For a comedian discussing a film about loss and death, Demetri Martin is a surprisingly calm and sincere presence. Those familiar with the longtime stand-up’s material may not be as surprised, considering his brilliantly low-key delivery and straight-faced absurdity. They’d also be unsurprised that he called while en route to the MOMA, hoping to squeeze a viewing of an exhibition of painters Richard Diebenkorn and Henri Matisse into a packed schedule. But still, he is an entertainer who deals in laughter, now promoting a film about the loss of a parent on which he served as a first-time director in addition to writer, star, and illustrator.
The uniting factor between his stand-up career and Martin’s directorial debut, Dean, is the surprise. Martin’s one-liners and illustrations rely so sweetly on the unexpected twist or just-out-of-place line; tragically, the film portrays the shock of unexpected loss and the equally unexpected and unpredictable grief that follows. In the movie, Martin’s protagonist flees New York for Los Angeles as a coping method and, in so doing, struggles through an attempted romance, his own awkwardness, and a strained relationship with his father.
And while Martin’s jokes come from absurd places, Dean carries emotional resonance and catharsis thanks to Martin’s clever writing and full embodiment of the character on screen, but also the real-world, near-autobiographical roots of the story. As I found out, Martin lost his own father at a young age and spent years conceiving the movie and turning it into a reality. As the film hits theaters, Martin took time to speak with Consequence of Sound about turning real-life tragedy into cinema, the difficulty of editing down a film full of brilliant comedic performers, and the benefits and challenges of taking control of a massive project — and commiserated about being known for a nose.
When did you actually finish filming, and how long did it take you to write it?
Well, I started writing probably about five years ago, and I finished principle photography almost three years ago, and then I did some pick-ups and reshoots almost a year after that. I sold the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival a year ago, so it’s been a longer journey than I expected. Though I hoped I would get it into movie theaters, it also did exceed my expectations in certain ways. So, you know? I guess it balances out.
Isn’t it strange then to speak about something that you worked on quite a while ago? I know that you were a part of so many aspects of the movie, but isn’t it strange to rehash things? Or is it wonderful to figure out new…
No, it’s strange! I remember a lot because it was such a traumatic experience because it was so difficult. No money, no time — very hard. Harder than I thought it was going to be. But the other side of it is, with some distance, I think most of the time it seems like our minds have a way of editing and correcting, and hopefully they put a rosier lens on things.
Don’t you think it would have been a little bit bizarre if this particular subject matter was a total breeze?
Oh absolutely, because it’s a personal story and it’s fiction. But I actually lost my dad when I was 20.
Oh my gosh? I didn’t know. I’m so sorry about that.
Yes, I was 20 and my dad was 46 when he passed away, so it’s a fictional story, but it’s not a fictional experience for me. That made it in some ways therapeutic, but in other ways it did feel mired in it a little bit. Like, “Wow, I’m spending a lot of time on this topic.” It’s just more than I bargained for.
And in any respect, dealing with death and grief is so debilitating regardless of whose story it is. What new discoveries came out while you were writing this?
It was a good exercise for me because my experiences mostly for writing is writing material for myself to perform on stage. It was nice to think about other characters, about what might attract them to the role and what they might get out of it for themselves. Would the performance appeal to them? Would it be validating? It was great. That kind of an assignment helps you get outside of yourself more, and I think it can help you develop empathy even more than you might have empathy.
Dealing with the topic was challenging, especially to make comedy out of it. So it was a good challenge, and there was an opportunity to balance some of the comedy with a little more pathos — or at least to feel like the jokes were earned. At times, there might be catharsis in some of the laughs. So I thought that was a part of the process that I enjoyed. Now that we’re screening it, there are nice moments where people come up to me after the screenings and tell me how they connected with the film or what their personal experience has been that might be similar to some of the themes of the movie. That’s interesting. That’s validating in a way that I haven’t experienced for stand-up comedy because I don’t talk about this kind of material so much in my stand-up. Stand-up can be so ephemeral. You can shoot a stand-up special and make an album, but yes, essentially stand-up is a live experience and that moment comes and goes.
