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Demetri Martin's Next Conquest: Movies (Q&A)

Demetri Martin Headshot - P 2012
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Demetri Martin

The stand-up comic, author, actor and former TV host talks with THR about his filmmaking plans, how being thorough is overrated and going back to the drawing board -- literally and figuratively.

Demetri Martin complains that his head is “like oatmeal” as he crams to finish a book of drawings set for release next year. With a deadline the next day, the humorist is scrambling with last-minute sketches and redoing some old ones. “The permanence of a book or putting something out is a strange motivator,” he says from his New York City loft. “You’re like, ‘It’s my last chance; what else can I do?’”

An actor, comedian, author, musician and artist, Martin has established himself as an entertainer with a wide variety of projects across multiple mediums. His stand-up routine has employed a number of these talents; he routinely busts out a large pad of paper to sketch illustrations or a guitar and harmonica like a joke-telling Bob Dylan to accent his witty breed of observational non sequiturs. Such skills also transferred easily to his sketch-variety show, Important Things With Demetri Martin, which ran from 2009-10 on Comedy Central, as well as five albums and several films such as the leading role in Ang Lee’s 2009 comedic drama Taking Woodstock. In April, the 39-year-old released his first book, aptly titled This Is a Book, featuring a collection of essays and conceptual pieces, charts, drawings, one-liners and lists.

Demetri Martin. Standup Comedian. -- his first comedy special in nearly six years -- premiered Sept. 29 on Comedy Central and was released Oct. 2 with an accompanying two-disc album. The Yale-educated, NYU Law School dropout took a break from his comic-cramming to speak with The Hollywood Reporter about Standup Comedian, the book and his future in film.

The Hollywood Reporter: What is your background with drawing, and how did that become another source of humor for you?

Demetri Martin: I liked drawing as a kid, but I stopped probably around 11 or 12, so I didn’t really do much beyond that. When I was in law school years later, I took up oil painting. I just wanted to try it because it was a reaction to the restrictions of law school, and I needed some creative outlet. At that time I was teaching myself what I could about painting, and over the years I painted on and off recreationally. I started doing stand-up in 1997, and I think by 2000 I was starting to put drawing into my act as an alternative to having a notebook that I wrote in all the time. That got me back into doodling and drawing, and then I started to focus on it a little more. My style is very simple, and I don’t know how much progress I’ve made as an artist, but I’ve gotten better at expressing my ideas.

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THR: Speaking of that permanence in putting something out, what does it take to prepare for something like a your Comedy Central special?

Martin: I did a 30-city tour leading up to it, and I had a backlog of jokes because I hadn’t filmed and released a special in about six years. So at that time, I had some stuff to do, but really the tour was the place to go and rebuild my act and write a lot. So for me as a joke-teller, it’s just about trying new stuff, seeing if I could fix something that’s old that maybe isn’t what I want it to be, and it’s just a constant kind of rotation. And generally, even when I’m not preparing for a special or something, I always like to do new material when I’m onstage. That’s really part of the real fun of performing -- working with the jokes you have and trying to get the new stuff to work. So for a special, it’s just a concentrated version of that.

THR: You’ve worked in so many mediums, which of those is most appealing to right now?

Martin: The next big thing I want to do is write and direct films. I’ll have to do that independently and get financing, but that’s my goal going into the end of the year and the new year: to finish up the script that I’ve been working on, see if I can get some people to give me some money, cast it and shoot it over the summer.

THR: Were you directing at all on your show?

Martin: No. I wanted to, but I was told at the time it was too difficult to swing because of everything with the directors guild, so I didn’t really pursue it. Mostly because I was producing and I had to worry about the scripts and acting and everything -- all things I wanted to do and was really happy to do. And I had a couple friends direct a string of episodes, and I was really happy with what they did. It was definitely was easier to not worry about trying to direct and then also do all the other stuff, because I was tired. I got tired doing that show. I paid a lot of attention, and even the few films I’ve been in, I really try to pay attention to what’s going on and the decisions that are being made. And I learned a lot more about getting through the day -- not just the kind of big picture of the project but how each day goes and how you work with a team of people and everything. That to me seems very valuable to focus on if you’re going to go on to try and direct a film. Because stand-up, you know, is not so collaborative. Doing stand-up you really fend for yourself and sort of have to rely on yourself and do everything yourself.

THR: Also, with film, you’re likely working on a larger scale. Is that creatively inspiring to you?

Martin: Definitely. There’s a difference in the size of canvas that you get to work on. Of course, film is a visual medium but also with music and sound; it’s exciting to think about what you can do. And I guess it can be daunting at the same time, but the nice thing about trying to make content and put it into different forms is each form has its own strengths and weaknesses and constraints, and I find it inspiring to think about how the concept and the form relate to each other.

