The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia each year. One of those people is filmmaker Alan Berliner. Having made the personal documentaries The Sweetest Sound and Nobody's Business, Berliner decided to turn the camera on himself and his family once again to follow his attempts to overcome sleeplessness in HBO's Wide Awake: Portrait of an Artist as Insomniac. TVGuide.com recently discussed the project, which premieres tonight at 8 pm/ET, with the New York City-based cineaste.
TVGuide.com: How'd you sleep last night?
Alan Berliner: Actually, last night, I had a terrible night's sleep.
TVGuide.com: So it continues?
Berliner: Yeah. It's gotten better, but every night is an adventure for me. Last night just happened to be a tough one. I fell asleep OK, but I woke up after five hours and couldn't fall back asleep again.
TVGuide.com: Did making Wide Awake prove to be therapeutic at all?
Berliner: It did, on many levels. The first thing is, I understand so much more about the condition and my predicament. I know more about the physiology and the psychology of what I'm going through. That in itself was very valuable. It's funny — during the course of making the film, I would clip every newspaper and magazine article having to do with sleep and there are these top 10 sleep-hygiene rules that are almost exactly the same everywhere, and they're printed year after year after year. You see the same tips. They're basic, but as a society we tend not to follow them.
TVGuide.com: As a culture, we're not valuing sleep enough?
Berliner: Western culture is antithetical to good sleep habits. In the Victorian era, people averaged about nine hours of sleep. Obviously, with the advent of the lightbulb, that opened up the night. So now we're averaging seven hours a night. That number will never go up. According to many doctors I talked to, we're living through the greatest experiment in sleep deprivation in the history of human beings.
TVGuide.com: Did you come across any theories explaining sleep disorders that might surprise people?
Berliner: Well, there are like 80 types of insomnia, and they keep adding new ones in medical journals. There are psychological components, biological components, genetic components.... It's a very elusive target. Then there are small things people may be just doing wrong, like drinking alcohol before they go to sleep or having their bedroom temperature too warm. But one interesting thing I found when talking to several doctors is that what is often diagnosed as hyperactivity in children and treated with Ritalin may be just a cause of chronic sleep deprivation. So children may be overcompensating because they feel tired, and Ritalin may be totally uncalled for.
TVGuide.com: I've never heard that.
Berliner: Doctors are finding more and more links between health issues and sleep. I was shocked to read that there are more highway fatalities from people falling asleep at the wheel then all of the drug- and alcohol-related fatalities combined.
TVGuide.com: Wide Awake doesn't always portray you in a positive light. Did you have any reservations about selling it for broadcast on HBO?
Berliner: Not at all. It's a real, first-person film about my life. I wanted it to be honest, so foibles are part of the experience. It was a chance to make a film about sleep from the inside out. It was a big challenge, but my wife was open to it. She gave birth to our baby in the middle of making the film, so that made it even more difficult. He's 3 now, and he falls asleep at 8 o'clock on the dot. He's a very good sleeper.
TVGuide.com: A lot of people are happy with being oblivious to the suffering their neuroses cause for those around them. Was it difficult to confront your own hang-ups and how they affect your wife and family?
Berliner: Yes, of course. But I've always made films about my life and family, so they're used to it. I'm the maker of the film, but I'm also the subject. As I lay awake at night wondering if I'm going to fall asleep, it gets maddening, but it was also an incredible research opportunity. So I obsessed about sleep, and that was tough on those around me. But since completing the film that obsession has faded a little bit, and I've gotten into a little bit better flow with the rest of my family.
TVGuide.com: But like you said before, you still battle with sleeplessness.
Berliner: Sure, I still deal with it on a daily basis. I was worried before we talked, because I didn't sleep well last night and I didn't know how well I'd be able to answer your questions.
TVGuide.com: All in all, I think you did just fine.
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