Demetri Martin on Dean: 'I was watching these great actors doing my dinky little film'
The 2003 Perrier Award winner chats about his directorial debut, a film about a humble illustrator struggling with relocation and family grief
In his live stage work, comedian Demetri Martin has worked some magic through his fascination with anagrams, puzzles and various intricate loops of wordplay. So when he got round to helming his first feature film, Dean, about an illustrator who is sluggish with grief over his mother's death while his career falters and his relationships implode, it was inevitable that some might seek clues within, say, the name of the eponymous character, Dean Saris. The 45-year-old New Jersey-raised, LA-based comedian, writer and, now, film director, agrees that 'Sad is Near' gets pretty close to the heart of his drama.
'I wanted to do a movie about coming out of grief and thought that tonally it would be a challenge to make a movie that would be fun in parts but grounded emotionally and really sincere,' Martin insists. 'I think it's hard to find comedy with heart and it can end up being maudlin or sappy or sentimental. But at the same time I am at the more sensitive end of the spectrum when it comes to comedians; I'm not a tough guy comic.'
While in Dean, the central character is coping with his mother's death, this element of the film was informed by the passing of Martin's father when the comedian was 20 years old. 'I'm not crying about my dad every day, but years later when my son was born, I was surprised how much it reopened the wounds. I really felt my father's absence, and I thought this might be interesting to explore.'
Originally shown in 2016 at the Tribeca Film Festival (where it won the award for Best Narrative Feature), the film stars Martin alongside Gillian Jacobs who plays Dean's potential love interest Nicky (curiously, in that same year, Jacobs first appeared as Micky in Judd Apatow's Netflix comedy-drama, the similarly indie lo-fi Love). Kevin Kline plays Dean's father who is slowly attempting to get back into the dating game with estate agent Carol (Mary Steenburgen).
How did Martin cope with handling such Hollywood royalty as Kline and Steenburgen during his maiden voyage in the director's chair? 'They were both very gracious, and as veterans they knew what they were signing on for,' recalls Martin. 'Kevin was very avuncular and I learned a lot from him and felt really grateful. And Mary was a delight. At first I was very nervous, but there I was watching these two great actors through the monitor doing my dinky little film.'
As well as Dean's battles with humans during the film, there's an ongoing struggle between the familiar tropes of earthy New York against vacuous Los Angeles, as Dean leaves the former to try to make his career take off in the latter. 'I knew I was treading into well-travelled territory there,' admits Martin. 'My stand-up origins were in New York and I always believed I was going to live there, and thought LA was not for me. But like every other jerk, I ended up moving out here and this is where I live: my ties with New York have gone.'
Martin may have lost his physical ties with the Big Apple, but there will always be a little bit of a psychological connection there. He feels the same way about Edinburgh, a place where he made his name with British audiences who lapped up his playful yet intellectually rigorous brand of stand-up. 'I have fantasies about doing Edinburgh again,' Martin admits. 'I have young children now and I think that when they get a little bit older I'd love to bring them over. I feel so fortunate that I got to go at all and got the crowd that I did, but comedy changes so quickly and I'd be curious whether I could even draw an audience. It's been 12 years since I've been there and I'm on my fourth stand-up special that's going to air in August on Netflix. The jokes still seem to be coming.'
Dean is available on digital download from Monday 18 June.