Mike Birbiglia on his sleeper hit “Sleepwalk With Me” and going toe-to-toe with Joss Whedon

Mike Birbiglia in Sleepwalk With Me

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Usually whenever someone is depicted as sleepwalking in a TV show or movie, the person has his or her eyes closed, arms out and extended like a zombie, and somehow manages to avoid all obstacles — sometimes with the help of friends who think it would be more dangerous to wake up the dreamer. “Think about Olive Oyl in the ‘Popeye’ cartoons, when she goes to the construction site and Bluto and Popeye have to help her,” comedian-turned-filmmaker Mike Birbiglia told IFC. “Or ‘The Honeymooners,’ when Ed Norton is sleepwalking and Ralph Kramden has to help him.”

But that’s not how it works in real life, as Birbiglia unfortunately knows all too well — he once jumped out the closed window of his hotel room while asleep. It’s a dramatic moment depicted in his stand-up show, book, “This American Life” episode, and now semi-autobiographical film, “Sleepwalk With Me.”

“It’s funny how sleepwalking has never been portrayed accurately on film,” he said, “even though it’s a special moment in time where sleepwalking is now more common than it’s ever been. Sleep disorders are at an all-time high.” Indeed, some 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders, according to Dr. Carlos Shenck’s documentary “Sleep Runners.” And those with REM sleep disorder behavior (RBD) — Birbiglia’s own diagnosis, based on a dopamine deficiency — can even engage in violent acts such as punching or kicking while asleep, because they’re acting out their dream.

“Sleepwalk With Me” uses sleepwalking as a way to explore the anxieties of a young man trying to break into stand-up comedy and plan a wedding to a woman he’s not fully sure he wants to marry, all of which, of course, exacerbate his sleep disorder. Not that Birbiglia had it any easier.

“When I was directing the movie, I had a lot of sleep deprivation, which of course made it worse,” he said. “I would have dreams about directing the movie, like I was shooting the movie from bed. My wife would say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I would say, ‘I’m shooting.’ ‘Sorry, you’re not shooting right now.’ And I would get really patronizing and say, ‘I’m sorry, but we are.’ I wasn’t antagonistic, just condescending.”

Birbiglia’s usual recurring dream is that he’s running away from something, “a demon or a wild animal, like a jackal,” he said. “Sometimes it’s invisible aliens represented by balls of light.” He finds that he’s not very powerful in his dreams, and his only recourse is to sprint away. The night he jumped out the window, he had dreamt a heat-guided missile was en route to his bedroom and that he had to be like the Hulk to escape it.

“That’s not my most common dream to occur,” he said, “but it’s all borne out of anxiety. Freud’s theory was that you’re excising the feelings you have in life, and it can be cathartic to dream about your anxieties. But even when I dream something literal, it’s got these absurdist elements. If I dream that I’m directing, it’s not a film, it’s like a commercial for cotton candy, and I’ve got four feet of cotton candy all around me that I’ve got to break through, like a brick wall or a fortress.”

To prevent himself from actually running or fighting the demons, jackals, and aliens of his nightmares, or eating through what might not be cotton candy after all, Birbiglia takes medication for his RBD and sleeps in a sleeping bag in bed. He used to wear mittens to bed as well so he couldn’t open the sleeping bag, but not anymore.

“When I go to bed, my wife reminds me, ‘Time to get in your pod,'” he said. “I have a sort of summer sleep sack so it’s not too hot, and I have very strong shutters on the window so it’s really impossible to break through that. My wife is wildly vigilant about my sleep hygiene, and she’s been a great supporter throughout all of this, because even though it works well in a comedy, it is a real and all too sobering of a situation.”

Not so sobering that Birbiglia can’t take on “The Avengers,” though — after all, he did dream he was the Hulk when he jumped through that window! This is part of why he’s encouraged by the blood feud with Joss Whedon, who urged a boycott of “Sleepwalk With Me.”

“I think the feud has brought attention to both franchises, some positive, some negative,” Birbiglia laughed. ” I think ‘The Avengers’ is hurting, so we might need to merge our two franchises, which would be a very logical collaboration. My character would be a new Avenger, who has some shades of grey. He’s a lot like the Hulk, but he’s not a rage monster. I don’t know what he is, truthfully. This is all very early stages, and the first discussion to be had about it, so it’s too early to speculate, but let’s say it’s slated for the 2029 ‘Avengers.’ ‘Avengers 15’!”

“Sleepwalk With Me” opens today in New York City, with more cities in the weeks ahead. “Sleepwalk With Me” is distributed by IFC Films, a sister company to IFC.com.

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass respond to Joss Whedon’s “Sleepwalk with Me” boycott


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In the words of Ira Glass, “it’s on.”

Only days after Joss Whedon released his video asking fans to boycott the upcoming premiere of indie darling “Sleepwalk with Me,” co-writers Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass have released their response. Their video is just as hilarious and well meant as Whedon’s was, this time pointing out the impossibility of an indie film ever overcoming a studio-financed blockbuster titan in theaters.

In Whedon’s video, the beloved director asked his fans to boycott “Sleepwalk with Me” so that it doesn’t encroach the hold “The Avengers” has on the box office. His solution? Call local art house theaters and get them to book “Sleepwalk with Me” so that people can boycott it. Sounds like a brilliant master plan to us, and Birbiglia and Glass have a suitable response.

“Your movie’s made $1.5 billion worldwide. We’re just going to show you how we’re going to beat that number. Thanks to our fans, we’re now on 115 screens nationwide. All we need is $13 million in ticket sales per screen. That’s $1 million per screen for 13 weeks,” Birbiglia detailed.

“That basically takes us through Christmas,” Glass quipped.

Birbiglia continued, “That basically breaks down to 77,000 tickets per city. So in a town like Dennis, Mass. where my parents live, the population is 14,000. … All the people have to do is see the movie 5.5 times each. And my parents have agreed to see it eight times, so people really only have to see it four or five times each.”

They claim their goal is “we’re going to make what you made, plus one dollar.” And unlike “The Avengers,” which made most of its money overseas, these two claim they’re going to make that entire gross in America. Not even “Avatar” could pull that off, but we have faith in “Sleepwalk with Me.” The movie is one of the year’s best, even if Whedon is doing everything he can to draw attention to it boycotting the film.

Our take on this whole exchange? Go see “Sleepwalk with Me” and see what all the fuss is about. Hopefully we’ll get another video from Whedon in the meantime. Let’s keep this rivalry going, boys!

Are you glad Whedon is doing his best to bring attention to “Sleepwalk with Me”? Tell us in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Check out the trailer for “Sleepwalk With Me,” one of the year’s funniest films

Mike Birbiglia in Sleepwalk With Me

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Hand’s down, “Sleepwalk With Me” is easily one of the best films of the year. Gentle and genuinely funny, the film is loosely based on comedian Mike Birbiglia’s issues with sleepwalking, and his long-term relationship with his girlfriend played by Lauren Ambrose. Birbiglia wrote, directed and stars in the film, and he enlisted a bevy of colleagues to help him out, including Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, Wyatt Cenac and David Wain. The result is a touching, hilarious film that also doubles as one of the best portrayals of what it’s like starting out as a stand-up comic.

The first trailer for “Sleepwalk With Me” had now been released, which you can watch below. The movie hits theaters August 24.

(Disclosure: “Sleepwalk With Me” is distributed by IFC Films, a sister company of IFC)

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