In his film Dean, writer-director-star Demetri Martin portrays an illustrator who falls in love with a woman while trying to keep his father from burning down the family home after his wife dies.
I had the chance to speak to Demetri about grief, the film, and his transition from actor to filmmaker.
* * * * *
FOG!: How much of Dean is based on you?
Demetri Martin: Well, it’s autobiographical in as much as emotionally it’s stuff I’ve been through. But in real life, my dad died when I was 20.
And he was young, he was 46. So it was like my family had to kind of recover and it took a long time and I don’t know if we really fully did in a lot of ways. But as someone who wanted to make a first movie I thought, “Well I can talk about something that’s more emotional, something I’ve experienced” but everything in it is pretty much fiction.
I took like, maybe a couple moments from being awkward when I was single, some dating stuff, but it was important to me to try and tell a made up story that was rooted in real emotional experience if that makes sense. I wanted it to be kind of fiction so I could kind of learn how to create characters and tell a story without kind of just taking one, if that makes sense
Are there any moments where you feel it is awkward to be laughing through grief, or is it the best way to process it?
I think for me in my real life there was a little bit of laughing through moments of it, but it turns out I’m a pretty serious person I guess. And maybe I wish I laughed more through grief. But yeah, I don’t find it too awkward. I have found, with my own family, that people grieve differently even if they’ve lost the same person under the same circumstances. You know it’s just so personal and individual it’s hard to…it’s hard to make it go faster, to get better faster, to get over it or something.
So I thought having a character who is an illustrator would enable me to show his process through it and then set that against the dad, where maybe one guy is trying to run from it a little bit or hide from it or escape it, and the other guy thinks he can solve it but really they both just have to go through it. But I don’t know, it’s just a humbling reality of being a person. At least for me. You can’t just be like “cool I’m better”, or like “what are the steps”. No, I’ve got to just feel this and hope that I’ll be okay.
Why do you think films about loss tend to lend themselves to comedy so well?
In my experience, it’s first time here, I think there’s a nice natural balance that you can find. I think it’s tricky to find it but I think you can root some of the comedy or the jokes can be earned in a sense, with that backdrop of grief or somberness.
But I think one of the challenges is not making it too morose and then also not too flippant. I think if you can do it I think it lends itself well. Especially – look, this is a small movie obviously and I didn’t have a big budget or a lot of time so I wanted it to have some teeth, some weight to it. I love all-out comedies when they’re really funny but that’s just not where I was at, that’s not the mood I felt so to me that was the first stop. Something a little more dramatic. Maybe I’ll make some straight up comedies if I get lucky.
This was your directorial debut, and it was a very personal story for you. Was that difficult to balance?
It was challenging for sure, especially because most of my standup is based in just jokes. They’re shorter bits, and if I do 90 minutes it’s not like a big story and there aren’t even 10 minute stories in it usually. It’s just like joke, joke, joke, maybe some drawings or whatever.
So this was “Alright I need to figure out a story, something that maybe people will care about”. And then the comedy, you know, it’s kind of secondary; at least it should work with that as an offshoot or something.
And that was hard, and creating the characters, because I don’t have a lot of experience doing that.
And then trying to write women which you know, I’m not a woman, it’s not my experience. I think people who are not women can WRITE female characters but I think you have to respect the difference when they say “hey take a male character and make him a woman”. I think that’s a nice idea for giving women more roles in Hollywood but I also think you’re going to fall short probably of making her a real woman. Then you cast it and you have a woman show up. I don’t want to be embarrassed, I wrote it. You know what I mean, I can’t be like “the writer sucked it but we’ll direct it and it will be okay,” so yeah, it was very challenging across the board to do that.
The upside, though, was that I got to collaborate with so many people. It was great to have these actors and I could tell them, “hey I ‘m not that precious about the writing”; like it’s fine if you are up for it, let’s work on this together, you tell me if you want to change it or whatever. And then I get to be in the edit and I had another chance to kind of save myself, to fix the movie.
So while it was pretty exhausting, it was also pretty stimulating and I felt like I had a chance to save myself in a sense.
Because without sounding too dramatic I was worried and at some point the goal just became “I don’t want to embarrass myself here”. Or like, hurt my career like, I’m not going to get work or something like “ugh, his movie’s terrible. If you want to see a piece of garbage, look at what this guy did”. Because it’s all me, it my fault. So the fact that so far crowds seem to like it is a relief more than anything.
You’ve worked with some pretty talented filmmakers previous to this as an actor. What lessons did you learn on those sets? Did you know at that point that you wanted to direct and were you keeping an eye on what they were doing?
