Last Saturday, Demetri Martin sat in a crowded theater in Chelsea, as his directorial debut, Dean, screened in front of an audience for the first time as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Before and after the screening, Martin stood in front of the audience and expressed his anxiety over his inability to tweak a piece of his work, despite its imperfections. As a career stand-up comedian, Martin had grown accustomed to being able to course correct a joke or an entire set based on things like audience reaction or his own rigid perfectionism. Well, it turns out that Martin had nothing to worry about. Yesterday, Dean was awarded the festival’s prize for best narrative feature.
The movie, which Martin also wrote and stars in, tells the story of the title character, a 30-something Brooklynite whose life is derailed following the death of his mother. Struggling to complete a book of funny drawings and to connect with his equally distraught father (a sublime Kevin Kline), Dean escapes to Los Angeles, where he meets Nicky, the type of idealized L.A. dream girl a lost boy might easily fall in love with. And when casting someone with that kind of magnetism, you can do no better than Gillian Jacobs, who, thanks to her lead performance in Netflix’s Love, has become the poster girl for nerdy dudes who can’t help but get punch-drunk on her cocktail of sardonic wit and approachable beauty. While a romance does develop between Dean and Nicky, the film—which was inspired by the loss of Martin’s father when he was 20—reveals itself to be a surprisingly profound meditation on the paralyzing stranglehold of grief.
We caught up with Martin and Jacobs last week to talk about making this movie together, their relationships with New York and Los Angeles, and the responsibilities children have to their parents.
Demetri, did you make Dean an only child because you were one yourself?
Demetri Martin: No, I have a brother and sister. I made him an only child because I wanted him to really be alone. I felt like it was a harder story for me to service if he had siblings, even if it would’ve given more dimension to the story. I was like, I think I need him to just be alone, especially when he gets to L.A. Probably the loneliest I’ve felt in my life were times when I’ve visited L.A. when I was a New Yorker. I’d go out there to audition for a couple of things and within two or three hours, feel like I’m gonna fucking kill myself.
Gillian, you did grow up as an only child. How does that affect your relationship with your parents?
Gillian Jacobs: When you’re an only child, you realize as your parents are starting to get older and you’re getting older that it’s all going to fall on your shoulders. There’s going to be no one to share the burden of their old age with. I saw my grandparents get older and die, and both of my parents had siblings, so people handle different things and somebody lives in the same city as your parents and somebody doesn’t. But yeah, it is a much more intense relationship that you have to your parents, and that sort of fear and burden of their old age, you feel more acutely.
Demetri, were your siblings helpful with own grieving process?
DM: Yeah, this is interesting. I’m the oldest, so I was 20 when my dad died, my sister was 12, and my brother was 17. My dad got sick when I was 18, so my sister was 10. We’re different people. We’ve all come out of it differently. Sadly, my mom is really sick—she has really advanced Alzheimer’s. She got it eight years ago when she was 56, so she’s pretty much brain dead. She can’t talk, she can’t even move her own legs, she just stares. It’s the fucking worst.
GJ: I had two grandparents with Alzheimer’s. Going to visit them in the long-term nursing home…
DM: You know this is a heartache that’s so different.The protected mechanisms we all have are kind of fascinating, each of us in our own way. These bargains we make, these deals that we think are struck with the universe or something, like, Okay, so my dad died young, that means I get my mom. Until you realize, oh, we’re fucking animals.
GJ: And it was all decided the moment we were born, and we just don’t know. That’s the grand joke of life.
DM: It’s really absurdity. Losing my dad, I thought it would bring me closer to my siblings. Sadly, for a short time it did, but in a way it didn’t. I think we’re just too different and we dealt with it differently. Now, double sadly with my mom, it’s kind of like the family just exploded.
Do you think this movie could help bring them together?
