Q&A

NUTS’ IN THE NIGHT

An insomniac has travelled the world to find out why people can’t sleep

JOSH FREED June 21 2004
Q&A

NUTS’ IN THE NIGHT

An insomniac has travelled the world to find out why people can’t sleep

JOSH FREED June 21 2004

NUTS’ IN THE NIGHT

Q&A

An insomniac has travelled the world to find out why people can’t sleep

JOSH FREED

He can’t help it. Josh Freed is a walking, breathing stereotype—the searchlight-eyed, beakynosed, motormouth satirist. In weekly Montreal Gazette columns, he applies wickedJewish humour to the quirks and peeves of daily life, from Byzantine parking bylaws to being a techno idiot in a technological age. But Freed, 55, is also a serious filmmaker—his last effort, in 2003, was a two-hour documentary on punishment and prisons the world over. And now, he’s about to get a reputation for peering into the bedrooms of the nation. For the past year, Freed has been on the trail of what a great many of us are not very good at in bed: sleep. The result is his hour-long documentary In Search of Sleep: An Insomniac’s Journey, co-directed with Eric Siblin. CBC will air the program, which has been sold to eight other countries so far, as part of its Witness series on June 23. Drinking a tall latte in a Montreal café, Freed conceded to Maclean’s Quebec Bureau Chief Benoit Aubin that the footage of him unshaven, puffy-eyed and sporting pyjamas that look like they came from a bargain basement will change his public image forever.

What’s with those checkered pyjamas?

I had to float around in the film pretty much, and my natural sleeping apparel is not entirely filmable, so I went out and bought pyjamas that I liked. That sleep clinic in San Francisco was weird. I was wired from head to toe with sensors, there was a camera rolling, a blue light flashing every time I turned, and I knew there were women in the other room watching me try to sleep. I clocked 2lk hours of sleep that night; it was awful.

Those shots of you in the film tossing and turning and jolting in bed were genuine?

Alas! We connected a camera on a tripod in my room to an eight-hour tape, and the next day I watched myself. It was the most depressing moment of my entire life. I woke up 121 times during that one night. I felt sorry

for the poor sod who was so incompetent at sleeping, and it was me! But, you know, being filmed while sleeping is not easy, because sleep is so intensely private and intimate. When there is a camera rolling, people want to smile and look their best, but when you sleep, you lose all control over what you look like—you may be snoring or drooling like an idiot. It takes time to get used to the idea of being filmed sleeping.

What’s your problem?

I am a bad sleeper, like so many other people. I thought it was a personal thing, then I realized it’s universal. In Canada, one person in three is an insomniac or sleeps with one. I started asking around at dinner parties, and the response was intense. Insomnia is very private; it’s not something you discuss with your friends. So people immediately started talking about their bedmates, not themselves—often snapping at their partner: “I can’t sleep because you snore!” “No! I snore because you keep the room too hot!” It’s very interesting. Bad sleep is the worst impediment to a happy married life.

What makes a bad sleeper?

Brains. Insomniacs are intelligent, busy people who run or do a lot of things during a day, and their brain goes bam! bam! bam! and when their body needs rest at night, the brain is not ready to be turned off. It goes stupid instead.

Stupid? Don’t all geniuses hatch their best ideas at 4 a.m.?

Four o’clock in the morning is a good time to write blues laments or dark poetry, but you think like an idiot at that hour. For one brilliant idea you can have at 4 a.m., you will have 10,000 others that are of a mental midget. I am a smart guy during the day, but the guy who takes over my head at 4 a.m. is a moron—I call him Leonard. He has an IQ of about 80, and can’t solve a

grade-school problem. He stays awake wondering about the stove being left on, the Visa bill unpaid, and 30 minutes later he’s convinced he will fail at everything on his agenda the next morning, will be fired or have a heart attack, and that al-Qaeda will run the world.

Just tell us about insomnia.

Insomnia is not about waking up in the middle of the night; it’s about not being able to go back to sleep, and going crazy instead. Four a.m. is the dark soul of life, and you start to expand your fears. Ultimately, you lie awake because the clock is ticking and you start to worry about having a bad day tomorrow because you are not sleeping, and that is what keeps you awake. That’s the essence of it, and it’s nuts.

Is there a conflict between modern life and sleep?

Yes, there is. If you were a farmer plowing the field 200 years ago, what did you do when the sun set? You slept. Did you know that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb precisely because he wanted to conquer sleep? He saw sleep as degrading, a loss of time; you are in this humiliating posture, entertaining no industrious thinking, no noble thoughts. Edison slept only four hours a night, on principle.

The film is shot in Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago, California and Spain. How did that workhow did you get the budget?

Documentary today is a global business, so, to get made, a film has to have appeal to several markets. Insomnia is a universal problem. Seventy per cent of Scandinavians, 50 per cent of the French or the British have problems sleeping. They sleep better in Spain, and that’s why we went there, too. They eat dinner late, party way into the night, but they drop everything in the middle of the day, to have a national nap. fifl