Definitely, I did know that I wanted to direct and I did exactly that so that was cool.
The main thing I learned which was a surprise, was that directing is a performance. Which is to say that on the day, when you’re there, whether you want it to be or not, everybody is looking at you. You know, you have to dictate the pace, the choices, so they’re reading your tone, your body language, it’s really interesting.
From the minute you get there you’re in a sense performing. Not as in an artificial presentation but more just like everything means something. So it was cool to see a guy like Ang Lee or Soderbergh doing that. You say “wow!”, because they have their crew, their well-oiled machine in both cases. You may have heard Woody Allen’s people worked with him for years so it’s really such a nice thing to aspire to if I got to make more movies to get my people, because then there’s a shorthand and they really are collaborators.
So yeah, I think that was probably the main takeaway that I didn’t expect. And then I did learn that about lenses, blocking, and things like that and observe how they work with actors, everyone has a different style. It was cool.
You got to work with Kevin Kline for this film, and because of the biographical nature, you said that your father had passed but you chose your mother to pass in the movie. So, where did Kevin Kline’s character really come from?
This to me is an interesting question and one that I had to kind of really wrestle with because I thought a father and son story would be interesting. If I could have two guys who, without really knowing it, are going through the same thing but in different ways. They both meet women and for one guy, it’s like my character seems to try and make her the solution, the savior or something. She didn’t ask for it and I’m kind of putting this on her. And then the other one, the guy thinks he’s ready to move forward and then he isn’t. Like she almost calls his bluff, the woman there. I thought that was a cool kind of parallel story I could tell and at the same time “the father and son never even tell each other, “hey I met this girl”.
But then I’m writing it and I haven’t had a dad for 23 years now, so I’ve been alive longer without a father than I was with one. When my dad got sick I was only 18, and then he died when I was 20, but from 18 to 20 already things were different, it was terrible.
So suddenly, I write this script and I’m kind of figuring it out and then we get to my first day of shooting with Kevin and I remember feeling like “I don’t even really know how to act here”, because I don’t really know what it’s like to be a grownup, like how you relate to your dad as a guy if that makes sense.
Like how respectful are you, how deferential? My dad was great, we had a great relationship but I was still a kid. It wasn’t like I could just, I definitely didn’t curse in front of him, there were certain things I didn’t do. And I just wonder if he were still around what it would be like to be.
Like, I’m a father now, I have kids. Now my character’s not quite that and I think I ended up kind of reverting to a younger guy because my last point of reference was as a 20 year old. So it was really a tangible challenge for me. It was tricky.
Coming from standup comedy, where you get an immediate reaction from an audience to making a film where you’re not sure even while you’re going through the process and not knowing how it’s going to turn out or how it’ll play, what does that feel like knowing that you’re in charge of it all?
It felt kind of mysterious. On the one hand it was an exciting challenge and an opportunity I wanted, but yeah. It felt like working in a vacuum. It just felt like I didn’t have much guidance, where the audience in a very honest and sometimes brutally honest way, gives you that guidance. They tell you feedback lie yes, yes, no, no, yes, no. You know, okay cool got it.
You know if you’re bombing.
Yeah, you know if you’re bombing. Unless you’re a lunatic you know what’s happening in the room. There’s some guys that I know that can lie to themselves but not me. If anything, I’m extra self-loathing because you know – which ends up being helpful with the movie.
Because the first cut was longer and I was like, “less of me, get me out of there”. I don’t want to overstay my welcome, but as I was making it I don’t know, you just don’t know ‘Is this boring? Are they with me?’ It’s quieter and in some ways it requires patience.
It’s an old-fashioned movie in a lot of ways, right? When you think of summer blockbusters *makes explosion sounds* you know just like holy shit and then you see this thing and you’re like ‘okay this is different’. You see the guy drawing and it’s like very personal and kinda…
Yeah, it’s quiet.
But you’ve gotten some feedback because you’re doing the festival circuit. What it’s like to have to walk into a room after everyone has seen you without you knowing their thoughts for an hour and a half?
Yeah, it’s definitely different I feel more vulnerable than I ever did in standup. Maybe when I was doing standup I felt a little exposed but now, I’m comfortable up there and the crowds usually know me.
But this yeah, it feels weird. So far so good, you know knock on wood, the crowds have been good, the Q&A’s have been warm, people seem to like the movie. Whoever doesn’t like it, they’re not raising their hand to say shit to me so that’s nice, it’s the nice people who are like “oh I liked it, how did you do this”. So, so far so good but definitely a different experience.
Dean is now playing in limited release.