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INTERVIEW: Mike Birbiglia on the Influence of Improv in His Feature 'Don't Think Twice'

Writer, director and star of 'Don't Think Twice,' Mike Birbiglia discusses the influence of improv on his new comedy feature film.

Career journalist Andrew Bloomenthal has covered everything from high finance to the film trade. He is the award-winning filmmaker of the noir thriller Sordid Things. He lives in Los Angeles. More information can be found on Andrew's site: Email: Twitter: @ABloomenthal

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Mike Birbiglia - Photo Credit The Film Arcade

Mike Birbiglia - Photo Credit The Film Arcade

In a discipline where having each other’s back is the name of the game, improv theatre inhabits a stage where scene-stealing cowboys need not apply, and group mentality rules. So what happens when a Saturday Night Live-type talent scout singles out one of the players for a chance at mainstream TV stardom? Does the success of one, automatically signal failure of the rest? These are themes explored in Don’t Think Twice, the irresistible new comedy written and directed by real-life improv veteran Mike Birbiglia, who stars alongside Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher. The thirty-something characters these actors portray have been performing as the fictitious improv troupe The Commune for over a decade. They know each other, they love each other, they bicker with each other; they sometimes even date each other. Naturally, sudden economic disparity is bound to shake things up.

“My wife once said, ‘Improv is all about saying ‘yes’ and agreeing, but ironically, some of the people in your improv group are literally millionaires, while others are barely paying their rent,’ recalls Birbiglia. “The principals of art are like socialism, but life is capitalism, and I started writing a screenplay based on that.”

But Birbiglia is careful to observe that not all members of the group have their sights set on the brass ring of television glory. Some are happy to continue slumming it in their small-yet-familiar ponds.

Notes Birbiglia, “A lot of artists ask themselves: ‘How important is success and fame? Can it be considered success if I do what I do, at this level? Can I become content with that?’”

For a laugh-out-loud comedy, Don’t Think Twice is extraordinarily nuanced. It’s also deeply immersive. To give us that in-the-trenches feel, Birbiglia filmed several improv scenes in front a live audience, at The Lynn Redgrave Theater in Manhattan. And to allow viewers the perspective of the performers, rather than the viewpoint of the audience, a Steadicam operator filmed the cast on stage, at eye level, making viewers feel like the seventh member of the group.

And it’s electric.

Birbiglia sat with Script magazine, to tell us more about this slice-of life gem.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Script: Congratulations on the film. I think a storm is coming, in the best of ways.

Mike Birbiglia: You think so?

Script: Don’t you?

Birbiglia: I truly have no idea. I remember how Judd Apatow would text me from the set of Trainwreck, sitting in his director’s chair on this huge set, and he’d taunt me, “I bet you wish you were sitting where I am, don’t you?” And, you know, I really did. Then last night he texted me to say that Don’t Think Twice has a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I said, “That’s great, but how does that translate to box-office success? Because I don’t know how to crack that.” And he said, “Just keep promoting the film and don’t stop.” So I’m doing promotion in 30 cities, and I just have to keep showing up. It’s hard to cut through the clutter in American culture, but films are so meaningful because they attempt to do something in 90 minutes that will stick with you forever. My wife and I still quote lines from Hannah and Her Sisters or Broadcast News--movies we saw in our 20s.

Script: Let’s discuss the opening shot of someone setting up a bunch of chairs on the stage for the improv troupe. This has a nice pay off later on, when Samantha [Gillian Jacobs] is flying solo one night, and consequently removes all but one chair. Was this always the opening image in the script, or was this determined in editing?

Birbiglia: It was always in the script. I wrote that, like, three years ago, and it was one of the first seeds on the page—those chairs. Because it was this idea of a group of people who are all best friends, where one of them makes it and the rest don’t. So what’s the visual metaphor? Until I decided that it was those chairs, I didn’t feel like I could write the movie.

Gillian Jacobs (Samantha) in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE - Photo Credit The Film Arcade

Gillian Jacobs (Samantha) in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE.

Script: In the film’s improv scenes, the performers ritually ask the audience, “Has anyone had a particularly hard day?” Is this an actual prompt for audience suggestions used in improv circles?

Birbiglia: No. I came up with that one night on the subway ride to one of the improv shows I do called Mike Birbiglia’s Dream at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, with [Don’t Think Twice co-stars] Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher. On any given night, Aidy Bryant might pop in, or Connor Ratliff, or Gary Richardson or Ellie Kemper. And for a while, we’d ask the audience, “Can we have a word of suggestion?” Then at one point, I thought, “What if we dug deeper and asked someone to describe the pain they’re experiencing in order to prove the theory that comedy is tragedy plus time? What if we transform their pain into comedy in real time?” We did a show a few weeks ago at the Del Close Marathon in New York City, and we asked the audience, “Has anyone had a hard day?” And a woman said, “I share an iCloud with my dad, and I just found out that he’s seeing prostitutes.” That was a hard one. For the first 15 minutes, our improv wasn’t very funny, but at a certain point, it started to turn, and the audience started to experience a catharsis—with us and with this woman, and to me, that’s why we do comedy—to help people experience catharsis. That’s why live theatre is so powerful. That’s why I want people to see this movie in a theatre, because laughing and crying with strangers is a really special experience. I can barely watch it in a theatre anymore, because it’s so emotional, and I cry too hard.

