Dean: How Demetri Martin Made a Comedy Out of Grief

Demetri Martin talks about turning grief into a poignant comedy with Dean, which also co-stars Kevin Kline and Gillian Jacobs.

For many years, Demetri Martin has been one of the more underrated stand-up comics on the circuit, all the while building a faithful fanbase with his Comedy Central show and televised specials. (He also appeared in movies directed by Ang Lee and Steven Soderbergh, something many more capable actors would kill for a chance to add to their resumés.)

Now, he has written and directed his first feature, Dean, in which he plays the title character, a New York cartoonist whose mother recently died, leaving him and his father (Kevin Kline) unsure about what to do with themselves.

At the behest of a friend (and trying to avoid spending time with his grieving father), Dean goes to California for a few meetings. There, he experiences a few typical bad experiences, but he also meets Nikki (Gillian Jacobs), and they begin a little fling of sorts that Dean hopes might lead somewhere.

Dean premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 and was one of the festival’s nicer surprises because it was the type of movie that normally might have premiered at Sundance or even South by Southwest. It still was picked up by CBS Films, who clearly understood the film’s charms and how it could appeal to more than Martin’s core fanbase with its mix of humor, drama, and romance, plus a tone that falls somewhere between Annie Hall and Harold and Maude.

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The following interview was done a few weeks back, beginning with Martin telling us how surprised he was that the movie wasn’t coming out until almost a year after it sold at Tribeca. That led to a fairly long conversation about how Dean came about and some of the amazing luck Martin had as a first-time filmmaker in pulling things together to make such a fantastic debut.

Den of Geek: I was actually surprised the movie didn’t premiere earlier at Sundance or SXSW. Had you missed the deadline?

Demetri Martin: Yeah, I did reshoots almost a year after I did principal photography, and I missed a couple deadlines—I missed Toronto as well—Actually most of my financiers were getting… I don’t know if “impatient” is the right word, because they were actually quite patient, but they were starting to worry. “Is there a movie here? What’s going on?” and I kept saying, “I just know it can be better. I know what I want to do with the footage I have and whatever it ended up being, I think I can fix this.” In my head, I was just trying to fix it.

I feel like first-time filmmakers or directors, that first movie always takes longer to edit because there is a learning curve about post-production and what can be done. By your third or fourth movie, it’s easier to knock out a movie in less than a year, I think.

It seems like you can hit your stride, and you’ve acquired some style moves or something. “Okay, this is how I work. Got it,” because it’s so mysterious, this first time, for sure, just timing and tone.

That’s even with doing the TV show for so long? You never directed the show but you must have been fairly involved…

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Very. In TV, it’s funny, but executive producer in TV means something so different than in film. I never knew that, and I had all this control on my show without directing it. I’d say, “Can you get this shot? I just want to have it” and then I’d get to the edit, and I could do whatever I wanted. Directors would do cuts of things, but yeah, it was my thing, so I learned a lot doing that, but I didn’t actually get to direct.

Executive producer on a movie is usually a rich guy who gives you the money to make the movie. They might not even know anything about making movies.

Yeah, exactly. You might not even meet them until the premiere, it’s weird!

What got you down this road? You’d been doing the show and records, and writing books, so had you been compiling this story for a long time?

Yeah, having lost a parent—I lost my Dad when I was 20—his name was Dean, so it was kind of an homage in a sense, but it’s all fiction. I’m the oldest of three kids and my life is very different from the way I portrayed here. I draw and my acting range is going to limit me to guys who are going to be pretty similar to me, so I’m not going to be a different guy, really, but he’s a quieter version of me, but having that experience, when I sat down to make a movie that I could direct, especially a first one, I dispensed with some of the higher concept ideas I had in my notebooks, because I realized, “Alright, I’m not going to get the money to do that, and even if I do, I gotta’ learn how to tell a story on the screen here. Why don’t I tell a story that takes place in the real world, and let me deal with something emotionally that I had real experience with, so that I have a better chance at making characters who seem real.” So there’s an emotional resonance here rather than chess pieces I’m moving through a plot.

