Seventeen years ago, Chicago published a story about Ira Glass, a young All Things Considered reporter who wanted to change the radio landscape with his homegrown show, Your Radio Playhouse. Today, he is one of National Public Radio’s most recognizable voices and his “playhouse,” This American Life, is more of a mansion. And this month, Glass wears a new hat as the producer of the indie film, Sleepwalk With Me (now playing at Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.). The film is a joint effort between Glass and the comedian and TAL contributor Mike Birbiglia. Last week, I sat down with Glass to discuss the movie, his collaboration with Birbiglia, and visiting Chicago.
When I first heard that you were producing Sleepwalk with Me, I immediately thought of Orson Welles, who started his career producing radio plays for Mercury Theatre of the Air.
It’s a very apt comparison. But if you add up Mike and I together, I believe we make up one Orson Welles. If you add our total weight, the metaphor becomes even more appropriate [laughs].
Welles also had an acute ear for sound in his films. Do you find yourself listening extra carefully for the diegetic sound effects in Sleepwalk?
I have to tell you, one of my proudest moments in the editing room was when I got to use the word diegetic in a sentence, at which point I was made fun of by everyone in the room [laughs]. But then, in fact, everyone ended up using it! It turns out to be a handy word.
To answer the question though, truthfully, we’re not such sticklers for sound on the radio show. I’m much more interested in narrative and character, so the show is really just people talking with music underneath. But the radio did train me to deal with the music in the film. There’s a trick on radio that if you have music playing under a scene or moment, you want to be very careful where you pull it out because whatever is said next will have an extra weight or gravity.
You’ve established yourself as an expert in one medium, so what is it like moving to a new one and starting somewhat from scratch?
Not somewhat! [laughs]. Like, I’ve been to the movies, I totally had that nailed [laughs]. So, I felt like, well, I’ve been to the movies so I can tell what will be good and bad. But once you get into it, it’s horrifying. I was constantly learning how ignorant Mike and I were. We were really lost for a really long time in a way that did not feel like a life-affirming “I am expanding my life, I am taking on the world, I am grabbing the bull by the horns.” I didn’t have that experience for one minute. My experience was much more, “I’m in Vietnam, we’re under assault, we’re all going to die, we’ll never get home alive, I’m going to bring shame on myself and everyone I know.” It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done—next to learning how to write a radio story that wasn’t boring, which literally took me seven years.
Are there any moments that you’re particularly proud to have pulled off?
Yes, so many. Our first the screening of the film for a real audience was at Sundance, and [the film] was getting laughs all the way through. I was tearing up the whole time. I don’t even cry. I didn’t cry at my own wedding. I felt really happy at my wedding, but I didn’t cry. But at that Sundance screening, there was moment after moment where we made something work. I felt like, “I can’t believe the little baby is walking.”
What is it that is appealing about Mike’s story? What is the universal theme?
It’s something most of us have gone through as adults. You’re in your early twenties, and you’re kind of lost, you’re just kind of plodding along. It’s just very relatable. And it has this part that’s utterly ordinary, the not getting your life together part, and this part that’s totally extraordinary, which is Mike’s sleepwalks. And he’s in this comedy world subculture, which is fun to see somebody discover.
Well, I have to ask: Chicago or New York?
I mean, I really love Chicago. I feel like I moved to New York for my job. And eventually it seemed too hard to move back. I feel more at home here, but the New York-versus-Chicago conversations seem really tiresome to me. They’re both pretty great. They both exist. It’s not a fight. But that being said, let me close with “Cubs win, Cubs win, Cubs win!”