Demetri Martin’s directorial film debut begins with a funeral. The stand-up comedian stars as Dean, a cartoonist whose mother dies. Dean isn’t really about her though (her death takes place off screen). It’s about grief and the way it distances Dean from his father (Kevin Kline). The story also provided Martin with an opportunity to explore his relationship with his own father, who passed away some 20 years ago. Not coincidentally, he was also named Dean.
But Martin didn’t set out to make an autobiographical film. In a recent telephone interview, he explained that, “I wanted to make up something. I wanted it to be fiction but I thought I had something to talk about that was real for me and for my family. And I think there was some sort of fantasy element for me, having a dad onscreen.”
Kevin Kline plays Robert, Dean’s dad, that element of cinematic fantasy come back to life. Martin is now 44, and a husband and father himself. He recognized that he’d now lived more of his life without a father than with one. “I didn’t get to really be a grown-up and have that relationship with my dad. It was weird when we went to shoot.”
In his first scenes acting with Kline, Martin described the moment he realized, “All right, so wait a minute, how am I relating to this guy? How much are you buddies with your dad when you’re a grown-up?” Dean handles Martin’s lack of filial experience with a light-handed sense of poignancy. As a coping mechanism, Dean repeatedly draws himself meeting the familiar cartoon figure of Death, the one who shows up in a black hood and a ready scythe in hand. In the most memorable of these drawings, Dean throws a pie in Death’s face. It’s a sign that he’s regaining his sense of humor after a period of mourning.
It’s no surprise, then, that another death-obsessed movie, Harold and Maude by Hal Ashby, is one of Martin’s favorite films.
“There’s a warmth and a texture and a sincerity, for sure, to Harold and Maude that stayed with me.” Later, as he thought about making his own films, Martin paid closer attention to Ashby’s technique: “How the camera moves, whether dollying, panning, or swiveling. … It doesn’t puncture the story.” Martin also talked about Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, “Those two filmmakers have been influential to me over the years.”
Unlike Allen and Brooks, Martin doesn’t project a trace of anxiety on screen.
“I’m not an anxious person,“ he confirms. “But I’ve learned that I come across a bit more detached than I actually feel. That’s been challenging and actually puzzling to me. But my wife’s been very helpful in that regard because she tells me, ‘I think you think that you’re revealing more than you are or that you have your heart on your sleeve.’ ”
What’s most appealing about Nicky, Dean’s love interest, is that she too provides honest, thoughtful feedback to him. But Martin doesn’t write her as a manic pixie dream girl — she doesn’t spare the melancholy Dean from a few necessary, blunt truths. He thinks Gillian Jacobs (Don’t Think Twice) accepted the role because “she is pretty selective about not being placed into that typical mold of, ‘Yep, I’m the girl, here I am to support you.’ Maybe part of what she responded to was that I had a little bit something more for her to sink her teeth into.”
But the primary relationship in Dean is the one between father and son. In writing and acting out the script himself, Martin accomplishes something on screen that he no longer can in real life. “If I could have one conversation with my father for a half an hour or something, I would just be blazing through topics, trying to catch up and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing or this is what my life is like now.’ “
Dean opens at the Embarcadero Center Cinema on Friday, June 2.