Joshua Stecker is a freelance entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles. His bylines include The Hollywood Reporter and Death & Taxes Magazine. Stecker is the former west coast/web editor of Script Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @joshuastecker.
Buzz about Mike Birbiglia's new film, Don't Think Twice, was already floating through the New York screenwriting and comedy communities even before cameras started to role.
A blog post by screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Billions, Rounders) in October 2014, recounted the Billions co-creator's participation in one of many group readings Birbiglia had of his new script at his home in Brooklyn a few months earlier. (Koppelman interviewed Birbiglia on his excellent podcast, The Moment, a few days after that reading. It's worth a listen.) The reading consisted of numerous other professional screenwriters, comedians, actors, and other industry people, all personally invited by the filmmaker to participate in the table read with the simple goal of improving his screenplay. As Koppelman recalled, "What made the night memorable was the feeling in the room, the way these artists came together, and the spirit in which they did, to help another artist gain perspective on his work."
For Birbiglia, the readings were an invaluable way for him to chip away at improvements to the screenplay that was to become the follow-up to his 2012 film, the autobiographical comedy Sleepwalk With Me. As he mentions in our interview, "You have that moment when you hear it out loud, you start to put it through this test of actually facing it in a way where you're not reading it in your head in the perfect way anymore and the holes start to appear."
Don't Think Twice follows the personal struggles of a New York City improv troupe called The Commune. Loosely based on ones you'd find at the Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings, The Commune is a success on stage, but personally, each member is hoping they'll catch that big break that'll launch their comedy career. When one member finally hits it big, their close dynamic is upset, egos collide, truths are revealed and relationships begin to crack as each member is faced with the truth that not all of them will make it and it may be time to give up on their dreams and move on.
The film, written, directed by and starring Birbiglia, features a who's who of today's top comedic actors, including Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele), Gillian Jacobs (Community), Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates), Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show) and Tami Sagher (Inside Amy Schumer).
Script caught up with Birbiglia in Austin at this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival where the film made its world premiere.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on the film. It's one of my favorites of the festival, by far, and it's leagues past Sleepwalk With Me. It feels like you're on another level as a filmmaker now. So what made you want tell this particular story?
Mike Birbiglia: Wow, thank you. It's so funny; I was writing an adaptation of My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, which is my second one-person show. I got four or five drafts in and my wife made this observation one night at the Del Close Marathon where I was doing improv. She was like, 'it's so interesting because your standup friends are so mean to each other, and your improv friends are so nice to each other.' I go, 'well, it's more complicated than that.' There's a lot of subtlety to these relationships and some people succeed in this huge way and some people don't. And I thought that should be a movie. I started to think about this improv group where it's a bunch of really great, fun people, and not everybody makes it, and how that would be a really interesting movie about how, essentially, life isn't fair. Like, in this art form [of improv] where everything's fair, that's a great metaphor. It's a great backdrop for showing that life isn't fair. To show this utopic art form and then point out, well… not so fast. (laughs)
I wrote this thing on my wall: Art is socialism, but life is capitalism. And that was a guiding principle through the whole thing. The other guiding principle was a visual metaphor, which is musical chairs. We're always in musical chairs. So I thought that I really want to tell this story.
The film really feels like a documentary. It could have been a documentary.
And we wanted that to be the case.
It reveals what's behind the curtain, what's behind the glamour of Saturday Night Live and the whole sketch/improv/stand-up comedy community. It really reveals the truth behind what goes on.
Yeah. I always said to the actors on set, we want this movie to feel so real that if people watch it in France, they go, we should go to New York and see The Commune [the fake improv troupe in the film]. You know how sometimes you see foreign movies and you go, wait, is it real? Does this exist in Japan? (laughs)
And you performed here at SXSW as The Commune too, which was really cool. You guys made it real by coming here.
We did that in prep, too. We did shows at UCB and the Magnet.
What was that like? I mean, your background is in improv, correct?
It is. I was cast as a freshman in college at Georgetown in the Georgetown Players Improv Group. And then a couple years later, I cast Nick Kroll. And a couple years after that when I was gone, he cast John Mulaney. So there's a bit of a continuum of Georgetown Improv.
What a great network.
Yeah. In some ways, my first love was improv. And then I did it for a bunch of years, probably six or seven years. I veered more towards stand-up partly because you could make a living doing it. You can't make a living doing improv. I mean, I remember I was doing improv and I was auditioning for things and I never got anything. I auditioned for stuff for years, never got a thing.
You've probably answered this a lot already, but I just want to ask it so I have it directly from you. Was the improv scripted?
It was scripted. Shot as scripted. And then while we were in those costumes of that moment of the film, we'd shoot about 20 minutes of real improv with real audience suggestions, and with the Steadicam operator shooting it and improvising the camera moves.
You mentioned at the premiere that the way the improv was shot was so integral to the way the film is communicated.
Yeah. It's important that we feel like these are our friends and that we're in the improv group. We're not the audience. We're actually in the improv group. You know, like a fight scene or a dance scene in a movie. I feel like theatre is so often shot terribly. It's shot single, wide and it's never meant to be experienced like that. It never captures what it feels like. And we really wanted to capture that. Joe Anderson is an extraordinary cinematographer who in two weeks I probably won't be able to afford anymore. (laughs)
This film is also a love letter to the art form of improv, including the trials and tribulations. Improv is one of those art forms that people seem to think is easy, but we both know is incredibly difficult. I loved how the film begins with the rules of improv and those rules seem to also mirror the themes of the film.