Script: Rather than creating blunt archetypes, each character in the film was distinct, for example, Keegan’s character Jack was trying to do the right thing--

Birbiglia: He’s always trying.

Script: But he could be insensitive, like when he’s crowing about getting cast in [SNL doppelganger] Weekend Live, literally seconds after Bill learns his dad was injured in a motorcycle accident.

Birbiglia: But it’s the biggest moment of Jack’s life! It’s funny that you picked up on that moment. That was one of the early-draft scenes that survived the re-write process, because this is what the movie’s about: the friction that occurs when someone is having the best moment of his career, when someone else is simultaneously having the worst moment of his life. But in some ways, isn’t that always the way it goes? Years ago, I wrote down a phrase that I keep in my wallet as a guiding principal, that says, “What happens when life gets in the way of dreams?” And that scene is an illustration of that.

(L-R) Tami Sagher (Lindsay), Gillian Jacobs (Samantha), Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Chris Gethard (Bill), Kate Micucci (Allison) in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE - Photo Credit The Film Arcade

(L-R) Tami Sagher (Lindsay), Gillian Jacobs (Samantha), Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Chris Gethard (Bill), Kate Micucci (Allison) in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE - Photo Credit The Film Arcade

Script: Another richly-observed character is Lindsay [Tami Sagher], who’s a wealthy trust fund kid, contrasting the other Commune members, who slog through menial jobs to make ends meet.

Birbiglia: That’s actually something that my brother, Joe, who’s a producer on the film, and I came up with. We were kicking around the Lindsay character one day, and we had this observation that there’s always a rich kid in improv—or anywhere, who has money they didn’t earn, and everyone’s a little resentful. Then I just started to run with different scenarios, and I remembered that at one point I had a friend who was from money, but he was collecting unemployment, and I was like, “You realize I pay for that with my taxes, right? I’m paying for you to have more money, but you already have more money than me.” So that made it into the film.

Script: In the film, the fictitious sketch comedy show Weekend Live, clearly serves as a surrogate for Saturday Night Live, which is the well-known Holy Grail for improv artists. Did you ever have a thought of actually referencing SNL in the film?

Birbiglia: I did. In the early drafts, I thought, “As long as I can keep their image off the screen, it wouldn’t infringe copyright.

Script: But did you ever consider seeking their blessing to use their name and film in their studio?

Birbiglia: It crossed my mind, but SNL is such an established institution that I don’t think they’d have been open to it, because my film doesn’t quite fit the SNL brand. It’s not like Wayne’sWorld, so it didn’t feel like a logical extension of what they do. But at one point, when it was still SNL in the script, I saw the “points” episode of [British television series] Black Mirror, and they featured an American Idol-type of show within the show. Did you ever see that one?

Script: Is that where a woman auditions to be a singer but they make her a porn star, instead?

Birbiglia: Yeah, that’s it.

Script: That was gut wrenching.

Birbiglia: Oh, it’s crushing! But when I saw that episode, where they clearly portray an American Idol-type show, I thought, “Oh, I can do that!” I understand that it’s American Idol, even though it doesn’t have the same name. So by changing Saturday Night Live to Weekend Live, it’s just a quick piece of production design. Well, maybe not that quick, because we had to get releases to hang photos on the walls, of Aziz Ansari and Elizabeth Banks and Mindy Kaling and all of these people, but we had to do that so the Weekend Live set piece felt real.

(L-R) Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Kate Micucci (Allison) in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE - Photo Credit The Film Arcade

(L-R) Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Kate Micucci (Allison) in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE - Photo Credit The Film Arcade

Script: Finally, I’m going to step out on a limb with an assumption. You play Danny—Director of Human Activity, on Orange is the New Black.

Birbiglia: Yep! Danny Pearson.

Script: And in one Orange episode, the prison counselor establishes an improv class for the inmates. Did you have a hand in influencing this plot point?

Birbiglia: No. I never told anyone on that set about my movie, but it’s a funny synchronicity, because I think improv is in the zeitgeist of America right now. When I got out of college, and I was trying to figure out where to move, there were only about 20 improv theatres across the country. Today there are over 120. It’s grown by six times, since 2000. It’s a boom!

Script: How do you feel about your movie catalyzing the movement?

Birbiglia: (Laughs) I plead the Fifth. No, I’m proud of it, because I believe the rules of improv are good rules for collaboration in life. It’s about saying yes; it’s about the group; it’s about listening more than you talk—all good rules to live by.

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