“Don’t Think Twice” is a new film about an improv comedy troupe written and directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia. But it’s not all laughs.
Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, Keegan-Michael Key and Kate Micucci are members of an improv troupe that eats, lives, plays and performs together until one of them — played by Key — lands a spot on a late night sketch show. He’s excited, but also feels guilty about leaving his colleagues behind.
When Sagher and Birbiglia joined The Frame host John Horn in studio, we began with the script, which — despite being about improvisors — was actually heavily written.
What was the process for writing the script?
Birbiglia: I wrote 10 or 12 drafts of the script over the course of 18 months, and I would have readings at my house with writers and actors like Tami and Chris Gethard as well. Often, Craig Mazin would come if he were in town, or Brian Koppelman.
These are all screenwriters?
Birbiglia: All screenwriters and filmmakers. The script early on was really bumpy. I remember a lot of readings where Ira Glass, our producer, would be like, Mike, it's not a movie. I don't understand what you're making. It's not a movie. And he wasn't even signed on as a producer at that point. He was just a friend. Ira's a very blunt person and so for the first five or six readings, he would say, It's just not a movie. That's actually not the worst voice to have in your head somewhere. It really does put your feet to the fire.
Did you always want to make a movie about an improv group or were you trying to make a movie about a group of people trying to figure out their future as artists and that improv was the natural way of doing that?
Birbigilia: I just had written and directed this film called "Sleepwalk With Me." That was my first feature film. When you direct your first feature film, you don't know how to. You can go to film school or you can make short films, but there is nothing that's the equivalent of directing a feature film. It's madness, it's so difficult. It doesn't make any sense. Anyone who's been involved with feature films knows there's a lot of irrationality involved. Afterwards I sort of took inventory about what had gotten me through it and I realized that I had studied improv when I was in college, from my freshman year on. I had done it on and off over the years and I realized that the principles of improv had gotten me through directing the film because — Tam tell me if you agree with this — I feel like improv really taught me how to do that.
Sagher: Oh, absolutely. So much about improv is just working in an ensemble and so much of friendship and growing up is working in an ensemble. And I feel like when you started up doing improv again just a couple years ago ... I feel like I was there when I saw the spark for the movie happen.
Birbiglia: So what happened was, when I had this revelation that improv had gotten me through directing this film, I was like, I want to do improv again, and more full-time. I had been doing stand-up for so many years and focused on that and filmmaking. So I started doing this weekly show. It was called "Mike Birbiglia's Dream" at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York. So Tam and Chris and I spent a ton of time together. These guys, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher, are credited in the film as consultants in addition to being actors in the film.
Sagher: I think we were in a cab ride home and you were saying you had this idea for a movie and [saying], Yeah, absolutely. That sounds like a movie. And also my life. So good luck writing it because it sounds very ... true to life.
Is it something that people in the performing arts struggle with, where someone else is taking your job?
Sagher: Absolutely. Coming from The Second City you would see people get auditions for stuff that the rest of the cast wouldn't get, or getting asked to submit stuff. Before I went into improv I was in mathematics. That's what my degree was in. My father's a mathematician and my mom's a scientist. What's crazy to me too is that I've also seen it happen in academics. It happens with graduate students who are best friends. It happens in every field where that one person gets singled out. And how do you deal with that and how does it affect the friendship? It will affect it even if you don't want to be the jealous person or the bitter person. It still contaminates things.
Birbiglia: The idea of the movie was partly sprung from an observation my wife made when she came to see our group perform at the Del Close Marathon. She said, "It's so funny because your stand-up friends are so mean to each other and your improv friends are so nice to each other." I was like, "Yeah, but it's more complicated than that." It's subtler. People are mean, but it's very subtle. That was definitely a balancing act for this movie: How do you show resentment but have it not be cartoonish?
“Don’t Think Twice” opens in theaters on July 22.