DM: Maybe. I mean, I had no family at the premiere. Nobody came. I didn’t invite anybody. I have a lot of aunts and uncles and stuff, and it was sad. After my mom kind of vanished, it was like they didn’t—I can’t say they didn’t give a shit—but, this is turning into the worst interview [Laughs]. There’s the other part of it, which is I’m from Jersey Shore, they’re from Brooklyn, and now I’m Mr. Hollywood to my aunts and uncles. I’m like, I have a fucking cancelled Comedy Central show. I’m not Spielberg or something. I’m still trying, like everyone, to fucking get work. I’m trying to make it happen. But I’ll go home and they’ll be like, “Oh, Mr. Hollywood’s home.”
Dean is a hybrid of a New York movie and a Los Angeles movie. Was that intentional?
DM: Definitely. It was autobiographical, like a lot of us who pop across. Gillian and I talked about it. I think it’s easy to shit on L.A. and I think it’s easy to love New York. What’s interesting is to be a little more nuanced about it and be like, Hey, there’s stuff I love about both, actually. There are things about New York that exhaust me. Especially as I get a little older, I’ve got to say that I love some of the comforts of L.A. It’s not cool to say it, but man, when I get groceries, it’s fucking amazing to put it in the trunk of my car.
GJ: You don’t have to carry them up five flights of stairs.
Gillian, what are your impressions of L.A. now, and what were your impressions when you first moved there from New York?
GJ: When I would go to L.A. before I moved there, it was very similar to the movie and to Demetri’s experience, where it was very lonely and isolating. Either you’ve been flown there to audition for something and you feel this intense pressure (but you’re also isolated in this hotel that they put you in, and in most cases I didn’t get it), or you’re getting work and all you’re meeting are people that you’re up against for the same part, so it’s not the friendliest of rooms, you know? But then when I moved there for Community, that gave me a structure to my life that I think allowed me to really fall in love with L.A. Because when you also have an answer to the question of, “What are you up to?” it relieves a lot of the pressure of L.A. And in New York, a lot of my friends weren’t in this business, so they didn’t really care that much, or if I said something, it didn’t really mean that much to them, versus everybody in L.A. I do have friends in L.A. who aren’t in this world.
DM: They’re like unicorns.
GJ: I really value them. One of my best friends is a painter. I’ve got close friends who are interior designers, a lot of chefs. People who are in creative fields, but not exactly this.
DM: So you kind of speak the same language, which is nice.
GJ: Yeah! The core, similar struggles are there, but all the details are different and they don’t really give a fuck about the things that mean a lot to me. I find that really helps. I love that about New York, too. I had friends who worked in the magazine world, and were artists, so all across the spectrum. That I find is really great. Then it’s also like, you have to go and find L.A. It doesn’t present itself to you like New York.
DM: When I see tourists there, it always makes me laugh. Because I don’t think they know until they get there, like, “Where the hell is L.A…?”
GJ: When you see people on Segways in Beverly Hills—have you seen that? That to me is one of the saddest, strangest sights: a little cluster of people on Segways in Beverly Hills. Like, what are you doing? You’re looking at medical buildings! It’s all doctors’ offices! I mean, what are you looking at?
Was it hard for you to leave New York?
GJ: I lived in New York just long enough to get tired of being in New York, so by the time I moved, I didn’t feel like I was being ripped away from it. It rained every other day of the summer
Then you come back on a day like today with perfect weather.
GJ: I know! There’s nothing like the magic of a good day in New York.
DM: This is the best. If this was the only time you visited New York, you would be so beautifully fooled.
GJ: Everyone’s in such a good mood! The energy of the city on a beautiful fall or spring day, it’s like, you could fall in love, you could meet your new best friend.
Texting plays a part in your story and you chose to illustrate the text messages on screen, which is a technique I hadn’t seen before.
DM: Yeah, after the first little test screening I did for friends, we just had the text as a placeholder on the screen. I was like, this is going to be weird, it’s not going to work to have some tech thing in there. Personally, like probably a lot of people trying to tell stories, the phone does bum me out. But it’s reality, so I want to tell a story in reality. But I could see writing a story that’s like, we all go camping and nobody has service and we get phones out of the picture. If you want to be honest, phones matter. It’s the world we live in. But I do think it gets pretty boring to watch people looking at their phones.
