Drawing From Experience: Comedian-Director Demetri Martin on 'Dean'
After a successful career as a stand-up comedian, Demetri Martin finds himself marching down a new path as a director, albeit with a few doubts in mind.
DeanDirector: Demetri Martin
Cast: Demetri Martin, Gillian Jacobs, Kevin Kline
Studio: CBS Films
US Release Date: 2017-06-02
“When it comes to the reviews, I’m scared,” confesses veteran stand-up comic Demetri Martin about his feature debut, Dean. He shouldn’t be too frightened -- the film won Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca last year, a good sign that it will resonate with people on a larger scale. Nevertheless, he refuses to read any reviews despite braving the high-pressure, highly critical world of stand-up comedy for years.
“I guess I’m just too sensitive a person,” he tells me as we sit in a hotel suite on a sunny day in San Francisco. The sincerity and openness in his answers are refreshing, and his film bears the same virtues. A dramatic comedy revolving around grief and recovery, Dean is largely inspired by Martin’s own experiences with death and the uneasy relationship between humor and tragedy. Martin stars as Dean, with Gillian Jacobs, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, and Briga Heelan rounding out the cast.
In our conversation with Martin we cover the film’s big win at Tribeca, Martin’s refusal to read reviews, incorporating his own drawings into the movie, and more. Dean opens in select cities this Friday, 2 June.
The film hasn’t released yet, but it’s already found success on the festival circuit, winning Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca last year.
It was such a great surprise. It was really hard to make the movie. It was a 20-day shoot, and it was tough. I started out feeling hopeful that I was making a movie, but that sort of evaporated, and all I felt was fear. Like, “Shit, I just don’t want to be embarrassed by this,” you know? I said I wanted to direct, and someone was like, “Okay, here’s the money!” and it’s like, oh shit, here we go. By the time it went to Tribeca... you just lose objectivity, so I didn’t even know... it was just work. So when I got a prize…
You weren’t even there!
Yeah, I wasn’t even there. I left already!
Did you regret not being there?
It was a good lesson because it’s like, maybe I should bet on myself a little bit. [laughs] I remember them telling me the schedule and when the award thing was, and I said I had to do this show in San Diego. I legitimately just felt like I wanted to get through this festival thing. So it was a nice surprise. How often does it happen when they say, “Hey, you got the prize! Can you make a video on your phone so we can show it?” The video was literally shot on my driveway, and we were about to drive to San Diego for the gig I flew home for.
From what I’ve read, you felt nervous about this project on several levels, and I also heard in an interview that you didn’t plan on reading any reviews.
That’s fascinating to me because, in my opinion, stand-up comedians are some of the most judged performers on the planet. I imagine you must be very used to criticism.
So why are you avoiding looking at any criticism as a director?
Even with stand-up, the first time I googled myself was in 2009, when I was doing the first season of my Comedy Central series. Like a lot of comedians, I googled myself maybe because I wanted to know what people hated about me so that I could fix it. After a while, it was too toxic and I couldn’t handle it. I guess I’m just too sensitive a person, maybe. I can handle bombing. I can handle it in real time.
What’s the difference? I’d think maybe getting the criticism live would be tougher.
There’s some illusion of control that I can turn the show around and do something. But [reading criticism] after the fact... I guess it would be educational if I could just take a pill and read it like I was reading about someone else, but I take it too seriously or something. I never googled myself again, and I think I’m better for it.
I hope I get to make more movies. I think if I were practical, the goal would be to make more movies and eventually make money. I’m not talking about millions, but I’d like to not break even or lose money, just because it took so long. I was making the minimum for everything, and hey, it’s an indie film, so fine. But to get a chance to have a little bit more of a budget so that I’m not asking everyone for a favor and put some money in my pocket, but most importantly, to make five or ten movies in my life, would be great.
When it comes to the reviews, I’m scared. Even if people like it, it’s like a roulette wheel spinning. “Am I going to lose my money?!”
I hear comedians talk sometimes about getting the wrong laugh. Like, the people laugh, but they’re laughing for some awful reason that you didn’t intend.
Yeah, maybe. Or maybe people get things out of the movie that make you go, “Oh shit, I didn’t think of that,” or they say, “That’s really similar to something else.” I’ve had that in stand-up where they’re like, “That’s really similar to a George Carlin bit,” or, “Great Ellen Degeneres ripoff!” It’s like they know more than you do about what you did. That’s just going to happen. I only know that in the stand-up world, so for film, yeah, it’s different.
I’ve also found that the news is tough these days. I find it fucking hard to not get bummed out. By removing myself a little bit, I still get the news, but I mostly get it from friends in conversation. We’ll be at a dinner party and talk about it rather than reading the news quietly in an airport and having to sit with it. I like at least having a human being to bounce off of.
