Interview with Demetri Martin (writer, director and star of "Dean") by Jeff Mitchell

In April, comedian Demetri Martin traveled to the Valley to screen his movie, “Dean”, and he spoke with an enthusiastic and warm Phoenix Film Festival audience.  The evening was a festival highlight, and Demetri also sat down with me that morning to talk about his movie.  “Dean” is a hilarious and heartfelt comedy about a New York City illustrator’s quest to find his footing in California after his mother passes away. 


Demetri not only stars in the title role, but he also wrote and directed the picture as well.  During our enjoyable and insightful discussion, he talks about his career trajectory before comedy, the inclusion of his drawings throughout the film and how the loss of his father inspired “Dean”.


“Dean” also stars Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Gillian Jacobs, and Rory Scovel, and it arrives in theatres on Friday, June 2. 



PFF:  I loved, loved, loved your artwork, and how you integrated it into the film.  Did you have your drawings already in place and build the script around them, or did you write the script and then create your artwork after the fact?  How did that process work?


DM:  It’s probably a 50/50 split.  Years ago, I started carrying around a notebook more, because I was writing jokes all the time, and I started to just draw in there.  It kind of reignited something.  I liked to draw as a kid, and then, somewhere along the way, I (decided) that I wasn’t great at it - or whatever happened – and just stopped.  Once I started having a notebook and a pen with me, this part of me came back to life, and I drew. 


When it came time to make a movie, I thought because I draw so much in my daily life – and I usually draw before I go to bed, just for fun – it would be cool to make my character an illustrator.  It would be another axis, that I could tell the story.  When I look through my notebooks, it turns out things that I gravitate towards in my drawings were not that different thematically (from the movie). 


I had some (drawings) to start with, and I looked through them and said, “You know what, I do have a lot of drawings about death here.”


These would be useful. 


When we got to the edit, I found that there were places (in the film), where a drawing would actually work really well rhythmically or would be a good transition to the next scene.  So, I found myself - almost commissioning myself - to do drawings for the movie, after I got to the edit.  So, it’s about 50/50. 


PFF:  In the film, Dean’s dad (Kline) is planning on selling his house.  He’s trying to move on after his wife’s passing, and Dean wants to hold on to the house, because it’s his childhood home.  What is Dean trying to emotionally hold onto?    


DM:  Here’s where I probably dip into my own life.  While the movie is all fictional, in my life my father was the parent who died young, when I was 20.  He was only 46.  It was a real shock to our family.  I think what I put into the movie and the character – and this was 20-plus years ago, but what I remember emotionally – was this idea that he was just gone.  It’s just so disruptive (when a parent dies), but yet, their stuff remains.  We had to get rid of (my dad’s) things, and it wasn’t long after my father passed that mom sold our house. 


I didn’t fight that or anything. I had gone to college. I was away, but I remember that feeling.  I wasn’t going to stop my mom.  She needed to move on, but it was weird.  It does feel like an erasure of your past, a very concrete removal of the documentation that this person was there.  So, I thought that was a very real and powerful way to externalize something that would be going on between them.  It’s a very easy battleground to have. 



PFF:  The movie includes a wedding scene, and Dean feels a little out of sorts.  The way that I was looking at it: Dean feels that his life is not together, but his friends have it “all” figured out.   


DM:  Yes, that’s how I was looking at it too.



PFF:  Now, I think that this all changes for him – and his healing process begins - when he sees his friend, Eric (Scovel), in California.  Dean discovers that Eric does not exactly have his life together either.  Was this the spot where the light went on for Dean?


DM:  I tried to write characters beyond myself, including the character that I am playing.  Dean is not me, but, of course, he’s going to be pretty close to me.  He’s definitely within my range as a person, but thinking about other people, not as supporting characters, but as people with their own stories, hopefully dimensional people. 


When I got to Eric, (I thought) what’s his story?  On the surface, Eric is one of these pickup artists.  It’s interesting to me, because we all know (a guy) like that, who is going to figure out how to get some hot girl to like him.  I wanted to go below the surface and - with a lot of characters - make him a little more human.  What I found was that if I can develop characters with a little more to them, it only helped me and my character in the end.  There was something to really play off of, and the scenes came to life a little bit more. 


So, yea I thought that was an important scene to show a turn, like you’re mentioning. I think Dean’s attitude (changes) in that scene.  I tried to learn how to do scenes, where there’s a turn, a place to go.  There’s a fulcrum, and something happens emotionally.  Even though it’s small, there’s still something that matters.  So, if Dean is a little more judgmental about his friend at the beginning of the scene, at least it tips, and there’s more empathy, there’s more compassion.



PFF:  There is a moment in the film, when you are dragging your luggage in the sand on the beach, and I love this scene for two reasons.  One, it’s a great visual.  Two, Dean ends up on the beach, because he decides to take a risk.  How difficult was it to drag your luggage in the sand?  It looked tricky.  Also, in your personal life, have you had one of those “I’m going to take a chance” moments?


DM:  I didn’t live that far from where we shot that scene, and there’s a big stretch of sand there, where Santa Monica meets Venice.  It dips inland, and the beach is already pretty wide.  When it came time to shoot the movie, I knew where I wanted to do that (scene), because it felt almost like a desert.  There’s so much sand, until you get to the ocean. When we were shooting it, it wasn’t too bad, but it was super windy.  I’m not working in a coal mine or anything, but it was harder than I thought. 


It’s funny when you make a movie, because it’s almost like you treat yourself as if you are a cartoon character or something.  You (think to yourself) that on Day One, I’ll do this, then we’ll do this thing, then I’ll run here, and I’ll chase the car, or whatever it is you’re shooting. 


You just think, “Yea, I can do it. I see people do it in movies.” 


Now, when you see a “Bourne” movie, and this guy is jumping out of windows, doing flips and s***, you (say), “Oh my God, these guys are professional athletes.”


Suddenly, I realize that I’m not in shape.  I haven’t been exercising.  There are 12, 13-hour days, and you start falling apart.  It’s a 20-day shoot, but halfway through the movie, I was exhausted.  I lost weight.  If anybody sees the movie, there’s nothing physical.  That’s about as physical as it gets.  Maybe riding bikes, a little bit. 


Did I ever go for it in life?  Yea, I did.  Professional definitely.  I was in law school, years ago, and I dropped out.  I just quit to be a comedian.  It’s the first time in my life that everybody was disapproving of my decision, but I felt that I wanted to take a chance, because I didn’t want to regret not trying stand-up.  I didn’t know if I could make a living or not, but I had to give it a shot. 


I didn’t want to look back and think, “Oh, I could have done that, or what would have happened?”


I’d rather try and fail than say, “What could have been?”


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.