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In His Directorial Debut, Demetri Martin Blends 'Sincere Comedy,' Woody Allen And The Grim Reaper

"Dean" enjoyed a warm reception at its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.

Demetri Martin was overjoyed on Saturday night. The 42-year-old comedian's sweet directorial debut, "Dean," enjoyed an enthusiastic premiere at the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival. When Martin took the stage for a Q&A after the movie ended, he was beaming. 

That smile had far from faded by the time I sat down with him the next afternoon to discuss "Dean." And it was deserved. The film is a well-realized portrait of processing grief, told through the humorous lens of a struggling cartoonist (Martin) who can't overcome a desire to include the Grim Reaper in his sketches. Dean's mom died recently, his best friend (Reid Scott) has grown distant, and his lonely father (Kevin Kline) wants to sell his childhood home. So the New York native absconds to Los Angeles, where a fetching new love interest (Gillian Jacobs) starts to bring him out of his slump. 

But "Dean" is no manic-pixie-dream-girl "Garden State" redux. Martin's optimistic worldview elevates it far beyond that. He flirted with other scripts he'd written for his directorial debut, but it's hard to imagine a more appropriate movie to introduce Martin's filmmaking, especially given how personal it is for him. We had a lengthy conversation about channeling Woody Allen, what he learned from "Taking Woodstock" and the state of "The Daily Show."

What was your impression sitting in the room as the audience experienced it? I always ask directors that at festivals because I imagine it’s such a unique experience.

Yeah, it must be interesting for you, too, to have enough iterations of it. In a way, you would be similar to me and a lot of my friends at stand-ups because we’ve been in front of so many audiences. When you first start, it’s kind of like, “Oh, they like me! I guess they thought I’m funny.” And the next time, it’s, “Oh, they didn’t like me. I guess I’m not funny.” But then, over time, things kind of average out. You do 1,000 shows over the years, or 2,000 shows, and the highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t as low.

But this was the first film I’ve made, so at least I have one under my belt where the crowd laughed at the stuff I wanted them to laugh at. People seemed moved. It was quiet in the spots I hoped it would be quiet, where people seemed attentive to what was happening.

I was telling a friend at the party last night that when a couple of the laughs happened in the first act, I think that’s when my shoulders just dropped and I felt happy. I could just kind of enjoy it, like, “If they laughed at that, I think these are my people.” 

You’ve had a couple of other directorial projects in the ether in recent years, and they seemed pretty different from this. Did you feel a natural inclination at some point to channel your storytelling desires through the lens of grief?

You’re right, I had these concept-y ideas, which I still have. I have pretty good first drafts. I don’t think I could shoot either of those tomorrow, but I have some stories that are working. I need to pick one and fix it, if I’m going to do that. The problem was, I feel like I was old enough when I started directing this to know that I’m a first-time director, and I like these concept-y ideas, but I really want to do them well and I’m afraid that I’m going to regret trying to do them super low-budget -- if I even could get the money to do those.

But I had this one half-written, and I was telling my wife, “I really want to try to direct something to see if I can do this.” She said, “How about the one you were working on that’s out of your real experience? See if you can get that to work because I bet you could do it for not much money.” And she’s not in the business -- she does commercial interior design. I listened to her.

I had maybe 50 pages of it, and I had abandoned it because it was kind of a bummer, the whole grief thing. And as a stand-up, that’s not what I’m selling. I like jokes. Stand-up, for me, is escapism, in a lot of ways. I’m not a particularly political comedian, but I can talk about balloons or chairs or dogs, and I can deconstruct, in a very simple and limited way. I love “You Can Count on Me” and “Raising Victor Vargas." The sweet spot of sincere comedy is something I thought I might be able to do, and this script felt like a good candidate. It was pretty hard in the edit to get the tone to work enough so that it wasn’t so, “Oh, look I’m an actor, everybody. I can act! Here’s me emoting!” But I lost my dad when I was young. I want to talk about what it’s like to lose someone and to technically be an adult but yet emotionally maybe not have found your footing, where you feel like life isn’t just shit. It felt like rich material for that.

Do you always know that you would play Dean?

Yeah, I wrote myself as the lead. There’s certainly the vanity of trying to do all three -- there’s the hubris of it. But there’s the challenge of it, too. People like Albert Brooks and Woody Allen, those are heroes of mine. It’s a high bar I’m reaching for, but at least there was someone who had done it. I think if I didn’t know about those guys, I don’t know if I would have felt as able to do it.

Our budget was $800,000. In post, it might have went up, maybe to $950,000. I don’t know if we even broke a million.