I feel like when bad [reviews] will happen for this movie, unless you have a shitty friend, people don’t come say, “Hey, I read your terrible review. Want to talk about it?” But if there’s a good one, they’ll tell me, and it’s awesome. I don’t find out about the bad stuff.
The first moment in this movie that really impressed me was when your character meets Gillian Jacobs’ character, Nicky, at the house party. Because that scene is framed the way that it is, it could easily veer into meet-cute cliché. But I thought that your dialogue navigated around those dangers quite well. The characters felt like real people and weren’t going through the rom-com motions.
I appreciate that because that was one of the challenges I remember dealing with. I haven’t been single in a while, and I never really had great game. How do you approach somebody at a party? You’re right -- I’m in trope land already. He sees the girl... It was tricky. I just wanted humanity. I love old Hollywood but we don’t live in that world right now.
When you guys lock eyes, I think everyone in the audience is saying, “Okay, I know what’s happening here. I know what comes next.” But there’s a measure of cruelty in the way they speak to each other that offsets all of those preconceptions.
I feel like that’s the world we live in now. It’s weird when characters in [romantic comedies] know too much. I feel like sometimes writers figure out a good story, and I understand their characters, but then the characters start saying things that are incredibly self-aware. I’m still trying to learn how to write dialogue and write women... it’s hard to do.
Stand-up teaches you to write for yourself, but it doesn’t teach you to write for other people. There are some movies where characters are fighting and it’s like they’re telling you the subtext. They’re just telling you. “Maybe if my mom hadn’t abandoned me, I wouldn’t have developed this…” you know, whatever. You’re just like, “Hey, let me figure it out!”
What struck me about the movie, visually, was the device of showcasing Dean’s illustrations via split-screen. I know you drew all of the cartoons yourself, and I enjoyed the book of illustrations you put out a few years ago. The drawings are really simple but super hilarious.
For me, it was a liberating moment years ago when I was like, “You know what? This is kinda how I draw, but it’s useful for communicating ideas.” I want them to be nice to look at, but when I look at artists I like, I just think their stuff is so beautiful. And I realized that I can’t do that. But it doesn’t mean [my cartoons] are worthless. That was like a freedom, and I became more productive.
When it came time to make the movie, I thought I could use that. I have a big rectangle to use to tell a story, and I can use that to show these drawings. It’s intimate. It’s one-to-one. I drew them, and you’re looking at them. Whether you’re on the subway or in your apartment, it’s one-to-one. I love Gary Larson and Saul Steinberg. When I’m on the road, I fantasize about sitting in a chair at home with one of those books. It’s such a quiet, personal show, so to put it in the movie was cool.
I love the intimacy of comic books. It’s like you can see the motion of the artist’s hand. In another interview, you were talking about creating a new “language” when you were figuring out how to incorporate your drawings into the story visually.
Sometimes the drawings are displayed full-screen, but sometimes it’s split-screen so that there’s a dialogue happening between the right and left sides of the screen. It moves the story along. At first, I thought the drawings would just pop on.
What was that like?
It was jarring. It’s funny, because, like you say about comic books, there's the presence of the person who made it, your imagination of whoever they are and wherever they drew it. Even if it’s not something you can articulate, there’s a personality there. That’s what happened with the drawings in the movie. When they just popped up, it was like someone just rudely showed up and was like, “Yeah! Here!” It’s like, don’t shove that in my face, you know? But when they sort of slid on, it was like someone was respecting the story and saying, “Excuse me, I think this is relevant.”
This sort of visual “language” or device was very specific to the story of Dean. But would you like to explore this device further somehow in other projects?
I’m kind of torn about it. I just had this conversation with my wife two days ago. I had a friend from college come see a screening in L.A., and he said, “I really like the drawings that you did. It seems like you have a style and you can keep doing that going forward.” I was talking to my wife about it, and I wish I could, but I bet you I just can’t. Maybe I can develop it and it can become something else. Maybe I can use the real estate of the screen somehow in another project, but I’d have to think of something new.
It has to feel organic to the story.
Yeah. It has to feel earned. I’ve got to figure that out. But I will say that it made me excited about the possibilities of what you can learn as a storyteller. I loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. To see someone like Michel Gondry employing so many of these devices he developed... I remember thinking, wow, that’s so cool. What a talented visual thinker that guy is. I find that challenging and exciting. It makes me want to make more things.
Talk to me about some of your filmic influences. You seem like a savvy moviegoer.
Hal Ashby is a big one for me. When I met with my DP before we started shooting, we watched The Landlord together. I like Alexander Payne a lot. What I like about him is that it feels like his characters live in the real world. I like the way he uses the camera. I love Gary Larson. Steven Wright is a big influence on me as a comedian.
I’m learning about Hitchcock. I only saw a few Hitchcock movies when I was younger, but I kind of study him now. I just read a his biography, and this last year I saw Dial M For Murder, To Catch a Thief, and North By Northwest for the first time. That’s been pretty cool, watching a master.