Mike Birbiglia Talks Hollywood, Villains, and Don’t Think Twice

The Shrewsbury native opens up about his latest film.

Don't Think Twice

Photo by Jon Pack

Mike Birbiglia tweeted out some choice words for the Motion Picture Association Of America earlier this week, as he blasted the organization for giving his new comedy Don’t Think Twice a harsher rating than the ultra-violent DC Comics film Suicide Squad.

But it’s not just the rating system that has the former Shrewsbury resident all riled up, it’s the entire movie making industry. During a recent trip to Boston for a screening of his sophomore directorial effort, Birbiglia slammed Hollywood for its unwillingness to fund films that tell realistic, more human stories, like the ones the veteran comic grew up watching.

The Bay State native looked to character-driven and grounded comedies such as The Big Chill and Annie Hall while developing Don’t Think Twice. He hoped to harken back to that style of filmmaking by focusing on realism over spectacle.

“Studios aren’t putting money behind films like that anymore,” Birbiglia said. “It’s superheroes and movies that have good guys and bad guys, and life isn’t like that. It was really important for me to make a movie with no villains.”

Don't Think Twice

Photo by Jon Pack

Although he’s critical of the industry, the comedian is well-aware of the fact that life isn’t always fair, especially in the world of entertainment. This concept is actually a major theme in Don’t Think Twice, which follows a New York improv troupe that begins to splinter apart under the weight of its members being at different stages in their comedy careers.

The film, which also stars Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs, was inspired by a comment that Birbiglia’s wife made during one of his improv shows in New York. The venue had a few famous faces in attendance, including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actress Ellie Kemper and Saturday Night Live star Aidy Bryant, which seemed a bit odd juxtaposed against the room full of struggling and up-and-coming comics.

“She said, ‘It’s so interesting because the principles of improv are that everyone’s equal,’” Birbiglia said. “’But in fact that person’s a movie star, that person’s a sitcom star, that person’s on SNL, and then that person lives on an air mattress in Bushwick. It’s not equal.’”

“Not only was it a great observation, but I saw a whole movie in it,” he added. “There’s a point in your thirties where you realize life isn’t fair.”

Another theme that’s highlighted in Don’t Think Twice is dealing with jealousy of other people’s success. In particular, Key’s character earns a gig on an SNL-type series, which causes some conflict among the group of comics as many of them aren’t on the fast-track to stardom.

Birbiglia revealed that this concept for the film came from a very personal place and his own struggles with dealing with one’s ego.

“I think it came out of a genuine jealousy I have for a lot of people,” he said. “I’m just now, after being in this business for almost 20 years, starting to come to grips with like, ‘Maybe that’s not such a useful emotion.’ I feel like the film, in a lot of ways, is a meditation on that.”

The ups and downs of making a movie haven’t left Birbiglia completely despondent over the state of cinema in 2016.

The comedian and director is encouraged by the growing number of creators who are able to work with limited resources outside of the Hollywood machine in order to produce quality and award-winning films. The Shrewsbury native hopes more budding filmmakers pursue their dreams without having to rely on the old guard.

“Make your own stuff, work outside the system,” Birbiglia said. “There are no limitations in this era. There’s no more gatekeepers.”

‘Don’t Think Twice’ is now playing at the Kendall Square Cinema.