It might be pretentious to admit , but probably the only reason I ever go to the gym is for one peaceful hour of my day to listen to This American Life, the NPR show hosted by Ira Glass. There is nothing I would rather listen to as I struggle, out of breath, on the elliptical machine (I am not in good enough shape for the treadmill), than Ira Glass’ soothing voice telling me stories about everything from psychopaths to lovable pets.
This summer, when I attempted to finally complete my 2006 New Years Resolution of exercising regularly and eating healthfully (it didn’t happen; I like food too much), I would listen to Glass and some other podcasts as I panted my way up Runyon Canyon with my dog Rory running laps around me. So all summer, I kept hearing about the film Sleepwalk with Me.
Sleepwalk with Me is based on comedian Mike Birbiglia’s struggle with REM Behavior Disorder, which causes him to act out his dreams. Birbiglia first told his story as part of a one-man Off-Broadway show of the same name, and then on a 2008 episode of This American Life called “The Fear of Sleep.” After doing that episode, Birbiglia started working with Glass to write a screenplay about his ordeals.
As a guest on the Aug. 20 episode of comedian Doug Benson’s podcast Doug Loves Movies, Birbiglia described the plot of the film. He said, “It’s basically about this character developing his comedy career and being in denial about his relationship going south and also his deteriorating health, and it’s funny — I can’t describe it in a funny way, but it has a lot of jokes, and it’s funny.”
I strongly agree with Birbiglia: The film is very funny. Not only is Birbiglia himself hilarious, but Sleepwalk with Me features a number of my favorite comics, such as Jessi Klein, Wyatt Cenac and Marc Maron. Sleepwalk with Me is charming, and I highly recommend it (it’s currently playing at Cinemapolis). But rather than talking about why I loved it, as this is a column and not a review, I’m going to discuss why I hope Sleepwalk with Me represents the future of the movie industry, as well as how it illustrates the power of a good story.
Like many independent movies, Sleepwalk with Me was made on a fairly low budget. And like with many independent movies, its creators were concerned about its distribution. Here is where Sleepwalk with Me diverged from the majority of indie films: Rather than just hope that the Cinemopolises of the world would screen it, Birbiglia, armed with the support of WBEZ Chicago, went on the attack.
At the end of every This American Life, Ira appealed to listeners to call, tweet at, Facebook or email their local movie theaters and ask them to screen Sleepwalk with Me. And it wasn’t just him; the plethora of comedians and writers who were somehow involved with the film also helped out. I heard comic Amy Schumer, whose scene was unfortunately cut from the movie, discuss it on an earlier episode of Doug Loves Movies, as did Marc Maron on his podcast WTF. In addition, Birbiglia talked about it as a guest on The Nerdist, NPR’s Fresh Air and other podcasts.
Birbiglia and Glass also made a delightful ad so the film could get booked in other cities. In this ad, Birbiglia and Glass mention that they will be at each screening of the movie for a Q&A. The following weekend they split up — Birbiglia to L.A. and Glass to Chicago. They also promised to not just attend the screenings but also sell you your ticket, bring you your popcorn and clean the bathrooms in each theater. If you love Ira Glass as much as I do, you should probably go look up that ad on YouTube.
Amazingly, it worked. Birbiglia and his podcast army managed to get Sleepwalk with Me to play in 101 theaters across the country. Even if you live in Ketchum, Idaho or Tuscaloosa, Ala., you can see the movie (although it doesn’t come to Tuscaloosa until Oct. 23). And it’s not too late to petition your local movie theater to screen the film (the people of Sarasota, Fla., and Mesilla, N.M., still do not have easy access to it).
The ability of fans to accomplish this with Sleepwalk with Me (like fans of Paranormal Activity did back in 2009), I hope, is a sign that, in the future, I won’t have to sit through a million previews and think at the end of each one, “That’s another one I’m not gonna see.” Because of podcasts and Twitter, enough people knew about this film, listened to that episode of This American Life or read Mike Birbiglia’s book that they obeyed Ira’s instructions and got Sleepwalk with Me to play in Tuscaloosa (my new favorite city name).
Now when I go to the gym I can feel good about myself, not just for having forced myself to put on a sports bra, but for being one of the many listeners of public radio and podcasts who actually managed to do something great. We, the stuck-in-traffic, cleaning-our-rooms, gym-intolerant listeners, we brought Sleepwalk with Me to Ithaca for your viewing pleasure.