Yeah. The conflict of the film is subtle. In some ways, I think the conflict might be too subtle for certain audiences. I don't know. I mean, I'm dying to know. The conflict of it is who we are versus who we want to be. I feel like who [The Commune] want to be are people who would do anything for each other. And it's always about the group. And who they are is they're just people who are trying their best and sometimes they make selfish choices. It's a hard conflict. It's a sad conflict. And a true conflict, I think.
Can you take me into your writing process and the group readings? You handpicked a number of interesting people, mostly writers and comedians and other industry folks, to read the script with you at your home. How important were these group readings?
I started having these readings and people like Phil Lord, Nicole Holofcener, Jorma Taccone, Michael H. Weber, Brian Koppelman, Greta Gerwig, all these really brilliant screenwriters just chipped in their two cents. And here we are. I mean, there were drafts and drafts and drafts, 10 or 15 drafts of this thing.
It's so funny, the screenwriting side of it, because I listen to the Scriptnotes podcast religiously. Craig Mazin was at one of the readings. I'm a real believer in screenwriting as an art form. And it's funny because the publicity side of this whole thing, they're like don't tell people you had readings and don't tell people that there's improv in the film because then you won't get nominated for a screenplay Oscar or this or that or any Spirit Award screenplay, whatever. And I'm like, you know what? My process is what my process is. I can't be dishonest about something that I'm actually very proud of. I'm proud of the fact that, ultimately, hopefully, what's on the screen feels like your life as an audience member. And getting a lot of people's input is helpful for that.
I was listening to this interview with Ron Howard where he said, 'I do test screenings of my movie. I do tons of them. And I don't do it to have people tell me what my movie should be. I do it to find out if my vision is connecting. And if it's not, I need to change things. And if it is, I'm on the right track.' And that's how I feel about these readings. The question I always ask is: what do you guys get from this? What do you think about when you hear it? How do you feel if you imagine yourself seeing this movie? And when you leave the theater, what do you tell the person next to you? Or I always ask people, would you recommend this to your best friend? Would you recommend it to your parents? It's a totally different question.
I was at a point with the script where I'm in the coffee shop, which is where I write, and I'm banging away for weeks and weeks and months and months, and I hit an impasse. It seemed done. And then you have people read it. You invite friends over. And you go, oh, it's not done. You have that moment when you hear it out loud, you start to put it through this test of actually facing it in a way where you're not reading it in your head in the perfect way anymore and the holes start to appear.
Brian Koppelman and Michael H. Weber were at one of the early readings, and after the reading ended, the two of them came at me with nothing less than just a whiplash of notes. Like a tidal wave of here's why it's not working, the audience is ahead of this, they know this is gonna happen, they know that this is too obvious, and blah, blah, blah… I would say more than half of the things they said were true and helped, and that's enough. Not only is that enough, if you take one in twenty notes, that's enough. That's the thing I think writers are often afraid of, getting notes, because [they think] it'll water down their voice. The truth is, you don't have to take the notes. The notes are a gift, especially from smart people. Because you can't know what they're experiencing when they read it; all you know is what you're experiencing when you read it. So that feedback for me is really helpful.
Yeah, it's fascinating because I've interviewed a ton of screenwriters through the years and the common story is usually, more often than not, they'll pass the script to a friend or a rep or someone who provides coverage to read it. They don't perform it. They don't have a group of people read the lines out loud to actually hear the dialogue.
I always encourage it. Someone made a joke once when I [talked about the readings] on Scriptnotes when I was a guest on there. Someone goes, yeah, well we don't all have famous friends or whatever, but it doesn't matter! It's about your friends reading it and you hearing it. It could be your mom reading the mom part. That's as real as any narrative film. Hearing someone who's roughly that age, that's all you need. I had a few where people read parts and they were kind of terrible, and that was helpful, too.
When did you start working on the script? When did you decide to actually do another feature?
I think it was about 18 months before we shot. I spent about a year and a half on the script, and we shot for five weeks. And then edited since then, probably three or four months, and here we are. It's been a wild trip.
What was the biggest challenge you discovered between Sleepwalk With Me to this film?
The biggest thing was branching out. It was a big branch out into ensemble work versus a solo protagonist film. It's a completely different art form almost, especially in the editing. You really have to calibrate how much of each story you're dispersing and when. That was the probably the biggest thing. The other jump off is it's not about my life. It's just a story I came up with. I drew on knowledge of the world, but it's not my personal experience. I never lived it. I never auditioned for SNL. I maybe had that aspiration when I was [in my 20s]. Not after that. At a certain point I found myself and in a lot of ways that is what Sleepwalk With Me is about. I found myself. I found my voice. And my voice is not SNL. It's just a different thing.
One of the things I will say about the cast, I feel so lucky to have worked with them. It's an emotional thing for me, because a lot of the themes of the film have to do with how improv has never happened before and will never happen again. And I feel that way about this cast. I feel like this is a really special cast and I may literally never work with a cast this great ever again. And I have to come to grips with that. I mean, I was crying last night [at the premiere party] partly because of that. Like, this happened.
So what do you have next? Do you have another feature in you?
I do. I have about three or four ideas kicking around. What I like to do is write, write, percolate, write, percolate, percolate and then ultimately decide what I have to do, not what I want to do.
What's your writing process like? You say you work in a coffee shop. I'm assuming in Brooklyn somewhere?
I do. It's ridiculous. I'll just say I write at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. But I write at a coffee shop because it keeps me awake. It's relatively quiet. There's a drone of talking, but I never really hear it. And it is in the world, if that makes sense. You're living and breathing as you're writing. There are things going on. There are things you can observe as people are ordering coffee and this and that. And it all feeds into something that can be on the page. I like writing. I know it's kind of a trope. I know it's kind of hacky to say. I really like it. It also keeps me awake. The key is stay awake and never stop writing.
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