While you were exploring death and the different modes that people use to cope with it, the thing that stood out for me were themes of movement and how resilient we are as humans.
Completely. I couldn’t have put it better. Your question speaks to me because that was why specifically in its genesis I wanted the movie to be about coming out of grief so that it was really about how my mom passed away a year earlier and about what it’s like to move on — like you’re saying — movement. I’m a first-timer, so I don’t know how well I executed it, but he keeps trying to go somewhere and then it doesn’t work…
He gets stuck! Gets on a plane and then gets off the plane.
He’s walking with his friend; he’s gotta go back for the phone.
At Smoothie King!
And he just won’t go forward, you know? I was trying to say something at least in its choreography. Jeez, I wanted to do some comedy below the neck. It wasn’t just cerebral; it was really about something that my family had gone through and that I’d personally gone through. Trying to tackle something that I felt like was worth people’s time. I love jokes and I love comedy, but if I’m gonna ask people to sit down, especially in today’s day and age, for almost 90 minutes, I want to feel like it’s worth it for people. And then to get someone like Kevin Kline for me was a coup because he’s great, and he did me a favor. He didn’t know me. There’s not much he’s gonna gain from doing my movie, but he liked the material enough that I felt lucky. It’s funny that if you’re around for a while, you do start to realize how much luck plays into everything. You can try to take credit and you work hard and sometimes you get lucky, too? I got lucky.
You’ve been active for a very long time — you’ve acted before — so this is not necessarily brand new to you. This allowed you to stretch out an idea because stand-up could feel so final.
Definitely, and you change, too. I’m going to be 44 this month! I have a wife and two kids. I started doing stand-up 20 years ago. There’s still things that I love about it that attracted me to it, but you grow and change if you’re lucky. I keep saying lucky!
I had a friend say once about showbiz, “It’s like a lot of your opportunities are kind of lottery tickets in the business, and if you’re lucky, a couple of them hit.” I think the hard work or talent can at least give you more tickets.
And I feel that you’ve reached a point in your career where you don’t necessarily have to prove yourself as much. People trust your vision; they know who you are. I remember watching you during that Travis music video.
I loved Travis man!
I loved Travis, too.
And so I feel that being brave and having a good work ethic is really important. But then when are you happiest creatively? Is it during the process of putting all the pieces together or is it being in front of people and performing?
I think for me it’s the first part. There’s so much hope in that part of the process and so much possibility. It’s like the divergent thinking part of it; the cone just expands. You start with an idea, and these possibilities blossom and multiply. The grown-up part, the harder part for me, is when you get to the convergent thinking when you have to eliminate choices and assess your work. It all comes down to a little point to say, “Okay, this is the finished product, this is the joke, this is the movie, this is the short story.” It’s nice to get approval or validation from audiences. I certainly need that, like every comedian I know. But yeah, sometimes I think there’s just such a pleasure in daydreaming and brainstorming and writing and drawing. I made myself an illustrator in this film because I just draw all the time. I’m never going to be a technically great artist or some sort of draftsman, but I’ve learned to enjoy what I can do with a pen and how expressive even simple drawings can be. I bring my notebooks when I tour, and on the plane I can at least escape into the blank page and create little ideas. It’s a way to entertain myself.
You wrote, directed, and produced the film. Did you take a lot on because you were concerned others might not handle the project with personal care?
There was some fear because I think there’s real hubris involved. I enjoyed having control over a lot of those decisions; I felt like I could protect myself, but then I had to sit in the edit and look at myself, and I had to look at my nose from all those angles. You’re just a person at the end of the day.
Was it painful?
It was! I don’t wish this on anybody. But I’ll take that over just turning it over to someone and saying, “Okay, I hope your decisions align with my sense of humor.”
Because there’s that gaping hole of fear that they won’t.
