Fans of Demetri Martin's standup comedy have a new movie to check out this summer in Dean. Martin wrote, directed and stars in the film — about an illustrator dealing with his mother's recent death — alongside Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs and Mary Steenburgen. It won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, and finally hits theaters in June.
Dean is partly based on Martin's own experience of losing a parent (his father, also named Dean) in his early twenties. It's an emotional story but also stuffed with Martin's clever jokes and illustrations, which make the material feel fresh.
After screening the film, we spoke with Martin about the state of Hollywood, the art of filmmaking, movies we could see from him in the future and plenty more. (This interview has been edited and condensed for flow.)
Movie Pilot: You were trying to do something new with Dean. Why?
Demetri Martin: Yeah. Well, I wrote a couple of movies years ago. I had some kinda high-concept comedy ideas, and I sold them. I sold them both as pitches and I got paid to write them to studios. DreamWorks and Sony at the time. And I thought that would be my way into movies. As a movie fan, I was like, "Cool, I want to try to work in movies, too." I like standup, but I wanted to try these other ideas.
They didn't get made. They never got made. Maybe they'll get made some year, but so far, no. ... One took place in the beyond, like above earth in a sense, or heaven or something. And the other one was on the moon. Like the moon and earth. Both of them kinda broke my heart. I was just naive. I just thought, "Oh they're going to make these." And they didn't.
So then, years later, I just thought, "I really want to try to make a movie." And I realized that if I was going to get the money, it's gotta be a smaller idea. A smaller budget thing. So some of my [high-] concept ideas... I thought, "No one's going to give me the money for this. I'm a first-time director. It's just not going to happen."
So I ended up going with a smaller, more personal idea, hoping that I can make a story worth telling. For not that much money! And so, this [Dean] is what that ended up being. It's all fiction, this movie, but in my real life, I did lose a parent that was my father who died when I was 20, over 20 years ago.
MP: Early '90s, right?
DM: Yeah, it was '94. So plenty of time had passed, and I don't talk about it in my standup. It's just not something that I usually go to. If you know my comedy, I like doing observational stuff and...
DM: Yeah, exactly! And I do drawings. I play music a little. But yeah, mostly it's observational or one-liners or whatever. But then I thought, "Geez, it'd be cool to dig a little deeper and try something more personal."
I do want to make straight-up comedies when I get the time or money. And probably make a drama or two if I could. [Dean] was like a weird hybrid. Dangerous game to play, but I thought, "Let me try to tell a personal story and then put some drawings and stuff in there and mix it together."
MP: Somehow this is your first movie and you got Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen! Why do you think they wanted to do it?
DM: I think "somehow" is the right word. Because I really felt the same way. I was pleasantly surprised. What happened was, I finished the script — I didn't write it with anybody in mind. I was like, "Let me write a character I can play." And I like to draw so much. I think it would be useful to put the drawings onscreen as a storytelling tool.
Finished the script, then I was thinking, "Who can I get to play my dad? Kevin Kline is one my favorites, and he's a great dramatic actor and a great comedic actor." But specifically, I feel like in movies I've loved him in, like Dave or A Fish Called Wanda, there's both there. There's a real human being doing the stuff that he's doing in these movies. It's not just off-the-charts comedy bits, you know what I mean? It's grounded, somehow, in a real person.
So that was the fantasy choice. My agent got him the script and I waited for a while. And then I heard that he was interested enough to have lunch with me. I flew to New York and we had a lunch meeting. He seemed to like the material. And I told him, "Look, you'd be doing me a huge favor, obviously, if you did this movie."
He was funny. I remember, he goes, "So this movie would be a big payday, right?" He knew the deal. Something in it was appealing enough to him, and I heard that his nickname was Kevin "Decline." Because he just turns everything down.
MP: He's picky, yeah.
DM: Yeah, and I don't blame him. So what happened was when he said "yes," that opened up a lot of the financing. That literally got the movie made. And then it also changed it. I asked him, "What can I offer you? I want to make it worthwhile to you. If I can't offer you money [then] if there's someone you want to work with for the role of the realtor, do you have a friend that you've never had a chance to work with? Or a friend you've worked with before and you want to have fun just working together again? Let me know."
And he said, "Mary Steenburgen would be great." And I said, "Great!" So we got the script to her, and then once Kevin was in, suddenly it's a movie with Kevin Kline, you know what I mean? She ended up being lovely, anyway.
Everybody did me a favor, basically. They cut their fee, they kinda did it for no money, and I gotta say, it's touching in retrospect... Because I feel like people did more for me than I did for them. Which is really nice because I'm a first-time director, and even if they might have known my standup, they're still taking a risk. It's just risky when you're an actor. You're trusting someone. So they trusted me. So I ended up feeling grateful for it, if nothing else.
MP: A lot of your fans probably aren't going to see this in the theater. With all these streaming giants, how do you view your indie film fitting in?
