In April we caught up with the multi-talented comedian, Demetri Martin, at a small cafe, just outside of the Phoenix Film Festival. That night, his film, “Dean,” which he wrote, directed and starred in, would be screening at the festival. We chatted about his experiences as a first time Director and some of the more interesting and risky elements that made his film stand out.
You can listen to the interview in its entirety on our podcast channel, or read excerpts from it below:
TCF: This is the first feature film that you’ve directed. Have you directed any shorts or anything else prior to this?
Demetri: No. I – what I had was a sketch show on Comedy Central years ago. And I was the Executive Producer, so I didn’t get a Director credit on that. But I was on camera, and my agents and people were like, “Don’t try to direct, just make sure you get your show to work. Bring in Directors.” It’s, “Okay.” But I was able to ask for shots sometimes, and I was in – I could kind of steer the edit.
In TV, it’s kind of different. If you run your show, you can kind of have that creative control. So I had a little bit of experience, but not really like this.
How was filming a feature as a first-time director?
It was really hard. My wife tells me, “Don’t say it was hard and stuff, act like it wasn’t!” I was somewhere between complaining and confessing, and acting like I had it under control.
I think the truth was it was kind of a balance, where I was pleasantly surprised about the actual directing work, that I wasn’t as in the dark as I thought I was going to be. I knew what I was looking for, because it was driven by certain emotional goals. To tell the story this way, to have this moment be big, and to have – “see the guys whole body here, and that might be funnier.” Thins like that were fun. It was like solving a puzzle. The logistics just destroyed me. It was just a freaking nightmare.
What made the logistics such a nightmare?
It was stuff like, “We lost tomorrows location.” And now shooting today’s scene, and I’m not a good enough actor to not look worried in the eyes. I can look at my own eyes in the edit, and be like, “Oh I know what that face is. That’s we don’t have a location tomorrow.” Stuff like that was just so hard and so humbling.
I didn’t really know anybody beforehand on the crew or anything. But I met people I want to work with again. Certain people, like Director of Photography, I loved. My Art Director..most of the actors, really. So that made it easier. I wish it was like laugh a minute, and there were outtakes of me, but every outtake would just be me worrying. Like, “Did I get it, is that okay? Is it – is that believable?” But I’m just grateful, legitimately, I’m just grateful that I got to this point. It’s so cool that it’s in film festivals, and that I got distribution. ‘Cause it’s an independent.
And then you won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca?
Tribeca, yeah. Such a nice surprise, it’s great.
On your first film!
I mean that was such a surprise, and I love that festival. I had accepted a stand-up date in San Diego. So they screened my movie, did the thing, and then I left. Afterward, I got a call that it got a prize, but I’d already left. So I had to film myself on my driveway saying “thank you. It was a great surprise, but I was like, “Oh if I’d known I had a chance, I would’ve – got to shake DeNiro’s hand, and done all that stuff!”
In directing this, you made some interesting – I’ll call them, “Director Choices.” One of them was the use of a split screen. I’ve seen that in a lot of films, where it just fails…
Yeah. Dangerous game to play.
When I saw that I went, “Wow, that’s brave.” But it worked. What influenced that choice to go, “I’m going to throw a few split screens in here.”
That was an interesting– it was definitely a puzzle. I knew I wanted to feature the drawings. And I wanted to show myself drawing because I do draw. And to show, “Hey, I’m drawing these things. Like this is the character he draws.”
But I also knew that I wouldn’t have the time. You can’t do it all like that. And plus some of the stuff I figured out in the edit – was like, “I want to figure out a way to show this, so the audience can get the kind of emotional impact, and we can track a little bit what he’s going through.” But full screen the whole time seemed so jarring. So it became, “Oh let’s see if this works. We I can split, and you can kind of see me drawing, and then you see what he’s drawing,” in a sense.
At first, I had them just pop up, but then with my Editor, we figured out this nice thing where they kinda slide on. And to me, there was a personality. There was a language to it that felt right. Then when that worked, I felt free to them use the split screen in some other places. Because I’d established the language, I didn’t want it to be a sore thumb. So I kinda backed into it in a sense. But I agree with you, I’ve seen [split-screen] where I’m distracted by it. It feels like artifice, and it takes me out. So I was trepidatious with it, but yeah I was happy that I seemed to get it to work.
Yeah, definitely. It was really good!
I’m with you, that was like such a tricky game. ‘Cause I’m a film fan. And there’s probably nothing I hate more than being taken out of a movie that could potentially be engrossing. Take me away.
Like throwing a gimmick in there.
Just like unnecessary. When the camera moves, and it just feels that like kind of masturbatory or something. It’s like, “You know, you don’t have to show off – just tell me the story.” Like, believe in the material!
You mentioned the drawings, which was something I was watching closely but wasn’t sure if that was actually you drawing all that?
Yeah. All of it.
That is awesome.
The poster, and now I’m doing more drawings for the press. It’s kinda like, “Be careful what you wish for.” Because I’m clearly not a professional illustrator. I draw the way I do. But I like drawing, and it’s something that I wanted to incorporate into my work. But because I’m not particularly skilled at it – it takes me a lot of tries to be precise enough. The little Grim Reaper over there, just to color him in right. So that I get that little line for his arm. Like Jesus Christ, this is like a lot of work.
The great thing about those drawings is they have a lot of personality. They were almost a character onto themselves in the film. So again, it’s another thing that falls into that danger zone. “Hey, I kind of do this on the side.” You threw it in, and it worked perfectly.
Yeah, and I put a lot of work into those because I found that because they’re simple, and there aren’t that many lines in a lot of them, each line matters more. It’s almost like one-liners in stand-up where it just puts more weight on them. So if I get it wrong, the body language is all messed up. ‘Cause I like the body language of the drawings. There’s like a gestural quality to it.
Yeah, absolutely. So, the one scene with the ambidextrous drawing… Is that legit, you can do that?
Yeah, that’s legit. I used to have this Comedy Central series, and I put it in that show. And the reason I can do that is because – as a touring comic – and I tour alone. I’m on planes all the time. So I read books, I draw, I write jokes. I bring my little DVD thing and watch movies. But I’ve got a 6 hours flight. I’m like, “How do I get the time to pass?” And so one time I was drawing. I was like, “Wonder if I could draw with two hands? There’s got to be an art.” Put down the tray table, and I start trying to do it. What I actually started with, was trying to write the alphabet with both hands. From A to Z with my left hand, and Z to A with the right at the same time.
It was like a total mind melt. But I got better at it. On one flight, I kept practicing. And then I would practice on planes until I could actually draw. Long story short, I can do it – but I do it because it’s just a way to pass time, ’cause it’s so difficult. But I thought it’s like a parlor trick to put in the movie. Just to show the guy doing kinda what I do.
That bit was pretty cool. The character in the film ended up having a book made. Do you have a book with your drawings?
I do, I have one book that came out in 2013. I’m going to have another one come out in the fall. The first book is like 200 something line drawings. Some of them are actually in the movie, that are in my book. I’m going to put some that I did for the movie in the next book, with others from my notebooks. But they look like that. They’re 1one per page. They’re usually single panel. Just like black and white, simple – yeah.
“Dean” is in theaters across the US now!