Reporting Eric Henderson
Ira Glass, best known as the host of National Public Radio’s series This American Life, has dipped his quill into the world of screenwriting.
Everyone’s favorite bespectacled egghead is one of the co-writers credited with turning stand-up realness rep Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show Sleepwalk With Me (which was previously featured on an episode of This American Life) into an unorthodox feature film.
Befitting a pair of men both known for delivering stories, Sleepwalk opens with Birbiglia directly addressing the camera, telling the audience a story that he seems to know might make him look pretty bad in their eyes, but insisting that he’s not the bad guy.
Glass once said, “The natural state of all writing is mediocrity, so what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will.” And that certainly holds true for Birbiglia, as depicted in the first, grueling section of Sleepwalk.
Birbiglia plays the thinly fictionalized Matt Pandamiglio, a familiarly adrift thirtysomething, aspiring to be creative and settling for a domesticity he doesn’t want, starts to make tentative, mostly unsuccessful first stabs at a career in stand-up comedy, even though his family, friends and the disinterested agent he snags all tell him his “child of the ’80s” shtick is tired and unfunny. Meanwhile, his nearly decade-long, nuptial-avoidant relationship with his very patient girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose) is starting to become a big, embarrassing testament to his profound inertia.
If his waking life is marked by tedium and the failure that comes from lack of even trying in the first place, his sleeping life is a minefield of potentially dangerous situations. Pandamiglio suffers from REM sleep behavior disorder, an affliction that causes those who suffer it to physically act out the dreams they’re having, like sleepwalking on Red Bull. (Birbiglia himself coped with the syndrome, and in fact did jump out a second-story window at a hotel just as his character in the movie does toward the climax of the film.)
I had the chance to sit down for a few moments with Glass to ask him about what it felt like to write a screenplay and what some of his favorite movie scripts were. Here are some bits from our conversation:
ERIC HENDERSON: This is your first screenplay, correct?
IRA GLASS: It’s the first that was made into a movie. There was one I worked on with a guy years ago that didn’t go anywhere. So it’s the first successful one.
HENDERSON: Would you like to go back to that one now that you’ve produced this one?
GLASS: No. Making a screenplay (to the screen) is really hard, which I understood the first time around. This was the first one where I felt, ‘OK, this is really going to happen.’
HENDERSON: This wasn’t the first This American Life segment to get turned into a movie, though. There was Unaccompanied Minors, which, by the way, is one of my all-time favorite movie titles.
GLASS: That is so sad that that sentence had to end with “titles.”
HENDERSON: But so many segments from This American Life would seem to lend themselves to the movies.
GLASS: A bunch of movies have been in development for years, actually. A few years ago, screenwriter Scott Burns — a very good screenwriter — heard a story on our show and went on to contact the writer of the material and director Steven Soderbergh and it became The Informant. When that happened, all these agents started saying, “You didn’t get any money out of that and he heard about it on your show.” There is money to be made. So my thought was, if we can make money from the movie business we would be able to make money and turn to listeners less often for donations.
There have been about a half-dozen or dozen in development, and there are two right now that are actually very close to shooting. One is a movie that Errol Morris would direct with Paul Rudd starring about cryonics. And then there is a really wonderful movie being written for Marc Forster to direct about this minister named Carlton Pearson who decided he didn’t believe in hell anymore. Both are true stories with complicated, fascinating people at the center of them.
The thing that’s hard with the stories on the radio show is that, while they lay out like little movies on the radio, often time there isn’t enough of a plot to support a full-length film. … One of the things about Birbiglia’s story is that, when you lay out the real events, they actually lay out in a perfect three-act structure. Enough happens that we knew we could turn it into a movie.
HENDERSON: Interesting you talk about the three-act structure because I thought I read somewhere that you decided not to read or to pay attention to “how to” screenwriting manuals.
GLASS: I didn’t have a big philosophical reasoning. It was time to get writing. Birbiglia studied screenwriting, so I felt like, “OK, one of us knows what’s supposed to happen.” And because of those developmental deals we had, I’d read many screenplays and given notes, and understood the way people talked about them. I wish I had a much more doctrinaire answer for that, where I would just trash all the manuals.
HENDERSON: “Struck and White? Who the hell cares?”
HENDERSON: Nonetheless, I’m interested to know which screenplays do you count among either the best you’ve seen or most influential.
GLASS: I feel I have an amateur’s appreciation for movies, and so –
HENDERSON: So Chinatown.
GLASS: Actually, I could take or leave Chinatown.
HENDERSON: That’s awesome, because Chinatown seems to be everyone’s stock answer. Like, “Oh god, Chinatown is the all-time greatest script!” People who’ve read too many screenwriting books would say that.
GLASS: I like Chinatown just fine, but it’s just not really my kind of movie. I feel like so many people give the answer Annie Hall, but I really love Annie Hall and I know it really well, and it was a really helpful movie for us because it had direct address to the audience and it had the love story –
HENDERSON: — and Carol Kane. [Kane plays Birbiglia's mother in Sleepwalk With Me.]
GLASS: Believe me, we pumped her for information about what it was like on the set of Annie Hall. Have you read this book by Ralph Rosenbloom, When the Shooting Stops … the Cutting Begins? He was Woody Allen’s editor and he describes what they did to Annie Hall, and it’s amazing. We actually had to restructure and rethink our film — not to as radical a degree as Annie Hall, but definitely it reminded me of things that I had read about making movies and saving them in editing. We got out of shooting and calculated wrong on a bunch of things. We had to go back and beef up the plotline of him becoming a comedian and toned down some of the relationship stuff, and radically changed how we did the narration. … Incidentally, Birbiglia does a really great Woody Allen imitation. Better than the one he does of me.
I really loved the Moneyball screenplay, because the book was one of my favorite books. It’s great, but not great in a movie story way. And what Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin did is amazing, to give that book a plot. I feel they actually even created a plotline that wasn’t even in the book — the Philip Seymour Hoffman plot. I love it because I understand now what it means to take a story that wasn’t a movie and turn it into a movie. Telling a non-fiction story using the tools of fiction.
HENDERSON: Probably my favorite filmmaker is Chris Marker, a French New Wave, Left Bank filmmaker who did La Jetée and Sans soleil, which balances narrative and non-narrative, fiction and non-fiction, essay, memoir, travelogue, and it’s just fantastic.
GLASS: OK, here’s something you’ve just established in this conversation. And that is: you know one-million times more about the movies than I do.
Oh yes, I blushed.
Sleepwalk With Me is the charter film showing at the newly remodeled Uptown Theater this weekend. Glass will be present after shows on Friday and Saturday for Q&A sessions (Birbiglia will join the Q&A’s on Saturday).