you can’t look at her and go, “Oh, she’s going to be a failure.”


You have a sleepwalking problem. Have you ever experienced sleep eating?

You know, I never have although it’s a very common thing that people do. I certainly awake eat more than one would like. A funny detail is that I lost 20 pounds for shooting the movie and the New York Times called me shlumpy. I was just like oh God, that’s after I lost the 20 pounds. What would they have said before losing the 20 pounds? “He’s just a lardass?” What would the New York Times have printed?


At least it’s fair. Women get it a lot worse. We can take it.

I think you’re right, but I don’t do that. I certainly don’t come out of a movie and go, “Oh, that person is shlumpy” about a girl.


You’re right, the real answer is we should treat no one like that.

Exactly, precisely, I agree.


Is the film industry perfect for people with sleeping disorders?

Just because there’s constant sleep deprivation and stress and anxiety?


And the schedule.

The schedule’s ridiculous. The second week of shooting we were in Union Hall for all the bar scenes. If it were big budget we could shoot regular hours but low budget we needed to be there when they weren’t in operation. So we were there from 2AM when they close ‘til 4PM when they open. So I had to wake up at 1AM for a week. Not the healthiest life choice.


How did you imagine making the dreams absurd enough that we can tell they’re dreams, but without using any special effects?

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Adam Beckman, our cinematographer, who is also the cinematographer for “This American Life” TV series on Showtime, who really worked with us to conceive of these dreams that felt real enough and organic enough that they were happening and that they could trick you into thinking that they were happening, but that were visually interesting enough that they were worth watching. We really tried to avoid effects, special effects in any way. We also tried to avoid being cutesy. I think one of the tropes of dreams in movies is that the art department gets carried away. It’s like all of a sudden everything has marshmallow on top of it or people are throwing jelly beans at each other. Ours, we were trying to have them be strange enough that you could believe they’re happening and maybe they’re happening in real life and not in a dream, but also interesting enough that they’re evocative.


As a director, were you determined to make a film that finally uses James Rebhorn correctly?

[Laughs] Best question in the entire press process.


Thank you.

That is so funny. Yes, you’re so right. It was unintentional. That’s not what we set out to do but I think that we may have done it. I think we’ve defeated The Talented Mr. Ripley, we have defeated Independence Day. We have finally used James Rebhorn in all his glory. I mean, that guy can do anything. If you go on his IMDB page, it’ll crash your computer. That’s how much work that guy’s done.


I love him and I love when he shows up as the bad guy, but I know there’s more.

Oh my God, there’s more. I actually couldn’t help but think when we were shooting with him, he’s such a good guy to work with, he’s such a mensch and he’s such a great skilled veteran actor, I couldn’t help but think of Richard Jenkins and how Richard Jenkins was that guy for many, many years.


I absolutely counted them as a pair. They were the two guys who would always show up.

Jenkins, in Flirting with Disaster, Jenkins is just priceless. James Rebhorn is the same way. In Meet the Parents, how good he is in that volleyball scene is unreal. I think that he’s going to have his Jenkins moment where someone writes him a The Visitor and he just knocks it out of the park and wins an Oscar.


Are you in that filmmaker circle that sort of intersects with Lena Dunham, with Alex Karposky and those guys?

I don't know if I’d say I’m in a circle. I never feel like I’m in a circle other than my belly being a circle. Lena’s a good friend and was a really good friend to the project. Alex was someone I met at the opening night party for Tiny Furniture. Alicia Van Couvering who produced Tiny Furniture who was the original lead producer on Sleepwalk with Me but she sort of needed a break after she had shot a couple movies back to back. She was a little burnt out.


Do you get to come back on season two of “Girls?”

Regarding “Girls,” I can only hope that my awkward boss character returns but I don't know. With Lena, Lena and I talk about doing a movie together all the time so I really think that that’s in the future somewhere, Lena and I. We just get along like gangbusters. We’re really good friends and we share a real sensibility. I think her TV series is so inspired and Tiny Furniture was one of the reasons I felt like I could make Sleepwalk with Me. Oh, you can make a movie that truly makes people laugh and cry hard with a limited budget. I felt like I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I hadn’t seen that happen in a long time.


Making your first feature film, what were the surprises?

The biggest surprise is how many people see movies. I’m used to traveling around the country and I’ll perform for 1000 people and I know when I walk around Boise, ID about 1000 people know who I am. But with the movie, it’s been screened in New York this weekend for 5000 people and we have all these viral videos of me and Ira [Glass] and Joss Whedon and all this stuff so people are just viewing my ugly mug quite a big right now. So I’m being recognized quite a bit and it’s strange. People will tweet things like, “I just walked by Mike Birbiglia eating an ice cream cone with his wife.” I’m just like oh no, what next?