Comedian Demetri Martin dug deep into some of his most personal traumas to make “Dean,” his directorial debut, an often very funny look at the divergent ways two men tackle a seemingly insurmountable tragedy. (No, really — it’s funny.) In the film, Martin (who also wrote the script) plays Dean, a directionless cartoonist from Brooklyn who has been able to summon up the energy to do much of anything since his beloved mother passed away. Meanwhile, his father Robert (Kevin Kline) has gone all-in on eradicating his grief though big actions, like selling their oversized family home, which sends Dean spiraling into off-kilter emotions.
Desperate for a change, he heads to Los Angeles for a fortuitously-timed business meeting. As Dean tries to acclimate to L.A., he meets the effervescent Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), who upends his fragile world. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Robert is finding his own new ways to cope (thanks to a lovely realtor, played by Mary Steenburgen). As the two men begin to come out of their grief in different ways, “Dean” puts a smart new spin on male-driven comedies, making his film as much about emotion as it is about humor.
Indiewire sat down with Martin the night after his big premiere, and the newly minted film director took the time to get honest about some of the shortcomings of his first feature, how his own very personal experience shaped it and how he got such a dream cast.
You’ve been working in entertainment for quite a long time. Why direct this story now?
I saw some of the press leading in to the
festival, and one of the things I saw was there was “nine actors turned directors at
the festival,” and I just love the idea of actor-turned-director — it’s like you’re
a werewolf or something. My dream was to be a standup. Could I do standup? Could I make a living at it? Could
I get that to be my job?
But at a certain point that changed for you?
Years pass, and I’m doing standup and writing became such a regular
part of my life, specifically writing jokes. I realized, “Why don’t I just
write down anything that seems valuable?” Even if they don’t work as a one-liner,
maybe it could be a scene or a story. And then suddenly I realized, “Hey, some of
these could be movies.” The fantasy started to emerge. Maybe I could like, learn how to act, and write narratively, so I could take some of these jokes so they
pay off in different narrative arcs. They can be presented or shown
rather than told, because standup is so much shown.
I discovered Woody
Allen pretty late. I had never seen a Woody Allen movie when I was a
kid. I didn’t know he was a standup before a filmmaker. Then I discovered Albert Brooks and I kind of had
a new appreciation for Steve Martin, because I knew him as a kid, but not as like
the artist comedian. I read Woody’s short fiction and then watched some of his
movies, and you see his development, he’s so prolific. Albert Brooks to me was such a great actor/comedian/director, he does everything. I got to know him a little bit and this was a
thrill for me. We were talking about likeability and he was like, “You can’t
worry about that, just get your voice out there, you’ll figure it out.”
a very long answer to say that knowing that those guys can do it, and those are
very ambitious examples because they’re who they are, but it gives you license
I know this is a very personal story for you to tell.
and suddenly he was 46 years old when he died and my mom was widowed at 41. This
was shocking to the family. When I was a kid, if someone told you one of your parents
are going to die really young, you wouldn’t believe it, and then when he got sick
I couldn’t believe it and then he was gone and I couldn’t believe it.
I’ve done one-man shows over
the years, but I’ve I never felt like I wanted to go up there and just tell
people, “Hey, I lost a parent.” Then there was the idea of telling a story on film. It’s fiction, but I can translate my emotional experience without
it being reportage and just saying, “Here’s what’s happened to me and here’s my
story.” It’s all fiction, but there are things that I’ve said in my real life
that I got to put into my characters’ mouths.
There are some narrative choices in here that are not totally auto-biographical, like the parallel love stories. Where did that idea come from?
I thought it would be interesting to see a couple who’s not 25 learning how to
date again, or that maybe it doesn’t get easier when you get older, you’re still
like, “Does she like me?” I thought
there would be something poignant about them failing to connect with each other
and yet not knowing that they’re having the same experience. That felt like a nice
thing that the audience could see, but [the characters] can’t see. I like that kind of
Although the film is very much about their relationship, there are some extremely funny and special female characters in it. Was that another choice you felt was necessary?
Another goal of mine was to have funny women in the movie and have
scenes in which they’re funny. Rather than, “Oh, hey, my movie, I’m funny,” I’ll be
the straight man. “You’re funny, I like what you do, you be funny in this scene.”
Kate Berlant, who plays Naomi on the airplane, it’s just a small
scene. She came in and read for something else and I had already fallen in love
with someone else for the part. But she surprised me so much in the audition. I
didn’t know her before and I was like, “God, this woman is funny in a way that I
don’t even know what she’s doing, but she’s making me laugh.” I rewrote the
airplane part for her.
The film explores male emotions in a pretty raw way. There’s a scene where Rory Scovel’s character accidentally ends a phone call to Dean by saying “I love you.”
him in the airport, and Gillian and Ginger are in the car and I
got some nice coverage of them talking. I was trying to have this counterpoint
of we’re being the traditional feminine characters and then it was just them
talking bullshit, it was so not like a “girly” conversation. I was really trying
to flip the expectations a little bit.
Even in the relationship with Gillian, I
was trying to make myself the traditional female character. I’m the one who is kind of falling in love with her. Men and women aren’t very different in that
way, but this is part of the underlying sexism of life. I like the idea that she
was legitimately like, “I thought we were having fun” and I was like, “You’re my savior, I need you.”
What sort of movie would you like to write and direct
Going in to this, I had two other scripts that I wrote. I’ve
been trying to write scripts that I can direct. They’re more concept-heavy, magical realism. I love the poetry in those kind movies
where you can achieve real emotion between the people in a magical setting. I
quickly realized I’m going to have trouble pulling that off. I had this half-written script, I went back and got it in shape and we shot this and it was
hard and it was emotional. Now that it’s done, I want to see if I can take a
step deeper, to try to do something grounded in reality that’s funny and sincere.
Maybe I’ll find a way to mix the two, if possible.
“Dean” premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
Check out Martin in an exclusive clip from “The Last Time You Had Fun,” embedded below: