No doubt you’ll need a movie to go see after you’ve seen Wonder Woman this weekend. We have you covered. Dean is an entertaining little independent movie written and directed by standup comedian, writer, and artist Demetri Martin. It features the drawings for which Martin has recently become known, delving in both the narrative, and the visuals via these drawings, into how families grieve. It offers a lighter look at how grief can both deconstruct and rebuild, but often in vary different ways.
Dean stars Martin as the title character, and Oscar winner Kevin Kline as his father Robert. The two share the loss of Dean’s mother. Robert is dealing with it fairly well, but Dean is all but running at top speed to avoid feeling anything. He is a cartoonist by trade, and is using his art to explore the thoughts and ideas brought on by the death of a loved one. Well, sort of. He’s doing more stumbling into his feelings than actually having them. His drawings often involve the grim reaper, personified as a task master, or trickster, or just a jerk. He gets distracted as he is trying to finish he second book, often replaying his mom’s last voicemail. This boy needs something to jolt him out of his emotional lethargy.
When Robert plans to sell the house he lived in with his wife, Dean’s mother, it causes a rift between father and son. It also offers Dad the opportunity to meet real estate broker Carol, played by Mary Steenburgen, and spurs Dean to take an unplanned trip to LA to avoid, well, everything. Once there, he meets a girl named Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) and falls hard enough to find himself distracted in an entirely new way.
The plot mirrors the sort of surface-skimming daze someone who has experienced grief will recognize. However long viewers have visited that emotional weigh station, they will relate to Martin’s representation of it onscreen. His funny, often awkward dialogue allows for a compassion and interest that will carry them through the film, aided significantly by both Kline and Steenburgen. They bring depth to their characters, and their considerable talent and magnetism to the scenes they share.
Demetri Martin is not trying to reinvent the wheel of suffering here. He’s putting the experience we will one day all share onscreen, using his own brand of humor, perspective and artistic sensibilities.
I was unaware he was a bit of a hipster darling earlier in his career, and the clap-back from a number them for his writing/directing feature film debut is predictably lukewarm: how dare he make himself mainstream? To them, his deadpan blend of Steven Wright, Woody Alan, and Gary Larson was hilarious and cool, as long as only they knew about it. Now that the rest of the world has a chance to enjoy him, they will likely swear him off. Leave him to us, mr. mustache, suspenders, and rye whiskey cocktails. We’ll take him from here.
I talked to Demetri about his movie, working with two Oscar-winning actors, and how art plays a part in his life and work:
LC: Can you talk about the drawings in the movie? How many did you do compared to the number that show up in the movie?
DM: I had the book of drawing I did I hadn’t worked on the script. I decided my character would be an illustrator, and I had some that were already good to go, and that made up about half of the ones in the movie. The other half, that was more trial and error. Thinking back on it, there were ones that I thought would work, but because they required dialogue, they didn’t work. It was like a speed bump when you’re watching the movie. I had to literally go back to the drawing board and figure out how to say what I wanted to say without words. There were assignments that the script gave me. As I went through the script there were moments I knew I needed a drawing. The second act had a bit of a dry spell with no drawings so I felt like the movie needed to have more in certain spots. There were also a few spots that were a surprise where I could use them to help myself, where I needed a good transition or didn’t have enough footage. We just didn’t have the time. I just wanted to get the performances, I was focused on that. It was a twenty day shoot. At the end, I’d find some little bits missing.
You can’t go back so it was a great puzzle. I love puzzles. The stakes were pretty high.
With my jokes, I can write 8-10 jokes that don’t work before I get a good one, and I do have to write down the bad ones. I have to get through it. With the drawings, I’m on notebook number 56 of these notebooks that I like. They’re full of drawings, jokes, movie ideas, I put everything in those notebooks by hand.
LC: The movie is about grief and you have talked about your own father passing away and that you dealt with it in a pretty straightforward way at the time. You revisited it in the making of the film. Art is cathartic. Some of the catharsis, i’d assume came from the art you were creating. Your art is really quick, because of its simplicity. How did the catharsis work for you in terms of the part art played?
DM: I think that’s a real thing for me as i’m thinking about it. Stand-up has been my outlet creatively and was my first entrance into the art world as a grown-up. 4.50 13.39 I didn’t know any grownups who had creative jobs. I grew up at the Jersey shore and nobody was an actor, dancer, singer, artist..there must have been some around but none of my parents’ friends, none in my church. I did Greek dancing and stuff but nobody had a job. I didn’t understand creativity, or art as something that was a career. I loved to draw and write palindromes make crosswords in college— but i didn’t think it was something i’d ever get paid for so there was an atrophy. It went away and i stopped drawing. IThen I had my quarter life crisis and realized i wanted to be a comedian and started writing jokes all the time and then the drawing reemerged because i was carrying around notebooks all the time. I started to draw with no goal—i picked up where I left off, so my drawing looked like it did when I was in 6th grade. That was my skill level. I didn’t go to art school
LC John Alvin, the movie poster artist said about movie posters that it is supposed to be “the promise of a great experience”, and that’s what good illustrators do, they tell a story in one moment.
