Demetri Martin Talks ‘Dean,’ Working With Ang Lee & More [Interview]

My original interview with Demetri can be found HERE
Best known for his unconventional brand of stand-up comedy — awkward one-liners, deadpan musical interludes, and the use of drawing pads on-stage —Demetri Martin is a strange delight on stage. But upon hearing the news that he’s written, directed and starred in his own film might startle fans at first. After all, this is a comedian, known as a key writer for “The Daily Show,” that feeds off his own awkwardness for deadpan laughs. Demetri Martin is a refreshing enigma in comedy, but movie star? Who’da thunk it.
In “Dean,” Martin plays a NYC illustrator mourning the sudden death of his mother and trying to prevent his dad (played by Kevin Kline) from selling the family home, who unexpectedly falls for a woman that lives in Los Angeles.
His off-beat style of the comedy is very present, especially his trademark doodles, shown in hilarious split screen scenes, but the film shows a whole new side to Martin’s persona. There are permanent scars lingering in the character he plays, some very personal to the comedian who injects some of his own life experiences throughout the film. Sure, “Dean” has many funny moments, but in its exploration of the different ways of grieving, the movie lands in refreshingly new territory for the 44 year-old comedian and he pulls it all off.
We spoke to Martin, when he was presenting the film at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, about his transition to directing, how personal the film really is and how working with Ang Lee helped him be a better filmmaker.
You starred in Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” how does this compare?
Well, with that I was so grateful to have the chance to be in an Ang Lee movie. ‘Woodstock’  was probably one of his smaller movies, but compared to my movie it was much bigger movie. In both cases I had a front row seat. Even back then I knew that someday I’d want to make one of my own movies, so I was a student on how a movie was made. I didn’t go to film school, so I learned whatever I had to on-set and with that film I watched Ang as he worked. Talking to his DP and picking lenses. Everything was really cool. Also, seeing how he worked with the actors.
I had times when I was enjoying it, but the truth was that it was quite stressful. When you direct a movie there is just so much you are worrying about and there were things that I didn’t even know I had to worry about, so I was like “Oh boy, this sucks.”
With the Ang Lee movie, your TV show, and now “Dean,” have you been able to pick up the tricks of the trade in terms of being a director?
Mostly. This movie is somewhat of a comedy so, the jokes part of it I felt especially comfortable with. I have a sense of whether I want a close-up or a wide shot. And I would show a drawing and insert, things like that. In general, I felt more comfortable than expected, I wasn’t really afraid of directing. But I didn’t really know if I knew what to ask for and how to run the set and sometimes it took me a while to figure out and say, “Oh, this is how I do it.” But usually, because we didn’t have a lot of time. It was pretty focused environment kind of like, “Okay, let’s try this and let’s try that.” The producing part of it was much harder, I found it was hard worrying about logistics, that was super stressful.
How can you compare writing stand-up to writing movie dialogue? The pen to paper process must be vastly different?
I’m a big outliner. I find it’s pretty challenging, I write jokes, but I don’t struggle to write jokes, I have to do work, but I can usually write jokes, I tell them, and the audience will tell me pretty quickly if I’m onto something. Making a film feels much more like being in a vacuum, I’m trying to figure it out, I think it’s going to work and then I’m hoping I can get actors that can say the lines. It’s a lot of trial and error for me, it’s a lot of reworking and reworking, I have to read the lines out-loud to make sure people really talk like all that kind of stuff.
What is it about stand-up comics that makes them want to go into filmmaking. We’ve had quite a few make the jump in recent years. Recently there’s been people from Judd Apatow to Bobcat Goldtwhait. Even in the 1970s you had Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Albert Brooks all making the jump.
What stand-up gives you is a certain self-awareness about your comedy or your creative voice and so, if you pay attention to that, then you can have something that translates to film and stories.
Also, there’s some pretty heavy stuff in “Dean,” I don’t think I’ve seen you be this serious and contemplative before. Was film the only way to get this new side of you across?
Years ago I did a couple of one-man shows where I told stories about my life and it was a little more personal than stand-up usually is, but I gravitate towards jokes, I like just jokes and working through little bits of material, yeah film for me was a different canvas where I could try to do something more emotional and more dramatic. It was kind of difficult in certain respects, but more rewarding, in a way, than my stand-up every could be. It just felt a little deeper.
Is “Dean” autobiographical in certain ways? How hard is it to put yourself on-screen?
Maybe a little bit. I’m still learning. I started as something autobiographical, although it’s all fiction, my dad was the parent that I lost when I was young, not my mom, while I have done a book of drawings, I’m certainly not an illustrator by profession. I have a brother and a sister in real-life. I changed a lot of stuff. I grew up in New Jersey in the suburbs, I certainly took emotionally stuff from my life. The truth of the matter is, I’m mostly a stand-up comic. If I can have work as an actor I’ll love that as well, but I’m not a trained actor and, even with all the training in the world, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be one of these amazing actors that disappears into his role. I can do believable scene work and execute some jokes and tell a story, so that’s the road I see for myself. When I do have a chance to make films, hopefully I can do that kind of thing.
There’s the timeless and never-ending New York vs. L.A. dilemma in the film, that must have been another part of your personal life as well?
I lived in New York for 14 years, been here in L.A. for 8. There’s such a dramatic difference in your social life. In New York there’s spontaneity. You could just show up and, without plans, you find yourself having lunch, dinner, drinks with friends, etc. In L.A. it’s a lot harder to actually hang out with people. There’s commitment, you have to plan ahead, there’s traffic. One of the nice surprises from L.A. is you tend to learn stuff about people and friends much faster. You have dinner at their house or vice versa, you hang around for 6 hours or something and I feel like the friends I’ve made out here, there’s just a different trajectory in getting close to people.
The cast you put together here in “Dean” is terrific. They all fit perfectly in their roles and bring an extra layer of authenticity to the story.
I knew I wanted to cast Kevin Kline and I was so happy he responded to the script. He’s pretty much the reason why the movie got made. He did me great favor and I thought his performance was amazing. Mary Steenburgen was a delight, I didn’t know her before the movie made either. We’ve all become friends, I’ve stayed in touch with them, it’s a thrill. All of the actors were people who could be funny, but were willing to be vulnerable and not try to just be funny. I really felt like I was lucky and, with the help of Allison Jones the casting director, I found great people. Everybody brought something and I felt they were real people and the they nailed the tone I was looking for.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’m going to have a new book of illustrations of my own drawings and I’m writing my next movie. Oh, I’m also writing a pilot for FX. If I’m lucky I can get a TV series out. I want to direct again, I do like it, it’s really fun, challenging and stimulating.
“Dean” opens on Friday, June 2nd.
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