The first thing Ira Glass, the This American Life host and co-writer and co-producer of Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, said to me on the phone — and oh, how it just delights every morsel of my being to be able to type that phrase — was, “So you’re a Jew and you live in Charleston. How’s that going?” Pretty fine, Mr. Glass, because while this city might not be known for its Semite population, if I didn’t live here I would never have gotten to speak with you.
It would be impossible to try to turn our interview into a full-fledged “article.” Ira Glass is Ira Glass, a storyteller for the ages, a master of oratory, and to try to synthesize his talk into my own babble would be a lowdown, dirty shame. So here, in his own words, is Ira Glass.
City Paper: What do you think of film as a way to tell stories?
Ira Glass: I think it’s an amazingly expressive, lyrical way to tell stories, but I would say that every medium — every job even, not even every medium. Let me just go back. So at this point, I’ve done a radio show, we had a TV show for a while, now I’ve made a film, and I feel like everything that a person can make, every kind of way that you can tell a story, there’s the percentage of your time that you spend doing the part that’s interesting and fun, and there’s the percentage of time you spend doing the stuff that you have to do to get to the part that’s interesting and fun. And I mean honestly, the proportions just seem way off in film, where the number of minutes you spend doing the part that’s fun is so small compared to the number of minutes that you have to spend putting the project together and, you know, just grunting your way through the production process and bad versions of your own film that you have to make and recut and recut and recut and then marketing it and traveling with it. It’s astonishing to me. I think the proportion might be 85 percent stuff that isn’t the fun stuff and 15 percent stuff that is the fun stuff, versus radio, which, honestly, it’s probably more like 85 or 90 percent is the fun stuff of getting to actually think about fun stories to make and commission them and do edits and do interviews, you know what I mean? And TV I would say is somewhere in between. In both film and TV, there’s just a lot of hauling shit from place to place that you don’t realize until you actually do it. There’s a lot of people and trucks and waiting while stuff gets carried from one spot to another. So even on the days that you’re shooting, a lot of the shooting day is just guys moving stuff while you try to do something productive with your time, but no human being is capable of it while waiting.
CP: How is it to spend years on one tangible product versus a weekly radio show?
IG: I mean, obviously there are people who love doing that, but I am not one of them. I like working quickly. I like getting things finished, so it’s not really my cup of tea. … Like a lot of people who do creative work, I do it for my own amusement first and foremost, and so it just doesn’t seem as fun to do it this way, where you spend so long to make something that’s an hour and a half long. Also, I have to say I’ve never had this experience of waiting for the grosses to come in. Like on the radio show, I get ratings reports — and our ratings are good on the radio show — but I’ve never been anxiously awaiting them. It’s not the report card that matters really. The report card that matters is just the quality of the program. And when we did TV, it was pretty similar because it was on pay cable, and although the TV network wanted us to get respectable ratings, we weren’t living or dying by the ratings. Whereas this thing, where every day I get in my inbox the grosses to date of the film — I don’t know, I feel like we spent so long making the film and we spent so long trying to get it out to an audience, and it’s like I want my report card. Like I’ve never wanted the affirmation of, “Oh, people are actually seeing it,” in the way that I’m having now. It’s weird. It’s a weirdly, like a bleak sort of process (laughs).
CP: I was listening to your Fresh Air interview [which Terry Gross conducted with Glass and Birbiglia last month on NPR], and you were talking about having these secret screenings of scenes and kind of developing the story as you went along. … What is that like to hear that people don’t like what you’re doing or they love what you’re doing or they don’t really care what you’re doing?
