Comedian Demetri Martin has had a career in movies that I’m guessing even he couldn’t always predict. After a stretch as a writer on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” Martin began making name for himself as a performer, developing a version of himself on stage that was dry, slightly superior, and quick to slip in an unexpected joke that hits you across the bow. He also created a Comedy Central series, “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” which is where many first discovered him and gave Martin his first shot at writing characters.
After smaller roles in films like THE ROCKER, Martin landed the lead in Ang Lee’s TAKING WOODSTOCK and choice roles in such works as TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT, Steven Soderbergh’s CONTAGION, and Lake Bell’s IN A WORLD…., as well as a recurring part in the Showtime comedy “House of Lies.” But with his latest film, DEAN, Martin has written and directed a character that is something of an alternative version of himself. In the real world, Martin has published books of his very funny, often-wordless drawings; in DEAN, he plays a man who earns his living creating such drawings.
With DEAN, Martin has created a tragicomedy icon who is attempting to cope with the recent death of his mother, a father (played by Kevin Kline) who has the nerve to attempt to move on, and the recent demise of a long-term relationship. He flies from New York to California for a change of scenery and ends up meeting a wonderful, outgoing woman (Gillian Jacobs) with her own set of issues. It’s a truly funny, moving work that illustrates a great deal of in Martin as both a filmmaker and an actor.
I had the chance to sit down with Martin recently in Chicago just moments before we did a post-screening Q&A of DEAN, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. I’d met him in 2011 when he was touring for TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT, and remember him being a lot of fun and very open about the process of filmmaking, all of which became exponentially true when talking about a film he’s created from scratch (and his life). I truly loved this conversation and hope you do too. Please enjoy my talk with Demetri Martin…
Capone: I’ve seen your standup before and know the persona you put on on stage is a little deliberately distancing. But for this film, you have to do the reverse. It feels very personal, intimate, like you’re revealing something about yourself. Was that a tough transition to make?
Demetri Martin: Yeah, yeah. It was. It was a deliberate but challenging move for me. First to take it even a step back to the idea of making a movie, I wanted to make movies. I’ve sold a couple of screenplays, but they’re higher-concept ideas, but I think they have heart but that’s me trying to say “Here’s a cool idea I think, and this is a world,” but I felt like I got to a point where it’s like if I’m going to make movies, I’ve got to write a small one that I can get made. I’ve got to try to make an independent film.
And I don’t know why, maybe I’m getting a little bit older, maybe it’s having kids, maybe I’ve had enough distance from losing my dad. My dad passed away when I was 20. Some combination of those things I think led me to a personal story. I thought, I’ll make a small movie, let me put the concepts aside and just try to tell a story that takes place in the real world and let me learn how to write characters—or start to learn—and do some of that work, and if the story is authentic and sincere and emotionally grounded, maybe that will make it worth telling, especially with the constraints I’d have for budget. I can’t do a lot of big fancy things. Then once I started getting into it, I felt like I started to find a story there. It’s fiction but based on real experiences my family has had.
When it came time to make the movie, I was lucky I got financing, and Kevin Kline said yes. That’s when I think what you’re talking about kicked in, like “Wow, this is personal, and this is going to be a little different than what I do, and I feel more vulnerable than I usually do in my standup.” The other thing that’s been interesting for me is that my wife is helping me a lot because she tells me things that I didn’t realize about myself. No big revelations, but I always feel like I’m a sensitive person and maybe even over sensitive, certainly as comedians go. But she’s like “I don’t think you’re received the way you think. You come across more detached.” You know what I mean?
And we’ve had conversations about that, because I think it’s the simple thing of even my haircut cuts off half my face, so I think underneath there there’s a lot happening, and she’s like “You’re detached.” I don’t feel like that. I feel like the kid who was bullied when I was little, the dork in high school, but she’s like “You don’t talk about yourself a lot,” and I think there’s a privacy there that I’ve certainly enjoyed, but I’m a movie fan. I love movies. and often I’m drawn to YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, BROADCAST NEWS. I like movies where there’s character work. And the ones that are revealing. I like Alexander Payne films, Hal Ashby. I also love STAR WARS and tons of big movies that are broader, but yeah, I think that was somehow important to me going into this.
Capone: I’ve heard you mention Woody Allen as a big influence on you as well. Your film exists in that world where if you turn it slight one way, it gets very serious; turn it the other way, it’s ridiculously funny. The first time I saw it, my takeaway was it was a serious film that had some laughs, but watching it again, there are a lot more laughs than I remember, especially in your narration. I want to talk about the drawings too, because you can add or subtract drawings and the crowd is going to keep laughing or get more somber. It’s a device you can use to turn up or turn down how funny things are.
DM: I think you’re right. You’re exactly right. My thinking was the same. I wanted to make the character in illustrator because I like to draw. I think that will be authentic, even thought I’m not really an illustrator, I do like drawing. Then I thought “I bet you it will be a good extra leg to stand on as I’m telling the story.” I had ideas, I’d put in the script “This drawing goes here, that one goes there,” then we started editing the film. My editor and I were sitting there. The surprise was “This is lopsided. It’s front loaded with a bunch of drawings here in establishing the character, and then they just vanish as I’m getting the story to work. So that took some work in the edit to balance it first, where it’s like “I think I need a drawing here because they vanish; it’s got to come back.” Then it was “Oh shit, I don’t want to deflate this moment with a drawing, but I would like to punctuate this one.”
There was at least one place where I remember I had to save myself a little bit because I didn’t get enough coverage to get a good transition out of the scene. Things like that that as a first timer I didn’t even think of. I just thought of “I think the scene works.” Then in the edit, I’m like “Is there anything else? You know what? What if I put a drawing here? It will also help us check in with my character’s development if you want to call it that.” So it was a nice thing to have. The other thing is, I shot it anamorphic widescreen. I talked with the DP about it when we were deciding what we were going to do and picking lenses and stuff, because I thought that would give me a little extra real estate to have the drawings live on the screen, which is nice.
Capone: Since this is your first produced screenplay, was part of the decision to direct just that you were afraid somebody else would mess it up? Was it just like “I don’t want to let this go?”
DM: I think that’s a good way to put it, yeah. And as a Woody Allen fan and Albert Brooksm, it made sense. I liked Lake Bell’s movie too [IN A WORLD…]—I got to be in her movie, which she wrote and directed and did all that stuff. As a fan of people like that, I like the idea that if you can get it all together, you get more chances to tell your story. As they say, you write it three times all the way into the edit. I did find that to be true. I felt like I could protect myself and not only protect my story but change it if I needed to in ways that maybe I didn’t expect.
I didn’t have to change it too much, but there were some things, especially as a low-budget movie, I was I guess you’d say unpleasantly surprised by just how freaking hard it was. My wife keeps telling me, “You’ve got to stop telling people how hard it was.” The thing is, I want to because I survived it in a sense. I didn’t work in a coal mine, but I did put it all on the table, and it’s a very scary prospect.
Capone: You’ve had the opportunity to work and observe some pretty great directors, especially Soderbergh.
DM: He’s a wizard.
Capone: Yeah. He does it all, and he does it quick, and I can imagine you learning a lot from him.
DM: Yeah, I was lucky because I knew I wanted to direct even when I got to be in the Ang Lee movie, so going into it I thought “I’m going to pay attention and I want to learn,” because I had no training. I had little parts here and there, but I wanted to see how they’re doing this. I would watch Ang talk to the DP, deciding what to shoot in what order and which lens might work. So I started to learn a lot from being around. And with Soderbergh, it was great. I was only a few days on that movie, but it was here in Chicago actually—we shot my parts in this warehouse. And yeah man, was he efficient. It was so interesting to see him behind the camera moving.
And in both cases, what was great and really inspiring was they had great teams. I’m sure you know about Woody Allen, he has his people, and it’s like no drama and people are doing their jobs and there’s a short hand. What I took away after getting to be on those sets and some others, but especially those two guys, I realized, and I’ve said it before, but I never thought of it this way until I worked on those movies, that directing is a performance in itself. Even before the movie is out, just like on the day, each day, your crew, your people, the actors, background, whoever’s there, your’e performing. Not as in like putting on a show, but as in you can’t help it. People are reading you, they’re looking at you for cues. “Is this working?”
Capone: You’re in charge. You set the tone.
DM: You’re really in charge. It was really cool to see Steven Soderbergh…they just had such a good shorthand, his people, his producers were great. We’d shoot a scene, and then we’d be between set-ups, and he’d just be with the headphones just doing this [steps away from the group], working out whatever he was working out. People would leave him alone, then he’d look up, and they would come to him. He didn’t have to say “Hey, I want to do this,” or “Give me a minute.” They just knew. They were like “Give him his space,” and they would go over there when he was ready. And his set, basically nobody had chairs. Nobody sat. There was no video village, so it was just like boom, boom, boom.
And I was only there for a few days, then at the end, I got to go to the party, and I said “How’d it go?”, and somebody was telling me like “We finished at lunch half the days,” or something crazy like that. Just so efficient. I was just blown away. And then Ang, there’s an intuition but it’s more, I don’t want to say mystical, but his process felt intuitive but also really precise and technical. He really knew what he wanted. In retrospect especially, those were very lucky things I got to be a part of.
Capone: Let’s talk about Kevin Kline. He’s an interesting guy because he started out as a stage actor doing mostly drama and Shakespeare, then became really well known as a comic actor and now he’s doing both. What did you learn from just being around him, not just as an actor but as a presence?
DM: A few things I think will stay with me. When I finished the script, I didn’t write it with anybody in mind specifically, but when I finished it I thought “If I can get Kevin Kline, that would be great,” because growing up, I’m the right age for sure to see Kevin Kline’s body of work, and his specific way of being funny and his physical comedy, I’ve always loved. I love Peter Sellers, and when I first got to meet him, I told him how much I love Peter Sellers, and he told me how much he loved Peter Sellers, so coincidentally we started to connect on at least our taste. But I also love that he is a dramatic actor. He’s, to me, a real actor, so when he agreed to the movie, it was awesome. He was gracious, he was nice. That’s a relief. As you know in the business, you’ve met tons of people, sometimes it’s a bummer. You meet someone and you're just like “Shit, I was such a fan then I talked to the guy.”
Capone: Never meet your heroes.
DM: [laughs] That’s such good advice. So I was playing with fire, I got lucky, and god, when I got to the edit just watching his performance—I didn’t make THE GODFATHER—but with what I gave him to work with, he did such great work and gave me so many options, and we didn’t have that many takes for each setup. We just did it, because it was a 20-day shoot. It was ridiculous. It was really hard.
I get to the edit, I did a first cut and I screened it for some friends, like a small friends-and-family thing, then I wanted to tweak it and I did another cut. Then I thought I’d made him too mean, or he was too broken as a man. Whatever it was, it was not tracking correctly in the choices I was making, so I went back and looked, and in his performance, it was all there, even if he only had three or four takes. And it must have been his experience, his talent, whatever you want to call it, I could look and if I pick the right series of takes, I have like a broken widower. And if I pick a different series of takes, I have a guy who he’s fine as far as he knows, or I have a guy who’s clearly in denial.
Capone: He gave you options.
DM: He gave me real options. He’s a pro. And with the same words. He did the job of interpreting the text. Didn’t improvise around it and change it, which is fine and he can do that too, but he respected the work. Then I look at my takes—I do the same thing four times in a row.
Capone: There’s room to grow.
DM: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I’m just looking at myself like “You freaking ding-dong.”
Capone: Again seeing the second time, I’m really moved by not just his performance but—and I assume this is part of the writing—he’s being funny in a dad way. Slightly awkward, but adorable, and people are laughing.
DM: I know, isn’t it great? I was just really so tickled that I got to work with him, and he responded to the material. He saw the movie for the first time at Tribeca a year ago when it premiered, and he liked it. I was so glad that he liked it, because you put yourself in his shoes, and he’s really just taking a blind leap. He’s got nothing to gain from this movie. That’s not even false humility, that’s just the truth. The guy got an Oscar years ago. Didn’t he just get a Tony nomination? He responded to something in it, and we had a good time making it, and I was so grateful that he liked it. Of everyone, I’m glad he liked it.
Capone: Let’s talk about Gillian too, she also started doing more dramatic work from what I remember, made her name as a comic actor, and now has this great Netflix series. She was like the broken heart of DON’T THINK TWICE last year, and now she’s doing both. Did you know her before this?
DM: I didn’t know her before. I knew of her, of course, but I didn’t know her. Yeah, some of the parts were harder to cast. It was cool that she was up for it. It was interesting, because there were some parts where I had a very specific idea, as you write your thing, maybe you finish the script and you look at it and say, “You know who would be good for this? This one or that one.” And I had an idea of “This kind of girl,” and then Gillian brought something really different to it, which threw me at first, because I don’t know what I pictured, but I guess more of a repartee out of the gates, and what she gave me gave me more dimension and actually ended up helping me, whereas there were other parts where it was like Briga [Heelan] who plays Becca, which is a smaller role. I didn’t know her before. She came in and she was so funny. I was just in the audition like “This woman is hilarious. She’s very creative, just a great actress, improvisor, comedic person.” That was a case where I wrote this a certain way, and this woman can do it, whereas with Nicky, the character was a little nebulous but then I felt like Gillian crystalized it for me and really helped me.
Capone: Again to your credit, I love that you set Nicky up as a love interest, and suddenly she’s got a whole other life that she’s keeping secret.
DM: More dimension.
Capone: Yeah, perhaps even more in flux than Dean is. So as opposed to a girlfriend, you’ve given us a third major character.
DM: Thanks. This was important to me, and I’m sure you know it as well as anyone, it’s 1) there aren’t enough roles for women. And I do have a lot of white people in my movie. I’m new at this and I’m trying. It’s humbling when you’re trying to make the thing and you’re like “I’m not a woman.” I know it’s not a different species, but you want to write a real character. That’s one of the things I like about Woody Allen when he does pull that off. You think of Diane Keaton and ANNIE HALL, and I know that’s a lot of her anyway, but still to respect the funny woman enough to let her be funny in the movie and to let her shine. It makes me excited about trying to make more movies and figuring out eventually how to write movies that I have a small part in or that I’m not in, to write a movie that would feature two women to pass the Bechdel test, which I did in my first cut, and then I had to cut a lot of it out of the movie, but it was important to me to do that. It was one of my minor losses for myself. That was important. Hopefully, I can do that next time.
Capone: You said you had other scripts. Are you now going to try and get those rolling?
DM: I’m trying. I’m trying hard. Yeah, I had outlined the next one. I was going to say I’m halfway through it, but I’m not halfway through the actual script, but leading up to the release of this, I’m thinking “If I get heat for even like two weeks, I could have my script and be like ‘Hey, I’ve got another one.’.” Then the press stuff started, and I haven't finished it. But I hope I finish it this summer. With that one, I’m trying to do maybe just a little bit more of a concept. It’s slightly sci-fi. But I will say that, I believe in telling heartfelt stories and sincerity. Maybe I’ll make a straight-up comedy or something more ironic one of these days, but I’m still at a place probably because I’m a new dad, because some of the stuff I’ve been through, and as a film fan, it’s exciting to me that you have that opportunity, that intimacy with film.
Stand-up is great; I like jokes, and that’s what I’ve been drawn to with stand-up, and I’m not an overly confessional comedian. But as a filmmaker I feel comfortable taking that on or attempting it, but at the same time, I love fiction. I love the art of translation, if you want to call it that, so it can become lyrical. It doesn’t have to be reportage, but it can be like”This is something I’ve been through, and I’m going to try to put it into this character to experience or into that one.” For example, Reid Scott’s character, in some ways, I have him saying things that I’ve said to friends and things that I believe because it’s been so long because my dad died.
And the Dean character is, in so many ways, someone I can relate to but he’s in fact someone who’s dealing with it or not dealing with it in a very different way than I did. I’m the oldest of three kids. My mom was widowed at 41, and I was actually very present and she leaned on me a lot. I tired to be in the grief and not run from it, because I was afraid I was going to have a mid-life crisis or something if I didn’t really face it head on at the time, but I thought it would be interesting to make Dean the opposite to see what that would be like and he’s more introverted than I am. So yes, it’s me, but I was like “No, this is cool. I have a chance to try something different here.”