DM: When I wrote [Dean], I remember thinking, "Geez, the world has changed and is changing quickly. The chances that this will be in a movie theater at all are not great." And that definitely bummed me out because I'm old enough that I do remember when movies were just in movie theaters, and I liked seeing movies in theaters. I watch a lot of movies at home, but I do like going to the theater. It is still magical to me.
So when I got the deal to get distribution, I just couldn't believe it. I was so excited. So it'll be out there. It's not going to be in that many theaters, and it won't be out there for that long, and I think you're right. ... If I'm really lucky, it'll have a good run in the theaters, but really, the world we live in, and let's be honest, a lot of movies I see, I see at home. I love the movie Brooklyn. I didn't get to see it in the theater. I didn't go out and see it. I should have. I saw it at home.
MP: Brooklyn was great in theaters.
DM: I'm sure [laughs]. No, but I love that movie, I'm kicking myself.
MP: I wish I could have seen Dean at Tribeca. Congratulations on winning Best Narrative Feature.
DM: Yeah, I couldn't believe it. It was such a nice surprise. ... That was such a fun, exciting moment to be in the room with people and have that happen, you know? And luckily, they liked it. And going forward, I want to make more movies, and I think [my] chances will be slimmer and slimmer if I don't make a big superhero movie or something, you know?
MP: I'd watch your superhero movie.
DM: Yeah [laughs].
MP: As a first-time director, was there anyone in particular who influenced you?
DM: Hal Ashby was a big one for me. ... I love Harold and Maude, Coming Home, Shampoo, that's a great movie. I really like Alexander Payne. ... I think what I like in both of those cases is that I care about the characters. I thought there were real performances there. I feel like those are two directors who love their characters — even the bad guys in their movies. I feel like some directors have disdain for their characters, even the good guys. ... I just feel slimy sometimes after I've spent time with a movie.
I love Wes Anderson, James L. Brooks, and this space between comedy and drama that's hard to navigate but sometimes works well. ...You Can Count on Me is one of my favorite movies. I haven't seen Manchester by the Sea because I've heard it's very sad, and I'm worried.
MP: I thought about that movie while I was watching Dean, actually.
DM: Is that right? Wow.
MP: Just the way you do grief.
DM: I'm sure I'll love Manchester by the Sea; I just gotta get ready for it. ... I'm still trying to learn. It's nice that those things exist.
MP: You mentioned you have high-concept ideas for movies you'd like to do later. Can you speak about those?
DM: The Will one was about how the world is all produced. There are departments up there [points up], and the world is like a giant movie studio in a sense. There are people up there who work on wind, sunsets, bugs, birds, all that stuff. But then, there's this one department called "life writing," and they write people's lives. So they write your life's script. Before you're born, they write the script. And then when you're born, if you're lucky, the script goes into production. When it's greenlit, that's when you're born. When you're alive, that script is in production. And when you die, it goes into post production.
So I have a whole story that came out of that world and our world kind of back and forth between a writer up there and the guy who wrote on Earth. And I just put so much into it, and I've probably done 12 or 15 drafts of that movie over the years. Different directors got attached and it almost got made in 2009 or 2010, and it didn't happen. A new director came on three years ago, and then I did another draft that didn't happen. It taught me a lot about writing. And that would be a studio movie if it ever got made.
The Moon People was about how, in my movie, NASA secretly colonized the moon. They never told anybody. Like in the '70s. There's a colony on the other side of the moon. Funding fell through, and it turned out they had left the people up there to die, but they survived. It takes place in the present day and they discover them. And they bring them back to Earth.
So you can see I love those concepts. [Dean] is very different from that, but I'm excited. Hopefully, I'll work my way up and I'll get to make my own version of something like those when the time comes. ... When I think of Woody Allen, a guy who can make Purple Rose of Cairo and Crimes and Misdemeanors, you know, and he makes Midnight in Paris, which has a fantasy magical element to it, but he also tells more grounded stories like Manhattan.
MP: I'm sure you learned so many things from doing this movie, but if there was one thing, what would that be?
DM: A very important and big lesson for a comedian was to put as much time, care and effort into picking the people you work with as you can. Because standup does not require that. It's all yourself. And it teaches you self-reliance and vigilance and a lot of things, but not how to collaborate.
And I'm lucky because I found some people that I want to take with me on my next project if they'll work with me again. My director of photography, my set designer, art director...
MP: Kevin Kline?
DM: [laughs] "Oh, what a discovery!"
I think you find your collaborators and it multiplies your powers. ... There's personal politics and [if] they're not getting what you wanted, you're clashing. But when it's working, you're like, "Man, this person is so much better than I am at that. And they're helping my movie so much more."
Albert Brooks, who I know a little bit and am a big fan of, told me something really interesting when I asked him for advice: When he casts his movies, he tries to think of someone who will bring to ... his dialogue something more than he could have ever written. ... I think it's one of the really exciting, wonderful things about getting to make movies is that you get to work with other people. And if you're really lucky, you'll find great ones to work with. ... I kind of knew that going in, but I didn't realize just how much it can multiply and breathe life into your ideas.
Dean opens in theaters on Jun 3, 2017.