Another thing you changed was having it be Dean’s mother that dies rather than a father. Was that also done to put more distance from yourself?

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I think so. I didn’t want it to just be a report of “Hey, here’s what happened to me, here’s my story.” When I did that as an experiment to come up with my story, I thought, “Well, father and son, I can have a parallel story here of two guys grieving the loss of the same person, then if they both meet someone along the way—even without the characters knowing what the other is up to—we can see that they’re doing something similar without knowing it.” I thought there was a cool father-son parallel thing there.

I actually found that to be a really nice departure to actually go off and see what Kevin Kline’s character was up to, completely unrelated to his son.

I definitely thought that would be interesting, because they’re separate, they’re not connecting, but using the split screen was helpful, because they could share the screen through that second act, but still be off on their own paths. Part of what I wanted to talk about in this little movie here is, “Hey, most of us will deal with loss at some point in our lives.” Those of us who are less lucky will have it earlier, but we all grieve differently, and I find it to be mysterious. It’s hard and it just takes a long time, and people you love, you can be going through the same thing and not be helping each other.

In my family, I found that anger is a lot easier to deal with than grief, so we didn’t have a big, angry blow-out and stuff, but there has been anger, and you want to blame things on someone, because it’s active at least. You feel like you can kick a wall or punch something, but grief feels so passive, it’s tough.

I tried to be there when my Mom wanted to talk about it, but I had no answers. She’d just be like, “I miss your father.” Maybe 10 years later. There’s no “at least.” “Well, at least you guys had a great relationship.” Okay, that kind of made it hurt even more in a sense.

But even so, in the movie, you maintain your very specific sense of humor, between the artwork and the type of jokes. Do you have to be in a certain mood to write stuff, either for your stand-up or to write jokes for this?

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I think so. I found that I had to. When I was just trying to become a comedian and doing open mics and coming up, I felt like those muscles were in pretty decent shape, because I was spending all of my time, and I didn’t have a wife or kids and didn’t have many other responsibilities. I had a temp job, I had an apartment I could afford with roommates, and I would just do my job and just do stand-up around New York at night, and it was so focused. I felt like I was developing that part of my brain and writing jokes, specifically for the stage and for me to tell jokes. Years later, I made this movie, which has more emotional weight to it and has characters and a story I have to figure out, so it’s weird to toggle between “Yeah, I want the story to work, but I want it to be funny.” It felt like some of it was challenging.

I like the fact that when you do Q&As and even now during this interview, I feel like we’re getting the real you, and you’re not having to write material…

No. Oh, my God! That’d be interesting. Have you had that? Have people done bits?

I guess when they’re doing junkets where they have to entertain back-to-back journalists on-camera. You feel they have one or two stock funny answers they use for everyone.

Definitely. That’s right. It gravitates to that, and then if it’s one of those straight-up comedies. It’s like “Here’s the funny shit that happened on the set,” and then it’s at every outlet. Yeah, press is interesting, because when it’s at its hardest, it’s like taking a test or being quizzed, but at its best, I find that people are doing me a favor, because they’re giving you feedback in a very thoughtful way about… People ask me questions, and I’m like, “You know, I haven’t thought of that.”

Right, it makes you think about your own movie.

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It does, it does. It’s so interesting. As a comic, I get feedback, but it’s different. It’s a group of people. It’s binary—that’s funny, that’s not funny—and it does help you and shape you, but this is like learning about film in a different way. Having a thing to analyze together and say, “Yeah, I did mean that” or “I didn’t think of that but that makes sense.”

You already answered the toughest question I had. The one about whether you have to be in a certain mindset to write comedy, that was my esoteric hypothetical question I was saving as back-up… and you already passed that test.

Oh, really?  That’s cool.

Yeah, so now we can get into the basic, “How did you get Kevin Kline to be in your movie?” question.

Yeah, yeah, I got him. I was lucky, because he responded to the script. I didn’t write the script thinking, “I want this actor or that,” but my wife, who is not in show business, I roped her into all this. I talked to her a lot about this. I read scenes to her, and say, “What did you think?” We’d talk about it, and I’d say, “I’d love to get Kevin Kline,” because not only am I a fan of his, but to me, suddenly, you’re trying to be a director and you’re thinking, “Well, who could pull this off tonally?”

