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How Directing 'Dean' Helped Comedian Demetri Martin Deal With Personal Loss

Poster for "Dean," a film by Demetri Martin.
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"Dean," a film by Demetri Martin.
Courtesy of CBS Films

In "Dean," comedian Demetri Martin plays the titular character, a Brooklyn illustrator who wrangles with grief following the death of his mother, while his father (Kevin Kline) seems to be handling things well. On Tuesday, March 28, Martin, who also wrote and directed the film, stopped by ArcLight Cinemas Sherman Oaks for the KCET Cinema Series screening of "Dean," which hits theaters on June 2. In a Q&A session led by Madelyn Hammond, Martin let the viewers into the very personal inspiration for the film, which is dedicated to his parents, Dean and Lillian. 

"The title, that was my dad's name," he says. Martin was a 20-year-old college junior when his father, only 46, died of kidney cancer. "I don't talk about it in my stand-up. I haven't really found a way. It's not something I really dwell on," says Martin. "It's not what I have to offer, but when it came down to writing a movie, I wanted to talk about something very personal, something that I felt deeply about, so I thought, 'I'll talk about grief a little bit, losing someone,' but I wanted it to be fiction, so I killed off my mother."

But, as Martin points out, his mom, later on, developed Alzheimer's disease. "It's been about eight years, she's been kind of gone for about four years," he says. "Sadly, kind of poetically, it's kind of about both my parents. It's something I'm still dealing with and working through and I have two kids now. When you have kids, it opens up all those wounds in a way that's unexpectedly present. The movie has been something therapeutic."

Poster for "Dean," a film by Demetri Martin.
Courtesy of CBS Films

Martin added that working on the film and rewatching key scenes during the editing process helped him deal with his personal losses. "You're dealing with it in a weird way," he says. "Whereas, with my stand-up, I kind of hide behind my jokes and that kind of stuff."

It's been 20 years since Martin got his start doing comedy on open mic stages in New York. He had been a fan of Steven Wright, the stand-up comedian known for his deadpan style. (You might also recognize him as the voice of "K-Billy Super Sounds of the '70s Weekend" from "Reservoir Dogs.") Inspired by Wright's HBO special, Martin thought that he might too perform in front of a crowd. 

"I got into stand-up just to do stand-up," he tells the KCET Cinema Series audience. "That's what I wanted to do and my dream was, 'hey, maybe I could make a living doing this and it would be great to be a headliner someday,' something like that."

Martin eventually went far beyond open mic nights. He was a writer for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" before heading to "The Daily Show." He has released two books with a third due out in September. He also voices the character Ice Bear on the Cartoon Network series "We Bare Bears." In addition, he still does stand-up. Just days before he visited the Cinema Series, he performed in Florida and says he has about 40 more gigs scheduled before he films a new Netflix special in December. Martin's first Netflix special, "Live (At the Time)," was released in 2015. 

Martin shares his early ambitions with the crowd at the Cinema Series as a lead-in to another bit of insight about the movie "Dean." Throughout the film, the audience gets a glimpse at the illustrations Dean, the character, is compiling for a book that's long past deadline. The drawings are by Martin, who has himself released a book of drawings called "Point Your Face at This."

Because Martin was writing jokes, he explains, he typically had a notebook on him. And because he had a notebook on hand, he started drawing, which he hadn't done since he was a child. 

"When I was in sixth grade, I was one of the best artists in my class," he says. "Then I stopped drawing and, when I started again in my 20s, I was exactly as good at drawing as I had been in sixth grade."

He adds, "As you can see in the movie, I kind of plateaued. I just coasted at that level."

Curiously, though, he can draw with both hands. Martin tells the Cinema Series audience that this is the result of spending a lot of time flying. "I'm so sick of sitting on planes, so I have to do things that make time pass faster," he says. To do that, he enjoys playing with palindromes (his poem "Dammit I'm Mad," actually written for a fractal geometry class while in college, is something of an internet hit) and two-handed drawing. The latter skill he learned while sitting in the middle seat of a plane, writing the alphabet backward and forward. 

But, back to the notebooks, Martin uses those a lot and it was through jotting down lots of ideas that he realized that he could make a movie at some point. "It took years," he says, "but, eventually, I found myself in L.A. and I thought, 'I want to make a movie.'" Martin had written and sold screenplays before, but, to date, nothing has happened with them. Then there was "Dean." 

"This was the one that was, I guess you could say, autobiographical and lowest concept," he says. "There are no aliens. I'm not dealing with robots. I'm not in space or any kind of stuff with zombies, none of that stuff. It's just a guy and his dad and a couple of other characters. I thought I could handle that degree of difficulty. It was harder than I thought. I could barely handle it. I got through it."

Martin worked on the script for "Dean" an estimated "four or five years ago." Then he worked on another script, but his wife suggested that he return to that first one he was writing. 

"Dean" was made with a very small budget. "That's the thing about movies, you don't get to have a disclaimer," he says. "You know, 'Star Wars' is a movie and this also counts as a movie." He jokes with the crowd that maybe the budget should be listed at the start of the film — "like an apology," he says. But, the film has so far managed to do well. In 2016, it won the "Best Narrative Feature" award at Tribeca Film Festival. There's still some time, though, before its wide release.

"It feels like a lucky thing to get to make a movie," says Martin. "The fact that you guys came out, for me, it's a thrill, because it's never happened before in my life."

Listen to Demetri Martin and Madelyn Hammond talk about the making of "Dean" at the KCET Cinema Series below.

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