Demetri Martin wrote, directed and plays the title character in the new film Dean. But the real stars of this stand-up comedian’s directorial debut are his drawings.
In real life, Martin is a comic who draws — his 2012 collection This Is a Book was a 2012 New York Times bestseller. In Dean, he plays an illustrator who’s grieving.
We meet Dean shortly after his mother has passed away. He’s struggling to finish his second book of humorous drawings, finding himself only able to come up with ideas about death. There’s a jack-in-the-box coffin, a figure parachuting into its own grave and lots of Grim Reapers.
As Martin tells me when we meet in a nondescript Beverly Hills conference room a couple of months before the film’s theatrical release, he originally envisioned using the drawings throughout the film as little more than “comic relief.” But as he kept working on the film, he realized they could be a way for the audience to “see what he’s feeling.” In early screenings of the movie, he discovered they were not only getting laughs but actually delivering an emotional impact as well.
Martin, who served a stint as The Daily Show’s “Senior Youth Correspondent” midway through the George W. Bush administration, is finally starting to look his age. At 44, his once signature shaggy hair is now closely cropped with hints of salt-and-pepper. After spending most of his adult life in New York City, Martin moved out west to Los Angeles, where he now lives with his wife. “I’m pretty comfy out here,” he admits, a bit reluctantly. “I always thought I would stay there, but like the typical showbiz shmo I moved out here.”
Like Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Martin’s titular character in Dean is a New Yorker who finds himself entirely out of place in LA, at one point rolling his suitcase through the sand on Venice Beach. “I wanted to play with it a little bit so it’s not just like, oh, the guy hates LA,” Martin explains. “By adding the love story, I thought it would be kind of interesting. If you fall for someone, this magical lens gets placed over that place. There’s something more enchanting about it.”
On an ill-fated business trip to the west coast, Dean falls for Gillian Jacobs’ Nicky, an only slightly less damaged version of the character she plays on the Netflix series Love. The rest of the supporting cast, assembled with the help of legendary casting director Allison Jones, includes both comedians like Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant and comic actors like Great News’ Briga Heelan and Veep’s Reid Scott.
But the real “reason the movie got made” at all is that Kevin Kline signed on to play Martin’s widowed father. “I didn’t know Kevin Kline and was just so lucky that he responded to the material and was available and up for it,” Martin says. Once he was on board, the financing came through and he was able to get Kline’s friend Mary Steenburgen to portray his father’s realtor-turned-love interest.
As Martin accurately points out, everyone in the film is capable of delivering “sincerity” without feeling “ironically removed” from the reality that they are playing. “I feel like there is that trend of you’re not really trying and you’re detached or you’re safely distanced from making a fool out of yourself,” he says of modern comedy films. “I didn’t feel that way about anyone in this movie, I felt like they all were sincere and put it all out there, which is what I wanted tonally.”
In a comedy about a man who loses his mother, tone is essential. The film is undeniably funny, but also a lot sadder than most fans of Martin’s will be expecting when they walk into the theater. “I had an idea of what I thought I was doing on the page, but then you’re shooting it and it’s hard to quantify tone,” he says. “You have to really feel it out on set.”
Because of the movie’s relatively small budget, Martin had just 20 days to shoot, which meant filming scenes out of order maximize time at each location. “It’s tricky, especially when it comes to tone, because you’re like, this one’s kind of a funny scene and this one’s kind of sad. But you don’t want to be too unrealistic with the funny over here. I want them to be real human beings,” he says. “And with the sad thing, I’m not making some heavy drama. Even if I wanted to, I’m not sure I’m capable of that. I had people in my movie who could do that, but I’m not a trained actor, my range is limited.”
Six years ago, Martin was at the premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, in which he had a small part as a CDC worker. “I liked the movie, I thought it was good. Jude Law is in it, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, you’ve got some real actors,” he remembers. “And then I’m in there!” When he saw Soderbergh after the screening, he thanked him for not cutting him out of the movie and also for helping him realize something about himself. “Any aspirations I had about dramatic acting, I see my face up there and it’s out of my control. This nose, this face, comedy was the right thing for me to go to. I can feel what Matt Damon is feeling, it doesn’t mean it’s coming out of this body.”
Martin likes to say on stage that most of his material falls into one of two categories: fart jokes and death jokes. He grew up loving movies that could be both hilariously funny and darkly dramatic at the same time, whether it was James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News or Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Quick to acknowledge that this film does not reach those heights, he says he liked having something to “aspire” to.
He also had a unique window into this particular character’s experience.
“I know this story. I lost a parent when I was young,” he tells me. “It was my dad who died and my mom trying to get back out there. You know, it was hard. It’s been years, so I thought I could probably tell that story. But at the same time, I thought, no I want to do a concept thing, something kind of cool.” It was Martin’s wife who urged him to focus on the more personal story first.
Martin was just 20 years old when his father passed away. He was a junior in college at the time and temporarily left school to go be with his family. “I was kind of in denial at the time, I thought the treatment was working,” he says of that time in his life. “But then I get the call that all of a sudden he’s got a couple of days to live. It was just terrible.”
He went home to New Jersey for the funeral and stayed there for three weeks. When he finally returned to school, he says, “People didn’t know what to say to me, because who loses their parent in college?”
“I remember so much of it, especially the feelings. It just seemed like, if I’m going to put this much work into something and put it all on the table, I should shoot from the heart,” Martin adds. “Even though it’s pretty scary.”
All these years later, Martin believes that losing his father helped push him to pursue comedy. At the time, he was on track to go to law school, which he attended for two years before dropping out to become a comedian instead. “I look back and I think, why didn’t I just not go to law school?” he wonders. “I was joking around with friends in college. I wasn’t doing stand-up, but I was still so locked into the safety of my path that it took almost three years.”
“If my dad didn’t die, I don’t know, maybe I would have made it into comedy some other way,” he says. “But it shook me up and I think, even with everything I went through, it was hard to take the leap and not be afraid of failing.” All he wanted to do was please the people around him. “To leave that was scary. But losing someone, especially so young, changes the way you see everything.”
The final drawing we see before the credits role at the end of the film is on the cover of Martin’s alter-ego’s second book, titled “Life and Other Jokes.” It shows Dean hitting Death in the face with a pie and tells you everything you need to know about how Martin embraced comedy to get past his grief.