Demetri Martin and Gillian Jacobs Talk Comedy and the Grim Reaper in Dean

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Demetri Martin and Gillian Jacobs Talk Comedy and the Grim Reaper in <i>Dean</i>

One of the hidden gems on the festival circuit last year—and one of our favorites—Demetri Martin’s Dean, is finally hitting theaters on June 2nd. It took home one of the top honors at Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature, and was shortly after acquired by CBS Films—a company that brought us another male-artist-trying-to-find-himself film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Martin brings the self-effacing, quirky and relatable qualities of his comedy stand-up to the screen and it’s superb. Dean (Martin) has recently lost his mother and along with his father, Robert (Kevin Kline), is trying to cope. I mean come on, it’s Kevin Kline—always a treat to watch. Dean is an illustrator with a book deadline and can only seem to draw faceless Grim Reapers in his empty notebook. As most New Yorkers trying to escape reality do, he flees to L.A. At a party, he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), a lady-in-red who, in a much-needed fashion, makes him laugh. Dean falls hard, but soon realizes that before he can move forward, he’s got to move back towards the issues he left behind. They definitely didn’t fit in his carry-on suitcase.

“It’s just so hard.” Martin was relentless in telling the audience at the Tribeca premiere Q&A and then to Paste, during our interview, about the struggles of filmmaking. He compared it to driving off a cliff. The honesty was refreshing. During our chat with Martin and Jacobs, we dug deeper into the difficulties of getting his first movie made, let alone one about death. We chatted about the artistic pitfalls of LA and NYC—and how at some point we’ve all been trapped in either in ways that exist outside of just those two city parameters. Even though making a film can be a challenge and one may always be looking for an escape, Martin assures it’s worth it if there’s catharsis—not only for the creator, but for the audience as well.

Paste Magazine: What fascinates you about death? When did that start? [Gillian], do you connect with that as well?
Demetri Martin: I’m guessing, sadly, Gillian probably does connect with it, knowing some of the people involved in the movie. It’s weird how we all carry … we don’t know what people are walking around with. My dad—I was surprised—he got sick really young and then he was just gone—just like that. It was really crazy. And the town I’m from has a chemical plant and there’s a cancer cluster there. A lot of kids have brain cancer. My dad had kidney cancer. It feels like it wasn’t supposed to happen, so nobody expected—not that you ever expect it—but he was 44 when he got it. I was 18. I don’t know how much I thought about death before that. I can’t quite remember, but ever since then, sadly it was always just there front and center. But then I like doing comedy and all that, so it becomes this weird cocktail of the two. You’re just trying to be honest.

Paste: Was that something, [Gillian], when you read the script, you connected with?
Gillian Jacobs: Yeah, you know, it doesn’t even have to be all that similar in circumstance to still really connect to the core feeling. I think especially that scene with Reid [Scott] at the end where he’s like, “Sometimes it’s worse a year later and people stop asking you.”

Paste: So true.
Jacobs: I thought that was one of the most true things I’d ever heard about grief. I think also that impulse to run away, the relationship with the dad, and distracting yourself with things. You don’t often see an adult mourning a parent in a film. You see a lot of a dead spouse, or a dead child, or something like that, but to really say, No, the loss of a parent like that is equally impactful. I really loved that about the movie. I had never seen the film before last night, and was so blown away by it. It was so beautiful.

Martin: I was just telling her, I’m so happy she liked it! Because, these people, they come and they give you a lot of their time.

Jacobs: And the drawings I thought were so lovely and funny and clever. It was a really wonderful way to keep touching on the themes of the film without beating you over the head of it, but making it funny and present in a different kind of way.

Paste: Essentially your drawings were your co-writer, in a way. What was the process of constructing this script? Were the drawings there?
Martin: Going into it—I was like, I like drawing so if I make myself an illustrator rather than a comedian, I’ll have this visual tool at my disposal when I get to post. It really did pay off. Sometimes I described it [in the script] as “drawing here” or “drawing TBD” or something. I had these death drawings. The Grim Reaper’s been funny to me. I’ve realized that stylistically I don’t like drawing faces—I like body language to tell you what somebody’s feeling. The Grim Reaper’s great, cause there’s no face, no expression, it’s just he’s there. Something about that was funny to me from the get-go. But the writing thing, I don’t know, it’s just so hard. It would be nice to be like, “Yeah, it just came out of me, it’s fucking great,” you know? Never for me.

