“Art is socialism but life is capitalism.”
Or at least that what Mike Birbiglia wrote on his office wall while making Don’t Think Twice. The film premiered this past week at SXSW and, sitting in the Paramount Theater, it was clear the crowd was eating it up—laughter, tears and the occasional no-he-didn’t head shake. Birbiglia wrote, directed and stars in the film alongside a stellar cast that included Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher. It centers on an improv group in New York City. When one of the members begins to rise to stardom, it threatens the happy-go-lucky, can-do spirit of the group. Before starting a show, they’re sure to tell each other, “I got you.” But now, they start to question their personal talents and whether or not they’ve actually “got it.”
Paste had a chance to chat with a few members of the Don’t Think Twice team. Birbiglia and producer Ira Glass, who most of us know as the King of NPR and producer of the addictive & amazing podcast Serial, opened up about failure and achievement. Glass reveals his long road to actually being “good” at his job—a journey that’s surprising given his incredible career. Birbiglia also discusses how fleeting success can be. Despite “the wells,” or ruts, an artist can fall into, Glass pinpoints this element, the “magic,” that keeps us going when we all do start to doubt.
Paste: I know that people are always like, “I loved the film,” but I really did. Mike’s tapping into very basic, visceral parts of being an artist.
Ira Glass: Yeah. It’s funny, it’s something we thought when we started working on it, and then we realized like halfway through editing—we should actually underline this more. We actually wrote an extra scene to kind of land that point more.
Paste: What were the things that you went back and underlined. What was the scene you added in?
Glass: There’s a bunch of scenes we added, but the main one that did this was the scene in the basement when they’re looking at old pictures and Chris says, “I think your twenties are all about hope, and your thirties are all about realizing you were wrong to hope.”
Paste: There was something else that stood out to me in that scene. He says that without improv he is nobody; it’s what makes him a hero. Do you feel that way about your art as well, or not so much?
Glass: (pause) Yeah, I guess I do. I mean it’s funny—like I really relate to the idea of, Should I quit? I wasn’t successful for a really long time. I started at NPR when I was nineteen, and this isn’t some sort of weird like humble something, but I was not good. I was actively bad, and my family was just like, “When are you going to quit this?” I was a good editor, but I was not a good reporter. I just sounded like a stiff and [during] my whole twenties made no money. I just really wondered, ‘Am I ever going to get good? Should I quit?’ My parents wanted me to be a doctor!
Paste: Was it the fear that you didn’t “have it”? That’s something else that I was thinking about [from the film].
Glass: Of course, and when I was working at NPR, I just felt like everybody seemed like they had some magical power that I had no idea how they did what they did.
Paste: Why didn’t you give up? If you feel like you were bad for like ten years, what kept you going? Did you have the secret suspicion I might be crazy but I think this is where I’m supposed to be?
Glass: I wish that it was like as romantic as that. It was really just like a) I had no other skills and b) like there was a part of it that I just really liked, and it was one part of it that I was good at. I was a good editor. I was a good editor from the moment I started. Every other part of making stuff I was bad at, and it’s funny because most of my job now—I’m an editor. Right before this I was on the phone with Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, [executive] producers of Serial.
Paste: Yeah, I know it well!
Glass: That’s most of my life—I’m on the phone, making notes and editing. When we were editing [Don’t Think Twice], we would get public listeners to come out and look at it, and we would have them fill out forms. We would talk to them and we realized oh, just that whole idea of like “oh shit, I gave up on my dream, like people don’t make up movies about “shit, I gave up on my dream”, you know? People make movies about “I have a dream” and “I’m gonna make it!” In Legally Blonde, she does turn out to be awesome, you know? There aren’t movies where it’s the best friends all around who fail! It’s much more relatable, and more people are in jobs that they hate than in jobs that they love, and more people are wishing that they could be doing something else than glad that they do what they do. So, both from an emotional point of view and a business point of view, it seems like it’s a much bigger market—if you’re going to make a movie for lots of people.
Paste: Yeah. Is it something that, because you’re a producer, you have to think about?
Glass: It doesn’t matter to me, because it doesn’t really matter to me if the movie makes money. I wanted to make money so everybody can keep making work and it would be awesome if we were a hit. That would be great, but honestly I just wanted it to be good.
Paste: You’ve worked with Mike many times before. I know that when I meet people that I end up having either an emotional or collaborative relationship with for years to come—I can pinpoint the moment I met them. When did you first meet Mike? Am I’m romanticizing everything again?
