August 31, 2012
One of the first things you notice during the opening credits of "Sleepwalk with Me" is a producing acknowledgment that reads simply: "In association with WBEZ Chicago's This American Life."
Chicago's largest public radio station is in the movie business. Sort of.
Based on a monologue from comedian Mike Birbiglia about his intense problems with sleepwalking, which first aired on "This American Life" in 2008 (and was later expanded into an off-Broadway one-man show), the semi-autobiographical film arrives in movie theaters with an assist from "This American Life" creator and host Ira Glass, who helped produce the film and co-wrote the script with Birbiglia.
Glass, who also has a cameo as a wedding photographer, comes home to Chicago this weekend for screenings Friday and Saturday at the Music Box, and although the film doesn't quite capture the wry self-awareness and absurdity of Birbiglia's audio monologue — acting out a story, it turns out, changes the comedic tenor significantly — I would agree with Glass on this point: "I think we ended up with a film that feels like the radio show. Which is what I wanted — a film that is satisfying in a way that the stories on the radio show are satisfying, that it's funny and it has feeling to it and the people are human-scaled and recognizable. You can tell that it's our product."
Last week I spoke with Glass from New York, where the public radio show (originated in Chicago and co-owned by Glass and WBEZ) has been based since 2006.
Q: How do you, Ira Glass radio guy, and WBEZ get involved with a movie?
A: There have been a number of movies that we've actually put into development over the course of the last five or six years. There came a point (in the early 2000s) where a story that had been on the radio show sold to Steven Soderbergh and it eventually did get made into a film starring Matt Damon called "The Informant!" ("This American Life" was not involved in selling the rights to that story.) After that, all these agents and other people started encouraging us to basically get in there and sell our own stories, rather than have people steal them and make movies out of them. (To clarify, Glass does not begrudge the makers of "The Informant!," who bought the rights directly from the author of the book by the same name.)
Really, we thought it would be a way to do fundraising initially — that there would be a way that we could come to listeners less, begging for money, if we could get Hollywood to replace listener donations.
Q: How does it work?
A: The reporter — often a freelance reporter — they get money; the life rights holder gets some money; and we (the show) get some money. We had a first-look deal with Warner Bros., which means that they got dibs on our stories. And then we had a deal with DreamWorks. The one film that got made was Paul Feig, who did 'Freaks and Geeks' and 'Bridesmaids,' made this film called 'Unaccompanied Minors' (in 2006) based on a story from the show. And basically our involvement was that they wrote a big check to the radio station. Like that was pretty much it. Which was great.
It turned out to be a lot of work just to manage the deal, so we hired, at some point, a movie producer on staff. We've had a movie producer on staff for years whose salary gets paid out of the money that we've made from the various movie deals.
As time went on, it seemed like it would be nice to do a movie that would have the feeling of the radio show. And the ones that we have in process now are ones where we chose the writers and directors. There's probably a half dozen scripts that are in various stages of looking for financing or in rewrites (including "Freezing People is Easy" from director Errol Morris and starring Paul Rudd as the first man to venture into cryogenics).
Q: The studio deals are over now? "TAL" stories are probably a natural for independent movies, anyway.
A: What happened is, it seemed like all the studios wanted bigger-budget films than our show could provide. If you want a small, human film, you would come to us.
At some point Mike (Birbiglia) was like, "Let's just raise the money ourselves and I'll direct it and we'll just do it for a million dollars." So three-fourths of it came from one investor. We were in the weird, lucky situation where last year we (the show) brought in more selling apps and from underwriters and more from listeners than was in our budget to spend, so we were in the weird situation of being a public radio show with money left over. So we put in a quarter-million dollars ourselves, WBEZ did.
Q: Did you have to get approval from the radio station?
A: The WBEZ board had to get involved because it's a weird investment for a non-profit to make. And fortunately the board has always been very entrepreneurial.
Q: You've written countless radio scripts in your day. What was it like writing a film script?
A: It was just radically different. First of all, the fact that you can just make up anything you want really changes the process. But also, the language of film is very terse and very visual and very, like, poetic compared to what you're doing on the radio, where you're surrounding and drowning everything in a sea of words. In a movie you want everything to be expressed through action. Radio is basically telling, telling, telling, telling.
Q: Working on the movie, there was no way for you to anticipate the problems that would arise with Mike Daisey, who fabricated details in his broadcast earlier this year about Foxconn working conditions. But in hindsight, are you glad Mike gives his character a fictional name in the movie? Just to clarify to audiences that everything on screen is not exactly factual?
A: A hundred percent. But the truth is that Mike always conceived this as a character, because it seemed like it would free him up. And coincidentally, that's exactly the way I would have wanted it, for all the reasons that you're saying. I mean, the broad outlines of the story did happen, but it isn't a truthful enough story to have it be his real name. And it is associated with the show, so I wouldn't want it to be his real name, given how much the movie tinkers with the truth.
Q: Any last parting words?
A: I have to run--I'm supposed to do MTV now, which is a sentence I never thought I would say.
Ira Glass will be at the Friday & Saturday screenings of "Sleepwalk with Me" at the Music Box. Go to http://www.musicboxtheatre.com.
Get a jump on the new TV season with a screening of the new NBC series "Revolution" 8 p.m. Thursday at Kerasotes Showplace Icon. Created by J.J. Abrams, the survivalist drama imagines a future where all technology (and electricity) has become incapacitated. Go to kerasotes.com.
The Siskel Film Center's fall discussion series will focus on American cinema of the 1950s, led by film scholar Fred Camper, who describes the era as expressing "both celebration and disillusionment toward such subjects as consumerism, popular culture, the American Dream, and even the American family. Deliberately differentiated from the new medium of television, Hollywood film style of the 1950s was uniquely rich in ways that were designed specifically for celluloid and do not translate well to video." Screenings begin Tuesday with Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," followed by "The Searchers" (Sept. 11), "Kiss Me Deadly" (Sept. 18) and "Vertigo" (Sept. 25). Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
Old episodes of "Studs' Place," the unscripted TV series set in a diner starring Chicago's own Studs Terkel, which ran from 1949 to 1951, will screen Wednesday at the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Found by Terkel's son while cleaning out the basement after his father's death, four episodes have been transferred to digital video, along with 1989 reunion of the cast. The Tribune's Rick Kogan will interview archivist Tom Weinberg about the show and Terkel's career. Go to museum.tv.√
If the fall TV season feels far off in the future, there's always the option of catching some of TV's more interesting character actors on film. Aubrey Plaza, the sullen intern April on NBC's "Parks & Recreation," stars in "Safety Not Guaranteed," a film that earned three stars from Tribune film critic Michael Phillips, who called it "sardonic like its heroine but, at heart, a sweetie, the fetching new comedy" about a magazine reporter who investigates a man who claims he can travel back in time. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
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