Paste: I’m so glad that at the Q&A you said, “It’s like driving off a cliff.” Thank you for being honest.
Martin: And the room was silent. I don’t think people understand. Gillian knows! [Laughter] It was hard. But it was rewarding and I held onto it to make sure it was something I’d be proud of, because I can’t take it back.

Paste: Sometimes working under confinements is also liberating in a way.
Martin: Absolutely.

Paste: What are some examples of challenges? I understand, I’ve made something before, but you’re like, “It’s so hard,” and there’s a 17-year-old kid reading this going, “What do you mean, dude?”
Martin: That’s a great point. The mistakes I feel like I made, production wise, ’cause I just didn’t know—I wrote a lot of locations into the movie. I had company moves on these days where you just don’t have the time—any company move across the country. Now I’m happy that it’s over because I have a movie that looks bigger than it is, because it’s on both coasts and there are so many locations and it’s not just people in their houses.

Jacobs: And you didn’t shoot L.A. for New York, which just doesn’t work.

Martin: That ended up being a strength, but was one of the things that made it really difficult, because you only have so many hours to shoot, you have to have lunch, you have to park the trucks, move all the electric gear and stuff. If you’re spending it in traffic trying to get across town, you’re screwed; you’re getting fewer and fewer takes. But so many things, like the diner scene with Kevin—I have no master! I couldn’t get a two shot. I had all these dreams about how I was going to direct these scenes. But it turns out there’s a park right outside the window where we were in that diner. They were closing at a certain time and the light was changing. They’re like, “You’re not going to be allowed in there after this time,” so we already know that the light’s not going to match. And I’m, I have freaking Kevin Kline here! Can’t I just shoot a real scene?

Paste: Absolutely.
Jacobs: I want to say, we were talking yesterday about Demetri’s love of puzzles, and I do feel like editing is basically puzzle solving. And I feel like that’s why you exceeded all my expectations with the editing of this film…

Martin: Oh, I’m glad.

Jacobs: I feel like it really plays to your strengths of solving problems, solving puzzles. There’s so many times when, I’ve been in similar situations, where they didn’t get the coverage that they needed, and they didn’t fix it in the way that you did.

It’s also about not being precious. It’s like that scene, taking out the dialogue and playing the song, where some people just fall in love with their own script so much they can’t see the forest for the trees. And they won’t make a bolder decision like that.

I remember being on a movie where there were some people who had been in TV for a long time, and we were all trying to say, “We love this script, but the way you’re shooting this, we think you’re going to be sad in the edit.” And they’re like, “You’re TV actors, this is film,” so, “Well, alright, but I’ve also been in a lot of situations similar to this and seen people make this mistake.” But really, hats off to you that you did so much.

Martin: I’m so relieved that it played well last night.

Paste: What is this thing with escaping to L.A? Why is that in the film? I know artists connect to that. [Gillian], you said you lived in New York for a long time and you moved to L.A.
Jacobs: Well, I moved for a job but I feel like all New York actors have this internal debate of Do I go to L.A. or not? And you go out for pilot season and it’s lonely and isolating, and usually you don’t get a job and you come back to New York—you all retreat back. But I think there is that other side of it of when you’ve actually moved to L.A. and you find your friends, and it is a nice city and I’m happy I live there now. But I definitely relate to that feeling of a trip to L.A. that’s lonely and depressing, and you come back to New York feeling like that girl on the plane—Kate Berlant was so funny in that scene.

Paste: She was great!
Martin: She’s so funny.

Jacobs: Yeah, I definitely felt that same exact way—I’m never going out there again. But I moved for Community so it was answered for me. Ultimately, I didn’t have to make a decision.

