For eleven years, an improv group called The Commune has reigned as the big fish in the small pond of their New York improv theater. Commune members Miles, Samantha, Jack, Allison, Bill and Lindsay invent comedy without a script and without a net. They’re ingenious, they’re fast, and they build on each others’ ideas like best friends – which they also are. Night after night they kill onstage and wait for their big break. Day after day they work menial jobs to support themselves.
For his second film, comic performer/writer Mike Birbiglia wanted to expand into strictly fictional territory. The seed for Don’t Think Twice was planted when Birbiglia’s wife remarked on the difference between standup and improv cultures. As he tells it, “My wife said, ‘Your standup friends are very combative and always making fun of each other – in a fun way, but still. And your improv friends are so much more supportive and it’s all about the group, it’s all about saying yes and agreeing. The irony is that some of these people in your improv group are so successful that they’re literally millionaires. And some of them are barely paying their rent on their shared, five-person, one-bedroom in Bushwick.’ It was a very astute observation. I thought it was an interesting premise for a movie–the idea that in an improv group, everyone is equal until they’re not. The principals of art are like socialism, and life is capitalism. Not everything is fair. I started writing a screenplay based on that.”
Birbiglia wrote several drafts of the screenplay over the course of a year. With each draft he would invite several people to his house to read the script out loud. One of the regulars at the readings was Ira Glass, who has worked with Birbiglia on his radio series “This American Life” since 2008 and was a co-writer and producer on Birbiglia’s fisrt feature film Sleepwalk With Me. He describes Birbiglia’s working process as different than that of most filmmakers. “Mike developed this screenplay the way that a standup develops material. We just did one reading after another after another after another in his living room.”
Over time, Birbiglia realized that the story would be best served by making the screenplay a true ensemble piece. “The challenge for me was to write a script that had six fully realized characters, and to differentiate each character’s story arc.”
Producer Miranda Bailey and her partners had just established The Film Arcade when Sleepwalk With Me premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Bailey told Birbiglia she wanted to produce his next film, and diligently kept in touch with the filmmaker and his reps. “I spent two years essentially saying, ‘Hey, I still want to make your next movie, let me know if you want to work together,’” she says. She was thrilled when she read Birbiglia’s finished screenplay.
As the casting process got underway in 2015, Birbiglia focused first on the roles of Jack and Samantha (Sam), whose romance is a direct product of working together in The Commune. “That was the most significant casting decision. It was essential that the actors playing Jack and Sam were both believably funny and believably romantic,” he explains. He found what he was looking for in Keegan-Michael Key (KEANU) and Gillian Jacobs. Jacobs was recommended to him by “Girls” creator/star Lena Dunham.
Birbiglia and Key happen to have the same agent, who felt certain that Key, an alumnus of The Second City Theater in Chicago, would respond positively to the script. He was right, and an introductory Skype call was arranged between Birbiglia and Key. There was an immediate rapport, says Birbiglia. “What was supposed to be 15 minutes became a two-hour hour Skype session. We couldn’t stop talking about our mutual fascination with improv and the themes of the film and the importance of morale on movie sets. We see eye-to-eye on so many things.”
Birbiglia originally conceived Allison character as a playwright who lacks confidence in her work. That changed when he started talking about the role with Kate Micucci, who is also an artist. Allison became a cartoonist and Micucci created numerous original drawings for her character.
Writer/comedians Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard are known to improv fans as two of the best improv comedians in the country. Sagher was the youngest player ever to make the Second City mainstage. Gethard is one of the best known faces at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. They’d taken part in Birbiglia’s reading sessions for Don’t Think Twice, and their experience in improv made them natural choices for the roles of Lindsay and Bill.
Creating an authentic portrait of an improv group as performers and best friends was fundamental to Birbiglia’s vision for the film. The cast spent two weeks together in New York, rehearsing and getting to know one another. Birbiglia hired veteran improv coach Liz Allen to do intensive workshops with Jacobs, a newcomer to the discipline, and Micucci, who hadn’t done improv in many years. As Jacobs and Micucci found their footing, the cast began working together as a group and established the sensibility and camaraderie that would define The Commune. They took the act public and did several shows as The Commune at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and Magnet Theater.
Don’t Think Twice began production in late August, 2015 and shot for five weeks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. One of the film’s plot points became unexpectedly relevant on the road from development to filming: The Commune owes its demise to Donald Trump, who has bought the Improv For America building. “When I wrote the film, Trump was not a candidate, he was just an entrepreneurial lunatic,” Birbiglia explains. “While we were filming, Gillian pointed out that ‘things are getting very weird with the campaign. He’s starting to become a real candidate.’ At the time I thought that was silly. And now, as the movie is about to premiere, he has 300+ delegates and it’s a major national discussion.”