IG: I mean, it’s harsh. But making the radio show, to make our kind of show, we actually do get that kind of feedback, not from the audience, but we play the stories for each other. I spent two-and-a-half hours today playing a story for five people and getting their notes, and there definitely were some moments in it where I was told that people did not understand what I was saying and considered things I was doing to be A. confusing, B. boring, C. a failure. Do you know what I mean? I feel like confronting constantly how bad you are is part of the process at any kind of creative job. And so it wasn’t a shocking experience to have that in making a film. What was shocking was this experience of just being at sea for so long. I think if you want to make stuff for a living, or really any kind of job that’s a good job, you want to take on projects that are really hard for yourself and things that you’ve never done before and you’re not sure you can do them well. And the best, most satisfying work to do is the kind of work where you’re not sure if you can do it and you’re trying something that you’ve never tried. And I’ve never had the experience of spending so long completely shipwrecked on a desert island not sure if I would ever get off as I have with this film. It’s been an astonishing process. It’s been humbling and frightening. And the fact that we got the film to a point where it was halfway decent I still feel like is a miracle and one of the greatest things I’ve ever accomplished. Like the fact that people laugh all the way through it, I totally enjoy as if I had saved a little bird that was crippled and its wings were broken and I somehow learned medicine to mend its broken wings and now it flies above my home a mighty eagle, vital and strong, and I feel like that’s what I feel when I see our film on screen. That I had to learn veterinary medicine in order to restore from the crippled, tiny, palsied, broken-legged, broken-winged creature that it was.
CP: What movies have you seen in your lifetime that have done the best job of telling a story?
IG: I feel like all my answers to this are going to be really hacky because I’m not so inside the world of movies that I have weird, idiosyncratic answers. Like I’m a normal moviegoer. For example, I like the new Wes Anderson movie, like every single person in my demographic and probably your readership. If you’re reading these words at this newspaper’s website or in print, you probably like the Wes Anderson movie, you know what I mean? I loved Annie Hall, and in fact, it was amazing that Carol Kane [the veteran actress who plays Birbiglia’s mother in the film] was in Annie Hall and was in our film and it was amazing to ask her about the making of Annie Hall. And I’m a big fan of the movie Jaws and … I love Errol Morris’ documentaries, I love Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, I love Standard Operating Procedure (I mean love is a weird word to use with a movie about Abu Ghraib, but I’m not afraid to use it). … I mean, I feel like my taste in films is utterly pedestrian. I like interesting characters and strong stories and big emotional parts and funny parts and original visual aesthetic, just like your average moviegoer.
CP: So when you’re watching a movie, do you treat it like it is a story like the kind of stories you tell, or do you treat it like a movie and something separate and different?
IG: Well, this is the problem. I used to see movies as movies and now I’ve pierced the membrane and I’m on the other side, and I don’t like being on the other side. Mike Birbiglia and I went to see Moneyball right around the time our film wrapped, so we had just been through shooting and we were in cutting. We were probably two or three weeks into editing our film. And we’re watching a scene in Moneyball and we’re in a theater that’s not too crowded — and I only say that because we talked to each other during the scene — and there’s a scene where Brad Pitt comes in and he’s talking to somebody who’s sitting at a big desk, and at some point the thought crosses my head of like: There’s no coverage of Brad Pitt in this scene. All the coverage is of the other guy. I’m trying to figure out, is it an artistic choice, or do they simply not have good footage of Brad Pitt in this scene? And then I’m listening to the way he’s performing his voice on the soundtrack, because they’re almost never coming back to him. And Birbiglia is watching this scene with me and it occurs to him at the same time, and we totally turned to each other and are like, do they not have coverage of Brad Pitt? Is he bad in this scene and they didn’t have any shots of him? Or maybe there was a technical error in the shot of him. That happens too, like something was wrong the day they filmed it and they just decided it’s not worth going back, we’ll just stay on the other shot. And we totally had that thought. And I don’t like that that thought occurred to me. I don’t want to be thinking about: Did they have coverage of Brad Pitt. I don’t want to be mentally counting the shots in my head, do you know what I mean? I’m so aware now. … I feel like I’ve now been injected with this information that I’m not glad I have.
CP: What would you say, now that you’ve gone through this whole process, is the best way to tell a story through film?
IG: I am completely unqualified to answer that question. When you get Quentin Tarentino on the phone, ask him that question. I’ve made one movie. I can tell you one possible way to make it is the way that we made it, which is that it’s a mixture of a completely true story but fictionalized with actors and with a very winning comedian talking to the camera directly in a way that usually is not supposed to work in a film, but somehow Mike is able to get away with because he can perform it. I can tell you how to make one sort of film and it’s exactly the one I made.