“I thought a movie about a dead mom would be very appealing,” Demetri Martin, er, deadpanned after a screening of his debut feature, Dean, at Tribeca Film Festival. “Box office gold.”
Actually, the film about a Brooklyn cartoonist (played by Martin) grieving for his mother wasn’t going to be the standup comic’s first feature. He told the crowd at Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea that he had finished two other scripts that were “more concepty” and “a little bit more beyond the regular experience that we have.” But, as a first-time director, he wasn’t sure he could get the money for them or pull them off. So he turned to the script that “started with a story that was very personal and autobiographical.”
When he was 20, Martin lost his father (also named Dean), who was 46. “It was a big surprise to my whole family, quite a shock,” Martin said. The comic is now 43 himself, though he admitted jokingly that he might “seem like kind of a man-child.” Having achieved some distance from the trauma, he felt he could “maybe try to tell a story about grief.”
He knew it wasn’t going to be easy: “Once you get into this death territory I could see you could lose people pretty quickly— or just, it’s kind of a drag, you know.” Especially since the story deals not just with the grief of Dean but also with that of his father (Kevin Kline), who is dipping his toes back into the dating waters while grieving for his wife.
Adding to the challenge, the first-time director couldn’t count on the instant validation he gets in comedy clubs. “Making a film, compared to standup comedy, feels like trying to make something in a vacuum,” Martin said. “It’s just such a big guess— it’s so mysterious.”
To lighten things up, Dean gets a love interest (Gillian Jacobs, who also stars in another Tribeca pick, Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice) and a bearded best bud (stand-up comic Rory Scovel) who pathetically dabbles in pick-up artistry but really just loves his cats.
And there are two more supporting characters: New York, where Martin once lived, and Los Angeles, where he currently resides. Dean lives in Brooklyn and likes to meet his dad at the Washington Square Diner in the Village. While struggling to meet the deadline for his book of cartoons (the only thing he can seem to draw is the Grim Reaper), he decides to jet off to LA to take a meeting with some “creatives” who work on treadmill desks. That doesn’t pan out, but he does fall hard for a girl— the only part of the movie, Martin said, that was directly based on reality: “I dated a girl, came out of a long relationship, rebounded, immediately dated a girl for three weeks, and then I told her I loved her and that relationship ended the next day.”
If this is all starting to seem a bit Annie Hall, you’re not far off. “When it comes to director-actor-writer guys, Woody Allen and Albert Brooks are two guys that I really like and look up to,” Martin said. He was lucky enough to become friends with Brooks, whose kids were fans of the short-lived Comedy Central show, Important Things With Demetri Martin. “If you like him and you think he’s funny, I can tell you he’s as funny as he ever was,” Martin said. The director of Defending Your Life also offered a good piece of advice: “He said, ‘You can’t lose— at this budget, even if you lose the investors’ money, it’s not that much money.”
One thing that keeps Dean from being purely a throwback to ’80s dramedies is the use of Martin’s own cartoons to move the action along. Some are a reflection of his stand-up (a drawing of an A with words pointing to the hole in it: “actually an A-hole”). Others reflect Dean’s morbidity: a drawing of a man parachuting into a grave. All of them are delightfully rudimentary.
“I was one of the best in my class in 5th or 6th grade at drawing. For some reason I gave it up for a while,” Martin said, explaining his style. “Around 25 or 26, I started again. No surprise, I picked up pretty much exactly where I left off at age whatever it was. So, I was kind of like, okay, it’s kind of my style. I’ll roll with it.”
Last screening of “Dean” is Wednesday, April 20, 6:45 p.m., at Regal Cinemas Battery Park; tickets here.