Right now my head’s in the middle of this book of drawings, so it’s just about a page; each drawing is really just one page. … They’re just single-panel drawings. It’s not a graphic novel; it’s kind of constrictive. So that’s an interesting form constraint to have: just one rectangular space. What do you do in there? With words, without words, with a few lines or a lot of lines. … It’s different, of course, from doing stand-up, but it’s fun to take the same sensibility and put it into that arena or that form.

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THR: What can you tell me about the film’s story or concept?

Martin: It’s a comedy and a love story, and I would play the lead. I’m writing it so that I’m perfect for the part. I think I’ll be good in it. I’m trying to figure out where it takes place, but it’s interesting that a lot of the comedies that I like -- you think of early Woody Allen comedies, you think of Albert Brooks, Hal Ashby -- it’s harder to find those films today, probably for a lot of reasons, ones that are even beyond my understanding about the market, like how people get money and make money in the film industry. But still, a lot of my favorites were from around that time. So I’m sure I don’t understand how to sell those kinds of stories where it’s a funny movie but there’s a real story to it and hopefully it’s compelling.

THR: What’s your process like in developing the story?

Martin: I learned a lot more about storytelling from that first book I did. I put a few short stories in there, and that was fun to think about just telling a story -- not worrying about production values or any of that or how we’re going to shoot this or can we afford this location or any of that kind of stuff. So that got me back into just the idea of finding good stories and telling good stories. And the book after this one, which won’t be for another year or year and a half or something, that’s a book of short stories, so when I try to work on story ideas I think, “Oh, that could be a good film or something.” But right now, just working in my script format. Going through it, I’m trying to think of it as a real blueprint for something I’m going to shoot rather than a script that I’m trying to sell to anybody. And that’s kind of fun to think about: “All right, I’ve got real kinds of constraints. I’m sure I’m not going to get tons of money to shoot a movie.” And that’s important when I’m thinking of the scenes because I want it to be funny and I want there to be imagination and, you know, creativity in the storytelling, but it needs to be within reason, I guess. It needs to be shootable.

THR: You’re also working on an animated pilot for Fox.

Martin: Yes. I think we’re turning that in November. … We’ve been working on that for a while. It’s about a family that lives in the Redwoods. I did some of the initial drawings, and then the real artists and animators took it away and spruced them up.

THR: What about working in that medium? How does it compare?

Martin: I mean, what’s interesting is that collaborative process because there are so many steps in it. And I think it’s also because they’re figuring out now things that we wouldn’t have to figure out later -- just how the characters look and how heavy the line weight is in the background, the color palette, that kind of thing. But yeah, it’s fun to talk about that and thinking about how it relates to comedy. With all this stuff, I’m still in a part of my life where I want it to be funny. Maybe when I get older, I’ll get to make a bunch of films. Maybe I’ll think more about some of the more dramatic aspects of things. And I certainly like comedies to have that element in them, but right now I’m just trying to figure out how to make it funny, whether it’s an animation on a page or onstage.

THR: You were once studying to be a lawyer. Why has humor been a calling for you?

Martin: Probably just because I like the kind of puzzle of it. Especially in jokes -- there’s an end point for each joke, there’s a punch line. Not like a sprawling story, a great story that’s funny might have many punch lines in it, but it’s still kind of a longer exchange, and if one part of it doesn’t get a laugh, you’re still in that story; you move along with the next part of it. With jokes, there’s a really clear point where you thought it was funny, you thought the audience was going to laugh right here, and that’s something I find very satisfying about that kind of puzzle. Because if it works, then it’s like: “Cool. That was where the punch line was, that’s what I thought.” And when it doesn’t, it’s like: “OK, what happened? What went wrong?” And it’s just kind of back to the drawing board. But either way, they’re short. It’s one little piece at a time. You get to reset a lot of different ideas and premises. I think I’m just not a very thorough person. As I get older I try to learn how to be more thorough, but part of the reason I left law school so many years ago is because it required a certain thoroughness that I wasn’t naturally inclined to. … If you’re representing someone and their freedom is at stake or something, you’d better be thorough. You’d better be really thorough; that’s pretty important. And I was like, “Geez, I don’t know if this is quite playing to my strengths.” And even amongst stand-up comedians, I tell pretty short jokes. They’re not thorough. Fifteen words or something and I’m done, on to the next one. So it’s leaning more toward the idea part of things and less toward laborious, thorough execution. But film would be different, you know? Working on films requires a different muscle. … I really want to make a film. That will be my next obsession. It seems that, whether I like it or not, for me to really get something done and put it out there it takes me kind of getting lost in it for a while. Maybe a lot of people work that way, but I procrastinate, do a bunch of different things, not really finish any of them, and then I get a deadline and I drop everything and just finish that thing. And I overdo it, and I get really tired, and then when it’s done I think: “Cool, I finished it. I actually made the thing.” So I’m doing that with this book right now and my head’s like oatmeal, but when I come up for air, yeah, the next obsession will be the movie.