Interview: Ira Glass on His New Film Sleepwalk with Me

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Ira Glass, best known and adored as the creator and distinctive voice behind This American Life, is expanding his oeuvre. The long-running radio series now has six movies in production. The first is Sleepwalk with Me, based on comedian Mike Birbiglia's autobiographical one-man show. We talked with co-writer and first-time film producer Glass prior to his appearance for the movie's San Francisco premiere August 31.

How did your experience studying semiotics in college inform your work?

It completely changed everything for me and I use it every day in my job. Do you really want me to explain this? I totally can.

Yeah!

Semiotics is this body of narrative theory and what it's interested in is not the old school, traditional literary theories like "What is the author's intent? What are the themes? What does it say about the author's life?" It has no interest in that. what semiotics is interested in is how does a story get its hooks into us and keep us watching, listening, reading, whatever. What's keeping us moving forward? And when a story ends and is satisfying, what makes it satisfying? What does it consist of and how is that produced? And so there are all these kinds of tricks and ways of thinking about the structure of a story that I learned in college that I use all the time. The action itself can create suspense. 

One of the things I learned as a young semiotics nerd was that if you have plot moving forward, no matter how banal the facts of it, simply the fact that the plot is rolling forward makes you wonder what's going to happen next, which creates suspense. So you can control peoples' attention simply by having things move forward in a story. That's why when we start [This American Life] we just start with some anecdote, a story. Because I feel like it pulls people in better than listing what's coming in the upcoming hour. 

In "On storytelling," there's a blurb that was taken out of it and which made the rounds on the Internet for a while, where you talk about how you have to have patience to allow your practice to catch up to your taste. You start out with great taste but lousy practice ... 

That video series was insane; somebody showed up one day from Current TV, I think, and wanted to do these training tapes for people on how to tell a story and was like, "Talk!" So I did, and I feel like I'm more famous for those videos than I am for my actual work. 

That happens I guess. Well, you used this audio clip of your reporting from when you were about 28 and there is some obvious roughness to it, strange vocal inflections ...

And the writing is terrible and the structure of it is terrible and the entire thinking through of how to do it is terrible. Not just the execution, the premise. 

But listening to the very first This American Life (which you started some years later), any difference from how you did it then to how you do it now is very subtle. But are you able and willing to describe any ways in which you think your practice has caught up to your taste in the time you've done the show? 

Yeah, totally. I think when we started the radio show, there was a slightly more precious sound that I was interested in that I would "perform." The longer that I've been performing the show, the more I think I sound like my actual self and less mannered. It was a lot more "performance art" and more pretentious. We experimented a lot more because it wasn't clear what the show was, and then as time went on, it became clear that what we were interested in were these reported stories with characters, scenes, emotional and funny moments. I went through something that I think a lot of people go through when they start off making work of any kind, and that is, I was making work that was like other peoples' work. I was trying to do it the "official way," like "This is what a reporter sounds like on public radio." 

One time I got to interview Billy Collins, the poet laureate. He's just this incredibly funny writer, the poetry itself is just a very funny, a very distinct personality comes through. I asked, "Did you always write like this?" And he said, "No, I went through different periods, for years." I think he said he was a beat poet at first, and he thought "Well this is what a poet sounds like." Then finally he said, "This is who I sound like." Talking to other reporters I haven't found that many who went for that but the ones who say they did are the stand-up comics. They say it takes about seven years to finally sound like yourself. 

You said that you did some tests for this movie in front of audiences ... 

Many, many tests, oh my god. 

People training in creative fields often hear, don't try to be like anyone else, don't try to take too many peoples' opinions to heart while you're working -- don't mimic. But while you were making this film you did incorporate the opinions of many people ... 

I think every part of what you just said is terrible advice. When you're learning, especially to write, unless you're some incredibly gifted writer, a young Malcom Gladwell, say, you need to be imitating people. You need to be imitating how they make their work, how they structure it, how they design the pieces. It gives you chops, it gives you moves. And I definitely did that. When I was a bad writer, I would consciously imitate other NPR writers who I thought were wonderful. I suppose that everyone's artistic practice is different. But I collaborate, and sometimes don't agree at all with my collaborators' opinions. It forces you to understand why you don't agree with something, what's the fight you're picking. 

So with the movie, as soon as we had the rough cut, we were showing it to people. We'd put a post on our Facebook page, and say, we can't tell you what it is, but come see this screening. 50 to 70 people at a time would come watch it, and we'd ask them what was working for them, what wasn't working for them. We'd also record where they laughed. We didn't have to record that; every place where they didn't laugh was seared into our souls. And then we completely recut and remade the movie based on that. We added more comedy, we made jokes work better, we reworked his relationship with his girlfried. It was a real gift to be able to do that. 

The press release says you have six different stories in the makes for film. What makes a story filmable? 

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