Glass: I remember exactly how we met, and your version of the story is so much better than the reality! We met because he had told the story about jumping out of a window in his sleep at the storytelling series at the Moth. Somebody from the Moth said, “You guys should run this. This is really special.” I listened to it and got in touch with him, and he at that point wasn’t even sure he wanted it on the radio. It was so personal. I had to kind of talk him into putting it on the radio, and then we just started making stuff and it was just a very easy collaboration. What’s interesting about Mike in the beginning was he was still just transitioning from being a comedian who told little stories that were funny and very real to a comedian who told stories with full story arcs that could last for an hour, an hour and a half and he really wanted to do it.
That was a really nice point to be working with him, because it was somebody who like had a lot of stories he wanted to tell, but hadn’t told them yet, and then was developing the chops to tell them better than almost anybody around.
Paste: I really like Mike’s work because he surrounds himself with talented people and evolves as an artist. I want to see him do a story next that is not so based on his own world.
Glass: Well, this I feel is half-based on his world.
Paste: What half is not?
Glass: I mean he wasn’t a UCB comic—he did improv when he was in college. I hope it’s okay that I say this, but a lot of the actual drama of the film is stuff that happened to Chris Gethard!
Paste: Oh, really?
Glass: Yeah, Chris and Mike were on tour, and they would have these long talks about their lives and Chris’ career and things Chris is in. Chris is the one who was at UCB, and people who know improv in New York [know] he’s just one of the superstars, and always is so amazing. I’ve seen him so many times, and every time it’s just like watching someone do a magic trick.
Glass: You just can’t believe it and Tami, too. Watching them get into it with each other is so sweet. Chris has seen a bunch of friends of his from UCB go on to Saturday Night Live, and there’s a line in the film where he says to somebody … I’m trying to say this without revealing a spoiler, somebody who gets to audition for our version of Saturday Night Live, this character when going into this audition thought oh, if I don’t get it like I’m going to be dead, I’ll just die. Chris says to him, “Oh, you mean if you had our lives? Like if you had to go through life that we had?”
Paste: I know. I love that!
Glass: That’s a real moment from his life that he said to somebody.
Paste: He’s great.
Glass: There was a point where Mike’s character was even more in the movie, honestly, and we consciously made it not him. He wasn’t going to play the lead, and that he would be the third lead with the thought of let’s get away from biographical stuff. Like the stuff that happens in it that I think he relates to is that he’s had the experience of watching other comics become more famous but he was so shockingly successful, so young.
Paste: I want to ask you guys about this concept and I’ve been thinking a lot about it since I saw the film – “the well.” I was talking to Tami [Sagher] about it and she’s like, “Have you read The Artist’s Way?”
Mike Birbiglia: The Artist’s Way is just about how the key to being a great artist is about persistence and continuing again and again and again.
Paste: But this concept of “the well” is in it—why did you put that in the film? What is it to you? Have you guys ever been in a well in your life as artists?
Birbiglia: That might be a subconscious … I read the book. I wrote the script. I had no connection to that. It was really just “what would be a good improv scene that’s inspired by who’s having a hard day?” You have. How would that make you feel? What would … I’m in a well. Then what? That’s so much what improv is. It’s like, “I’m here, my circumstances are this.” Then what? Well, someone from my group shows up and they shout out and try to help. Maybe this person thinks it’s a wishing well and throws money down, and they would be like “Ah, they’re throwing pennies at my head!” It really evolves from there.
Paste: The movie made me think a lot about being an artist, and a person, because I think a lot of times we separate the two. But I think that these characters are really struggling being a group and then also looking out for themselves. Can you guys tell me a little bit about challenges in your lives where you come up with collaborators but then you also have to put yourself and your art first?
Birbiglia: I wrote this phrase on a bulletin board wall in my office, it’s where I have a wall of ideas, and I wrote down at a certain point on a big 8×10: “Art is socialism but life is capitalism.” For me, that was the guiding principle of the movie which is that harsh reality of like, “Yeah, we’re all a group, but guess what? It’s musical chairs.”
Glass: So wait, so there have been people where you have had to discard aside? I know you’re all like nice-guy in image and public but like…
Paste: Let’s get real talk here.
Birbiglia: Next week, when I sign my deal with Warner Brothers, you may not be in the contract. (laughter) For sure, there are people who don’t make it. I might not make it next year. You know what I mean? I say that to my wife all the time. I go, “This might all go away.” People say in a lot of these interviews, “You’re successful, but what’s it like to play people who are unsuccessful?” It’s like, yeah we’re successful today … and also people get lost and then they find their way. I’ve had people in my life who suffered for ten years and then they found their way.
Paste: It’s exciting to see that [this film] isn’t in the classic protagonist structure where one person is going for their goal. It’s sort of this anti-hero, multiple protagonists and multiple stories.
Birbiglia: It is everybody’s story.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.