“I always had a positive vibe about the prospects of the film,” he said in a phone interview. “There weren’t a lot of ‘nos’ in the process, which is fitting for a movie about the spirit of ‘yes, and’ and improv.”
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The film, which opened at Ragtag Cinema this weekend, tells a fictional story, but one that rings all too true: A tight-knit comedy troupe splits at the seams as its members encounter varying degrees of personal success.
While that sort of friction and fraying is common to show business, the issues at the heart of “Don’t Think Twice” could apply to any group dynamic, personal or professional. How do we define success? Can we come back from failure? How do we avoid holding either against the people closest to us?
“Don’t Think Twice” continues to gain a foothold with critics and audiences — as of last week, the film had an unheard-of 99 percent approval rating on the popular website Rotten Tomatoes.
Birbiglia, who wrote, directed and co-stars in the film, attributed the way it worked on set — and the way it is now getting over on screen — to a little luck and being surrounded by a lot of the right people.
The cast and crew were all Birbiglia’s top choices, he said, calling them “first-round draft picks.”
The accomplished cast includes Keegan-Michael Key of “Key and Peele” fame, Gillian Jacobs (“Community”), Kate Micucci of musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates, alt-talk show host Chris Gethard and writer-performer Tami Sagher (“Inside Amy Schumer”).
Birbiglia had extensive conversations with his prospective cohort in advance, casting a vision for what the film had the potential to be.
“This is what the goal is — we want to make a film that feels more like life than it does a movie,” he said.
And, to a person, they all seemed to get it.
Birbiglia recalled a Skype dialogue with Key, who said the script hit surprisingly close to home. He jokingly accused Birbiglia of spying on him.
“That’s one of those happy accidents — I couldn’t have planned for the fact that Keegan-Michael Key would read the script and say, ‘This is my life,’ ” Birbiglia said.
That spirit of recognition and mutual excitement carried over into the making of the film, Birbiglia said.
“The thing that put it over the top, I think to some extent, is that not only did the cast show up to work hard, but I think the cast showed up and really put their hearts into it and took ownership over it,” he said.
“Don’t Think Twice” couldn’t have worked without that buy-in. Birbiglia wanted his art to imitate the lives of people who make art together on a nightly basis.
The ideal he shared with his cast was that someone viewing the film 10 years from now, in another country, with subtitles, would long to visit New York City and see the improv process for themselves.
“I love when you get so lost in a film that you can’t even separate where the movie begins and ends,” he said. “A movie like ‘Once,’ for example, where the moment it ends, you’re just Googling, going ‘These people exist, right?’ ”
To call Birbiglia a comedian is true but not entirely accurate. Birbiglia has excelled as a stand-up, recording numerous specials and frequenting the late-night TV circuit.
He has a rare gift for telling his own tales, and the stories of funny people like him, in a way that isn’t self-serving or conceited.
He can convert specific, self-deprecating details into universal connections without overreaching.
He has done it as a contributor to NPR’s “This American Life.” He did it in his filmmaking debut, 2012’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” a poignant, peculiar adaptation of a one-man show that dealt with his flaws and the fine line between exhilaration and boredom that a road comic experiences.
Birbiglia’s ability to go inside the creative mind without turning his work into a game of inside baseball is owed to affection for his peers and an unwillingness to take himself too seriously.
He exercised these traits to an even greater degree and dimension with “Don’t Think Twice.” The film shines a light on a collective art form that, by Birbiglia’s estimation, is more popular than ever.
“What’s funny is a lot of people, when I would tell them the logline of the film, they’d be like, ‘Oh, those motherf—ers have it coming,’ ” he said. “And I’m like, ‘No — I am one of those motherf—ers.’ I’m not making a Christopher Guest-style film about improv. It’s a love letter.”
In the spirit of an improv player, Birbiglia is trying to stay a step ahead of the action.
Last month, he told the Los Angeles Times about a creed that is never spoken in “Don’t Think Twice” yet animates the film — “Art is socialism, but life is capitalism.”
The film captures its characters locked in a wrestling match with conventional wisdom about success. Birbiglia has been in the ring with that same Goliath.
“I think that there’s a cultural kind of misstep that we’re living in where we’re told that success is visibility and exposure,” he said.
“I think that success is actually more about connecting with people and contributing to the world. I think that’s really overlooked by our culture.”
Birbiglia was trying to flip his own script, even as he wrote one for “Don’t Think Twice.”
“I have started to think about everything I do in relation to how is this helpful to other people,” he said. “How does this serve the world?”
That question has come, in part, as Birbiglia has become a father. His life and focus are shifting. The word “legacy” now is more about leaving the right things behind than living up to some constructed expectation of success.
“You optimistically think of your life as being around 70 years … You go, ‘I’ve got another 30 years left,’ ” he said. “Once you tag on your daughter’s life on top of that, it’s like, no, I have to think about how this will all affect the next 100 or 120 years, which is pretty daunting. It’s vast.”
Birbiglia isn’t left to his own devices as he wades into such deep waters.
Along with his family, he has close creative allies such as “This American Life” host Ira Glass, a producer on “Don’t Think Twice.” Birbiglia called Glass his “mentor,” though he said Glass would modestly reject the title.
Working with people like Glass, and working hard on his craft, has taught Birbiglia valuable lessons about the art of storytelling.
The best stories are not monologues, even if they take that structure and shape. They are open doors that invite others to come inside, investigate who we are and, in the process, learn something about themselves.
Birbiglia doesn’t know everything about what that looks like, but he is increasingly learning what it is not.
“Cleverness, I think, is overrated. I think heart is underrated,” he said. “Not that many people are going for the heart, but there’s millions of people going for cleverness. Spend five minutes on Twitter, and you’ll be inundated with it.”
The heart, underrated as it is, is the key to making people laugh and helping them step into your story.
“It has to be from your gut. You have to tell your secrets,” Birbiglia said. “Whether it’s through other characters or it’s through autobiographical storytelling, you have to give all of yourself to your stories, or else it’s not worth doing.”