Really? It looks like it cost more than that. Speaking of which, there's a shot that reminded me of the famous image of the bridge in “Manhattan.” Was that a conscious Woody Allen allusion?

Yeah, I guess you could say half and half, in that I wanted to do an homage, even in the old-timey music that I use. I also wanted to play with the audience a little bit. The fantasy is that people don’t know anything about your movie when they go into it, so there was this fantasy that people would think, “Oh, I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to do this Woody Allen story in New York." And then I get on the plane and it turns out the bulk of the movie is in LA, which is so not a Woody Allen movie. That whole second act is in LA, so I like the idea of playing just subtly with expectations.

And you get to play with New York humor vs. LA humor, which must come easily after having lived in both.

You know, it’s easy to hate LA, right? It’s easy to love New York, so I wanted to play with that a little bit. My parents are from Brooklyn and I was here 14 years. Sadly, I grew up in New Jersey. My parents had already moved by the time I came along, but we would visit all the time. I was like, “As far as I know, I’m staying in New York. I’m going to die here. I love New York.” Like every other jerk, I end up out in LA. I got a show out there. I did my Comedy Central thing out there, and I ended up staying out there. I live in a canyon and I like it.

But yeah, I wanted to service both so it wasn’t like, “Oh, I get it, another guy who hates LA.” I’ve come to love certain parts of LA, and there’s this thing that happens -- you’ve probably heard from friends who’ve moved out there -- where buying your groceries and putting them in your own car is luxurious. No walk-up? Are you kidding me? I park my car and walk to my door and close it and I’m home?

I was in a sixth-floor walk-up for five years. When I moved in, I was like, “I’ll get used to the walk-up. I’ll get in shape.” And I swear to God I never did. I’m always out of breath by the top of the last fucking flight of stairs. It never went away. Sometimes I think about that and I think, “I’ve escaped.”

Before this, your only lead role in a movie was "Taking Woodstock." What did you learn from that experience that you brought with you to "Dean"?

It was a huge coup for me to get that part in Ang Lee’s movie. I’m not a trained actor. Ang Lee was already Ang Lee. He’d already been an Academy Award-winning, amazing director, and I was their first choice, which was cool. The writer, who was his producing partner, showed him a clip of me on “The Daily Show” when he was finishing the script, and he was like, “I think he’d be perfect for it.” They gave me a shot.

At first, he had a very sensei quality. Ang’s kind of serious, and he kind of put me through it, in the sense that he wanted to make sure I was capable of executing this role. But he did me a great favor because he said a couple of things to me early on. He said, “As an actor, your job is to be well-rested. I need you to know your lines. And most importantly, I need you to give me options in the edit room. You need to be able to adjust if I’m asking you to adjust. People say generally that stage acting is bigger and screen acting is smaller. Generally. But that’s not always the case. I’m going to do some really wide things in this movie, and I’m going to need you to do the same scene bigger and I’m going to get in really tight. But when I get in really close, I can’t protect you. The camera just reports what you’re experiencing, so I need you to get that, if you can.” He said it in a very fatalistic way, but it was a great, sober conversation to have at the beginning of the movie.

He also taught me, in a very respectful way, “The movie’s really not about you. It’s about telling the story, so yes, you’re the star, in a sense, but it’s not about like, ‘Hey, it’s him!’” This was a very valuable thing when I come and try to do my own thing, and I’ve put myself there in so many of the scenes, to just be thinking about the other actors and what we’re trying to do as a group to tell this story, rather than it being a vehicle for me. The “look what I can do” thing, I think, is a very dangerous pitfall to fall into. 

That advice must have been paramount in telegraphing both internal monologues and actual conversations about having lost a parent and struggled with a career.

I think you’re right. And the “Woodstock” movie was also a coming-of-age story, but with what that character was dealing with, it wasn’t just coming-of-age. He had to face his parents, and you want to have that intimacy. You only have so many family members, you only have these parents. And you have been able to, if you’re lucky, be the most vulnerable you can be in life. I mean, they’re literally wiping your ass as a child, and then you have to go out into the world, at whatever age that is. You have to show them who you are or what inspires you or how you’re different from them. Whatever it is, there’s such a risk in losing so much. I think, here, grief was the fulcrum for that. So while it’s a very different movie from “Woodstock,” I think there’s something similar. In my own experience, anger is a lot easier to deal with, I find. It’s an easier emotion.

It’s more tangible.

It’s more tangible. It’s easier to manifest it. I can kick a chair, or I can say, “It’s your fault, you weren’t fucking there” or “You didn’t cry enough at the funeral.” Whatever it is, you feel active, even if it’s unproductive. And grief has such a passivity to it. It’s debilitating. That was a big challenge of the movie. My wife and I talked about it, just as I was showing her scenes. Like you were talking about at the beginning of the conversation, you see these indies where the grief thing is like, “Get me out of here. Jesus, you’re pulling me down. Let’s move this thing.” 

