The Science of Sleep

Over the years, independent filmmaker Alan Berliner has tried just about every remedy in the world to fall asleep, including chamomile tea, hypnosis, warm milk, white noise, alcohol, aromatherapy, sex, massage, and yoga. Still, he has a hard time sleeping.

“I’ll never be a great sleeper,” Mr. Berliner, who lives and works in New York, recently explained over the phone. “I probably won’t ever even be a good sleeper.”

On the upside, at least he doesn’t have to worry about sleeping through his HBO film premiere.

On Tuesday, May 22, from 1:30 to 3:00 a.m., HBO aired Mr. Berliner’s documentary “Wide Awake,” during a so-called “Night Owl Insomniac Special.” The film will make its prime time premier Wednesday night at 8:00 pm, and will be available on HBO at various other times over the next week.

“Wide Awake” revolves around Mr. Berliner’s lifelong struggles with insomnia. Scattered among infrared shots of the filmmaker tossing and turning in bed are the chronicles of Mr. Berliner’s efforts to diagnose the cause of his sleeping problems, which date back to his childhood. Is it nature? Is it nurture? Along the way, Mr. Berliner recalls staying awake as a child so that he could eavesdrop on his parents’ nighttime arguments as their marriage descended into divorce.

Somewhere along the way, he stopped sleeping well.

“I remember even going to elementary school and just entering the door of the school and thinking to myself how tired I was,” said Mr. Berliner. “I thought, well, that’s what going to school is. It means being tired.”

In one hilarious scene, Mr. Berliner–who has avoided any form of caffeine for more than two decades—sits in front of the camera and huffs down a whole cup of coffee. Afterwards, when he launches into a frenzied tour of his exhaustive film archive, you can practically feel the caffeine careening through his synapses.

And how is he sleeping these days?

“Things are better,” said Mr. Berliner. “From the film I probably understand the territory better. I understand what the stakes are. I average between five and six hours of sleep a night. Anything less than five is a really tough day for me. Six-and-a-half, and I’m smiling.”

During the filming of “Wide Awake,” Mr. Berliner’s wife gave birth to their first son. Having a child, said Mr. Berliner, was one of his motivations for making the movie. Throughout the film, he obsesses over his son’s sleep patterns. At one point, he captures a shot of his son smiling in his sleep. It was his son’s first smile.

While Mr. Berliner continues to struggle to sleep, he says that his son, who is now three years old, is a natural. “He’s a great sleeper,” says Mr. Berliner. “[The film] put me in a position to reflect on love. It does give me tremendous, tremendous peace of mind when he’s sleeping because I know how I’ve struggled and how I’ve suffered.”

The Science of Sleep