Demetri Martin on Transitioning from Stand-up Comedy to Film Directing with “Dean”

Letting Go of All Control

Jun 02, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Demetri Martin had to let go. While performing for an audience is old hat, so to speak for the popular comedian, actor, and writer, Martin says his latest medium feels completely different. The release of his first feature film, Dean, which stars Martin as the titular character, has raised his anxiety and, in response, Martin says he's had to let goof expectations, of fears, of control.

Dean tells a sorrowful story of the titular character (played by Martin), a NYC-based illustrator, and his father (Kevin Kline) and their attempts to come to terms with significant lossin this instance, the death of Dean's mother. Gillian Jacobs and Mary Steenburgen star as love interests to Dean and his father, and Martin's own illustrations help buoy the movie's melancholy tone.

The success of Dean, including a Best Narrative Award at 2016's Tribeca film festival, means you'll likely see more of Martin's scripts come to life in the future. Movies hold his interest more than most other creative outlets these days, and Martin himself finds inspiration in weighty films like Brooklyn, even though he aspires to make lighter fare. We recently asked him about his new creative turn and the vulnerability of letting go of it all. 

Matt Conner (Under the Radar): Since this is your first time directing a film, is this something you've wanted to do for a while? How far back does Dean go for you?

Demetri Martin: It goes pretty far back. Part of what makes it go so far back is that it was my first movie, so I had to do it from the ground up. I don't know how many years ago I started thinking, "All right, if I want to make movies, no one is paying me. No one is waiting for a script. Nobody cares or even knows I'm doing it." So it might have been six or seven years ago, I started a script and wrote about 40 pages of it. It became this script, but I set it aside and thought I'd try something else. Then I started some other scripts that I didn't finish.

I came back to this one because I'd sold a couple scripts to studios. Naively, I thought they would make my movie because I'd sold my scripts, but those movies didn't get made, which happens a lot. The money was cool, but I put my heart and soul into those scripts. I'd thought, "Oh man, this is my ticket. I'm going to make movies." I got notes and did re-writes. One director was attached and then went away and another one and so on.

It took me some time to finally say, "Listen, just write your own script. You're going to have to make it small, since it's your first time making this thing and you're a first-time director." So I tried to stay cognizant of those things. That was part of the debate, I think, between one idea and another. This one was autobiographical, which is probably not a surprise, and maybe they all are, but I knew the feelings I would deal with in the movie. The plot and the characters were all fictional, but I knew that I had something to say about this area. I picked it up and now six or seven years later, it will finally come out.

I love what you just said about knowing you have something to say. When you've been in one lane for so long building up your comedy career, I'm assuming there's a certain confidence with knowing your craft. Does it feel vulnerable to step into something with the gravity that Dean has? And is that something you've been gearing up for emotionally as well?

For me it's something I'm still in. To your point, I feel exactly like that in a sense. I like writing jokes and I've done it for a while now, so I'm pretty comfortable with that. It's not always easy to get the jokes to work, but I'm comfortable with that process. They're jokes. They're these things that I make and I share them with people, but I don't tell my life story up there. My comedy is often based less in feelings and more in ideas. I've always liked that about it because maybe I feel protected. It's easier, for lack of a better term, to hide behind jokes.

When I set out to make a feature, I realized a lot of the movies I love aren't all-out comedies. They're not a barrage of jokes. They're more heartfelt and vulnerable and there is a tenderness there. They're just trying to be authentic, and I thought, "That's what I want to do." I like the intimacy that movies really have. Stand-up can have intimacy with an audience, too, but it's so different. Something about escaping into a movie has a different power to it, for me. So that was a different lane for me and it still is.

Now what's interesting for me is that it's kind of filtering back toward my stand-up. I'm still rethinking it a little bit. I don't think I could ever veer too far from myself, but I'm feeling a little less afraid to open up a bit. What's hard is I don't like the diarrhea of autobiography that can sometimes feel like it's out there with content comedy or social media, so I'm wary to do that. I'm like, "Who cares? Nobody wants to hear it." But I do think that if you find something to say and hopefully you're connecting with people by being authentic, you can get away with some of that. I'm still trying to figure all of this out.

Do you remember how you felt at your first screening of Dean?

