How Demetri Martin Mixes Death Drawings, Deadpan One-Liners and Kevin Kline in His First Movie (Q&A)

Dean Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Dean Still - Publicity - H 2016

The heartfelt dramedy 'Dean' — premiering Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival — marks the stand-up comedian's directorial debut and also stars Gillian Jacobs and Mary Steenburgen.

Everything you’d figure would be in a Demetri Martin movie is in Demetri Martin’s new movie: quirky acoustic music, statement-making sketches and deadpan one-liners that observe everyday life. But the heartfelt dramedy Dean — the stand-up comedian’s directorial debut, which he also wrote  features these elements while tackling a tough topic, as it follows a young adult coming to terms with the death of his mother.

“A lot of people who are attracted to showbiz go for the potential of escape, and it’s interesting to try to do a project that turns the other way,” Martin, 42, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “What if I lean into the heaviness of my life and make something out of it?”

Ahead of the world premiere of Dean — also starring Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs and Mary Steenburgen — on Saturday at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Martin chats with THR about translating his distinct comedy to a feature film, editing with "magical" 1970s music and selfishly including footage that’s close to home.

How did this movie begin?

I did this Comedy Central sketch show [Important Things With Demetri Martin] a few years ago and got to try to get my sensibility of comedy to work for on-camera narrative storytelling. I had a bunch of ideas for a movie; a couple of them were higher concept, and I thought, let me write something manageable that I can direct, rather than trying to sell it. Maybe I should start with something more personal and grounded.

What inspired the plot?

I lost my dad when I was 20. This was a shock to all of us  he was 46. Years have passed, but it’s so crazy how alienating that kind of a loss can be and how much it stays with you and changes your life. You can be fine, but I still have days I miss my dad as much as two weeks after he died. It’s the first big thing you’ll never get over. Anger is a lot easier to deal with than grief. Anger, you can do something: You can slam a door, you can blame someone, you can hang up on someone. It feels active, even if it’s misguided. Grief is so debilitating. You want to blame someone, but there’s no one to blame.

I wanted to treat the idea of grief and how we all grieve differently. In stand-up, I like telling jokes about balloons and dogs, so I hadn’t found a place where I felt comfortable putting that. In film, I can deal with emotion in a deeper way.

How was it having Kevin Kline as your onscreen father?

I got lucky because I didn’t know Kevin before  he has very little to gain, as far as I can tell. Having him agree to do it was already such a nod of approval and confidence. He’s got a warmth and a pathos and commitment to the emotions and can still do comedy, at the same time. I’m not a trained actor, for Christ’s sake, I already have that that I’m fighting. I probably learned as much about acting as I did about directing.

As we started doing scenes, I realized, it’s been so long since I had a dad. I never got to be an older guy with a dad; I was pretty much a teenager. It was weird to sit with him on set and have this rapport  I wasn’t even sure if I was doing it right. My idea of a dad is from a different me.

What’s the toughest part of writing a feature script over a stand-up act?

There’s a different vulnerability  in stand-up, I can adjust in real time, but I’m making a much bigger gamble and prediction in a movie. I wanted to be true to my tone and what I think I am, but I can’t just be a guy walking around saying one-liners, right? I had to find the most organic ways. Trial and error  if it doesn’t work, it just looks like I’m shoehorning a joke in there. It’s not a big, hilarious movie, but there are moments of, "I’m glad that bit works."

You include drawings in your stand-up. How was it bringing that to film?

I’m always looking for ways to make long flights pass faster. I can read, write jokes, I’m sure I can watch something on the TV that’s crammed right in my face there, but my notebook has become a place where I can daydream. I’ve been working on my next book of drawings for a while, and I thought, it’d be interesting to make a character out of that part of myself. If he’s an illustrator, I can show what he’s feeling and develop his journey through his work. Even though it’s a fictional story, I like that intimacy of what a creative person does when they’re trying to come up with stuff and express themselves.

Some scenes use music strategically. How did that happen?

It was just one of those magical little things. I got to the edit, and I was going to start with some homemade music, but it wouldn’t be cinematic. I looked through the music I own and love, and I came across a Pete Dello album and put a song against some footage. The quality of his voice in those 1970s analog recordings  there’s something about it that matched what I was trying to do with the heart of the movie. The more of his music I put to the movie, the more I understood how the story would unfold. I emailed him, and he was gracious and gave us a good deal.

What’s that footage at the end of the movie?

That’s me and my mom  I’m 3 [years old] there. My mom got early-onset Alzheimer’s eight years ago, so the genesis of my movie was the loss of my father, but in the process, I was losing my mom. I thought, we haven’t seen fictional Mom, but she’s the beating heart of the movie. I selfishly figured, the story’s over, and I could just put one of my parents onscreen for a second. If anyone notices, great, but it’s not the point; that’s more for me. And it also explains why I don’t look like Kevin Kline.