DM: That’s what i’m trying to do. I love Saul Steinberg who I discovered later in life and Gary Larson. There was a store called B. Dalton in the mall, we didn’t have much in Jersey but there was that, I would just look through the Far Side books. Now I love the New Yorker, but I was raised on The Far Side.
LC: Steven Wright and a little Albert Brooks is what I get from your writing and humor.
DM: I love them both. I’m a big fan of Albert Brooks as a comic, director, writer, and as an actor! In his scenes, it’s a performance, but he puts it all out there. Anyway, I think I’ve found drawing more and more therapeutic over time. What still amazes me about art is how powerful it can be without too much happening in it. You don’t need that many lines. Good art doesn’t have to be elaborate. I’m often moved by the simplest things. It’s certainly true for Steven Wright. A lot of my favorite Gary Larson art is very economical. They are all single panel, but some without words. There’ s imminence. You get to play the next frame in your mind. That’s where the joke explodes. I love that game, it’s very exciting. I travel on an airplane and there’s a blank page in front of me and there’s so much possibility. Every time. As soon as I turn off the critic and don’t beat myself up too much. I’ll judge later…then I pump out a lot of stuff. Some good, some bad. I can look at it critically and say “I don’t even understand myself what I did here” but every now and then I get something usable. This was a really great opportunity to share that stuff. There’s something very intimate and very personal about saying “I drew this”
LC: and in Dean, you show yourself drawing.
DM: That was important to me to show myself doing it. To say, yeah, it’s me. I didn’t hire some artist to do it. No, this is from the heart. I’m old enough now and i’ve been doing it long enough I know it’s not for everybody. I’m not going to draw Michelangelo or Da Vinci or something but it’s me trying to communicate ideas.
LC: Art really comes down to an interaction between the artist and the viewer, just like standup comes down to you and the audience in that moment.
DM: That’s what i like as a fan of comedy and of art is I love going to museums…I have so many art books. My wife is a very uncluttered minimalist. I’m not a hoarder but I do love books. Art books are big and heavy but one of the great pleasures to me is to have them to flip through. I’m really into Matisse lately. The cutouts are so beautiful and he’s such a gifted colorist. If you’re not good with color it can go so wrong so quickly. All my drawings are black and white because i’m so daunted but it’s great. There’s so much to learn. Now that i’m on the road doing press, and when i’m traveling for standup, I go to so many art exhibits. There was a Matisse exhibit I just saw in person. When i go to museums or look in those books I love how involved you get. It doesn’t feel passive. I can spend so much time with one page. In a museum…like when I saw a Basquiat in person, wow! They are bigger than I thought! I saw a Chuck Close show years ago just starting to learn about art when I was in college. I had seen them in books and then I saw one in person. I had no idea they were that big! I was blown away.
LC: In terms of Dean, can you talk about Kevin Kline and his improvisations he did with you on the film? I love that you said he had the nickname “Kevin Decline” because he so rarely says yes to being in a movie and is so particular!
DM: I was a longtime fan of his. He told me once after the movie was done, he mentioned, “I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve heard they call me Kevin Decline!” He has good taste and the talent to be selective. He’s such a special talent. I hadn’t met him before and when he responded to the script and we were together I said, “You’re doing me a huge favor here, so let me know what I can do. Who do you want to work with?” So he said Mary Steenburgen. I thought she was great. I told him I’d follow his lead. I knew he’d elevate anything I gave him. He’s a real professional and he did all the scenes as written. He did exactly what i’d hope for, he did what I wrote, and then he made it better without changing the words, and then we improvised together. Like in the diner scene early in the movie, he does a sixties thing, and that was all improvised. What i love about his improvisations is that they were so earned and tight. Briga (Heelan) who smacks me in the car was amazing. I think a lot of people try to improvise and everyone thinks they’re good at it but some people you get to the edit and everything is usable. I made her a broader character but something was happening in her mind. There was another part of the diner scene where Kevin did this whole improv with a napkin talking about “remember what your mom used to say, and how she was about her napkins” which was out of nowhere but absolutely part of his character and his experience of grief.
LC: There’s an elevator scene between Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen that was just great.
DM: Oh yes! There wasn’t that much improvisation. It was pretty much as written but it was so educational because the work he was doing with his face in that scene I just love. What he’s not saying made it intense. I wanted to cover Mary, because she was so watchable in the moment, I wanted to follow her into the elevator, but the location was so tiny, the elevator was room for one. There was this big moment. It’s something I learned filming you just don’t know when it’s on the page. Especially in a low budget movie. Some of them are happy accidents.
On their date, they made it better. Kevin’s choreography is always so spectacular. In A Fish Called Wanda I remember watching moves and being blown away by how creative he is in building his characters. The generosity is a great word to use for both of them because when you’re in a scene with them they are giving it to you, sharing it with you. You are making it together. There’s a trust and a generosity. I’m not making Kramer vs. Kramer, but it was real. I wanted it to be real however light or dark it was. So I just wanted to wind up with a movie that had some real heart and real sincerity in it. You get a real head start if you get Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen.