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Recess Interviews: Mike Birbiglia and Gillian Jacobs from 'Don't Think Twice'

“Don’t Think Twice” is the second film written and directed by comedian Mike Birbiglia, and the film had its world premiere in Austin, Texas at the South By Southwest Film Festival. The Chronicle had the opportunity to sit down with Birbiglia and Gillian Jacobs (“Community,” “Love”) in a press roundtable and discussed film distribution, ensemble casts and what it means to be successful.

The Chronicle: We went to the premiere last night. We loved it.

Mike Birbiglia: Oh, thank you, thank you! We feel very lucky to be here.

Yeah, my experience with “Sleepwalk with Me” [ed. “Sleepwalk with Me” was Birbiglia’s previous film] was that Ira Glass and I made that film together, as well, and then we realized that the movie wasn’t going to be in that many cities [laughs]. The weird reality of independent movies is that you make this movie and bring it to festivals and people like it in some cases, and you go “Oh great, this will be in movie theaters everywhere.” And the industry is like, “Not so fast! It will be in these three theaters.”

So, with ”Sleepwalk with Me,” we were just like “We’re just going to go.” Actually, it’s a weird factoid that I don’t think got written up anywhere, but we did 30 Q&As at the IFC center, and it was the highest per screen average in America. We were only on one screen [laughs], and it was the highest per screen average for a first time filmmaker ever.

TC: That should be on your Wikipedia page! So you wrote and directed Don’t Think Twice. Did you always plan to write and direct?

MB: Yeah, I’m just a control freak. Gillian can speak to that! [Gillian laughs]. I like things a certain way, and, yeah, I love directing.

TC: You guys had a lot of pretty big success early on in your careers, and this film takes a - well, not cynical, but realistic - approach to how it is to come up as a comic in NYC. Why did you decide to address it that way after having the level of success that you both have had?

MB: Well, cause I think that the struggle of it never ends. I always say to my wife that this could all end tomorrow. Like, the entertainment industry isn’t the government, where you fill out a form and say “I’d like to work for 5 more years at this rate.” Sure, I’ve had a few successes in the last few years but maybe next year I won’t, or the next five years I won’t, and all you can do is try to create as best you can and try to get better and learn. I mean, someone asked me the other day “What do you take away from the film personally?” And it’s that you never stop learning. You have to try to never stop learning. I think that’s the key.

Gillian Jacobs: I agree with that. Also the sickness of this business is that you never feel successful. You always feel like the looming pressure of what you haven’t achieved or what people told you you couldn’t do or are not allowed to do. I think that doesn’t really go away. And I also think that there’s a beautiful message in the film that your notion of success can change as you get older and that you can find fulfillment from an important relationship, a family, from taking a different path. One of Tami's friends who came to the screening last night was like, "I am your character! I was in Second City and now I run and own an improv theater, so thank you for showing that that’s a great and wonderful thing.”

MB: Oh my god that’s so sweet! I didn’t know that. Wow, I didn’t know that.

GJ: Yeah, and it’s like Mike says, in your 20s, everyone’s vision of success kind of lines up, but as you get older, there are all these different things that you can do in your life that can give you fulfillment if you’re open to changing your mind.

TC: I feel like your characters in particular were really big into that idea.

MB: Yeah, and also, to build on [Gillian] - in your 20’s you have this sense of everyone has to try and achieve the same thing which is why the “Weekend Live” exists because it’s the brass ring of being an improviser in your 20s, and I feel like in your 30s you start to realize that:

  1. Not everyone has to have the same dreams
  2. Dreams Evolve
  3. Life happens, and
  4. … If there ever is a D, that the person who gets the dream isn’t the getting dream that everyone thought was the dream.

It’s not what you think it is, and so all of the variables are fine. All of the characters in this film are gonna be fine.

GJ: It’s when you can’t let go that you’re not fine. It’s when you’re holding on and you’re bitter that things haven’t turned out the way you expected them to.

MB: It’s certainly how Miles is at the beginning of the film.

TC: Yeah, since you wrote it, it’s really interesting that you wrote your character as kind of like …

MB: The jerk?

GJ: Aha!

TC: I mean if I were the writer I'd probably try to write myself the cool part... maybe.

MB: Yeah, well, first of all, the character is very different from me. Gillian would always make jokes on set whenever her character and my character would do scenes, where she was just like “Miles is my favorite character cause he’s so crazy!”

GJ: Yeah, I love him!

MB: But is it safe to say that he’s not like me?

GJ: Not at all! Well the thing is like, well you’re successful, you’re happily married, you’re able to be in an adult functional relationship, you have a child, like, you don’t live in a bunker with a large pipe running through it! Well, I mean, the great thing last night was that - I hadn’t seen the film because you only see the scenes that you’re in - and your repeat move of jumping up on the bunk bed, that well rehearsed move that Miles had, just killed me. Killed me! He’s got his lines down, and it’s working on his students, and to see this adult woman walk in and go “I’m not staying here” and immediately turn around and walk out was so great. And I thought that was so great as the writer-director-performer to give yourself the Miles role. It was really cool.

TC: “It’s not big, but neither am I!” What a great line.

GJ: Or when she says, “I like you,” and [to Mike] you say “I like me too.” [Laughs]

TC: It seems like a really cohesive ensemble cast. Gillian, you were obviously part of Community, which is one of my favorite TV shows ever and has another really great ensemble cast. How does the experience compare?

GJ: It’s kind of similar actually. This was like the speed dating version of Community because we had six years to really fall in love with each other and develop total trust. It really did feel like you couldn’t fail with that group because you sometimes take a big swing as an actor and feel kind of embarrassed or vulnerable, and that cast was so incredibly supportive. We’d just cheer each other on, and that really quickly happened with this group.

For me, I had met Keegan and Kate and Mike socially and didn’t really know them that well, and I had never met Tami or Chris, but the first time we did an improv show together I just fell in love with their talent. They were so supportive of Kate and I, who didn’t have an improv background, that we kind of had that happen in two weeks.

And it really is a bonding experience to go out and do an improv show with someone. You really understand why these groups stay together, why they become like a family, because you’re so dependent on each other. I felt my heart racing when I was walking out to do these shows. Mike was like “We gotta go we gotta go we have a show at UCB at 8!” And Kate and I were like “What are you talking about?”

Actually right before I came to NY to start rehearsing I went with Danny Pudi and Jim Rash to IO Improv Olympic in LA, and they were scheduled to perform, and I was like “I’m going to come with you just to watch an improv show. And they tried to get me to go out, and I was too scared and was glued to the side of the stage. The next day I had to go to New York and do an Improv show! So I just had to dive right in, but when you’re surrounded by such talented generous people, you feel like you can’t fail, so it was kind of extraordinary.

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