Like Dean, the title character of the tenderhearted new movie he wrote, directed, and stars in, Demetri Martin likes to draw cartoons. “Dean” is the story of a young man whose grief and fear following the death of his mother sometimes surprises him when it manifests itself in his drawings. Suddenly, grim reapers just seem to be showing up in the images he creates.
In an interview, Martin talked about the different ways his ideas are expressed in drawings, stand-up, and film.
He describes himself as “a recreational cartoonist. I travel with notebooks a lot and on airplanes I just try to move my pen around on the page and then sometimes ideas emerge. Other times it’s definitely a specific idea and I try to draw them but a lot of the fun of it for me is kind of exploring where an idea takes me. I spend so much time drawing when I’m just at home. I usually draw before I go to bed. I keep a notebook by my bed and it’s one of the ways that I like to just kind of decompress at end of the day. So I’ve accumulated a lot of drawings and most of them are not really usable for anything but I had enough of them that I was able to do a book a few years ago. Now I have enough for a second book of the drawings that will come out in September. When I decided, hey I want to make my first movie, a small independent thing, I thought ‘Okay, what’s a story that I can tell that won’t cost too much and a character that I can play that’s going to be in my range and also how can I use the real estate on the screen?’ There’s something visual I can give with the cartoons. And so, drawing to me is a natural fit because I thought there was like a way to give a window into what the character is going through and it could also provide a certain intimacy with the audience. That’s different than just a comedian telling his jokes. It is a more private process for him. So, he can just see his drawings and only the viewers get to see them. No other characters are looking at those drawings while he is doing them.”
With stand-up, there is less intimacy but he has the advantage of an immediate audience reaction and a chance to revise. “And often I improvise and jokes come out of that, which is kind of fun. After all the years I’ve been doing it now it really accumulates so that you get a sense of what crowds like and how they see you. Even if it’s different than what you think you are, they tell you, ‘We like this and we don’t like that,’ and you say oh, I guess that is what I am. Thanks!’ It is a little bit more deliberate but over the years in my writing I have gotten to a point where I trust the process more and try not to judge too soon. So there’s probably more garbage in there, more gibberish but yes, mostly it’s little more intentional. Or I’ll have a specific goal or idea for a joke and I’ll write it out and then often looking back through my stuff is when I figure out that there is something usable or I can rewrite it.”
The film is not autobiographical in its details but its themes are inspired by Martin’s own experience of loss. “I lost my father in my real life when I was 20. In my drawings there are lots of grim reaper scenes and in my stand-up sometime my wife teases me, she says, ‘You know you have a lot of death stuff, you might want to pick your three favorites and not have too death material there in your stand-up hour.’ It can be a little bit of a downer, and I’m like, ‘You know, you’re right. I’ve got to sprinkle that around a little bit.’ So I thought there was something there for sure to deal with in the movie, to talk about. And it was a useful device or tool to have that leg to stand on when I was editing the movie. I could put a drawing here and then one there, use one for transition maybe at the end of a scene, things like that.”
Near the end of the film, Dean’s images begin to move slightly, a subtle indicator of the character’s initial progress in understanding himself and his father, played by Kevin Kline. “I knew that we weren’t going to have any kind of elaborate animation and I wanted it to be in line with what the drawings are. They are just simple so they’re just the slightest touches of movement, but I’m a big fan of restraint and I like when you can do things with less. A part of it was not having any choice because we didn’t have a big budget but in that third act sequence I was happy that we were able to animate it just a little bit. It was very simple, old-fashioned, just simple moves, but I find that when you simplify things, if you tell a joke that only has 12 words in it or 15 words and you do a drawing that only has a few lines in it, it does magnify the power of each of the lines or each of the words even if it’s not the most elaborately constructed thing that you are presenting.”
Martin said that his small roles in films like “In A World..” and “The Rocker” gave him a chance to learn about filmmaking. “I was cognizant of where I was and what I was doing because I wanted to direct. So even when I started getting small roles, I tried to pay attention when I was on set and see how everything worked. I didn’t go to film school so my learning has been more on the job. The first thing that strikes you especially as a standup comedian, is just how collaborative the whole process is and how much people need to trust each other and how important and central trust this to the whole process. Standup doesn’t teach you that. Stand up teaches you vigilance and self-reliance. You know you’re on your own and you’re not learning how to collaborate with others. You’re just learning how to figure out how to sell yourself in a sense and protect yourself when you’re on stage. So that was something that struck me from the beginning and it was truly very important in making my own movie because I could do a few things but I really needed great collaborators and I found some really wonderful people to work with. Mark Schwartzbard, my director of photography, was great. I hope I get to work with him again. I enjoyed working with the actors. My production designer, Sam Lisenco, was great, too. In smaller films people are really doing you a favor. I didn’t know Kevin Kline ahead of time and I’m getting so much more out of him being in the movie than he’s getting out of being in my movie. I really loved working with Kevin and I thought he brought so much to the role,”
Kline plays a man who is as bereft as his son but has a different way of showing his sadness and coping with loss. Dean seems to be stuck and he finds it unsettling that his father plans to sell the house and treats grief as another problem to solve. “I felt that having a father-son story where the two guys are dealing with the same loss would be an interesting starting point and then to see how divergent their approaches are would definitely give me a story to tell. Again, that’s fiction. In my one experience, I was almost more like Kevin’s character. I wouldn’t say I was so logical about approaching it but I was trying to deal with it. I was trying to be proactive in getting through the grief that my family was facing, whereas my character in the movie is more escapist, or at least looking for a way around it or out of it. He wants to leave or wait it out as if it’s just going to pass and when he comes to it’s going to be over. It’s rooted in real emotion and so that central relationship was really important to me to get that to work somehow. So, I thought, ‘Yes, there is a story there for sure.’”
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 21, 2017.