a SIFF 2016 interview
Not Fearing Failure
Writer/Director/Star Mike Birbiglia Talks Sophomore Feature Don’t Think Twice
I can’t say I loved writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice at first sight. I knew I enjoyed the ensemble improv comedy-drama but at the same time I wasn’t over the moon about it, either. But the more I kept thinking about the film the more nuances I found myself wanting to explore and discuss, little pieces here and there capturing my attention in ways I didn’t immediately notice. It’s the kind of movie you almost can’t help but fall in love with; just don’t expect to do so instantaneously.
With that in mind, it goes without saying I was excited to sit down with Birbiglia during a recent visit to Seattle to talk about his second feature-length directorial outing (2012’s semi-autobiographical Sleepwalk with Me being the first). While brief, our conversation covered a fairly broad range of topics, not all of which focused entirely on his film or its production. Here are some of the highlights:
Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk to me how you go from a movie like Sleepwalk with Me to a follow up like Don’t Think Twice?
Mike Birbiglia: It’s fictional, that’s the first thing. That makes it very different than Sleepwalk with Me or any of my one-person shows. It’s the first thing I’ve written that’s entirely fictional.
But, it was also an idea that came to me but wouldn’t go away. Those are the ideas you have to go with, and therein lies the universality of [Don’t Think Twice]. I remember my wife coming to this improv show I was doing at [the University of California, Berkley] one night and she sparked this thing in my brain when she said, “It’s so weird watching because everyone’s equal when they’re up there on the stage. It’s just the rules of improv.” She went on by noting that one person was a movie star while another was on “Saturday Night Live” and third was a struggling student who lived with five dudes in a one room apartment and slept on an air mattress and I immediately thought, that should be a movie. It was so obvious.
To me, that observation transcended theatre. It transcended improv. It got to this idea that life isn’t fair. That we’re all in these situations all of the time where we are equal yet still not equal, that we’re all at certain times looking at other people thinking that he got this and she got that and wondering why while at the same time believing we could do the same. It’s a failing of my own that I think is universal, and the more I kept thinking about it and sharing it with people the more I found myself trying to dig deeper. I think I had about ten different readings of various drafts of the script at my house and people really related to it. Each reading, someone would state that this was their life, that they’d gone through something similar. I took that as a good sign.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I think one of the best things about the film is how close-knit this group is, and yet, as you say, none of them are above having those moments of envy, or despair, or euphoria, as they react to what is going on both in the respective lives as well as their improv theatre troupe. It had to have been difficult to keep these emotions pure, to make them feel real, as I imagine it would have been a lot easier to drip into tired, over-familiar melodrama instead of presenting things in a way that felt grounded and authentic.
Mike Birbiglia: It was a challenge. A lot of it was using the subtlest take. A lot of it was making everyone go again, finding a way to make less of what was going on in the scene. Finding ways to underplay things.
At the beginning of the film, when the group is made up entirely of best friends, when they’re all, “I’ve got your back, I’ve got your back, I’ve got your back, I’ve got your back,” you don’t have to have any of them say something derogatory to understand to understand there are still levels of resentment lurking there. All of you have to do is just take away some of the enthusiasm by just a single decibel that you instantly know something is up. Film is such an intimate medium that you turn things down just a little the audience will be aware of what is going on, that they’ll understand things are on the verge of going awry with this group of friends.
Sara Michelle Fetters: But that’s also very different than what you have to do on the stage, isn’t it? By the very nature of the stage you’re projecting, and every performance is different every single time. It can’t be duplicated.
Mike Birbiglia: You’re right. That’s exactly it.
Sara Michelle Fetters: With a movie, once you’ve done a scene, once you’re happy with it, that’s it, that’s how it is going to be for eternity. It never changes. So, balancing those two worlds, telling a story about theatre, about improv, no less, but doing it in a film, how difficult was that? Where do you find that wherewithal to hold back, to use that restraint and to keep things intimate and not let individual scenes get too broad or performances grow to the point they end up going over the top?
Mike Birbiglia: I read a zillion of these books on directing. I read Elia Kazan’s book, which I think is my favorite of the bunch. I read David Mamet’s book. I read Sidney Lumet’s book. If you want to learn how to be a director, I think that’s how you do it. It’s all there. People go to film school and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do something I think you can probably do by taking six months off and reading 17 books cover-to-cover.
No disrespect to film school. Alexander Payne went to film school so it’s not all bad, I’m sure. Everyone has their own path. But, for me, I do think this was the way to go. I also think that I know the types of films that I love, films like Hannah and Her Sisters and Broadcast News and the movie Once, John Carney’s first film. These are films where you’re like, wow, I can barely tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. When you watch Once, you’re like, is this real? Are they together? I just love that aspect to it.
So, I always said to the actors here, let’s shoot [Don’t Think Twice] as if it were documentary. Let’s try and trick people. Let’s try and have people in other countries watch the movie and not even realize this isn’t a real comedy troupe. That just seemed like such a fun idea to me. And, I knew, if we could pull that off, if we could trick people into thinking what was happening was real, then we’d likely have a real shot at getting into people’s souls. Making them feel something. At least, that was the goal. That was what I was hoping for.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As an aside, back at the end of 2009 I named Once as my favorite film of the decade, so I’m right there with you on that one.
Mike Birbiglia: It’s a perfect movie. I’ve watched it again and again. My wife and I are obsessed with it. If there were a book on the making of that film I’d read it ten times because I am fascinated by it.
And so little is said! It’s mostly songs. It’s mostly glances and looks. It’s fascinating.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Back to this movie, talk to me about casting. You’ve got one person on the verge of superstardom in Keegan-Michael Key. You’ve got a number of others, like yourself, who are instantly recognizable if not quite household names. And then you’ve got a couple of others that you potentially might have forgotten you’d seen their work before, but the moment they start riffing alongside the others in the cast it’s almost as if you’ve been watching their work for years and for some reason forgotten you had been.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, in your own movie, in this story about fame, about what it means to be a professional actor, about performers at different levels of stardom in their respective careers, you’ve also got different layers in the actual casting of those parts themselves. Was that by design?
Mike Birbiglia: It was. Keegan was the first one to come aboard, mainly because it was important to me to have someone in that part I knew was arguably the most talented at sketch comedy but also recognizable enough it would make sense he’d be the shiniest of the bunch making up this ensemble. He’s good looking, he’s charming, he’s outgoing, he’s got “it,” he’s got that “it factor,” and I knew I had to have that kind of guy to fill that role.
But next was Gillian Jacobs, and she was Lena Dunham’s idea. She had read the script as a favor to me and as a friend and she was like, you’ve really got to get Gillian for this part. And, honestly, I didn’t see it. I watched “Community.” I watched “Girls.” I called Lena up and I was like, I just don’t see it. I had just never seen her play a part like this one. But she was adamant. “Gillian Jacobs can do anything,” she said. Just like that. Matter-of-fact. So I was like, I guess I need to at least give her a chance.
So Gillian put herself on tape. She did one of the final scenes and it honestly almost brought me to tears it was so good. This little iPhone video of her giving this performance, it was sensational. So I think we got really lucky finding her and I guess I owe Lena a thank you card.
As for the rest, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher, I improvise with both all the time, so it was just natural to ask them to come aboard for the ride. Kate Micucci, she is just someone I’d crossed paths with a number of times over the years, and she’s just so genius in “Garfunkel and Oates.” We got on Skype together and just started talking. She’s just so a unique, quirky human being; the right mix of genuine and funny. I was so happy she was willing to be a part of the team.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Were there points where you wondered if you were cutting too close to the bone? That this story was almost too inside baseball, if you will, and only theatre, sketch comedy and improv nerds would understand what it was you were talking about?
Mike Birbiglia: I wanted to capture that idea of fear of failure, that sense that, even if we’re ambitious, there’s still that part of us that fears what it is we’re trying to accomplish. That interview scene, where Keegan and Gillian’s characters are supposed to go into that television studio for an audition, I think that’s a universal moment all of us have gone through in one fashion or another. It’s a moment where these characters want to be true to themselves in ways I don’t think they can quite put their fingers on. For Sam, Gillian’s character, I don’t think she can quite tell you why it is she ends up making the decision that she does. She probably can’t even describe why it is she makes this particular choice. But I also think everyone can relate to it, even if they’d potentially made a decision diametrically opposite of the one she does.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How hard is that for the audience to absorb, though? Did you ever worry it might be too much for them to handle?
Mike Birbiglia: I hope it wouldn’t be. There’s no doubt about it, there is a danger there, and watching moments like that one are certainly uncomfortable. But that’s why this is an independent film, right? There’s a reason why Fox or Warner Bros aren’t releasing this movie on 3,000 screens. You couldn’t walk into Paramount and say my movie is about how failure is okay and expect them to write you a gigantic check then and there. It ain’t happening.
But I think you have to take that risk. I also think audiences want you to. I want people to laugh. I want them to cry. But, most of all, I want them to watch the film again. I want them to think about the movie almost as if it were a record. I’ve watched Hannah and Her Sisters a dozen times. I’ve watched The Big Chill seven or eight times. I’ve watched Almost Famous like ten times, maybe more. I could quote it verbatim.
I love movies that, when you come across them on TV, even if you own a copy you still can’t change the channel. You have to watch it to the end. And, thank goodness for these five actors because, not to toot my own horn I think we’ve made a movie like that. For a specific group of people, maybe a bigger one than I let myself imagine it to be, this could be a film that gets watched multiple times, viewers finding things inside of it that I didn’t even know were there. How great would that be?
– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle