Director and comedian Mike Birbiglia is fucking pissed at Hollywood.
His Sleepwalk With Me follow-up, Don't Think Twice, about a group of six improv performers struggling to make it in New York City, happens to come out the same weekend as Suicide Squad, which is about a half-dozen criminals working to save the world. If the latter, with its bigger budget, stars, and promotional push, doesn't already have an unfair advantage over the second-time director's sleeper film, the violent action flick got another leg up with a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. On the other hand, the relatively tame Don't Think Twice, was rated R, further limiting its box office.
[jump] Birbiglia has since challenged the MPAA on Twitter with a series of tweets questioning why a little pot smoking and a couple F-bombs in his film are racier than machine gun killings and actual bombings.
“In this movie, I had some profanity because I wanted it to feel authentic to the way these people speak, and I think that's why it's Rated R,” Birbiglia told SF Weekly. “But I feel like those movies about people, relationships and friendships need to be seen. Unfortunately they aren't getting green-lit by studios, because they don't see a way to 10 times their money with it. That's why they make all these superhero and toy films.”
You drop the F-bomb twice in Don't Think Twice, yet you don't use profanity in your stand-up comedy shows.
There is a lack of profanity that has a lot to do with my mom. I come from a very conservative background and my mom was really upset when I started doing comedy. She said, “Don't become one of those dirty comedians.” But I've been torn in my last few years, because I look back and think that my favorite comedians, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, did curse on stage.
You've described Sleepwalk with Me as more difficult to complete than going up on stage in front of thousands of people for years. So what made you decide to do another film?
It was masochism, addiction to pain. [Laughs] It was one of these things where I made the film and it was so hard. Then after I finished, I thought, I just want to do it again. That's what it was, this thing of it's good but it could be better.
Also, the kinds of films that I love are like Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, Hannah and Her Sisters and The Big Chill, so I just feel this urge to make movies like this. Unfortunately they're not being made enough.
Is there anything you learned from making Sleepwalk with Me that you hoped to bring to Don't Think Twice?
Shoot more takes. If you ever have the instinct to get another take, do it. After Sleepwalk with Me, I wrote a letter to myself, which was like, “Don't forget this or don't forget this.” One of them is Michael Moore's famous thing that it's all about sound. Get good sound. Michael Moore says that sound is more important than picture. There are things like that that are nerdy but true.
How did you decide to start the movie with the three rules of improv?
My wife had this idea one night. It was a really funny thing. She was with our baby at a screening, and our baby was in the the other room crying, so she went to the other room to nurse and listened to the movie all the way through but didn't see it. At the end of it, she came out and said, “I feel like if people knew what the rules of improv were, they'd understand the stakes of why it's not good for the group that Jack showboats.”
So our editor and I start kicking around, “What if we say these three rules and we have this footage?” So that became a work in progress for months and months. We workshopped all different versions of the history and the rules until we came up with this.
Every improv show in Don't Think Twice begins with “Has anybody here had a particularly hard day?” How did you develop that prompt?
I came up with that prompt on the way to one of my shows at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), thinking what's a better way to phrase a jumping-off point. The theory was my shows and movies are taking things like a life-threatening sleep disorder or being t-boned by a drunk driver, and how do I find the comedy in that? So I thought, how do I bring that to improv? Why don't we ask an audience member what struggle they're dealing with, and if we can turn that into comedy, it's going to, at the very least, brighten their day. Hopefully that's contagious in some way.
Did you have a lot of band practice with the five other improvers to get a tight-knit group going?
Yeah, big time. I invited them into town three weeks early, which is very unorthodox for a film of this size and budget. But I urged them, “You don't have to come, but let's think of it like college theater, where it's only as good as what we put into it. If you come to New York and we do improv workshops and live improv shows at UCB or Magnet, then we're really going to feel like best friends, and that's the goal. In some ways, we really did become best friends for three months.
Speaking of improv theaters, I read that Donald Trump bought the Improv for America building, where you shot parts of the film, and shut it down mid-shoot. Can you speak to the impact that greedy real estate tycoons have had on the arts?
A huge impact on New York City and the arts. Everything's being flipped into condos these days. The Broadway community is in tact because those are multimillion dollar operations that in a lot of ways thrive on franchises, like The Lion King. Off-broadway is different. It's a shrinking community in New York. There is a lot of vibrant work happening, but in the past decade, there have been something like 100 theaters that have closed. In New York, a lot has moved to Brooklyn. But now Brooklyn is too expensive, so it's then gonna move [somewhere else.]
What advice would you give a struggling improv artist?
In the book Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of the Second City and the Compass Players, there's a line that Second City co-founder Paul Sills says about how on any given night an improv show has the ability to be the best-written, best-acted, most timely play on earth. That can happen anywhere. It's a pretty exciting thought. You don't have to be in New York or Los Angeles to make something great. I feel like that's really empowering.
So improv should be timely or topical?
Yeah, have it be in the moment, of now. Improv has the ability to help someone have a better day, and that's more powerful than being on a crappy sitcom that's being watched by four million people. Making 30 people laugh is more impactful than being background noise in four million homes.