Comedian Mike Birbiglia has told his story of sleepwalking—or, perhaps we should say, sleeprunning—in various formats. If it sounds familiar, it’s probably because you heard it on NPR’s This American Life, which just so happened to rebroadcast it last weekend. The timing of the rerun is no coincidence, because This American Life host and producer Ira Glass originally helped him turn it into a radio piece, co-wrote the screenplay and served as a producer on the film.
If you’re familiar with the radio show, you may have heard Birbiglia describe his incredible disorder. The thing is, you might not think the piece you heard warrants an entire film. On that point, I’d agree, but Sleepwalk with Me expands Birbiglia’s radio segment, puts it into a very real context and turns his situation into something that’s oddly universal, despite it being about a guy who acts out what his brain tells him he’s doing while he’s asleep.
Birbiglia, co-director and star of the film, which opens Friday, Sept. 14, at Hillcrest Cinemas, says he always wanted to make movies, but the process took longer than he’d expected.
“I had a five-year plan to become a comedian and then segue into film,” he tells CityBeat. “The five-year plan took 14 years.”
In the movie, Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, a struggling comedian who spends more time tending bar than he does on stage. The only really good thing in his life is his longtime girlfriend, Abby (Lauren Ambrose). They’ve just moved in together, and their families are ready for them to tie the knot. The only person who thinks that might not be a good idea is Matt, whose anxiety over making the wrong decision starts to manifest itself through some serious sleepwalking. As his relationship is coming to a crossroads, he’s finally starting to have some meager success telling jokes, which keeps him on the road and away from Abby and makes him even more confused.
Much of the radio piece is in the film, and Birbiglia says that almost all of it is true.
“It’s basically me seven years ago,” he says, “certainly like the character is much more naïve than I am now. The stuff that you wouldn’t believe is true is true, and some of the stuff that is kind of minutia is fudged for the story.”
Like This American Life, Sleepwalk with Me is sweet, funny and poignant, and Birbiglia says that his experiences working with Glass helped him refine his tale.
“We wanted to tell a story that was funny and had an emotional center,” he says. “The fortunate thing about working with Ira is that he raises the level of whatever project he is on. His standard of quality is so high that it forces you to bring up your game.”
On the radio, the focus of the story is a terrible sleepwalking event. That’s in the film, too, but Birbiglia also examines cause of his sleepwalking. His anxiety and the poor decisions he makes are easy to relate to, because drawing on experiences in hopes of avoiding future screw-ups is universal.
“As you get older, you start to realize that everything that you do impacts and can help or hurt other people, and that becomes really apparent to people you’re closely involved with,” Birbiglia says. “When you’re younger, it’s almost like you don’t even know your own strength. You don’t know that you have the ability to mess something up on the scale that you do.”