Interview: Mike Birbiglia and Gillian Jacobs of “Don’t Think Twice”

Posted on August 2, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Copyright 2016 The Film Arcade
Copyright 2016 The Film Arcade

Writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia calls his new film, “Don’t Think Twice,” “The Big Chill” of improv. Like the all-star 80’s classic, it is a bittersweet and often funny story of the stresses old friends face as the hopefulness and sense of endless possibilities of their 20’s hits the reality of their 30’s.  Keegan-Michael Key plays one member of a small improv group called “The Commune.”  When he gets a chance for breakthrough success on a “Saturday Night Live”-type comedy series, it forces the rest of the group to think about what matters to them and whether they will be able to achieve their dreams.

Birbiglia and co-star Gillian Jacobs spoke about the film in an interview.

The Commune leads off their show by asking the audience who had the worst day and using the details of their story to provide the premise for improvising a scene. Where does that come from?

MB: I do an improv show in New York called Mike Birbiglia’s Dream at the UCB Theater. I came up with that prompt one day as an idea because I feel like we can prove in real time the old trope that comedy is tragedy plus time. We had one the other night at the Del Close Marathon where a girl, 19 years old, said. ‘I just realized that my dad was cheating on my mom with prostitutes because we share an iCloud account.’ And so we were all empathetic and sympathetic and trying to create scenes that were respectful of that but also were comedic scenes and it was hard. For about 15 minutes there were not a lot of laughs at all and then eventually we found the laughter, and she found the laughter. Tammy who plays Lindsay in the film, was in that show. She called me the next day and she said, “Wow! That show yesterday, that was wild.The woman who made the suggestion thanked you on Twitter so you should respond.” That was really rewarding. We have to fund that hinge point, that pivot point.

GJ: I remember one show we did at UCB during rehearsals. Someone told us about his friend who had died recently and he was a very young man. For the first couple minutes there was nothing funny but then you realize, “Well, we’re not documentarians.” You’re not telling the story of that person’s life. You’re using that situation as an inspiration. Once people give themselves permission to let themselves be free to associate around any detail in the story, some absurd coincidence or detail about it, and build from there, maybe rather than tackling trying to make raw pain funny then you can sort of laugh around the incident as well.

MB: But also like in the film the scene where something happens to Bill’s dad and they are driving home and they are joking about it is an example of how with friends you can joke about things that are really sad and have it be cathartic. And I think that that can happen in theater also, I think it can happen in film also. You can express love by calling out the truth out of the situation as opposed to dancing around it.

Because The Commune is built on teamwork — the last thing they say to each other before going on stage is “I’ve got your back” — the struggle with feelings of jealousy and competition is especially painful.

MB: I wrote this thing on my wall early in the writing process: ‘Art is socialism but life is capitalism.’ It’s not in the film because it would be too on the nose. One of the guiding principles in the film is that in a lot of ways what you do with the group you’re collaborating with is more idealistic than the actuality.

GJ: I don’t come from an improv background but I really relate to the story in other ways. I went to Juilliard and in your third and fourth years of school there, agents and casting directors and managers start to come and it is really kind of what happens in this movie where some people start getting a lot of appointments and other people don’t. You try to sort of keep it quiet but they would put these yellow envelopes on the board and everybody knew that that was a meeting request and it would start to shift the dynamics because up until then it’s all about the group and much like the improv world. But then you realize you are all about to be set forth into the commercial world of this business and not everybody’s going to have the same career and even if somebody is deemed more talented within the confines of the school it doesn’t mean they’re going to have the most successful career. So I’ve just now start to remember how that starts to affect all of your dynamic. After you do a showcase for agency managers and casting directors and you get this folder and some people had a folder that was thick and some people had a folder that was thin. And there’s no fairness to it because it’s not a fair business.

MB: In a lot of ways, that’s what this movie is about. Life is unfair and improv is a great metaphor of that. My wife said that when she saw my improv group one, “It’s funny that everyone’s equal on stage but offstage that person is a movie star, that person is on “Saturday Night Live,” that person lives on an air mattress in Queens in a one bedroom with five dudes. And I thought that really hit me hard, I was like, “Yes, that’s a movie,” that’s a nice tension to explore.

What the difference between what makes somebody good at improv versus what makes them good at a more structured traditional theater performance?

GJ: I think in theater it demands that you say the same words every night and make it feel fresh and new. Improv demands that you be operating at the highest level of your creativity intelligence. So these two skills are both very important but I’ve seen people who are very skilled at one area struggle with the other. Either improvisers feel constrained by having to say the same thing over and over again or people who are really good at doing scripted work feel intimidated and exposed doing improvisation.

MB: You’ve got to remember that improvisers are writers and actors and directors all simultaneously. That’s what’s happening in real time because you’re writing on your feet, and you are acting out the words and you are directing what the staging is. You’re deciding what staging is. When I’m taking the subway to my improv shows I will be writing in my notebook different actions that I see people doing on the train whether it’s eating yogurt or looking at where their stop is, or tripping or holding a baby. It’s not preparing scenes and ideas as much as it is stoking your brain to think observantly. Just to place observations in your head, so that they are available somewhere.

Why is ‘yes and’ such an important part of improv?

GJ: Without agreement you just have people arguing. I think that it is important to establish a world of place for the characters in improv and there is nothing to be gained from disagreeing about that. So you have to establish the principle that if some person establishes one thing we’re all going to go along with it and that we are all building from it. Also it is important to stop being critical and judging ideas as good or bad because I think if somebody doesn’t have a lot of experience you worry their idea is going to be bad, it’s not going to be good enough, if not going to be active enough and so you can start to think critically about people’s suggestions or what they bring to it but once you get out of that and think whatever they come up with is the right thing right now and so I’m just going to build on it just makes everything so much easier and better. But I think we are used to being critical and evaluating ideas.

MB: And our fear leads us to say no all the time.

GJ: Or you came up with an idea and you can’t let it go because you think your idea is the right one and the good one. You thought you were coming in as a duck, you thought it was very clever that you were a duck, and they thought that you are a dog and now you are a dog. And now you are dog and it’s better that you are a dog. I also have learned as an actor, this ties in the principles of improv, sometimes someone gives a piece of instruction and my first reaction is “I don’t want to do that.” I’ve always learned that every time I just say yes and go for it something happens. Whether it’s what the intent of the direction was or not or something new happens. It’s just remaining open to other people’s ideas. And I think Keegan-Michael Key is in such a playful open place as a performer that he makes it fun to come along for the ride.

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