“It’s like putting the plane together when you’re already in the sky,” says a performer in Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice,” scheduled to open in Sacramento on Friday, Aug. 12.
The character is talking about improv, that lightning-quick art of creating a comedy sketch in front of a live audience on the fly. A wistful comedy, the film focuses on a group of friends who’ve been performing improv together for 11 years – but who, when their longtime theater closes down, must contemplate the end of their connection.
Birbiglia, a longtime comedian and performer (he’s frequently heard on NPR’s “This American Life”), has been fascinated by improv since college. “When I was a freshman, I was cast in the improv group,” he remembered, in Seattle this summer for the Seattle International Film Festival, “and those people became my best friends, some of them for life.”
Though he moved to New York with a group of improv friends after graduation, they soon went their separate ways, with Birbiglia pursuing stand-up, solo shows and film directing. And he learned, along the way, that those improv habits served him well.
“Improv principles are great for collaboration,” he said, noting that he got through his first feature (2012’s “Sleepwalk With Me”) by “listening to my department heads listening to my actors, listening to people’s ideas.” And he eventually found his way back to the art, now regularly performing an improv show called “Mike Birbiglia’s Dream” in New York.
And while “Sleepwalk With Me” was autobiographical in nature, Birbiglia said that “Don’t Think Twice” isn’t. “The world is obviously familiar,” he said, “but the characters aren’t based on anyone. Often people say, ‘Which one are you?' and I say, ‘I’m not any of them.’” He acknowledged, though, that “whenever you write, there’s pieces of you in characters. I’m sprinkled in there.”
Though Birbiglia ultimately played the role of the group’s founder, Miles, in the film (a man in his late 30s determined to live his life like a college student), he said he didn’t have that role in mind for himself – in pre-production script readings, he played all three of the lead male roles at different times. The screenplay was developed over a period of many months, with “like, 10 readings at my house, where I invited my favorite actors and writers.”
“We’d have pizza afterward,” Birbiglia remembered. “That was the important part. I said to them, no matter what happens, whether the script is good or bad, it doesn’t matter, because at the end we’re going to eat pizza. And we did, and it was great, because it was Brooklyn – really, really good pizza.” Lots of different guests showed up: Birbiglia’s NPR colleague Ira Glass (a producer of the film), actor Greta Gerwig, filmmakers Phil Lord (“The Lego Movie”), Nicole Holofcener and Frank Oz. “All these people were wildly helpful in the process,” Birbiglia said.
Once the script was complete, Birbiglia found his cast from the world of comedy. “Four out of the six of us have improv’d for 10-plus years,” he said, referring to himself, Keegan-Michael Key (who got his start at Chicago’s Second City Theater), Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard (both of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade). The remaining two, Gillian Jacobs and Kate Micucci, “have done comedy for 10-plus years. In a lot of ways, we’re the real people.”
Life imitated art in the making of the film: “We spent four months together, nonstop, and we became best friends.” It was, Birbiglia said, a bittersweet reflection of the film’s themes, in which a longtime group contemplates splitting up: “It’s the end of the movie and it’s the way things go in life – your college friends, your high school friends. It’s about any group of friends you ever had – it can’t last forever … You think you'll be best friends forever and talk every day, and you don’t.” He was smiling, but his voice broke, just the littlest bit.
“And that’s exactly why,” he said, “people cry at this movie.”