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'This American Life' Host Ira Glass Is A Hesitant, But Dogged, Movie Producer

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 29, 2016 8:26PM

Ira Glass / Courtesy Allied Integrated Marketing

You can call Ira Glass "the reluctant movie producer."

The creator, host and executive producer of This American Life is obviously comfortable in radio. His Peabody Award-winning broadcast has over two million weekly listeners and another 2.4 million or so download it as a podcast. Critically-acclaimed since it launched here in Chicago in 1995, T.A.L. has spawned the podcast sensation Serial and influenced countless other programs, like StoryCorps and Radiolab.

But cinema is another matter. Don't Think Twice, an ensemble comedy-drama about a New York City improv troupe that opens on Friday at the Music Box, is Glass' second collaboration with comedian Mike Birbiglia, who wrote and directed the movie. (The two collaborated on 2012's Sleepwalk with Me, based on Birbiglia's one-man show about his sleep disorder.) He's also involved with Come Sunday, a long-in-development project based on a T.A.L. segment.

But Glass describes movie producing as a stressful, difficult process he would gladly ditch if it weren't for the passion of his collaborators. Rather than a labor of love, he calls it, "a labor of respect." "I don't feel drawn to filmmaking or working in a visual medium," he told Chicagoist. "I feel like I'm just trying to do right by somebody who wrote a nice script." (Some believed that This American Life's short-lived TV incarnation was one of institution's few missteps.)

For Glass, the logistics of filmmaking are a chore. "It makes me so sad that I know the difference between the tax breaks that you can get if you film in Oklahoma, Georgia, Canada or New York State. This is not information that anyone ever wants to know."

Still, he acknowledged a payoff for the grueling process: "When it comes out well, it's really satisfying."

Glass is pleased with Don't Think Twice, which portrays the tense dynamics within an improv comedy group as one performer is hired for a Saturday Night Live-esque TV show. Co-starring Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele) and Gillian Jacobs (Community), the star power has potential to win more attention than Sleepwalk with Me.

Glass helped write the earlier film. Though he doesn't have a screenwriting credit on Don't Think Twice, he describes his work as a producer as more akin to a newspaper or fiction editor.

"I was about as involved in the writing as any editor is involved in the writing of anything. So occasionally if something wasn't working, we would toss around ideas for lines, and I guess a few of mine did end up in the film, but those are tiny, tiny contributions." Glass also helped Birbiglia oversee the cutting of the film.

Counter Clockwise: Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, Mike Birbiglia and Tami Sagher in "Don’t Think Twice." (Photo courtesy of Jon Pack.)

The fluid title of "producer" can mean many things in filmmaking, though in this case, Glass was happy to leave some duties often associated with the job to the writer-director. "[Birbiglia] very much organized the money and is deeply involved in the distribution, down to what theaters we are in and the whole marketing plan for the movie."

Though Don't Think Twice is modest in visual scope and dialogue-driven, Glass says he and Birbiglia do not see its theatrical release as a fleeting stop before it hits streaming and on-demand platforms. They are hoping for that increasingly rare miracle: a word-of-mouth hit expanding from limited release to screens nationwide.

"We are thinking of this first and foremost as a theatrical experience," Glass said. "The question is, can you go wide and become a mass market success without having tens of millions of dollars to spend on advertising? Is it even possible in America right now, given the way the film market works?"

To make it possible, Glass, Birbiglia and several cast members are hitting the promotional circuit. Here in Chicago, Glass will lead Q&A sessions at select screenings on Saturday and Sunday at the Music Box—although not without a bit more of that reluctance. "It feels like we are personally making every bag of popcorn ourselves. It really does."

While Glass has performed in some improv classes, he does not hear a calling to the comedy world. "I don't relate to it. I mean, those people are tightrope walkers," he said. "I never got to the point where I felt like 'I'm really good at this.' If anything I felt like this [improv] does not play to my strengths."

"My strongest suit is as an editor, which is the opposite of improv. It's the opposite of [improvisational guiding principle] 'Yes, and...'."

Glass does relate to the sometimes-conflicting motivations of "art for art's sake" and career ambition that form the heart of Don't Think Twice. But he said he's found the right balance in his own career.

"I want the work that I do to mean something to me personally. And I'm fine if it's not successful. And at the same time, I'm super-ambitious and I want things to be successful and I will fight every inch to make them successful."

Don't Think Twice opens Friday, July 29 at the Music Box Theatre. Ira Glass will appear for Q&As with the audience at four screenings on Saturday, July 30 and one screening on Sunday, July 31.