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Exclusive: Q&A with NPR host and screenwriter Ira Glass '82

Ira Glass '82 is the host and executive producer of the NPR program "This American Life." He recently co-wrote the new film "Sleepwalk With Me," produced by "This American Life." Based on the true story of comedian Mike Birbiglia, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, "Sleepwalk With Me" takes a humorous look at the potential consequences of sleepwalking and where dreams can lead. Glass talked to The Herald about his experience working on the film and his life after Brown.


Herald: How did you and "This American Life" get involved in producing and co-writing this film?

Glass: I mean, it wasn't a very well-thought-out strategy. Mike Birbiglia basically had this story that he had been doing in a one-man show, and he wanted to make it into a film, and he asked me to produce it, and then in the course of producing it I was involved with so many rewrites on the script that it was clear that I and two other people were rewriting the script in a pretty aggressive way. It took two years, so we ended up as official co-writers of the film. 


Did you have a lot of liberties to change the original version in rewriting it for film?

The basic structure of the story is the same ... but there are things all the way through that are different. Turning it from a guy telling a story on a stage by himself to a movie with a bunch of actors ... that can be a radically difficult project. ... One of the first things we did was made a change in the real story, what really happened. ... In real life, (Mike) and the girlfriend resolve their situation ... and then months after that he jumps out the window. ... I remember saying to Mike when we started this, you know, I've never written a movie, but I've been to the movies, and if a guy jumps through a window in a movie, he's got to learn something from it. ... Most of the things in the film, including most of the dreams, like the Olympic dream and jumping through the window ... most of that stuff completely happened.


What was one of the biggest challenges about translating the story from a book to film?

Just making the story work. Honestly, for first-time screenwriters, it's really hard to make the story work in a concise and compelling way, and we went through draft after draft after draft. It was an amazingly delicate thing. And when we got out of the shooting, we completely remade the film in editing, which apparently is very typical. 


Is there anything that surprised you throughout the process of making this film that was different from your previous experience with language and crafting stories?

There were so many things that were surprising. I mean, it's such a haul. ... And at each stage, it feels like it's a series of do or die, make or break contests. It's like a long political campaign. It's exhausting, and it's nuts. It's just a very strange thing. ... Making films, honestly, it's the weirdest business ever.


How has your experience with storytelling on "This American Life" shaped the process of writing this film?

On "This American Life," since we're generally telling true stories, we can't move around the events and times. It turns out to be a tremendous advantage to be able to just make stuff up. ... There are a couple tricks in film that you can use that you don't use for radio. 


How is the audience important in shaping the story you tell for "This American Life"? 

The way that we think about it on "This American Life" is that we're using the tools of fiction to tell a nonfiction story. ... But beyond knowing, well, here's how you tell a story that'll be fun to listen to, we don't think about the audience that much. We don't market-test it, it's not that kind of thing. There'd be no time to do it. We make a show and then it's on the radio that day. Instead, we just think, "What would be interesting to us? We have normal taste, we're normal, what would we want to hear?" And then we just try to produce that.


Where do you get the inspiration for the segments that you do? Where do you find those stories to break open?

It's hard to find a story. I wish when I had been starting out, somebody had said that to me. The hardest thing in a way is finding something worth making work out. Whether you're making a piece of journalism or little movies or songs, or anything. Actually finding the thing that your story's going to be about or your film's going be about or whatever - it's just a pain in the ass. And you're really lost out at sea and there's no guidelines for how to do it, and you really have to set aside time for it, like it's a job. Finding an idea is a job. Where do ideas come from? Ideas come from other ideas. And so you have to kind of consume stuff and notice what's interesting to you and surround yourself with stuff. ... When all else fails, we'll go to social media, and we'll try to get stories that way. ... It's a very inefficient, ugly process. 


What is one lesson that you learned at Brown that has shaped your career path afterward?

I had a weird experience because I transferred in, and I came in as a junior. Brown is a lot of incredibly powerful tribal bonding that happens freshman year that I missed out on, so while I had a really wonderful experience, I feel like I was a little bit of an outsider at Brown. At the time that I came to Brown, I had already been a producer for "All Things Considered," and I felt very, very old even though I was exactly the same age as everyone else. I had only taken off a half a year from school to go work at NPR ... but the fact is that I learned things at Brown that completely totally shaped what I do for a living.

There are things that I learned as a semiotics major that I use every day. Semiotics is about the machinery of story. And how a story gets its hooks into you and what it does to keep you interested. I mean, even something as simple as when you're reading a book, why do you keep turning the pages? What is narrative suspense? What is pulling you forward in a book? What is the machinery of that? And when a story is really satisfying in the ending, like what is that feeling made of, that's produced? And how do some stories fail at it and some stories succeed? Being at Brown completely changed everything for me.


If you were giving advice to your old self in college, just graduating from Brown, what advice would you give to yourself knowing what you do now?

... There are a couple things that when you're a beginner, it would be nice if you knew that nobody says to you. And one is that it's really normal to be bad. That's much more common. I mean, occasionally you have someone who's kind of a genius from the time they're young. ... But most of us are normal, and most of us don't have that. And we have to get to that point, and you just have to kind of fight through the experience of being mediocre. Making a lot of work is the only way out of being mediocre. And during the entire thing, it's a complete weird act of faith that at some point you'll get to the other side. But I was bad. I was not a good writer, I was not a good reporter. ... Your "5">20s, your early 20s, I think, it's so easy for there to be this weird smog where you feel all this potential and all this investment in you, and you feel like you're supposed to be doing something important, but it's not exactly clear what it is, and the world has no interest in helping you out. The world is utterly indifferent to you in every way. And that is a sobering motherfucker of an experience. 


You're talking about early 20s. Is there an age that you look back on that you were particularly successful or when you just got it together? When that sobering experience yielded something like a breakthrough? Or is it a continual process where every day -

It's not a continual process. There really were turning points for me. It took me a long time to get to be decent at what I was trying to do, but by the time I was 30, I would say I kind of had figured out. When I turned 28, 29, 30, I'd kind of solved some basic things and was able to develop. I still feel like there's stuff I'm learning, my job is still hard, and there's things that I try to write that I feel like I barely have the skill to make work and I really have to think through how to do, which is fun. That's what you want. ... You want to take up things that are really hard and then have to figure out how to do them. When things are going well, that's what happens. And that's what the film was. Just the film was too hard. It was too many years of being lost in the wilderness and trying to figure out, how do we fix this and make it good. 


What is a lesson that you've learned as a writer that has helped you to realize those basic things that you figured out? What's something that all writers should know or should learn?

It's helpful to imitate other people. To just completely knock off other people, completely just like steal. I feel like people don't - I feel like when you learn to paint, you imitate other painters. And when you're learning to write, I found it very helpful to just pretend to write entire stories as other people.


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