Yes, it took a while in the edit to get the movie right. As they say, you write the movie when you write it. You write it when you shoot it. You write it when you edit it. We did the editing at my house. My friend, Josh, is an editor and he and I spent a lot of hours and in that time, I completely lost perspective. You're just seeing too much of the footage. One of the prices you pay, if you have the hubris to put yourself on camera and direct yourself, is that you have to live with yourself. You have to watch yourself every day and I wish that upon no one. [Laughs]

It's really nice to be in a movie and I got to make it, but I don't think it's good for your brain. I don't think it's good for your psyche. You hate yourself in the past that you're watching and then you don't like yourself in the present because it's the same... [Laughs] It's just so complicated. You're like, "This is a fucking nightmare!"

So I was just happy that we got into a festival and that there was an audience. We got there and I was so pleasantly surprised that the crowd liked it. They laughed when I'd hoped they'd laugh and got quiet where I was trying to say something more serious up there. It was really interesting, as a comedian especially, because you don't usually make a thing that you can't control. With stand-up, you can shift gears. You can improvise. You can throw a joke away or add extra endings to a joke or even explain yourself. Whatever you're comfortable doing, you can do it.

But I can't pause a movie and run up there and say, "Look, we couldn't find a good location for this. You must understand that the location fell through." [Laughs] You just can't do that. But it's also been a good exercise in getting over all of it, just because it feels so high stakes but the world just doesn't care. If you're lucky, you get some attention and if it sucks, then it goes away faster. Either way, it goes away.

Well, but not to you.

You're right. Not for me. I have to live with it. And it does get serious when your livelihood is tied to this stuff. I always tell my wife that I want to find a way to make a living that's not based on people liking me.

So much of our conversation about how vulnerable this is, but you mentioned the hubris earlier and that made me think that there has to be some level of confidence to say, "I'm going to direct a movie that I wrote and I'm going to be in it." Right?

Absolutely. It's the same as stand-up for me. For a lot of comedians, when you first start, you have to get over the top. You're basically telling people you're funny. When I started doing stand-up, it took me a while to be like, "All right, let's do it. Just try it. Get out of your head." With filmmaking it's the same thing, like you said. There's a confidence in saying, "I can do this." As a person who loves film and spends a lot of time watching movies, and I love comedy, I wasn't too worried about directing because I thought, "I think I know where I'll want the camera to be because I know I want to tell the story a certain way." I had a lot to learn but I didn't end up in a situation where I showed up on set and said, "I don't know what to do." [Laughs]

Were you more prepared for this than you realized?

In some ways, but the unpleasant surprise was that I'm an unnatural producer. I get upset at things like, "We can't find a place to park the food truck." That's the shit that would keep me up at night. The creative stuff I liked. On the creative front, maybe I was more prepared. It took me a while to get my first movie together, but years of thinking about all this stuff, I felt comfortable with that. But it was the practical, daily execution of stuff that I was not prepared for.

You won a jury award at Tribeca. How validating was that?

That was great. I really felt validated. I'm old enough to want to stop and enjoy those moments when they come, because it doesn't happen that frequently. I was genuinely pleasantly surprised because I had a stand-up date. I'd scheduled a date in San Diego before the festival. They said that the awards thing would be on the same day, but I said, "I'm not worried about that." [Laughs] So I left. I was in San Diego but I hadn't left the house yet, and they called me asking if I wanted to shoot a video since I won the prize. I was like, "I won the prize?" They were like, "Yeah, the movie won." So they shot a video of me in my driveway right before I got in the car.

Then when I got a deal for distribution, I was just over the moon. We really did beat the odds. That's just not that common these days, so I'm psyched about it.

Is this where your interests primarily lie at this point, telling more stories like this?

I think so. I want to do funnier movies that maybe don't have such a heavy element, but I think I just like stories where people are giving real performances, in that it's not all irony or ironically distant, but that there's some sincerity and earnestness and heart. I think it's a fine line to walk these days, because if you do it wrong, it's just overly sentimental or you seem unsophisticated. It feels easier to seem sophisticated if you're cynical and kind of shit on things. To be a little more vulnerable, I find it more satisfying but I think it's hard. I know I'm going to get pummeled by trolls for this movie, but I'm hoping I'll find an audience of people who liked it and for whom it resonates.

What was the last film or piece of art that connected with you in that way?

Yeah, that's a great question. It took me a while but I saw Brooklyn. I had a screener, which is a few years old now, but my wife and I both loved it. It stayed with me and I talked about it all the time. To me, it was magical. That was a special one. You Can Count On Me, which was Kenneth Lonergan's first movie, was one that stayed with me for years. I often think about that movie. I have my list like anyone.

[Note: A shorter article based on this interview originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2017 Issue (April/May/June 2017), which is out now. This is the full Q&A of the interview.]

www.live.demetrimartin.com

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