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Demetri Martin on ‘Dean,’ Learning from Steven Soderbergh, and Writing Female Characters

Written by on May 31, 2017 

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The most piercing comedy is often mined from the darker aspects of life, presenting our fears in a new, hopefully amusing light. While Demetri Martin‘s stand-up has tinges of this, represented in his lo-fi sketches and carefully constructed one-liners, his directing and writing debut Dean effectively melds, both on the page and stylistically, a dramatic backbone with his personal brand.

Ahead of the film’s release this Friday, I had the opportunity to speak with Martin about his feature as we discussed what he learned from his past experience being directed by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Ang Lee, how he’s trying to write better female characters, balancing tones, giving a voice to his supporting ensemble, and more.

The Film Stage: Congrats on the film. I’ve seen it twice now. I was at the premiere at Tribeca and I really enjoyed it.

Demetri Martin: Oh, awesome! Thanks, that was great. Such a stressful event, [but] kind of a magical night. You can imagine, I didn’t know how the crowd was going to react, so happy it was warmly received. I don’t know, it was kind of a relief.

That’s good to hear. Well, talking about the film, there is a relaxed style to it that definitely fits your comedy. I’m curious how you balance that tone and if there was there pressure on your part to speed up some of the narrative, because I enjoyed how you let the comedy play out.

I’m learning that tone is such a mysterious thing, because you might have an idea in your head when you set out to make a film, and certainly with stand-up I have an idea, and when the crowd guides you along the way, you say, “Okay cool, this is working, I can understand how this works.” But then you go make a movie, and first of all, the page, writing it. I have an idea, and [I think], “Oh, this could work, maybe,” but it was kind of a tricky balancing act of the more dramatic elements of the movie but still have jokes. Typically, I want the characters to feel like real people as much as I could, and have them be kind of grounded. There are moments where the Becca character [played by Briga Heelan] and Kate Berlant’s character on the plane, Naomi, they’re a little maybe heightened, more comedy than drama in those scenes, I’m sure, but generally I don’t want it to be like we’re in a comedy and then all of a sudden we’re in a drama, flipping back and forth and everything. I was trying to make it one movie and one voice. The pacing was part of that and something I was cognizant of. Then I was afraid as a stand-up, you get worried if it gets quiet. You’re afraid you’re losing your audience, you’re not being funny enough, so I had to put aside some of those fears and instincts to say, “Alright, just believe in your story, and it’s either a good performance or you know, people will stay with it.”

I loved your depiction or kind of hatred of the word “creatives” and going to the social media company. With the movie coming out now, I’m curious if you had to deal with creatives or marketing gurus, so to speak, and how that’s gone over?

I did. That’s one of the few things that it’s a totally made up scene but from a very real experience. Years ago I was involved in an ad campaign and I worked at this boutique ad agency — they were actually in San Francisco not LA. Just that kind of that bro culture, I just felt blinded by the whole thing, do you know what I mean? I have the utmost respect for creatives — I just think the word is stupid. To call them creatives has an annoying sound to it and it’s insulting to them and to the people who supposedly aren’t creative. “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re not a creative.” So yeah, I wanted to have some fun with that. That was one of those nice things about making a movie. I was like, “You know what, I can say something about this, and it’ll just be a little scene.” And those guys were so great in it. Beck [Bennett], who I didn’t know, and Andrew; Andrew is a stand-up and Beck is obviously on SNL, I thought they were so great.

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You have worked with some pretty great directors in the past, and I wanted to ask specifically about Steven Soderbergh — you briefly popped up in Contagion. Can you talk at all what you learned from him? Your movie probably couldn’t be any different, except he is slyly comedic in his movies.

He’s a comedy fan, obviously a very smart man.

What was that experience like, if you took anything. He works very off the cuff with shooting his films. I’m curious what you took from him and maybe brought to this film at all.

Sure, there’s a couple of things. First, I got to be in an Ang Lee movie a few years ago, which was great. Then I got to be in Contagion. And you’re right, I’m obviously in a small part. I only worked a couple of days, but what I learned after being involved in those projects: when you’re directing, whether you like it or not, it’s a performance. Not like it’s a self-conscious thing, where you’re trying to show off or something, but it’s more like you can’t escape the fact that when you get to the set, you’re shooting for the day. People are looking to you. They are literally trying to read you, to understand, “What are we doing next? How’s it going? Is this working? Are you trying to figure something else up?”

And it was interesting, having been an actor in both cases, to realize that I was an actor who wanted to direct some day, just thinking, “Wow, this is really interesting.” You can’t escape the fact that you are leading this group of people, and people are looking at you. And therefore, it is kind of a performance. In both cases, I learned that they had different styles. Ang has these people he works with and he’ll be in [the] video village or whatever. However, Soderbergh’s operating camera a lot of times. He’s looking at it through the camera. Those guys are both wizards. It doesn’t get much better than Ang Lee or Soderbergh just in the era we live in, and from Soderbergh it was so fascinating because they both have their teams, and I heard this about Woody Allen. He has the people that he likes to work with, loyal, and they work with him. It’s a well-oiled machine, and that performance or whatever you want to call it, it’s really economical. Soderbergh would walk around and look down and pace and figure out. You could see he was thinking, “Alright, what am I going to do next or how do I want to shoot this?” and people would just leave him alone. And then as soon as he looked up, his people would know, “Okay, cool. He’s ready.” And they would go over and talk to him and he would be like, “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” And did they move fast, it was so awesome. And you probably noticed about him, but he edits his stuff, too.

