Demetri Martin was a junior in college when his dad died of kidney cancer. Now 44, the comedian imagines what it’d be like to have a living father in his upcoming directorial debut, Dean, out June 2.
The movie — which won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 — follows the titular character (played by Martin, who also wrote the screenplay) as he deals with the aftermath of his mom’s recent death, a process that includes some difficult talks with his also-struggling dad (Kevin Kline) and a whirlwind romance with a woman (Gillian Jacobs) he meets on a spontaneous trip to Los Angeles. For Martin, making Dean gave him an opportunity to explore both the “weird fiction” of having a dad and the reality of his mother’s ailing health; Martin’s mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s about eight years ago. “Weirdly and sadly, I thought I was working through something that happened a while ago,” Martin tells EW of making the movie. “And then my family’s once again dealing with this kind of stuff. I wanted to deal with the idea of loss and grieving and how you come out of that.”
It’s heavy, sure, but the result is a sweet, earnest comedy that fuses Martin’s brand of humor — his trademark illustrations included — with a human, and ultimately hopeful, story. Read on to find out why the first-time director made a point to stray from cynicism in Dean and how the idea of “mansplaining” has affected his work.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like casting the role of your father?
DEMETRI MARTIN: That was, for me, a coup. I didn’t know Kevin personally beforehand, but I finished my script and my agents got it to him. I thought Kevin would be great because he’s one of those actors who can do comedy but is also a really good dramatic actor with some more pathos. It was kind of a longshot, and I was told his nickname was “Kevin D. Kline,” so I was like, “Oh boy. It’s not going to be too easy.” [Laughs.] He responded to the script enough that he agreed to have a meeting with me. We had lunch together, and I got to talk to him about the script and what I was trying to do, and he was responsive. But it wasn’t like at the end of lunch, he was like, “I’ll be in your movie.” But I left feeling like, there’s a chance this could happen. And when he decided to do it, he really made it happen for me, because my financing was pretty much dependent on him saying yes.
It’s really a low-budget movie. My wife keeps telling me, “Don’t talk it down,” but the truth is, it’s just one of those really small movies, so the fact that I’m going to have a theatrical release is thrilling. I feel like I beat the odds. I hope people like it and they find it and see it, but I’m trying to keep reminding myself, “Hey, you did do something here with a truly independent movie.” Anybody, especially comedians, we just hate ourselves so much. You can’t enjoy it even when something kind of good is happening. You’re like, “Meh.” It’s like, just take a breath… until you get pounded on the internet for making something sincere. Just enjoy it.
You’ve never really addressed these topics in your stand-up before. Did you feel any hesitation about putting something so personal into the world?
Yeah, definitely. It was a debate for me, but I think what I’m starting to realize is, the world doesn’t care. I’m married, and I have two kids now, and for a while, I would tell my wife, “I’m private, I don’t want people to know about our kids or whatever.” And then I realized, nobody cares about my kids. [Laughs.] For a while, I stubbornly, especially in my stand-up, just clung to jokes. There’s nothing wrong with that — I love jokes — but it does feel like the world has changed since I started. People connect differently now. A lot of comedians open up. Maybe it’s too much, I don’t know. I’ve stubbornly tried not to do that, not to share things about my life. Sometimes it feels like you’re asking a lot of people to listen to your story. And I’ve gotta say, it might be off-topic, but maybe not — ever since I learned the word “mansplain,” I think that’s a really powerful, humbling word. You could argue a lot of stand-up is just that. Especially the white, straight dudes. You slip pretty quickly into that pocket if you’re not careful. “Here’s how things are! I’m gonna tell you how things are!”
I’m giving you a long, convoluted answer, but the short answer is yes, I’ve been hesitant. Jokes are almost like things that aren’t me, like, “Here’s a joke, what do you think of this one?” But then the conflict for me was when I thought about movies that I love — like I saw the movie Brooklyn a little bit after it came out, and I love that movie. I realized a lot of the movies over the years that I’ve loved, they’re more emotional, and there’s a vulnerability in the storytelling and sincerity. It’s not about really being clever or detached. It’s the opposite, really. It’s about really kind of going for it. I think what’s scary is, especially as a comedian, we put ourselves out there, and you kind of sell yourself, and if you’re not careful, that can train you to avoid vulnerability. Like, try your hardest to be impenetrable. But I don’t know, it seems like a mistake.
What effect has making this movie had on you emotionally?
I thought it would be therapeutic. “Hey, all right, let’s deal with this, and even if it’s fiction, let’s try to work through this.” I think a weird thing happened, which was, it was really difficult to make the movie, so I was distracted, and it was challenging, and it was kind of therapeutic settling into it, and then it took a while to edit the movie, and then it was like diminishing returns. I blew past anything therapeutic and back into self-hatred just looking at my face up there on the screen. The hubris involved in writing, directing, and starring in your own movie, it’s a dangerous game we play. Even if it goes well, you’re still left with yourself. It’s not healthy. I get to see my nose from every single angle now. I’m like, “Jesus Christ.” But that’s what I asked for, I guess. Dealing with the topic was kind of good, but after a while, it’s like, I’ve just gotta move on with my life. It’s too much. [Laughs.]
What do you hope people walk away from this movie feeling?
Personally — and I think I’m not alone — in the last year or so, I’ve felt a little extra alienated when it comes to what’s going on in the world and pop culture and politics and all that stuff. It feels like it’s really easy to become cynical and to get very guarded, but what I’m afraid about with this movie is also what I’m hopeful about: It’s not cynical, and it’s not cool, it’s not slick. I just hope that it connects with people, so they walk away feeling like, you know what, that was sincere, and that was pretty real. It’s nice that at the few screenings we’ve had, the people who like it, it’s really validating in a different way that I didn’t quite expect. I love stand-up, and you get such immediate feedback from the crowd, good or bad, but with a film, it is a different beast. And there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just out there. So when I connect with people, it’s a relief. You’re like, “Hey, that’s kind of validating because I put a lot more out there.”