Tone is this elusive thing that I never thought about so much, but you start thinking about actors and you’re like, Kevin Kline, to me, is a guy who is funny and he’s physically funny. He’s a physical, comedic actor when you think of A Fish Called Wanda and French Kiss. A lot of his roles, there’s a choreography to them. I don’t know if that comes from the theater or if it’s just his instincts, but I always liked that about him. What I liked particularly was the vulnerability and the pathos, the humanity. There are funny actors that don’t let you in that way, but he does, and I thought that’s right for this movie.

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He responded to the script. I flew to New York to have lunch with him, because he agreed to have lunch with me, but he didn’t say “Yes.” It wasn’t like we met and he said, “I want to be in your movie.” We talked about it, I told him what I was thinking. I can’t thank him enough, because whatever the movie does, it exists because of him—definitely in this incarnation—because a lot of the financing came together after he said, “Yes,” because then it was a “Kevin Kline movie.” The budget was small, it was like under a million bucks.  It’s not a big movie, it’s a 20-day shoot.

This was very challenging, but you get a guy like Kevin Kline, and a lot of your problems are going to be solved, because he brings life to that part. And then Mary Steenburgen, I told Kevin, “If you want to do the movie, if you’re thinking about it, I can’t offer you a lot, but if there’s somebody you want to work with for the part of the realtor, a friend or someone you haven’t had a chance to work with, let’s go to that person first. I want to collaborate with you here.”

He said Mary Steenburgen, and of course, I love Mary Steenburgen, and she’s working tons now, so she was busy when we got her, but once Kevin agreed to do it, she was like, “Yeah, I love Kevin. I’ll do it.”

I think he brings a gravitas to a movie, not just being serious, but people will see it as a real movie when he comes onboard, because he’s not known for doing just anything that comes his way.

I know, it’s true. I think he’s so smart that way. I really do. I think he’s selective.

What about Gillian Jacobs? The first time I saw her was in this really serious drama called Gardens of the Night, so when she showed up on Community, and doing all these comedies, I was really surprised.

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It’s funny that you say that, because when I first met her, she said, “You know, I’m not a big comedy person. I’ve trained to do more serious stuff, and I’m drawn more to dramatic roles, but I got the Community gig, and people think of me for comedy now.” I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” There were two parts where I was thinking, “I really want to get someone to be vulnerable.” In all the parts, I was hoping to get people who could be sincere, because that was important for me, for the tone of the movie, especially in today’s day and age.

You’re doing a comedy, even if it’s a dramedy, and you can end up with snarky, ironically-detached…. sometimes I feel like actors are not all in. You can get away with this half-performance these days, and some things are written for that, but for me, I was going for, let’s call it old-fashioned, but I wanted people to be earnest, and I wanted you to really feel what the characters were feeling, like that kind of stuff.

With Nikki, it was hard, because I didn’t want to do the “manic pixie dream girl” that we’re all familiar with. It’s just a small indie, and I haven’t written roles for women before… I mean, on my sketch show there were small things, but not trying to flesh out a character for a movie. So I was like, “How do I find someone who’s up for that?” and then it’s awkward because you’re casting a romantic lead and I’m the director, and it could be gross and the whole thing, so she seemed cool, and also, the curveball was that she wasn’t just… “Oh, this guy is funny and I’m charmed by him.” It was kind of tentative, and I think there was something very modern, and it felt like today’s day and age. I love Annie Hall, but that’s from a different time. I don’t know if you make Annie Hall today, if it’s Annie Hall. It’s different these days.

I can definitely see a bit of Annie Hall influence in this.

I think there’s a little bit there, sure. I’m certainly a big Woody Allen fan. Albert Brooks, I love, Hal Ashby, like for the movie, say. I loved Cat Stevens as an element in Harold and Maude, so I found this artist Pete Dello, I had his album…

This is a great transition into my next question, because I wanted to ask about the music.