They just won’t. Somebody might make it better, but part of the process is learning. If given the opportunity, I’ll take it. It might be painful, but you hopefully grow, and go, “Okay, if I get to make another movie, I just learned way more than I even thought I was going to. I’ll have other challenges, but I won’t make that mistake again.” And that’s stimulating. And it still feels nice to be new at something and feel like there’s an upside. There’s something ahead to look forward to.
I have such a similar nose to yours, but I learned when I was super young, because I’m from a Jewish family, to just let that thing take the reigns.
But it’s an intense thing. People comment on it all the time. Do people…
Yes! It’s so hurtful! It’s as if we did something to get the nose. It’s as if I chose it and had bad taste.
Just picked it off a rack.
It’s literally the first thing that enters a room. [Laughs] Believe me, I am with you there. You’re talking to the right guy. I could spend a decade working on a masterpiece, and a person would go, “Oh yeah, the guy with the nose.” [Laughs] I mean, it’s kind of nice as you get older. I feel as if it forced me to get over myself quicker than someone who doesn’t have a prominent thing. Everybody’s got something, but maybe they’re luckier because people have to dig a little bit harder to hurt them. For us, it’s just right there.
Was there any point during writing or filming where you were just like, “I can’t fucking do this!”?
You know what it is, it’s the fantasy of what my movie could be that was challenging. I’m learning and stretching in ways that I’m not used to, but I could find a way to fit my sense of humor in. And then you get to production, and if you’re lucky, someone agrees to give you the money. And then the heartbreak begins. It’s just like, “Oh, we can’t shoot that, we can’t do this, we don’t have money for that, we can’t get insurance for this.” It’s just awful. And then you’re shooting, and there are producers who don’t really know what they’re doing, and then you look at this schedule and think, “Is this right? Can I shoot that much per day with no breaks? Is this going to work?” And then three, four days in, you’re already sleep-deprived, you’re behind, you’re thinking, “Oh shit, I’m in trouble here.” And now, “Oh, I thought I wanted to be the star and I wanted to be the director” and everything. Now I’ve just quadrupled down on how embarrassed I’m going to be. It’s all my fault. I can’t blame this on anyone.
But you must be obsessed with that fear of teetering on the edge of failing and succeeding.
And I’m sure that must be how stand-up feels as well.
It often does, especially when you’re trying out new things. You’re experimenting and you’re trying to grow or change or develop. It’s the unknown. I find that I’m old enough now to know that I have a very unhealthy way that I motivate myself. It’s all about threats. It’s all about fear. It’s all about the looming public embarrassment, and I have to avoid that. It’s terrible.
But also making being uncomfortable comfortable. How important is that to you?
[Laughs] In terms of being authentic, it was important for me to embrace those parts of myself and put that into the character. Even if he was a little more awkward or more withdrawn than I tend to be in my real life, that is something that I can’t escape, and I think that there’s an honesty there. I was on the physics team, I was on the math team, I wasn’t very coordinated, I’m not good at team sports. All that stuff is kind of no surprise, and it’s just like, “Alright.”
You also have such a long list of guest appearances. The whole time I was just like, “Oh, there’s Rory Scovel, there’s Drew Tarver, there’s Beck Bennett, and there’s Andrew Santino.” There’s a real comedic orbit in the film. How the hell did you stay efficient and productive working with so many creative people?
It was hard! There are just things you have to lose. And people are funny, and they do great stuff, and you realize, “Damn it, I’ve got to keep the narrative moving, and I’ve got to take this out.” And there were great improvisers in that movie. Briga Heelan, who’s in the scene in the car with me, she’s such a funny person.
