“At a certain point, probably 8 years ago, I had a sitcom pilot for CBS that didn’t get picked up for air. I was crushed at the time. In retrospect, I’m so lucky I didn’t get that.”
Instead of that would-be sitcom, Mike Birbiglia has spent the intervening years working on projects over which he had creative control — three one-person shows and two feature films. His second feature, Don’t Think Twice, was the impetus for our conversation and provided an opportunity for Birbiglia to work out some of his feelings about show business. It’s not an autobiographical picture, but it is a personal one.
Don’t Think Twice follows The Commune, a thick-as-thieves improv group who are shaken to their foundational core when life and fame intervene. Mike Birbiglia co-stars with Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher.
Working in fiction this way is a mode of storytelling that’s rather new for Birbiglia, whose comedy and first feature are steeped in autobiography.
“I think for film, fiction is a good direction for me. I think autobiography can be really limiting with film. I think with Sleepwalk With Me I felt beholden to: ‘Well, those are my parents. I have to be respectful of those characters. That’s my ex-girlfriend …’ When you go into the realm of fiction, it’s like you can be as personal as you want to be. You can throw your guts into it, but you don’t have to be respectful of this friend of yours because that’s not who that character is. It’s a fictional character.”
What that next film will be, Birbiglia doesn’t know exactly, but not for a lack of ideas.
“I have a bunch in my head kicking around that kind of duel each other. I can’t avoid that. I’m always thinking. I’m just trying to live a bit right now. I have a fourteen-month-old daughter and I want to spend time with my wife and my daughter and travel a bit and sort of just take it all in so that something new comes out.”
Allowing space to take stock, he said, is essential to maintaining perspective on the work, and why you’re doing that work. “I’ve certainly had moments where I can’t see the forest for the trees because I’m just working too hard. My last tour was a 100 city tour. It’s amazing, amazing, amazing, and then it’s like, ‘I don’t even know where I am anymore.’ You hear stories about bands waking up and going, ‘What city am I in?’ That happens. It’s cautionary. It’s one of those things you have to pull yourself back from.”
Even when he’s not working to realize his own visions, Birbiglia gives careful consideration to his choice of projects.
“I always choose projects where I feel like I’ll learn something. I’ll learn from Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow. I’ll learn from Jenji [Kohan] at Orange is the New Black, or Nicole Holofcener, who directs some of the episodes there. Ultimately, I’d like to think of myself as a creator of things. As a creator, you want to know how Nicole Holofcener directs or Judd Apatow directs or Lynn Shelton directs. It’s helpful. It’s part of the process, to go, ‘Oh, that’s what they do. How does that relate to what my approach is?'”
And indeed, every one of those creators helped Birbiglia realize what he wanted the tone to be on his own set — he loved the no ego feel to Lynn Shelton’s set and went on to declare a “no assholes” policy for Don’t Think Twice. By all accounts it worked. His cast is a who’s who in the comedy world, and Birbiglia still seems thrilled (as well he should) that they were all able to come onboard for the project. Don’t worry, they all managed the “no asshole” policy with ease.
“They came to town two or three weeks early and we became like a family. We became best friends. We still are. I wanted to work with all people who are not jerks, who are nice. They all are. It’s a real salt of earth group of people.”
It’s fortunate that cast and crew were on Birbiglia’s side. Don’t Think Twice is every bit and independent effort and that means the challenges come standard with all of that creative freedom.
“Every day was a struggle. Every day was so long and it never felt like we were going to finish in time, but we did it. It’s a miracle. These independent films are miracles when they work because everything’s against you. They shouldn’t work. By all properties, they shouldn’t work, but I think it was the will of the human spirit and camaraderie and teamwork that made the movie work.”
Don’t Think Twice expands into additional cinemas August 5. You can also read our review right over here.