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Oh, cool! Yeah, Pete Dello, I had this album for probably 10 years or something, just a CD, and when I got to the edit, I didn’t have a plan for the music. I knew I didn’t have a budget for music, so I knew I wasn’t going to get some of the fantasy songs I wanted. I thought, “Oh, maybe I could put some of my music in..” but it just wasn’t good enough. It just all sounded the same. I can’t do much music. I can write a little bit of music, but that’s not what I have to offer, so when you put my music against the picture, it kind of pulled the movie down a little bit. It really felt like a smaller indie, so then I looked at my CDs and I tried the Pete Dello album, and I just tried the first song that you hear in the movie, “Where It Is,” and I was like, “Whoa, this seems great,” and then I just started trying a lot of his songs.

Most of them are from the same album, his only solo album from 1971 called “Into Your Ears.” I liked each song pretty much, and that’s what got me thinking about Cat Stevens and Harold and Maude, and Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate. You’ve got one musical voice that’s kind of carrying you along. Then I was like, “How am I going to get this music?” so I tried to find his email address, and I found an email address that got me to him. He’s in the UK, still alive. He’s an English guy. It took me a while to write the email and say, “Hey, I’m a first-time filmmaker, I’m a fan of yours.”

If you listen to that album, I like just about every song on it, and I like mid-to-late ‘60s stuff. For me, it’s in my wheelhouse, and he wrote back a few days later, and gave me hope. He said, “This guy has the rights to my stuff in America right now. Follow up with him,” and I did, and eventually we got the songs and for not that much money, which is very generous of him. It’s a huge element of the movie to me.

When I was watching it again, I thought, “Oh, this composer is doing Ringo Starr/George Harrison type Beatles music” without realizing that this guy was actually from that period and was one of their peers.

I know! Isn’t that crazy? And the production value is so good. I think it really tricks people, because I did come through a lot of “Nuggets” and stuff like that, and I have collections. I like that music, but some of it does sound more nostalgic, because of the production value or lack of. It sounds garage-y, but you’d think someone made his stuff in 2010.

Did you do any specific drawings for the movie?

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Yeah, about half of them actually.

Are you going to collect those in a book?

Yeah, in fact in the fall, I convinced my publisher to do a book because of that. I said, “Look, the movie is actually going to be in theaters, even if it’s for a short run, so I did a bunch of drawings just for this movie.” And I draw all the time anyway, so I have almost a couple 100. I asked, “Can I do a book?” And they said, “Yes,” and it’ll be out in September. It’s called, “If It’s Not Funny, It’s Art.”

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Earlier, you knocked your acting range a bit, which is funny for someone who has been in movies directed by Ang Lee and Steven Soderbergh…

That’s true.

Maybe they just liked the way you were normally. “I want that scientist to look and sound just like Demetri Martin.”

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Yeah, that’s kind of funny. I think it’s like, say, trying to play music and even drawing and painting, which I like doing. I think there’s something great that happens when you try stuff, and you discover that you’re never going to be one of the greats. It gives you extra appreciation for people who you think are great. I liked painting as a fan. I used to go to museums when I was younger. When I tried it, it made it even richer for me, because I’d be like, “Wow, that’s pretty incredible what that guy’s done here.”

For music, I’ve had the same experience. Playing guitar has given me even greater appreciation for like a Jimi Hendrix. Holy shit! You know he’s a genius, but then you try to play it, and you’re like, “Whoa, this is crazy.” I’d say for acting, when I’ve been able to be in an Ang Lee movie and been up close to someone or in that Soderbergh movie [Contagion], to go to the premiere or the screening and see yourself in the same movie with Laurence Fishburne and Matt Damon. Jennifer Ehle, I got to be in scenes with her, and there’s a relief in it, ‘cause you’re like, “I understand.”

I like being a comedian. There’s a lot I still can do in comedy, and I think I can do a lot in directing and acting. I still have a lot to learn, but it also somehow takes a weight off your shoulders where you’re like, “I’m not going to be Sean Penn. That’s not in the cards for me.” So if I’m knocking my range, it’s more like there’s a lot of personality actors I like too, and I’m like, “That’s cool, that’s cool,” because I’m going to believable and I’d love to get to work.