I’ll tell you one of the heartbreaks. Christine Woods, who plays my ex, I had a whole story line with all of these flashbacks to our relationship. I loved the work she did. She was so great, so generous as an actor, and I felt like we had such great chemistry. And I did one assembly of the movie, and as I was screening it for people, it was like I put too much in the movie, and I was confusing my audience. People told me, “Oh, I thought it was more about the ex-girlfriend, but it’s a story about losing moms.” Those were some of the hard lessons that I had to learn. I’m sure I’ll make mistakes like that again if I get to make more movies, but it is hard because I’m usually on the other side of that. I got cast in a movie and I thought I did good work, and then I find out I’m not in a lot of scenes. You really think, “Oh jeez, I blew it. I’m not good enough.” But now I think, “Oh shit, I blew it.” You just want to use it all, but you can’t.
But then again, you’re exploring a story that is so near to you. Knowing about your father now, it must have felt strange to have a new father? This is not real life, and you’re acting, but you have to tap into something to feel.
Yes, you’re right. One of the weird takeaways for me was that day one of shooting with Kevin. I haven’t had a dad since I was 20, so I’ve been alive for longer without a dad than I was with a dad, and a lot of my identity and who I think I am has developed since my dad died. I didn’t do stand-up; I didn’t even know I was going to do stand-up when my dad was still alive.
And you have a wife and kids now.
Yeah. Everything. People that he never got to meet, that will never know him. And then there I am with Kevin, this make-believe dad, and I’m thinking, “Jeez, how comfortable should I be as a grown-up with my dad? How chummy are you? How deferential are you? I don’t want to be disrespectful to my dad, the character, but they should be comfortable with each other and now we’ve talked about some grownup things that I didn’t get to talk about with my dad.”
And you have to cry and feel everything. You hear those stories about method acting, and I feel like it’s a needed and necessary evil. But when you did cry, I was taken aback.
Yeah, the crying, sadly, there was a lot to pull from as an actor, because my mom is sick. She has Alzheimer’s. She got sick about eight years ago, and she’s very far along. She can’t speak, and she doesn’t know who I am. So it’s been tough.
I’m so sorry. I know that we’re strangers, but I do feel I have to say thank you for sharing that.
It’s just becoming. I haven’t really spoken about it until just recently, within the last week or two. I’ve been now talking about the movie, and I’m just trying to answer honestly. It’s good because it’s a different way of relating to people.
Do you have a different relationship now with being a parent, with being a father? Do you feel like you need to be a part of every moment knowing how fleeting it is?
It changes and puts such a different lens on everything. With loss, it’s such a nasty strange thing to lose someone that you really care about because the years pass and you heal in a lot of ways, but then it’s also nonlinear. You’re okay, and then a birthday comes up, an anniversary, you have your first child, and the loss is so acute all of a sudden. It’s like the scar kind of opens up a little bit and you’re just like, “Oh god, that really hurts.” And then you feel like you have no business being so upset about this. Somebody died 20 years ago and you’re thinking, “Jeez, get over it man.”
But you never get over it.
You never get over it. That was the original title of the movie: The First Thing You Never Get Over. That was my experience. My dad’s name was Dean, so that’s why I called the character that, and the movie. In total, it’s been more positive than negative, I do feel like I’m putting something out there that’s very personal and that means a lot, and when it does resonate with someone, it just feels nice. It makes you feel more connected to other people and a little less alone. It just feels different from what I’m used to from 20 years of stand-up, where people respond to my material but I haven’t put my heart out there the way I have with this. It’s a scarier, more vulnerable prospect.
Do you think that something has shifted within, to affect how you deliver your stand-up?
It’s funny that you say that. I was just talking to my wife about this, as I’m preparing a new hour. I still write jokes, and my head for stand-up naturally goes to this certain place for these one-liners. But I’m finding with this movie it feels like I need to find a way to do more emotional material. I just want to make sure it’s worth it for people to listen to it because it does really feel like an era of oversharing right now. It’s like diarrhea of autobiography. It’s too much, you know? I’m cautiously entering the more personal arena.
I think it’s a blessing for your fans to see this different side of you. That’s something that not a lot of people get to do.
Well, thank you so much. And I never get to talk noses with people. It makes us who we are.