Gillian’s show Love had a whole episode where a main character was waiting for her to text back, so it can be used as a dramatic device, right?
DM: Absolutely, and it can service what you’re doing. There were these jokes about how big Kevin’s phone was, and in the time that we shot until now, it’s not even a joke anymore.
GJ: It’s still a joke. It still got a laugh. It’s nearing an iPhone 794S, so it got a laugh.
Your characters share an effortless banter when they first meet, where they’re constantly trying to one-up each other. Is that fun to play?
DM: It is, yeah. I like Gillian’s sassiness and what she brought to it. I was saying in an earlier interview, it’s hard as a guy to write for a woman. My wife helped me, and I still have some way to go, you know? Gillian was gracious to be the girl: I see her at a party, and oh, she’s going to save me. All that stuff is so hard. It’s really hard to exceed yourself and to get beyond that. When you talk about Annie Hall, one of the brilliant things Woody Allen has done, is find Diane Keaton. The movie is her. So I think a lot of dudes like me, they want to go make their Annie Hall. It’s like, pay attention. What you need to do is find your Diane Keaton if you’re going to go make your Annie Hall.
He just compared you to Diane Keaton.
GJ: I’ll fucking take it all day long!
DM: You know what I’m saying.
GJ: Dude, that’s a high compliment, are you kidding me?
DM: Us comedians, so many of us talk about Johnny Carson, because he seemed to be so generous before my time. He doesn’t have to be the funniest guy on the stage. It only reflects positively on him anyway, so it’s such a weird kind of altruism.
GJ: It’s the thing they always teach you in acting classes. If you just focus on your scene partner, you’ll always be better. It’ll only pay dividends for you if you are laser-focused on the other person.
DM: Yeah, it’s so graceful. There’s always a gift that comes back. You can only learn by just really doing and not being so strategic or worrying about, oh, I’ve got to be funny in this scene.
GJ: I will also say, though, that the jokes in your film are actually funny, which you think is a given but it’s not. When I read the script, it made me laugh.
Is that a rare thing?
GJ: Yes! I remember reading the pilot of Community, it made me laugh out loud. There aren’t a lot of things that genuinely make me laugh out loud.
DM: I’m the same. We’re all so savvy. We’ve just seen so much stuff. And certain kinds of jokes on the page are like, Okay cool, because you get a sense of, I see what this person is trying to do.
GJ: Or they’re like, we’ve hired you so you can improv and basically make it funny on the day! It’s like, no, please, give me a template of something that’s already funny.
DM: Yeah, I’m a big believer in that. I find the improv thing is very interesting because it seems that most people think they’re better at improv than they are.
Gillian, what impressed you most about Demetri’s abilities as a first-time director?
GJ: I’m just so impressed by Demetri’s ability to really craft a story and to use every single tool at his disposal, like finding that album that he really loved and putting it in there. You’re used to hearing the same songs over and over again, the same artists, but to find somebody who’s a little bit more obscure but fits the tone of the film, to adding the drawings that really aren’t ancillary, they’re a storytelling device in the film. It’s not just an aspect of your character’s job—it’s really integral to the film, and I thought that was so beautifully done.
DM: I appreciate that so much. It’s a surprise benefit when you do this stuff. Stand-up is solitary. I mean, you get your validation from the audience, but this thing that you’re doing with people, they’re eating shit with you. The days we’ve had were hard. We’re not working in a coal mine, but you put yourself out there emotionally and you get physically exhausted because you do a 14-hour day. So you see these people again, a year later or a year-and-a-half later, and when they like it, it’s a different kind of validation. You were in the trenches together. We didn’t know if a shot was going to work, we’re losing light, we’re physically tired, you cut your finger, stupid things happen, and to have it come around, that’s the best satisfaction. I hope it sells and all that stuff, but it really is nice to know that I can run into Gillian in two years at a party together and be like, “We did a good thing together.” It feels really nice.