It looked like one of your other scripts, “Will," was getting off the ground a couple of years ago with Zach Galifianakis. Are you going to return to it?

I hope so. What happened was Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who directed “Little Miss Sunshine” and are now directing this great tennis movie about the Battle of the Sexes, were attached for eight or nine months a couple of years ago. They were going to direct it and I was so excited, but the financing fell through. They went on to another project, which was “Ruby Sparks.” But the guy who directed “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius, read the script and liked it, so he’s attached as director. I’m not holding my breath because it’s been so many years, but maybe it could get made.

What will it take?

Paramount. They have it. I don’t know if they’re afraid to pull the trigger because tonally it’s kind of in the middle. Is it a big drama? No. But it’s not a big comedy. It’s kind of like “Defending Your Life” or “The Truman Show.” There are beautiful examples of that kind of genre, if you want to call it that, but they don’t get made that often and I think they’re hard to pull off because you’re kind of creating a world. But I want that movie to get made so badly.

You were a correspondent on "The Daily Show." Have you kept up with it now that Jon Stewart has left?

A little bit. It’s no slight to any show, but I haven’t seen “Breaking Bad.” I’m behind on a lot of stuff. I think it’s probably a symptom of being in LA. We’re just up in our canyon. But I have seen it, yeah.

What do you think of it? Some say it’s lost its voice without Stewart.

This, to me, as someone who got to participate in the Jon Stewart “Daily Show,” seems inevitable. I mean, if I could hand-pick anyone from the universe, I don’t know who you’d put in there. I guess the question is how long will they have to figure it out? Hopefully they give it enough time. Can Trevor Noah, who I don’t know but who seems very capable -- can it be his show?

I think if Jon teaches us anything, it’s that a show like that works very well if you’re lucky enough to have a guy like Jon -- or anyone, or a woman, whoever it is -- who has enough of a voice on those issues that the show is almost an extension of their body, in a sense.

It's the rewriting that Jon himself would do between dress rehearsal and the show going up. Literally with the audience on the street, he’s going cue to cue. Then they load the audience, and we’d be backstage in this room where there was a projector. The writer’s assistant had a computer hooked up to a projector, and it was projecting the script on the wall. So they’re fixing it on the wall, Jon and the producers. Whenever I did my segments, they’d bring me in the room, and I’m standing there with Jon and the writers, and we’re doing the back-and-forth for my chat with him, and it’s on the wall and they’re changing it as we’re saying it, and then they’re like, “Cool, we got it.” Then it goes onto the prompter. I don’t know if the show is still like that, but Jon could do that. He was really good at that, and it’s hard. With Trevor, I don’t envy the guy. These are tough shoes to fill. But it’s cool, I have a friend named Adam Lowitt, who’s a longtime producer and writer there, and he’s on camera now. It is cool to see people I know doing bits on camera and the show still being funny. But it’s almost like if the Jon Stewart one never existed, you just wonder if they’d get a fair crack at it to be like, “Hey, this is a really good show.”

As in, could the brand exist without the name Jon Stewart?

Right, exactly. Because it seems like there’s clearly comedy happening there -- it’s working. They just have the burden of the long shadow of its success.

Now it seems like John Oliver and Samantha Bee are taking the spots that “The Daily Show” fill. The weekly format provides the advantage of taking a step back from the vicious daily news grind.

It’s inhumane.

It almost doesn’t lend itself to the same satirical voice that it did, say, five years ago. Things move too quickly.

I feel the same way. I’m friends with Oliver, and when he first got his show, I was like, “Smart move, man. One show a week? You’re living the life, dude. As long as you deliver." And Sam’s so funny, so it’s great and sad that that’s the first woman. It’s so great she’s doing it, but wow, really? Do we have 11 shows and then finally a woman gets one? Or whatever the number is. I guess Chelsea Handler comes back on Netflix, so that does count, too, but this is crazy. As a white dude, I’m really happy for my privileges, but it does seem like it’s getting pretty crazy in today’s day and age.

Is there a female comic out there that you would love to see land her own show?

That’s a great question. Kate Berlant, who is in my movie, is really funny. I didn’t know her stand-up before this. She came in and auditioned. I’d heard she did a “Characters” thing for Netflix. I haven’t seen it yet, but I went and watched a short film she did. She’s really funny and really inventive and really smart. I could imagine her having a show that would be really different and unexpected, whatever that show would be. And hopefully she will.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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