Usually right after shooting, right?

Right, we shot something and we’d come back the next day and he’s like, “I put this scene together last night. It works, it looks good, and I’m happy with it.” I probably would have wanted to go to sleep but he goes back. The biggest thing I got, especially after working with Soderbergh, was, “Oh my God, there are people who are really gifted doing this kind of work,” and the top goes up so high. A guy like that can do all of that work, and can be that prolific. It was just really inspiring, like when you see people who are just excellent, it makes you feel like there’s more possibility than maybe you thought beforehand. That doesn’t mean you can do it — I mean, I’m still trying to learn what I can do — but it sure is inspiring.

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Definitely. With the compositions in this film, there’s more of a visual impact than your average kind of dramedy, I would say. I think of the shots at the art gallery with the paintings behind you and some other shots, it feels almost like you were using a dolly track. This being your first film, how did you come up with the visual design? 

I’m psyched that you mentioned that one, because part of the challenge to myself was [that] I was like, “Hey, I’m a stand-up,” and I’ve worked to be as visual as I can at stand-up. I’ve put drawings and certain things on stage so it’s not just verbal, because I gravitate more towards verbal. There’s nothing wrong with verbal, it’s just I realize that that’s my comfort zone — wordplay, things like that. So I want to learn to move beyond that a little bit, so that’s cool I’m making a movie, it’s a visual medium, let me play with that. So the art gallery, that was an idea. I thought it’d be great if I could make some fake art and put it in this gallery and have them go to this thing, and have it be almost like an external representation of what he’s dealing with and inside what’s happening. [He’s] pursuing the girl and falling apart, then you’ve got guns basically pointed at his face while he’s walking around with her. I thought there’d be a nice visual counterpoint there, and it works pretty well. And my DP [Mark Schwartzbard] was great, he was up for stuff like that. I was like “I’d like to do this without cuts,” so he just moved through the space and hit our marks. Gillian [Jacobs] was awesome, she was better at it than I was. She was walking backwards, and if you watch that scene she’s doing a great job. And we got it and it was great for morale, and I was really happy that my tiny-budget movie could still pull off things like that.

And then putting the drawings, splitting the screen and having drawings occupy part of the screen, stuff like that, those were all things I wanted to see if I could pull off in my own small way for my first movie. It gave me hope for making movies in the future, if I had a little more time and money I could do more like that. Yeah, there was things I couldn’t get to shoot, like I wanted to shoot a scene where Rory [Scovel] and I are driving and he’s driving, and I’m in LA and I’m finally just having fun, escaping from my life in New York, and I was going to have him doing donuts with his car and we’re just laughing and kicking all this dust and dirt up on the helipad where we ended up shooting at night with this view of LA. I wanted to have the scene during the day with music and everything, and I learned quickly that like, “No, there’s no way you’re doing that Demetri.” You need a stunt driver, you need insurance, you need all that and I was like, “Got it,” reality check. Stuff like that was kind of a bummer because you realize you write this stuff in your script then reality slaps you in the face and says, “Good luck stupid, there’s no way you’re doing that.”

At least you got cats — those are cheaper than stunts. I want to talk about Rory Scovel, he’s kind of I feel like the comedic breakout, obviously aside from your lead performance, but in terms of a supporting performance.

No, but I agree with you! When I was in the edit, I was like “Rory’s stealing this movie!” That’s great, he’s naturally so funny.

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Can you talk about forming his character on the page, and then did you expand it once you were realizing how gifted he was on set?

What happened was on the page I knew I wanted to have this guy who was kind of like on the surface one of these kind of douchebag hook-up guys, but then I wanted to show that there was much more to him. There was something below the surface there; he was a sensitive person and he’s been through something. There was a scene I had to cut just because I couldn’t keep everything in the movie — I made it too long — but there was a scene where he and I have this heart to heart and you learn more about him and you kind of get why he’s so stuck on his cat and everything. He did a great job, all of his scenes I was just so happy with, and I couldn’t keep it. Even while we were shooting I was writing extra stuff for him to do because I was like, “I love this character and I really like what Rory’s doing with this.” He took what I had on the page and definitely made it better. Even Reid Scott, I didn’t give him a big role. I didn’t know how to flesh everyone out, especially if they had a shorter screentime, but I thought Reid did really nice work with what I gave him. Because again, he just seemed like a real person, not just like The Friend.

You definitely get that impact, especially in the scene when you go back to New York. I wanted to ask about Gillian Jacobs’s character. I liked how you increased her backstory more than you would expect in a comedy or even drama. I’m curious how working with her and the formation of the character, wanting her to be toe to toe with you in terms of having motivations and things like that.

Absolutely. I still feel like I’ve got to get better at this. Everybody should know by now that women really get the short end of the stick at so many ends of the business, but especially in comedy I feel like there’s so many funny women who gotta be the girl, they gotta be this person’s wife, they gotta smile at the guy’s joke. My wife helped me as I was trying to develop the script and the characters, and especially with Nicky; I’d read her a scene and she’d be like, “You know, it’s okay, I don’t know if I’d say that. I don’t know if a woman would really do that.” She’d tell me stuff like that and it was super helpful. So finally, we started to get Nicky to a place where I think this is a real person and a good character. Going into her backstory and what she was dealing with I thought was really helpful because you got to at least see her perspective. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, here’s my problems, my being, this is what I’m dealing with.” I thought it was nice to be like, “Hey, you know, she’s got her own story too. Even if the movie’s not all about that, she’s got that, that she’s dealing with.”

Dean opens on Friday, June 2.


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