Martin: Yeah, it’s funny, I remember even on the day we shot the car scene, we were talking in the car about that, about finding your people in L.A. I think a lot of people have that conversation if they were an East Coaster, a New Yorker, and they go out there. The loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life, hands down, has been on trips to L.A. when I first started going out there. 2001 was the first time I visited L.A. for a couple months. I was writing a pilot, and I got some development deal with NBC to do a, you know, “You’re going to write your show, like Seinfeld did.” The second season of my Comedy Central show, I chose to take it out there, ’cause it was so hard. I didn’t understand that I’m shooting this sketch show, but every sketch is like a little movie, so it was all locations. I had to cast everything, and go get the location, and They’ll give us this, we can’t afford that. And I was like, Oh my god, this has gotta be easier in L.A.. It turns out it’s really not, but at least there’s a more diverse, a greater diversity of locations. Then of course my show got cancelled. So I move, show gets cancelled, but then my wife and I were both kind of like, You know, we like it enough out here, we don’t know anybody and we were trying to find our people. We moved to the West Side, we went total opposite of what New Yorkers do; we went to the beach.

Paste: Yeah, they all go to Echo Park. [Laughter]
Jacobs: The Echo Park joke [in the film] got a big laugh!

Martin: I was so nervous about that one.

Paste: It’s so true, and I lived in West Hollywood and people say, “That’s why you hated L.A.” and I was like, “No, actually I really liked living in West Hollywood, it was convenient, all my friends lived there.”
Jacobs: That’s where I moved, West Hollywood, that was my first stop. You can get anywhere pretty quickly. The shocking thing to me, having lived in New York going to L.A., and walking down the sidewalk—being the only person on the sidewalk.

Paste: I know!
Jacobs: It’s a really disconcerting feeling. The people driving by are staring at you like you have two heads.

Paste: You feel like a prostitute, walking the street or something.
Jacobs: I got mistaken … yeah.

Martin: In 2001 when I was in L.A. I was asking people, “Is there a place to walk around, like a neighborhood?” and people were like, “Go to Larchmont.”
Jacobs: Two blocks.


Martin: So I get to the end of the two blocks, and I make a right, and all of a sudden, of course, there’s no sidewalk, walking by these big hedges.
Zach Galifianakis drives by, in his Subaru. He pulls over. I hear “Demetri” and I’m, “Oh, hey, Zach,” and he’s like, “Are you okay, what happened?” And I’m, “Yeah, yeah, I’m just looking for the stores and stuff.” And he’s like, “Okay…” But it was exactly what you’re saying, like he was worried for me because he recognized me. It was like, “Did your car break down?”

Jacobs: “Why would you possibly be walking?”

Martin: “You shouldn’t be walking.”

Paste: This movie has so many themes of death—the death of relationships, and you’re also losing your best friend. I don’t know if that was a conscious decision? Thank god this movie was funny because I would’ve just been a wreck.

Martin: [Laughter] No, that was a theme, and there were definitely adjustments and iterations around that theme. Another thing I tried to do visually, which, again, I’m a first-timer. This idea while shooting that [Dean] gets stuck, and it’s watching this dude trying to go somewhere, but then he goes back. Even when I’m with Rory [Scovel, who plays Dean’s only L.A. friend] on the street in L.A., going to Smoothie King, I can’t even get to fucking Smoothie King; I’m going back to the car [to get my cell phone]. I get on the plane; I get off the plane.

Jacobs: You carrying the suitcase through the sand.

Martin: Right! And then finally at the end, at least he’s driving—off he goes. I wanted the ’70s shot of the car like all those movies I liked as a kid—of the highway.

Paste: The beginning of The Shining.
Martin: Yeah, which was, no chance!

Paste: But there’s a drawing too—it’s another one of you closing the door on death. After making this movie—and it’s still so fresh, because you premiered last night—do you feel like you did that in a sense?
Martin: Swear to god, I felt this catharsis while it was screening last night. I just felt my shoulders drop, and it was like something falling off my shoulders, Oh good . To me, it was a therapeutic thing for sure.

Paste: Why do you feel that?
Martin: My wife, we were talking about it last night and she [said], “You know, it’s good, because we’ve struggled with this project, having it in our lives for a couple of years here.”

Paste: It’s like having a child.
Martin: It is. And if you choose something uplifting and magical, I bet you that must be—still hard—but nice, because you’re going into your little magical place. This was going back into my own personal loss, even though it’s translated out there. My wife said last night, “It was a good thing to do as a first project … you’ve been doing stand-up a long time,” and I still love writing jokes, but she [said], “You’re not growing, as an artist, dealing with that stuff.” I’m just doing my jokes that I like, about tires or whatever. But that’s escapism for me. This is trying to treat something that you really have to deal with.

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.