By the way, Kate Winslet is in fact very funny. If she really wanted to, she probably could be a killer stand-up as well.

It’s true. Eternal Sunshine is one of my all-time favorites, actually.

But even when you meet her, she’s really sharp and can crack really funny jokes.

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I had that experience watching the Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds documentary [Bright Lights]. Carrie Fisher is so funny in that documentary. I know a fair amount about her and a little bit about Debbie Reynolds, but I thought that was really powerful, and I could not get over how funny Carrie Fisher was, how quick she was.

Did you take anything away from working with Ang Lee or Soderbergh that you used for your own directing style? (Note: If you’re going to film school or have any inclination to make movies yourself, this is where you’ll want to pay attention.)

A little, maybe nothing too literal, but I knew I wanted to direct even when I was in the Ang Lee movie, so I watched him make decisions with his DP, so I learned about lens kind of in a roundabout way, and I asked the DP questions, and I started to learn about… it was kind of free film school in a sense. Ang told me a couple great things. One of them was… he’s like, “You know, people say that acting for the stage tends to be bigger and for film, you act smaller because it’s a bigger screen, but that’s not the whole story. That’s kind of true, but here’s the thing. I’m going to do some wide shots, and I’m going to need you to give me the big scene bigger. I’m going to ask for that, because there’s a big background thing, and I’m going to need that. When I get in closer, smaller is probably going to be better, but when I get in really tight, you have to try to really feel this. I need you to get to that place, because I can’t protect you. The camera just reports; it doesn’t care. If I’m in tight on your face, it’s going to report everything you’re doing.”

So it was a very scientific way to have someone explain that to me, which wasn’t very cosmic, and I didn’t go to acting school, so it was very helpful, and that’s something that stayed with me when I thought about my own performances and other people’s as I’m watching and composing my own shots and stuff.

Seeing Ang, especially in the Woodstock movie, there’s some great shots with background—this family is in a blanket, two hippies are walking by, there’s a van, so there’s depth. Some of those days, you’d see him… it was cool. I’m standing there with Jonathan Groff, and we’re in this scene together, so here’s the camera, we’re here, but Ang’s standing there and he would do this thing almost in layers. He would work the furthest field of vision stuff, then he comes forward and then he’d work his way forward until the last two things in the shot are the actors. He’d look through the lens, and he’s got his composition. It’s cool to see him think visually, and then now we’re doing the scene, and now he’s got the visual stuff taken care of. He’s set his table, so then he can start tweaking the actors, and “I want to do this, I want to do that.”

Normally, you’d think he’d want to get the acting first to capture the performances…

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Right, but he’s this technician, you know? At least on that movie, so you’re like, “Wow.” It’s stuff you couldn’t really learn necessarily from a book. Just being there is such a lucky thing.

[Note: After the interview was over, we continued to talk about Ang Lee, specifically the way he had shot his most recent film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, in high-def 3D, and Martin also mentioned that Lee also wanted his actors to breathe more than they normally would when saying their dialogue, since people when speaking to each other breathe more than they realize, while actors tend to not take as many breaths while doing scenes with each other.]

Any idea what you want to do next? Have you started thinking about making another movie?

Yeah, I sold a pitch to FX for a series, a pilot, so I’m going to turn in a script hopefully in the next couple weeks. Once I’m done doing press, I can finish it up and give it to them. I hope that goes. It would take place in New York if I got to do the show, but I want to shoot another movie. It would be a comedy. I don’t think it would be quite as heavy. It wouldn’t be about death or anything, but yeah, I’m trying to figure out the script, and I outlined some concept-y thing last summer that I’d like to do someday. I’m trying to make believe that I’m going to do a bunch of these, but I’m cautiously optimistic. After making the first one, I knew it was going to be difficult, but it took longer than I thought—it was pretty hard, but like you said at the beginning of the interview, maybe I’ll speed up a bit if I get to do more.

Dean opens in select cities on Friday, June 2.

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